He doesn't look like your typical jazz aficionado.
A friendly smile beams from the photos, looking more like a buddy from work than a trained highly professional musician. If he were thought to be a musician at all from these photos, if anything, it would tend to be more the photos of a middle aged rock musician. When asked if he has spent any time in any rock environment, Steve says, "Only in the studio, never on the front line".
Steve is 45, like myself well passed the age of tight-fitting outfits and it is agreed the world is a better place for not having seen either of us in Spandex. "I wouldn't want to go near it!' and he laughs.
The caliber of the recordings I have received from Steve's discography include 'The Road Ahead’ and 'distant dream' is very high. Both albums exude a warmth, a clarity and an enthusiasm that is refreshing. Even the more pensive tunes transmit their emotions effortlessly. Perhaps it is a case of great recording techniques, matched with fine and relaxed playing, yet there is also a feeling that a lot of the strength lies in the writing itself. Steve himself figures prominently in both of these CD's, not only as a player but as a writer, the source of all the songs for 'distant dream' and 5 out of the 9 held on 'The Road Ahead'.
We first decide to address some of the recording techniques he decided on in recording his acoustic bass. The voicing of his bass is warm and clear and of course, we at GB are curious as to how he achieves his sound.
Do you go direct into the board, or use an amp/board combo?
Steve: "Oh, I use a microphone. I have an exceptional little instrument that's very clean. It's an old French bass, about a 170 years old. That's my main instrument".
Do you play electric at all?
Steve: "I do, yes,
both fretted and fretless. I used to be a Fender nut, but these days I am
playing a G & L. That's the instrument I'm really nuts about. My
fretless bass is a Yamaha prototype that they gave me about 20 years ago.
I just took the frets off of it, I think it was a BB2000. It actually
ended up as a production model. I've never actually recorded electric
fretless, I just do it for my own enjoyment."
“To me, the electric bass will never sound any better than what Jaco Pastorius did with it.”
Of course you find the two instruments, acoustic and electric fretless pretty disparate?
Steve: "Oh yeah, the electric bass is definitely a guitar. No doubt about it."
For live work, to amplify yourself, what do you use?
Steve: "Well for the last 12 years, I've used a Shettler pickup which is from Switzerland, and he decided to rebuild it, but he no longer makes the same pickup. I am not happy with his new pickup."
Does he know this?
What is the difference between the two?
Steve: "Well it was a double pickup before, two cork pieces that went into both sides in the holes of the bridge. He said he had a phasing problem with them. Now he only uses one, but it's a whole different sound. I've asked him to repair the old pickup, which he did and he sent back, but it doesn't sound at all like it used to."
So in light of that, are you looking at other manufacturers as well?
Steve: "Well I have David Gages pickup ‘The Realist’, which I like an awful lot. When that’s working right, it’s great."
Do you find it a bit temperamental? Would it be to do with temperature or humidity?
Steve: “I don’t know what it is, I’ll play it on some of my students basses and it sounds fabulous. It sounds fabulous on my bass on occasion. In other cases, I find I can’t use it at all.”
Do you have a very fussy ear?
Steve: “I don’t know so much if it’s my ear so much as it is the feeling or the sound coming out of the instrument. It’s just gotta be right. I’m also using an Underwood pickup, which is the very first pickup I started with. ”
So you are on kind of a search for the right pickup right now?
Steve: “Right, I’m just not really happy with anything. I may even, and I don’t know if I want to spend the money right now, but I’m thinking of trying the Barbera. I know that a lot of people really like that pickup."
What do you think of some of these electric standup basses?
Steve: “I have one that I use on occasion. It’s a David Gage bass. It’s not an upright and not an electric bass. They are definitely an instrument of their own. I used it for a long time on the road.”
“Not everybody can play Jazz every minute of the day anymore, it just isn’t that kind of world.”
Is it odd not having the bulk of an acoustic up against your chest resonating?
Steve: “Yeah it feels very strange. The one that I have was modeled after my other upright. It feels great to play but there again it’s just not the upright bass.”
What do you think of some of the more exotic electric basses being built today?
Steve: “I just don’t have time for them. For electric bass for me, I’ve gotta be able to get a couple of different sounds out of it. I’m an older guy and I like that round Motown kind of sound. To me, the electric bass will never sound any better than what Jaco Pastorius did with it.”
Have you ever thought of venturing into the 5 or 6 six electric?
Steve: “No, and as far as I am concerned, and I am pretty adamant about it, the low 5 string I am not opposed to. If you listen to some of my CD’s you can even hear that I have tuned the E string down a lot for some of the tunes. I hear that as being part of the bass register naturally. I don’t hear the high B string. To me, you put 6 strings on a bass guitar, you are no longer playing bass, you’re playing bass guitar."
Your vehemence imparts the sense then that for you a six string is not true to what bass is about?
Steve: "It’s just not the bass. John Patitucci plays the shit out of it, and nobody does it better, but it’s not the bass. As far as I am concerned, if you want to talk about the electric bass, again it starts and stops with Jaco. This goes also as far as it being a solo instrument being played to its fullest extent.”
The two albums we received from you at GB were pretty consistent, a fresh feel, very live.
Steve: “The technique was very important to me early on when I was very young. But I’ve never forgot the music and the music has to have soul.
Otherwise it’s just a bunch of notes. The thing that I try to portray in my compositions as well as the choice of musicians that I use, is that I want to paint a picture. I want people to hear the music and to see something or to feel something. That to me is the ultimate form of communication and that’s really what it’s all about.”
“To me, you put 6 strings on a bass guitar, you are no longer playing bass, you’re playing bass guitar”.
You started out professionally as a classical bassist at 15. Prior to that how long had you been working on the bass as a novice. Also what prompted you to start playing in the first place?
Steve: “Well I wanted to play the bass at a young age because my father played the bass. I never could reach it! I used to have to stand on phone books. There were no half-size basses around in those days, so I had to wait till I was in 6th Grade so I could start playing the bass. I played electric bass as well then.”
It’s been said that often with Jazz musicians you learn from them only through the school of hard knocks. They are not there to ‘baby-sit’ you.
Steve: “Yeah, nobody wants to hear any excuses.”
When you first moved from Chicago to New York, did you find yourself intimidated by this philosophy?
Steve: “Well not too much, because before moving to New York, I was playing with a lot of people from New York. I understood what I was getting into. It’s not as open or talked about when you are in New York about when these kinds of problems arise, but I did find upon talking to other bass players that this was a reality. Basically the bass is caught in the middle, and you learn how to deal with these drummers. There are some drummers I don’t want to work with, but if I do have to work with them, I have to adjust my playing. Once I learned how to do that, the problem ceased."
These days with the number of solo albums you’ve recorded, you now have control over who you work with. You’ve used drummer Jeff Hirshfield on these albums.
Steve: “Yes, Jeff is primarily one of my favorite drummers. My thing with Jeff is not only where he puts the beat, but he’s so darned musical! I can do anything with Jeff! He’s a soft-spoken guy but he’s just brilliant when it comes to making music. He has his own style, his own kind of thing going. It’s not a super-flashy sort of thing, a lot of people have overlooked him that way. Technically, he does what I need. I am very fussy, I’m probably harder on drummers than I am on anybody.”
Has working with Steeplechase Records worked out well?
Steve: "Well I have to give `em credit, he lets me do what I want. I have total production control of the music. I have had offers from other labels, and I’ve had to say ‘no’ because I don’t want to do what they want me to do. He has given me a chance to put out six records, of really My Music. I’m not seeing the royalties I really should, he took my publishing on it, but he’s not gonna get rich off that either! There was a lot of compensation I had to do, but I have gotten to the point where I have 6 albums out of my own music that I am pleased with."
Steve LaSpina clearly knows what he wants. Not in any way dictatorial, just with a clear route to his goals…
Steve: “Yeah, I’ve always been sure of that. I can be pretty loose, I am easy enough to get along with. I have the right guys in the band that have always been able to deliver what I want.”
This is a man with over 90 albums under his belt. Are other offers still coming in at this point?
Steve: “I do a lot of recording work, be it Jazz or otherwise. So for some reason I’ve been doing a lot of cabaret, a lot of ‘Singer’ records. I think I’ve probably done 10 so far this year."
So they come to you. You have that strong a reputation?
Steve: "Well the studios know that I am not only a jazz bass player but I can play almost anything else they ask me to play on."
“…I’ve never forgot the music, the music has to have soul. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of notes”.
Are you asked to do much bowing on this material?
Steve: “On a lot of this cabaret work I am being asked to do a lot of bow work. I’ve found that this has been a big part of my income. I’ve also just finished arranging music for a show at one of the resorts. A Motown piece, which I played on and also arranged. I’m trying to spread out my abilities to other things. I enjoy playing the Motown and I enjoy playing Classical, it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s good music. That’s really the bottom line. Not everybody can play Jazz every minute of the day any more, it just isn’t that kind of world. I feel fortunate enough to be getting really good gigs in New York. Right now I am working with a guy named Michael Feinstein, a big shot Cabaret Sinatra style of singer. We’re working at this real ritzy club on the East Side with a really good band. It’s what it is. It’s a good paying job."
Have you ventured into teaching over the years?
Steve: "I taught at NYU for 7 or 8 years and then I taught upstate in Albany for another 7 years. I’ve also just started teaching at William Paterson University in New Jersey."
Not always, but often, I find that the more worldly-wise a player, the more well versed, the easier they are to talk to, yourself included.
Steve: “Most guys are, the higher up they are, oh there are a few that are kinda arrogant, but basically everybody is doing the same thing. We’re all trying to be artists, doing what we do, making a living, and just getting by.”
Any plans for a new release for the year 2000?
Steve: “I really don’t right now, what I would like to do, believe it or not, (and I was talking to the producer about it), I’d like to go in and do a really straight ahead ‘Oscar Peterson’ kind of thing. Tunes done with a swinging kind of trio. That’s something I’ve recorded at lot of as a sideman, but I’ve never done it as a leader. I think that is what I’d like to do next. The other thing I had in mind was doing a duo record. I would like to do some tunes with just bass and voice. Also maybe with a cellist. I also have some music I’ve written for marimba, vibes and some violin."