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Interview with Russ Sargeant

img  Tobias Fischer

Fellow-bassist Jeffrey Roden considered the bass an instrument capable of expressing „perfect silence and perfect beauty“.
That's a beautiful quote. I think the bass is an amazingly expressive instrument capable of communicating directly to the heart. I'm not a flashy player and to be honest I find it difficult to play particularly fast, but what I do like to do is to savor every note. I particularly favour the fretless bass for expression - but that's a personal preference.

So what prompted your decision, at the age of fourteen, to switch from playing the guitar to the bass?
I'd been listening to Gene Simmons play with KISS and I just knew I wanted to play bass! My Dad bought me a second hand cheap Precision Bass copy from a thrift shop. I played Detroit Rock City on that thing until it literally fell apart!

Apart from KISS, Jazz was a major influence. What made it so particularly appealing to you back then, especially with regards to the instrument you were playing?
Well I suppose I was drawn to Jazz firstly by getting into Funk players such as Mark King then Stanley Clarke, who is obviously also a Jazz player. I then heard John Patitucci play with the Chick Corea Elektric Band and just loved the sound of his 6-string bass. Then of course came Jaco Pastorius... I think time stopped for a moment when I heard him play. I quickly bought every Jaco and Weather Report album I could get my hands on! For me, not having the bass in Jazz would be like having a body with without a heartbeat.

It seems as though, as a kid, you absorbed all kinds of influences like a sponge.
I certainly did! Having made the transition from Rock to Funk and then to Jazz - there is obviously a lot of great music in those 'grey' areas between genres! I think having the widest amount of influences and then emulating the artists you look up to is essential; especially in formative years. And don't get me wrong, as a musician, you NEVER stop learning. It's so important to continue to be a 'sponge' as you put it - There's no room to become dry and flaky! Stay humble, keep absorbing.

Finding your own sound is an incredibly important aspect for every instrumentalist. Did you find this was harder for you as a bassist, because the bass is often reduced to accompanying functions?
There have been times over my years as a bassist when the bass has seemed 'limited' to me, but these have often been times when I have been too locked into one musical genre - for instance I remember feeling like that when I was in my late teens. I was so into heavy metal for a time that I discounted other genres, so this limited me and I found myself playing the same riffs and licks over and over... 'stuck in a rut' if you will. But now I'm happy playing lead OR support. There's sometimes no greater feeling than being locked into a groove with a good drummer knowing that you're driving the band along (laughs).

From your point of view, what happens when you turn the bass from being a mere rhythmical support and harmonic foundation into the actual lead instrument?
It's a little like opening a tightly folded piece of paper. Suddenly there are so many more surfaces that become visible; more blank canvases to paint upon. One idea prompts another and before you know it you're enlisting the help of sequencers and samples and the like in order to get the sound 'out'! The down-side is of course that to reproduce much of this studio material live would rely on an entire band.

With regards to the work of others, which experiments or ideas have intrigued you personally with regards to your approach to the bass?

I've often been fascinated by other players' approaches and techniques and where appropriate have allowed some of these ideas to influence my own playing. Some examples would be:
Gary Willis (Tribal Tech) for his arm angle and multi-finger plucking technique. I don't use his technique fully, but have kind of come up with my own based around his.
Geddy Lee (Rush) - for his melodic lines and use of scale runs.
Jaco Pastorius - for his fretless tone, finger-muting and harmonics.
Percy Jones (Brand-X) for his rhythmic licks, harmonics and slides
Eberhard Weber for his phrasing and unique tone
Dan Bergalund (e.s.t.) for his guitar 'axe-man' approach to double bass
and then other upright players such as Anders Jormin, Arild Andersen and Avishai Cohen for making the bass such an 'organic' instrument.
I'd also like to add that a major influence on my phrasing and sense of melody particularly has been ECM jazz saxophonist, Jan Garbarek. His album 'I Took Up The Runes' just blew me away and I still hear his melodic and timing influences in my music.

There seems to be a clear shift in stylistic perspective from „The Last and The First“ and „Beats In Rhythm“, on which the element of Jazz seems to become slightly less obvious. Do you feel as though you're slowly but surely arriving at a personal compositional style away from obvious genre-definitions?
I really do. I think I'm simply beginning to play, perform and record in a way which is natural to me. I play what comes out of me. I'm not an academic student of the bass by a long chalk so tend to produce what I would say is 'heart' music. I stretch myself of course and strive to be better all the time, but I'm not driven in that way. I sound how I sound I guess.

Part of this development involves integrating looping devices into your setup. In which way has this changed your compositions?
I first chose to experiment with live looping after hearing Steve Lawson (@solobasssteve) play. I just had to know how he was doing what he was doing! Live looping has given me a lifeline to being able to perform solo as a bassist. Being able to accompany oneself is such a buzz! Within me is a multi-instrumentalist fighting to get out - as demonstrated in my first album 'The Last And The First', but I needed to go further than that and looping was the key. I love the risk that I have to take as I make the music live. In a studio environment you have the luxury of recording takes until you get it right, but with live looping you're just 'naked' and if it goes wrong, you have to, "Embrace the wrong-ness" as my good friend Neil Alexander (@nailmusic) says! (laughs)
When I think about compositions now, I'm always thinking, "Now, how can I loop this?" and "Can this be done live?" ... I think that's a healthy attitude. And the more I work with looping technology, the more I like it. The quest for me now is to make loops not sound like loops and to give the music a less repetitive feel.

Could you imagine ever recording a solo bass album without any kind of electronic processings at one point in the future?

I do love my effects! (laughs) I'm sure there will be some pieces that will be more 'just the bass' than others, but a whole album without processing? Honestly, no. I'm a bit of a mad scientist when it comes to music-making so I tend to love the weird and the wonderful!

By Tobias Fischer

Russ Sargeant Discography:
The Last and the First 2008
Beats in Rhythm 2009
Blue 2010
Solitude 2010

Russ Sargeant

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