Abe Laboriel, one of the worldís most original and influential bassists, talks to Guitarist about his latest duet project, discovering Hip Hop and uniting the generations in music.
In the seemingly fickle environment of the LA session scene, it takes a special musician to stay at the top for more than a year or two. Which makes Abe Laborielís story even more amazing. For over 20 years, Abe has been a first call player in La La Land. Starting his LA session career with Henry Mancini, he has worked with the biggest names in almost every style of music - Michael Jackson, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Larry Carlton and Count Basie to name but a few. And he remains just as busy today.
"Iíve been doing a huge variety of things" he says with a wide-eyed smile that suggests he can hardly believe his good fortune to still be working after all the years "film dates, jingles, record dates - including a recent session with Diane Reeves - some live performances, playing in a new mainstream jazz trio with some musicians that I met when I was studying at Berkley, [drummer] Peter Donald and [keyboard player] Tom Ranier. I also continue to be very active in the Christian music scene, touring and recording with Don Moen and Ron Kenoly - doors seem to be opening in many different directions."
In recent years, amazingly without any apparent let up in his busy session schedule, Abe has been concentrating more and more on his own music, and the latest fruit of that new focus is a stunning duet album with long time musical partner, pianist Greg Mathieson. Abe elaborates, "Greg and I just finished a duo record - just acoustic piano and bass - which Iím very excited about and am really looking forward to promoting. Itís going to be ready in about a month or so, and we still donít have a label, so itís very exciting doing all that ourselves."
Abeís more recent focus on small group projects, particularly the Jazz trio and the new duets project suggests a re-acquaintance with the more conversational approach of small group playing.
"Exactly!" he agrees, "The comment weíve been hearing a lot about the album that Greg and I have done is that itís very satisfying for people to be able to hear all the stuff that we normally do without it being masked by all the production of a Ďnormalí record. We are very exposed, and itís powerful." That intimacy spilled over to the recording process, "It was a family project - Gregís son Miles, and my son Mateo were able to help us with the engineering side of things. Mateo was running the ADATs."
Abeís bass sound on the album is disarmingly natural, all recorded live with the only processing being a little chorusing on one track - one wonders if his approach has to change when the bass is so exposed?
"No, I approach it the same," he corrects, adding "but the sound that is usually buried in the mix has more room for the detail to emerge because it is not being masked. I was talking with Steve Gadd, and he said that as a drummer heís aware that he plays more Ďattacksí per bar than anyone else in the band, so when all of those attacks arenít there, suddenly what everybody else is doing becomes very critical, and really exposed. The people that Iíve played the record to say that itís really satisfying to hear."
Anyone familiar with Abeís playing will know that his unique technique combines bass lines with flamenco strums, fingerstyle picked chords, and myriad slapping and popping techniques to produce a really full sound, so the duet album is the perfect place for those advanced technique to come to the front.
"It is" he smiles, "and both of us are very rhythmic players, so the feeling and pulse is very strong. Greg has been a strong influence in my life with regards to groove and feeling. We often looked at each other when we were recording and started laughing because we started doing very similar things with the same frame of mind. We compliment each other very well."
As well as working on the duet album, Abe is planning another solo album, a follow up to 1995s jazz-funk tour de force ĎGuidumí.
"Iíve been composing more and more, trying to prepare for the next solo album, hopefully by the end of this year," perhaps not surprisingly, give his classical guitar background, Abeís new material features the introduction of a new acoustic instrument,
"Iíve purchased a new instrument, an 8 string classical guitar, and Iím going to start trying to develop a style that allows me to play bass lines in the Brazilian style - the Brazilians have a 7 string guitar which takes the place of a very active bassline, played in counterpoint to the melody. So I want to develop that style and bring it into the kinds of songs that I write.
"Iím still at the experimental stage. On some of the demos Iím playing 8 string guitar on one track, then a regular bass line on another, and a bass guitar melody on another and the idea of trying to do all three combined might be satisfying so long as when people hear it they can hear the continuity of the parts. Itís a challenge to maintain the clarity when playing that many parts, but Iím very excited about it, good things are coming!"
Abeís enthusiasm for playing music is undiminished after almost 30 years as a professional musician. One influence that keeps his music so fresh is that of his sons, Abe Jr. - a highly recognized session drummer in his own right - and youngest son Mateo, who is currently following his dadís footsteps through Berkley music school. Abe expands on their influence,
"Mateo is very knowledgeable about the latest styles that are on the radio, and so his compositions are what I would consider cutting edge. A lot of what he writes really challenges me to not listen from a Ďwhat chord progression are you thinking about?í point of view, because he doesnít think in terms of chord progressions. He thinks in a more linear fashion, and if a line makes sense to him and the next [layer] makes sense, heís not too concerned with the traditions of justifying whatís happening vertically. Iím beginning to enjoy just writing things that are less conventional, but as a bass player, whenever I work for other people I always think in terms of a harmony."
Mateoís own influences are a lot of Hip Hop and R Ďní B grooves, along with the music that his dad played around the house while he was growing up. Are these more modern urban soul sounds making an impression on the old man?
"Mateo has introduced me to a lot of interesting new music. Thereís a guy in England that we recently discovered - Lewis Taylor - and his bass lines are very weird in relation to the melody and the harmony. He seems to have no preconceptions, if he likes it he leaves it alone, without worrying about traditional harmony. Itís demanding for my ear which has to know harmonically, Ďwhy?í" He laughs, and adds with a smirk "Iíve always believed the clichť that the bass player is never wrong, because all the chords are named from the bass. Now, some people donít like the name that the bass player can give to their chords, but all the sounds are named from the bass."
"Iím glad that you mention my sons, as one of my great dreams is to encourage the generations, regardless of how painful it might be, to keep sharing with each other their points of view, because something crucial must not be lost in terms of continuity.
"There are a lot of young people who wish they knew how the older musicians do things, and they get desperate as they donít seem to have a handle on how they do it. And thereís a lot of older people who put the young people down for not knowing, so when is the dialogue going to be encouraged? I want to tell people that although the process can be painful because both sides have to compromise in order to absorb whatís missing, itís going to be fantastic when young people realize they donít need to reinvent the wheel!"
Animated at the best of timeís Abeís eyes widen and his smile gets even wider, indicating that this is a topic very close to his heart,
"Itís like all the people that we respect though the history of music have had very strong foundations. Then when they start doing new things, that we call Avant Garde, it is not self indulgent. Thatís what I hope happens to the generations.
"The gulf is not because of the generation gap, but because of the lack of communication. I talk to a lot of young people who wished they knew how to play a lot of older music and I say Ďwhy donít you ask? There are people around who can explain it.í And they say ĎI tried to explain how my music works to my father, and no matter how many times I say it, he doesnít get it, so Iíve decided that nothing he has to say is validí I want to encourage musicians to keep trying to communicate, cause itís really beautiful to have our ears and our hearts open to other voices."
(Note - the version in the magazine was edited from