Armand Sabal-Lecco in a nutshell:
Specialises in: Funk, slap and African rhythms.
Gear used: He owns 89 basses! – The top 5 are:
- An original Alembic series 2
- An Alembic piccolo bass
- A Music Man Sabre (75’ I think)
- A black-ish 74-75’Fender Jazz
- A special and secret bass which appears on Armand’s upcoming record and he warns that it ‘goes lower than your dirtiest thoughts!’
A variety of SWR amps and speakers, old and new.
With Paul Simon: Rhythm of the Saints; Live in Central Park; Paul Simon 1964-1993
With Stanley Clarke: East River Drive; Dangerous Ground (OST) Romeo Must Die (OST)
With Manu Bibango: Wakafrika; La Fete a Manu; Negropolitaines
Armand Sabal-Lecco Masterclass at the Bass Centre, Nov 8th 2005
What drew you to bass playing in the beginning?
When I was much younger, I was a drummer and I had a brother who played bass. He was always late for the gigs and the rehearsals because he was busy with other things, so I would sub for him a little bit on the bass until he would get there. I began to think to myself ‘Hmm – this thing is much easier to break down after the gig – less gear and more chicks!’ (Laughs) By the time you’re done breaking down your drums, everyone’s gone home! I’m thinking of taking up the harmonica now..
What kind of music were you playing at this time?
Straightahead Jazz, Fusion, Jazz-Rock – that kind of thing.
So you weren’t taking in the influence of local African music?
I was very much aware of it, but I didn’t really want it – I thought – what’s the point? I lived in Paris for I don’t know how many years and I’d never been to the Eiffel Tower. Now when I go to Paris I’m like a super-tourist – I have my camera, walking around taking pictures and thinking ‘Wow!’
What was the first gig that you landed that really made you think – ‘I’m a serious bass player now’?
At first, it was a gig with no money. (Laughs)
Of course there was no money – you were a fusion musician!
(Laughs) Yeah, but very early on people noticed me and they liked what I was doing. It was very hard at first, because my brother was such a bass player – it’s like being Bob Marley’s son and wanting to sing – people would scoff at it. But that was only at the start, and they saw that I had another twist to my thing and got into it. Very early on, the gigs didn’t really matter – it was just that I got to play and somehow, I’ve kept that – whenever I play, I’m so happy, I just love to play.
When I started hearing what I was playing and started diggin that, it was much more important than finding a gig that makes me feel like ‘I’ve arrived!’ Saying that, I played for Manu Dibango for a while, and that was a very important gig – we would play every kind of venue – we would play big venues, small venues, we’d travel all around the world and through that, I was really exposed – he’d give me a chunk of the whole show, in the middle where he’d go and chill backstage and that gave me a lot of confidence and helped me feel comfortable onstage. In any situation, in any country I was onstage alone doing my thing and communicating with the public.
How did you first hook up with Stanley Clarke?
It was in Paris, after a show, I met him backstage and we compared hands. (Stanley has famously massive hands) I was just a kid at the time, but his hands only came up to here! (Holds up very large hands and points at his second knuckle) Later on, I was touring with other bands, coming over to LA and we kept in touch while I played with Paul Simon. When I moved over to LA, I ran into Stanley again and we finally really hooked up. I started writing some stuff for him that ended up on the East River Drive album and since then we’ve been great friends.
What are the biggest challenges on the Stanley gig?
With Stanley, the biggest challenge for all the musicians is musicality, because Stanley is a composer. Therefore, he wants the people he plays with to understand music as a whole and go behind their instrument. That’s why I’m so honoured that he considers me his favourite bass player, because I come from the music’s point of view, instead of just the bass point of view. He knows me as a composer, as a player – he knows a lot of the different hats that I wear and that comes through when I play the bass.
How do you compose? Do you use keyboards or guitars? Do you use computers?
The main thing for me is to compose with no instruments – it all happens in my head. From there, it depends what it is – if it’s a chord progression or a melody, maybe I would go to the Piccolo bass first, because I can hear it better there, then I might go and work it out on the piano or work out a groove for the idea I had. I very rarely start from the groove first – I’m a melodist and most of my ideas come from that.
Do you feel that your experience on different instruments has helped your bass playing to develop in a much more musical way?
Yeah – even when I play the Piccolo or Tenor bass, I don’t approach it like a bass – it’s a completely different animal. That’s why, when I play the bass, I incorporate all of these different things, like using chords on the piccolo – I try to get to a point where I can express myself through any instrument. What I want you to feel when I’m singing you a part is the same thing I want you to feel when I’m playing it.
When you were growing up, who were the most important bassists for you?
Stanley Clarke, because of his concept – he had an open concept of the bass – the bass was more than just a bass, and Jaco for the same thing. In the big picture, I was always much more interested in pioneers. In Africa they say ‘A lion that imitates another lion is not a lion any more, he is merely a monkey!’ So I’ve always been drawn to pioneers, but I listen to everybody – because everybody has something to say and something to teach you.
If you had three tips for bass players – what would they be?
Focus on the groove – that’s the only thing you have to focus on – soloing and all that kind of stuff, it really doesn’t matter. We went through a couple of years where everybody was just focusing on soloing and that’s why I shy away from a lot of Jazz musicians today – the melody for them is just an excuse to get to the solo. But when you hear a guy who has a lot of technique just play something simple I always love that, because for me, it’s a reminder that we have to play music to communicate.
After a while there was a virus that reached jazz that kept it on the stage. It was fun to play, but it’s not fun to listen to anymore. Everybody is trying to play like – ‘ Hey man, I just played an F Demented!’ (Laughter all round) You play all that and musicians say – ‘wow, that’s a pretty stretch’ but people who don’t understand it don’t care. That’s why at Jazz gigs, you don’t have women – it’s a dude ranch! I’ve been doing a couple of things with different musicians in LA where we just show up and improvise, but we do that in Jazz venues and people can’t figure out what the hell is going on – they’re like ‘ I can’t analyse that chord! And why does it groove, anyway?’
When I was living in Paris, someone was mentioning some other bass players from Cameroon. What they’re trying to do now is what I stopped doing in the 80’s in Paris. We had played so much Jazz – I played with Jaco and loads of heavy guys. I understood that the most important thing is just to break it down, to communicate.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones – they’re the most direct.
The Beatles! Paul Mc Cartney doesn’t play Donna Lee on bass but everybody knows the things that he did play – they know where he is. Even in soccer – you have people who are just the natural talent but someone says to them ‘no – hold up, we have to organise it this way.’ So now, you don’t have a Pele anymore – people who have a personal style, because everybody’s studying someone else.
Whenever I have to do a clinic in a school, the first thing I say to them is that everything you learn is bullshit! (Laughter all round) The people who invited me start looking very worried. But the school came after music – why analyse something? You don’t have the time! If you’re playing it, you don’t have the time to analyze it.
But surely you must have learned from some of the musicians that you’ve played with. Are you saying you didn’t learn much from Stanley?
Not especially – with Stanley, we don’t really talk about that kinda stuff.
But you must have learned from taking another person’s parts – things that you wouldn’t naturally do and learning to play those?
Of course, but not only Stanley – anybody. When anybody picks up the bass there is always something valid, always. Even bad players – bad players can be the best teachers – they make you think ‘Wow – I hope I never sound like that! – This is exactly what I don’t want to be!’ and you try to work around it, but he was your teacher. It’s a free lesson and the bad player becomes your mentor.
At this stage in your career, what kind of goals are you still working toward as a player?
The most important thing for me in music is to learn to get out of the way – to get out of your own way, so you let the music happen and try not to do what most intellectual musicians do – they say ‘No, no – I have a plan’. For me, I go onstage with intuition, but not a plan. I might say ‘hey – I feel funky tonight’ and it’ll be a funky kind of thing, or I’ll say ‘Tonight I feel more heavy’ and I’m gonna rock it tonight and it goes that way. When I play solo, or even with other people, you have the repertoire – the songs, but you don’t think – ‘on the 44th bar, I’m gonna play this lick….’ but I know a lot of people who do. From the last rehearsal to the end of the tour, it’s the same show.
It seems a lot of players these days are taking a ‘fast-track’ approach to playing well by imitating someone who they feel is a ‘good’ player. Do you feel this is a new thing or has it always been like this?
We had a time where everything was going so fast, people wanted to learn how to play before even choosing the instrument they would like to play! Now, it’s worse than ever. When I was growing up, I would have the Jaco week and then the Stanley week and everybody should go through that, because it enhances your vocabulary, but you have to shake it off. That’s why schools can be dangerous – you go to school, they brainwash you and they say ‘this is the right way to do it!’ But why is it right?
Stanley Clarke’s licks are a part of the standard bass vocabulary now – did you ever have problems? You can’t get up onstage with Stanley Clarke and play him a Stanley lick in one of your solos!
By the time I really played with Stanley, I had enough of my own thing going on. And he’s been writing and playing for so long – he can’t remember every lick. Sometimes we’ll be jamming around the barbecue and I’ll throw one of his old licks at him and he’s like – ‘man, what was that?’ As a player, I can be anybody and I can be myself. I can do a whole gig and if you want the Marcus thing, I can give you that, if you want the Abe Laboriel thing, I can give you that, Stanley, Jaco, whatever. But if you want my thing, I can give you that, even if you want it with a little pinch of something else added in.
To get to that point, I really had to identify my own thing and know how to put it in and take it out. For a while, I thought I was doing my own thing, but the balance was heavier on the other people. When I went to record for other people, they would push me to do something else, which was my own thing and they helped me bring it out.
After a session, I would go home and write something that has nothing to do with the music I had just recorded. After a while I realised that wherever I went in the world, people want me to play that kind of stuff, but on my own music I didn’t do it – why not? I started to explore it and try to figure out what it is that other people liked so much about it and I developed my own thing.
I think when you have a good teacher, the teacher helps you be yourself. A bad teacher will tell you that you don’t know shit and they will teach you everything you need to know.
You said you started off as a jazz and fusion musician – when did you decide to integrate an African vibe into your playing?
I noticed that a bunch of stuff felt natural to me because I grew up listening to classical music, Flamenco, Salsa, Funk, Jazz and traditional and modern African music. When I finally got more into the Jazz-funk, quite a few of the bassists that I saw were trying to play African grooves. For me, it was an interesting take on it but really, most of it was rubbish! So I thought – what about that take on it, but with the real thing?
The reason I was able to compose for Patitucci and Herbie (Hancock) and all of these kinds of people, was that I could come up with something that was already mixed in a diluted kind of vocabulary. If I came in saying – ‘I’m gonna show you the real shit!’ and I show up with this real incredible African thing that’s great, but nobody understands, there’s no bridge. That’s what killed a lot of the musicians who came to Paris after me or to the States. They said –‘hey, is that what Armand did? That’s nothing – we’re gonna do the real shit!’ So they’d do it, and no one could understand. Then they’d get frustrated – they can’t see why people don’t like it, but it’s because there’s no bridge.
Yeah – it’s like they want the commercial crossover version – like the Diet Coke of ethnic music.
Yeah – if I come here and say (starts ranting in African dialect) people won’t know what I’m saying. I’ve just explained everything that I played, but in the way that the pygmies really explain it. People might think it’s great, but they have no idea what I just said. It’s the reason I speak English – if I didn’t speak English, we wouldn’t understand each other! I’d be standing here with a bone in my nose, yelling ‘ooga booga!!’ and it would be a very short interview! (Laughter all round) It’s not only in Africa – it happens a lot in Cuba, even in Ireland – it’s the reason a show like Riverdance works – if they bring over the completely traditional setup, it’s just too rough for most audiences.
So, what are your plans for the immediate future?…..
I have a couple of good things cooking, but my band is called “The Rest of the World” period! (Laughs) It’s the hardest, most personal and representative musical trip I’ve ever taken. It’s as funky as it is rock, from the point of view of a crazy African world traveler! It featrues a few justified and able guests, including Stewart Copeland, Stanley Clarke and Michael Brecker. Also, I sing a lot on it – a side I’ve never exposed much before. It’ll be out in stores early 2006…