Mike Pope - June 2006
Raised on the sounds of classical and jazz piano in Bowling Green, Ohio, Mike Pope's musical development began as a pianist at age seven. Through his brother, Pope discovered the electric bass, and by age 12, he began emulating the lines of Jaco Pastorius. Just a couple years later, with the encouragement of his teacher, Jeff Halsey, Pope began studying the acoustic upright. In his mid-teens, he received permission from his dad, a concert pianist and instructor at Bowling Green State University, to participate in the school's lab bands and to also continue acquiring live performance experience while gigging at the local jazz clubs.
After high school, Pope completed his degree in jazz studies performance through the tradition of North Texas State University's prestigious jazz program. He then moved to Los Angeles for a short time before relocating to New York City on the recommendation of Michael Brecker where he immersed himself in the eclectic musical landscape and soon became distinguished for his reputation on both acoustic upright and electric bass.
Since 1993, Pope has become a fixture on the New York jazz scene. He has performed or recorded with some of the world's most venerated musicians including Michael and Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Bill Bruford, Joe Locke, Chuck Loeb, Steve Smith, and Jeff "Tain" Watts to name just a few.
Over the past couple of years, Pope has expanded his credits by touring internationally as a member of several high-profile projects including Chick Corea's Elektric Band, David Sanborn, and the Manhattan Transfer.
Under his own name, Pope has merged his precise technical command of acoustic upright and electric bass with his composing and arranging skills on two projects, Walk Your Dogma (1997) and The Lay Of The Land (2002).
An in-demand educator, Pope provides instruction worldwide through clinics and his own jazz camp. He has appeared as a special guest artist at events such as Steve Bailey's Bass At The Beach, Victor Wooten's Bass/Nature Camp, Bass Day, and Euro Bass Day alongside bass titans Matthew Garrison and Dominique Di Piazza. Pope is also a former faculty member of the Bass Collective.
In addition to his tremendous talent as a bassist, Pope has contributed to the design and fabrication of various electronic devices for bass. Amongst his inventions, Pope has devised a proprietary preamp circuit that is used in Fodera basses, a compressor sold by Fodera, and he also builds customized preamps, as requested, for individuals.
In this interview, Pope talks about his solo projects, touring with Chick Corea and David Sanborn, his new jazz camp, building preamps, doubling on both electric bass and acoustic upright, and much more!
Can you give us some insight to your projects as a leader?
My first record, Walk Your Dogma, was essentially a demo that kept going until it became a record. I had an opportunity to get Mike Brecker down to the studio, and I took the studio time in spite of the fact that I only had two tunes written. As a result, the record sort of sounds that way. It's not as cohesive as I'd have liked but very inspired I think, particularly compositionally. I pulled it out and listened to it recently for the first time in awhile and was pleased. I like those tunes. I haven't written in that style for a long time. There's a pretty heavy synth presence on it. I guess it's "fusion" since there's a lot in the way of thick, lush harmony and composed undercurrents.
The second project, The Lay Of The Land, is nearly what I'd classify as a jazz record. I play both basses, although it's mostly acoustic upright. The tunes are a bit more strophic, and there's a lot of soloing on the part of everyone. I was in more of a song mindset when I wrote the material on that one.
Given that it has been a few years since you released The Lay Of The Land, when might we expect to hear a new solo recording?
Since I've moved into a bigger house, I've decided to put a studio in the basement. In this day and age, I think it's dumb not to have a home studio if you have the space and want to make records. I started construction a couple months ago, and I hope to finish another record by the end of this year. I'd like to aim for having the compositional content of Walk Your Dogma but still having a bit more space and the organic components of The Lay Of The Land. I've been practicing a lot over the last few years, and I feel ready to do a record that will showcase my playing more than the last two did. They were a little light on the actual bass playing aspect, I think. On the other hand, my writing is a huge part of me musically so showcasing that is important too.
How did the gigs with the Chick Corea Elektric Band and David Sanborn come together?
Evelyn Brechtlein, from Chick's organization, called and asked me to go to Florida in order to play with Chick at his house. I got the offer on John Patitucci's recommendation. I went, I played, I got the gig, and had what was, and continues to prove to be, the richest musical experience of my life. I gained more knowledge in those months than I still know what to do with. I continue to sift through it. In a way, I'd probably have been more successful at that gig if I hadn't paid so much attention to what was going on around me. I couldn't help it though. I knew I was walking into an entirely unique situation, unlike any I'd seen previously, and I was hell bent on soaking up everything I possibly could, maybe even to the detriment of my immediate performance. It's ok though because life is a big picture, and I'm so much more of a musician for having done that. I only wish that it hadn't been my first highly-challenging, high-profile road gig. If I'd have gotten my road legs together in an easier situation first, I could have delivered up many times what I did.
As for Sanborn, that's one fun gig! Geoff Keezer, who was slated for the keyboard chair in Dave's band at the time, had asked me to do a week at the Village Vanguard with his trio along with Tarreon Gully on drums. However, it fell during a week when I was supposed to be out playing with the Manhattan Transfer. While I was trying to figure out what to do about the Manhattan Transfer gig, Dave's fall tour came up. Geoff called me saying that negotiations with another bass player had failed and that it seemed fortuitous that I might be able to do it since Tarreon was doing Dave's gig too, and it would be great for the three of us to play a bunch of gigs before we do the Vanguard. It all fell into place. It's right up my alley musically, and we had a totally fun tour, traveling around the world playing great music. Dave seems to really love it too. It's an opportunity for him to play music that's a little more organic than what he normally does because the tunes are largely unique to that band and involve a lot of blowing and spontaneity.
What other endeavors are you presently working on?
I've been working with Geoff Keezer in his trio and also in a band with the great vibraphonist, Joe Locke. We did a live recording at the Ballard Jazz Festival in Seattle. I think it's due out in mid-July. I've got some stuff coming up with Prasanna, the South Indian Carnatic guitarist. I'm also on Bill Bruford's Earthworks Underground Orchestra record that was released a couple months ago. I've got lots of irons in the fire that aren't solid enough to talk about yet, but things are good and that's the most important part. I'm only doing good stuff that makes me feel like it's worth doing what I do. I've sworn off music that I don't believe in. My time with my family is too precious to be wasted on anything less than good art.
Could you tell us about your new jazz camp?
It's really more of a jazz workshop. It's five days long. It's aimed mainly at students between the ages 13-20, primarily for middle/high school students and those into their early college ages. It's geared toward players who already have some idea of how jazz works but might not have had an opportunity to ask some critical questions. It also gives them an opportunity to play with others at a similar level but with professional guidance.
What I want to convey is the general concept of playing as a part of a whole and how to be an individual musically without undermining the integrity of the group. I think that's one of the more significant elements missing in the typical high school jazz band. They're either just playing a written piece of music in a "jazz style" or they're engaging in improvisational mayhem without much structure. It doesn't have to be that way, but it takes some reigning in of raw talents. I also address basic theory and improvisational concepts along with some other basic tools they can draw on. Over five days, most of what I can do is expose them to some different ways of thinking about music and load them up with some information they can take away with them to work on.
Anyone interested in learning more about my jazz camp or applying can go to my web site. It's by audition, but the requirements are on a sort of a sliding scale. That is to say, if I have a group of kids who all sound like they need the same kind of help, I'll accept them, but if I have a really strong bunch, and there is one kid who will just struggle in that context, I won't accept that kid. The idea is to set it up so everyone benefits. I don't just accept everyone.
Are you gigging mostly as a sideman at this time or do you also have the opportunity to play your compositions as the leader of your own group?
Right now, I'm playing mostly as a sideman. I'm working on the latter, but unfortunately, being in a new city slows that whole process down a bit. I'm working some other angles, but as it stands, I don't have a working "project." I will as the next solo recording gets closer.
What led to your association with Fodera and the development of the Mike Pope preamp?
It was due to happenstance, really. One day, I was in the Fodera shop because I had ordered a bass and was modifying my current non-Fodera instrument at the time to get me through the wait time. I actually had time to grow a maple tree. Sorry Joey, I couldn't resist! In fact, the long wait, apparently known on the streets as "The Fodera Dilemma," is well worth it. It's necessary if you want to own what, in my opinion, is, hands down, the finest bass guitar in the world, save none. I know what guys are going through. I've always had to wait too, but I digress!
Anyway, they had just started getting the Seymour Duncan dual coil pickups that they're known for now, but they were installing them like a regular soapbar humbucker. I helped them modify the way they were using them and implemented a coil tap to get more of the single coil sound they wanted. They were grateful because it was a nut they'd been trying to crack for awhile. At the same time, they were not happy with the preamp they had and asked me if I could develop a proprietary one for them, since I appeared to have good instincts about these things. I acquiesced and the rest is history. It's been a long learning curve, too. All bass preamps are comprised of pretty much 50 year-old technology at their core. Making a really good one takes a great deal of expertise, and instinct only gets you so far.
Recently, I've partnered up with a guy I met at Steve Bailey's Bass At The Beach camp named David Yates. He's an electronics engineer and holds many patents, mostly in the area of medical equipment. He's also a really good bass player and has really good ears. He is an absolute brilliant talent and has particular leanings toward the world of analog. Yes, analog design! If there's a problem to be solved, he can and does solve it. Between the two of us, we can make pretty much anything at any level of performance from "just-gets-the-job-done" to serious audiophile.
Besides the preamp, have you developed any other products made specifically for bass?
We have a few things we are developing, but the first is a compressor. It's an optical footpedal compressor that we should have completed in a matter of weeks. It's simple, very transparent, but also capable of extreme levels of compression. It's quiet, musical, and intuitive to use. It's called the Fodera x-Caliper. Look for it on Fodera's website.
On the side, I build custom preamps for individuals. It seems there are a lot of guys out there trying to build the perfect bass, and a lot of times they don't want to put a pre-rolled preamp in it. I offer them lots of flexibility and continued support. If they get it put together and say "gee I wish I could get a little more bark in the treble when I dig in," I make the change free of charge. In the world of cars, there are "tuners," and that's pretty much what I can do with a bass. I'm also about to introduce a line of non-custom preamps that will not come with the long-term "tuning" support. They'll be warranteed, of course, but they won't include "lifetime tuning" support, only repair if necessary. They'll also be a lot less expensive. They'll be priced more in line with other readily-available bass preamps, and the player would be able to install them in most cases.
After completing your degree in jazz studies performance from North Texas State University, how did that experience help prepare you for real-world opportunities?
I think I had the very best that school had to offer which was a lot! I entered the One O'clock Lab Band, the top band, immediately upon going there, and I stayed in that band for three years straight. As a result, I got to play with every single guest artist and clinician who came through there over the course of that time. That was a lot of opportunity.
Who has influenced your approach to doubling on both acoustic upright and electric bass?
John Patitucci, above all. He's been a great friend and mentor over the years, and I owe him a debt of gratitude. He's a purist in the most diverse meaning of the word, if that makes sense. He's totally committed to both the acoustic upright and electric bass as separate entities. I've learned a lot from him. Besides him, there really isn't anyone in particular strictly from the standpoint of doubling. I've tried to take what I could from all the great electric bass players including Anthony Jackson, Jaco, and Marcus Miller. I've gotten a lot from listening to them. There are newer guys too like Victor Wooten, Victor Bailey, Steve Bailey, Matt Garrison, and Oteil Burbridge. There are some seriously bad bass players out there now. On the acoustic bass, it's been Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. There are so many incredible bassists from whom I've drawn inspiration through my life. I really can't begin to list all of them because I'll absolutely forget someone important to me.
Do you approach playing the acoustic upright and electric bass as completely different instruments?
Yes. I didn't always, but I do now and have for some time. You can argue that there are similarities, of course, but the truth is, the musculature is different, the mechanics are different, and the idiomatic role is different to name a few reasons. For me, this is gospel truth. Some guys play acoustic like it's an electric and that's fine, but it isn't me and never will be. The acoustic bass is the acoustic bass, and the bass guitar is the bass guitar. In a static world they seem alike, but in a dynamic one, the one in which music happens, they are mostly dissimilar.
Has your acoustic upright playing influenced your approach to the way you play electric bass and vice versa?
I don't get inspired to play something on acoustic bass by playing electric or the reverse. There are things that playing acoustic does to your hands that affect the way you deal with the electric, particularly in the right hand. Calluses cause difficulties. It can make it hard not to get a kind of brutish tone on electric. You just have to let your ears guide you to the right sound. Your motor nervous system gets it figured out eventually.
How did you get your intonation together on upright?
I haven't but it has gotten much better in recent years due to some exercises I've come up with. I have a little regimen where I play long-tone chromatic scales, both arco and pizzicato, up each string individually. I press down hard with one finger at a time which helps build muscle tone and in turn sharpens the cutoff point where the string meets the fingerboard. I don't use the supportive fingering method where if the second finger is down, the first finger is also down with it. With my exercise, the second finger is down by itself. The first finger might be lying there, but it's not applying any pressure. I also focus on making sure there is no muscle flex anywhere but with the finger doing the work. I play a little chromatic pattern, up one string at a time and starting on the G-string, and I check myself along the way against open strings whenever I can such as with the A, D, and E on the G-string.
I've also spent time focusing on minimizing or eliminating the rotation of the radio-ulnar joints during shifts. That's a major contributor to inconsistent intonation for me. I imagine the knuckles of my left hand are sliding up and down on a rail. It's a rail that moves laterally from string to string, of course, but doesn't allow any "twist." In case it's not clear, the radio-ulnar joints are what move if you turn your hand from palm down to palm up. Most people think you're moving your wrist when you do this, but your wrist doesn't rotate. It's a double-hinged joint. It goes up and down or left to right, but it doesn't twist. That's a basic fundamental of practicing that a lot of folks overlook. What parts of you are moving?
It seems silly, but most people who play instruments don't entirely understand how the hands and arms really work. It's not important to people who are happy with what they can do, but for those of us who are frustrated that we can't get our physical selves to correctly portray our musical vision, it's an imperative subject of focus. Anyway, it's all working really well for me. I'm sure a lot of this has been thought of and written before. Unfortunately, I'm really bad about listening to other people's advice in terms of how to play. I like to figure things out for myself so sometimes I fall behind for a bit, but I always catch up!
Do you prefer to play one instrument more so than the other?
Only in the sense that I hate to play music that is idiomatically suited to one bass on the wrong bass. I don't mean that I don't like to swing on electric or play funk on acoustic. Some situations feel ok and some don't. Not feeling ok is not so good.
How do you approach improvising a solo?
I solo entirely with my ears. If I'm not hearing it and conceiving of it aurally, I'm done. A lot of people think that soloing is about knowing theory, but they're wrong. Even when I read, the process is to hear what's on the page, and then my hands just do it. Anything else doesn't work for me, and I believe it's ultimately the ideal way for just about everyone. That's my opinion, anyway.
As an instructor, what are the most important aspects of music and playing bass that you try to convey to your students?
One major thing for me that I've discovered in recent years is that if you feel like you have a physical or technical limitation, you need to address it. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to other musicians I've played with about my technique and how I can't quite get things together only to hear, "you need to relax and feel it, dude, and it will come." Relaxing and feeling it are good things, for sure, but if your hands don't do what you want them to, you need to do something proactive to take care of it.
My dad is a great concert pianist and studied with some of the finest teachers in the world like Ernst von Dohnanyi, the once head of the Liszt Acadamy in Budapest and contemporary of Bela Bartok. Another of his teachers was a guy named Arnold Schultz. He's the author of a famous book in the world of piano pedagogy called The Riddle Of The Pianist's Finger as well as a less-known but far heavier book called A Theory Of Consciousness. My dad was sort of a guinea pig for some of his theories.
Without going into it terribly deeply, one of the really significant facts that Schultz presents is that we don't really have direct conscious control of our muscles. In fact, trying to involve the conscious mind directly in the process of executing a set of movements is not only ineffective but is in fact bound to have an undesirable effect on the precision and efficiency of the movements. The motor nervous system handles all of these things on its own and is well-suited to the task. The conscious mind wills the result, and the motor nervous system deals with coordinating the necessary muscles, nerves, and so forth to get it done.
Most people don't realize how many different muscles are involved in even the simplest movement. The conscious mind just isn't equipped to deal with that. I'm not suggesting that you just let your hands do whatever they want to do. You have to know what it is you want to hear and then will that result so this concept does not involve relinquishing conscious control of your movements. It simply means that the control must happen by way of the motor nervous system.
Training the motor nervous system is the trick because you don't do it the same way you teach yourself to program a computer, for example. It involves "nervous coordination" which is a concept that we use all the time but don't necessarily realize it. An example of this is the situation where you're looking at a three dimensional drawing, say of a cube, and it suddenly turns "inside out." Your perspective just "flips." You can't really assign a mental process to this, but through repetition, you can train yourself to be able to do it every time at will. A lot of musicians call this "getting into the zone," and that's what it is. My point is that what gets you there isn't superstition or ritual or magic or drugs or whatever you think it might be. It's a learnable, quantifiable process that can be taught, studied, and mastered.
The Lay Of The Land
Walk Your Dogma
With Bill Bruford:
Earthworks Underground Orchestra
With Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group:
Live In Seattle
With Joe Locke And Storytelling:
State Of Soul
With Chuck Loeb:
All There Is
In A Heartbeat
With Jason Miles:
Celebrating The Music Of Weather Report
With Joe Beck:
With Dino Govoni:
In The Library
With Stefan Karlsson:
With Heather Bennett:
Reflections On Red
Fodera Mike Pope 6-String Fretted Electric Bass
Pollman Acoustic Upright Circa 1966
Walter Woods Ultra Hi Power Amplifier
Self-Made 2 Channel, 4-Band Preamplifier
Epifani T-212UL Speaker Cabinet
Fodera Electric Bass Strings
Thomastik Spirocore Acoustic Upright Strings