The Art of the Bass Choir: An Interview with Lincoln Goines
Lincoln Goines is a consummate bassist and renowned educator who has been a mainstay of the New York City scene for decades. Originally from Oakland, the bassist quickly found his groove in the Big Apple in the ’70s, where he got to work with Idris Muhammad, Dave Valentin, Paquito D’Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Mintzer, and many more. Between his steady performances, recording, and teaching at Berklee College of Music, Goines has always kept busy.
However, he recently carved out enough time for himself to release his debut album as a leader, The Art of the Bass Choir, which celebrates and showcases the full extent of the bass’s capabilities over its sixteen tracks. Goines utilized the basses for the entirety of the record’s harmonic and melodic content. As if his own stellar playing wasn’t enough, he resorted to his Rolodex of talented friends to fill out the bass parts: Tom Kennedy, Ksenia Vasileva, Victor Wooten, John Patitucci, Matthew Garrison, Mike Pope, Susan Hagen, Gal Aviram, Mike Bendy, and Ed Lucie.
The intricate and beautiful arrangements run the gamut of genres from classical to jazz to funk to Latin, which is where many will know his playing. Goines literally wrote the book on modern Latin jazz playing with Funkifying the Clave, which he co-wrote with drummer Robby Ameen.
We caught up with Goines to talk about the new album, how to arrange for a bass ensemble, and his body of work.
This is your first album as a leader, right?
Technically, yeah. I did an album with Kim Plainfield, my drummer friend from the West Coast who passed away a few years ago. It was called Night and Day, and I wrote the majority of the original pieces on that record, and I played bass on it all. It was essentially his production, but it was a co-featured album. That was something that I invested in, but it wasn’t totally my project. Before that, the only contributions I’d ever made besides playing bass on records was writing some tunes. I wrote for Dave Valentin and some Japanese artists.
But yeah, this is my first record. Here I am in my sixties, and I finally got it together to do a record.
A lot of people have had time during the pandemic to make their own project. Is this a product of that, or has it been stewing for a while?
I would say it was both. It was a pandemic project, but it also goes back to my goal to do a bass-oriented album from years back. I’m gonna cite some influences.
In the early ’80s, there was a group in New York called the New York Bass Violin Choir. It was led by Bill Lee, who was Spike Lee’s dad. In that choir, you had Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Milt Hinton, Sam Jones, and a couple of other guys. It was all arco bass with some plucking. It was so beautiful and inspiring to hear it. It was perfectly imperfect, rich, and soulful.
Also, I have to pay tribute to Steve Swallow, who experimented with the multi-layering stuff. I had the opportunity to study with him as a much younger man, back in the ‘70s. It was on the West Coast when he was out there playing with Mike Nock. From my understanding, he was the first one to play the extended range with a high C string and layer himself in the studio. He has such a deep harmonic sense.
Another inspiration for this project was Eberhard Weber. Back in the ‘70s, he played the five-string electric upright bass and layered himself. You can tell in two notes that it’s Eberhard Weber. That music was deeply influential to me.
Then I put it on the back burner and came to New York and played bass. That sort of took over. Doing gigs and everything like that, I didn’t have the time or resources to do this type of a project. Then yeah, the pandemic came, and that had something to do with it.
A lot of these tracks were done back and forth remotely. Some of it I did live, like the rhythm tracks with Robby Ameen. We worked some stuff out. Every process was different for each tune.
When I read you were influenced by the Bass Choir, I found that interesting. That’s a very niche thing, so you were really into bass back in the day.
I always thought that was such a unique sound and a challenge. To hear these orchestrations that had a unique temperament… It wasn’t keyboard temperament. It was kind of orchestral, but it was done in genres that orchestras did not address. It was also done in registers that orchestras did not address.
The challenge [for this record] was to create sonority and clarity in this lower and mid-lower range. Utilizing the extended range on both sides – all the way down to the low B and past that sometimes and up to the high C and past that sometimes with artificial harmonics. I took my time and had a ball. I drove everybody crazy – I’m sure I did. But I’m pretty satisfied with the result.
When I listen to the album, that’s one of the things that is so striking. There’s no mud – it’s all sonically clear. When you’re layering the bass like that, are you thinking more about the tones or the voicing of the chords?
The voicings had a lot to do with that, and I collaborated with Klaus Mueller, my piano player friend. We worked out a lot of voicings in advance. He plays with me in the Portinho Trio and the New York Voices, and a lot of other groups. He was very excited to help me orchestrate some of these pieces.
There were actually two processes I went through. One was orchestrating the basses through trial and error, and then I would have to layer them and see how they sounded. In some cases we would layer something and have John Patitucci or Matt Garrison do a solo, then I would re-orchestrate it to make the appearance of a comping section, which was actually five or six [tracks] of me. Victor Wooten was an exception. With his part on “Spank-a-Lee,” I said, “Victor, see if you can do something with this.” Then I had Dennis Chambers put some drums on it. I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, then he sent me back eight tracks of basses. He turned it into a symphony. He went crazy on it.
To partially answer your question on clarity, I used very little processing with a minimum of reverb. And I had to get used to the bass sounding thinner than it would if you were the only player in the ensemble. Part of the reason I could get this going was that I got to do some trial and error experimenting with the students at Berklee. When I started teaching at Berklee back in 2008 or so, I realized I had these upper-class students who had good foundational skills that could read. I could work out some of the concepts I was working on.
I got a Mozart piece arranged for bass and a Shostakovich piece, then some of the Herbie Hancock stuff and the Bobby McFerrin thing. In a lot of instances, I had to change the key to suit the sonority of the basses. The original keys were not suited to the range of the bass to be spread out enough for a nice clear layer.
This is a bass album, so most of the bass lines are pretty simple. I didn’t put a lot of fills in or reactionary vocabulary, and that helped to clean up the mud on the bottom of the track. It’s a through-composed part.
The music is a big mix of genres and sounds. Do you see this album as a self-portrait of your musical identity?
I think it’s definitely a self portrait. All of these tunes are ones that moved me enough to inspire me to arrange them for the basses. Also, the Herbie tunes are really about Paul Jackson, who was like my peripheral big brother from Oakland. It’s a partial tribute to him. And the Jaco thing. Being a contemporary of Jaco… I’m not saying he was the most pleasant person as an individual, but certainly, as a player, it goes without saying that some tribute had to be paid. Then there’s the Mingus piece at the end that Steve Swallow arranged for me. They were all bass players. It’s all about the bass. Bass is the place.
Did you have a lot of history with Jaco?
Not a lot, but enough for him to know who I was. It wasn’t anything that I really got anything from except for going to the clubs when he was lucid. He would play at the Brecker Brothers’ club Seventh Avenue South and I’d sneak up and get so close to him that I could see his nose hairs. I learned so much from just hearing and watching him play. It wasn’t so much about what he was gonna say, like borrow money from me or [anything] like the kind of thing he was doing to people he knew peripherally. As I say to my students, study the music – don’t study the musicians who made the music. That’s not the way to go.
The rap over that is pretty fun.
That’s Adam Nussbaum, the drummer. He’s one of a kind. He’s like Jackie Mason meets Elvin Jones. I was talking to Mike Bendy, and he said, “Hey man, you’ve got to get Adam to rap on that Jaco tune.” I said okay because he played with Jaco. He has a unique way of rapping. He rapped into his phone and did three or four takes, then I cut it up and asked the engineer “What can you do with this?” I think it came out interesting.
You have both upright and electric across the tracks. How does your playing on each instrument inform the other?
I guess that’s a technical question. They definitely inform each other in terms of note choices and groove connection and reactions and choices you make in the ensemble.
I started off on the electric and then went to the upright when I was 17, and I started studying with the former first chair of the Vancouver Symphony. When I got out into the gigging world when I was 19, I was playing the upright almost exclusively. Then I started doubling a few years before I moved to New York. I would say the basis of my technique and approach to the bass is from the acoustic.
The pulse and the way that I choose notes has more to do with the acoustic. Then I gradually adjusted what I needed to with the fingerings. It took me years to not finger things on the electric like I would on an acoustic bass. I was one of those guys like Jamerson.
You’re well known for your Latin playing, and the song “Spin the Floor” takes it to the next level. It’s kind of like a tumbao meets Coltrane changes. How did that come about?
One of the labs I do at Berklee is doing “Giant Steps” in all these different time signatures. There’s another one I do call “Funkifying the Clave,” which is based on the book I wrote with Robby Ameen. We put “Giant Steps” tumbaos into all odd meters, and in this case, it’s nine. There’s a lot of multi-layering going on in it. There’s a “3” [pulse] in there, there’s a “6” in there, there’s a “4” in there, there’s a “12” in there. You can find all of those pulses inside the nine. You create the clave for nine and then build on that.
That track didn’t have a lot of pre-arranged shapes, with the exception of the four-part chord motif that starts the song. Then I just had fun building layers over that. I had Matt play a solo for that. He loves playing “Giant Steps,” and his odd meter soloing is off the charts.
Really what I’m thinking and feeling is not counting the nine; it’s the motific shape created by the clave. It’s a hybrid clave, it’s not salsa, but it’s based on that language. That’s the definition of funkifying the clave. Take it into another genre. Play with it.
I didn’t have to deal too much with the clave police. A little bit in certain genres, though. The reason I say that is that some of these guys had very definite systems of what worked and what didn’t. We call them the clave police. They would come after you if you were playing the tumbao on the wrong side of the clave. But it’s not about the rules so much as it is learning the language.
There were a few times in the golden age of salsa that I had the opportunity to play legit salsa gigs and sub for some really serious players like Rubén Rodriguez and Bobby Rodriguez. I studied the music. I went up to the Bronx and got lessons from Andy Gonzalez, and I went to Joe Santiago’s house to learn about the culture and language. It wasn’t that big a deal because it’s what you do when you’re in New York. It’s what you do to get a gig, especially back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were a lot of clubs and a lot of salsa. If you could play a tumbao, you could get a gig.
Then you learn how to break the rules, which is what I did with “Spin the Floor.” If it sounds like music, then it’s cool.
One of the earliest records on the discography on your website is with Idris Muhammed. Was that your first studio gig?
I did some things before that with some less prominent artists on the West Coast, but I think that was my first major release. It was with Hiram Bullock and Bob Berg and Idris on drums. He liked the way I played. I was playing fretless, and he liked the vibe I had. He had a very organic, natural groove. I had a really good relationship with him.
What was that recording session like? What kind of gear were you running?
It was at Fantasy Records in Berkeley back in the day with tape recording. [It was] just an Ampeg B-15 in the studio that I plugged into.
I look back on that time when I was in my early 20s, and I was young and fearless. I was too innocent to really be afraid. I just let the music flow. Those kind of concerns come later in life, I think. At that time, I was just taking it all in. It was like I was in a dream playing with those guys.
There are some hip lines on there with pretty funky, dirty disco sounds happening.
That basically came from Idris’s vibe. He was from New Orleans, and before that [album], he had been playing with James Brown. He came to New York and established himself as a jazz drummer and crossover drummer. We played a lot. He always had a really good guitar player, either John Scofield or Bobby Broom or someone. It was just such a nice vibe playing with him.
You’ve got your Fodera bass on the album cover, and I know you’ve had that bass for a long time. What basses do you have?
I have three Fodera basses here. I’ve got a 33-inch scale, but the first was a 34-inch with no preamp in it. This 33 has a preamp in it. It has a single pickup and a single push/pull knob for volume and activating the preamp. Joey Lauricella set it up like that. I was inspired by Anthony Jackson and Gary Willis.
The first bass they made for me was in 1994, I think. I’ve been with them ever since.
I was watching a clip from the Funkifying The Clave DVD and it seemed you had the same bass.
That was the 34. It had a Lane Poor pickup in it, but that has since been replaced by a Seymour Duncan, which is what they use now because it has a little bit more bite to it. At this point in my career, I’m not looking at any other “women,” you know? I’m married. [laughs] People ask me to try different basses, but I simply don’t have any desire to pursue any other options at this point.
I’ve got my Foderas, I’ve got one nice fretless, and I’ve got my little Italian 5/8ths upright that sings like a bird. That’s all I need. I do have an electric upright bass under my bed that I used to use with the Portinho Trio down at Plataforma, but that place closed down with the pandemic.
Things are opening up for live gigs. One of my goals for this project is to do something live to follow up on the record. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, but it’s certainly in my mind. The biggest challenge for me would be to get some of the cats I got on the record to be free all at the same time.
That’s also a lot of ground to cover.
It’s 16 tunes on the record, and I did think about breaking it up into two different projects, but then I decided that I wanted it to be like a story, like a record within a record to do all these different genres and feature all these aspects of what can be done with the bass: the groove, the lyricism, and of course the virtuosity with all these really strong players to contribute. It was like that in the beginning. I have a lot of arrangements, and I selected from that repository the songs I felt would work the best to record.
So maybe there will be more?
I would think so. Now I have the method for getting these things together. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. It was the closest thing a male can feel to giving birth to something. [laughs] It was a labor of love. I learned a lot about orchestration and a lot about the bass. It was a great learning experience and a great playing experience.