Mark Egan: Funk to the Fore
Mark Egan is considered to be one of the most respected and in-demand electric bassists on the music scene today. His unique fretless bass sound and style is both distinctive and versatile and his musical contributions incomparable. With three platinum and three gold albums to his credit, Mark has recorded with the Pat Metheny Group, Sting, Arcadia, Roger Daltry and Joan Osborne; performed with the Gil Evans Orchestra, Bill Evans, Danny Gottlieb, Marianne Faithful, David Sanborn, John McLaughlin and Sophie B. Hawkins among many others. Hehas added his musical prowess to such movies and television shows as Aladdin, The Color of Money, A Chorus Line, NBC Sports, ABC’s All My Children, CNN/Headline News and numerous award-winning television commercials.
Egan’s latest studio project, Truth Be Told, features him playing alongside top-tier music veterans drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, saxophonist Bill Evans, and keyboardist Mitch Forman.
Abstract Logix: Mark, this is the second time I’ve had the honor of interviewing you. The first, as you may recall, was for Bassics magazine a few years ago. Thanks in advance for your time and thoughtful responses to my questions/
Mark Egan: Robert, it’s my pleasure to speak with you again. I really enjoyed our last interview for Bassics.
AL: It’s nice to hear you playing again with Bill Evans. One of my favorite albums from years ago was his Alternative Man … That was a brilliant recording.
ME: It’s always great playing with Bill Evans. He is such an incredibly talented musician. Alternative Man is a great record and he has continued his career with touring and producing many great recordings since then. I had the pleasure of recording on that record with John McLaughlin and that is one of the musical high points of my career. I have also been a member of his touring band, Soul Grass, for the last few years and that has provided much of the inspiration for my new record, Truth Be Told.
AL: Truth Be Told definitely highlights some aspects of your bass playing and composing that many people haven’t been too familiar with. Tell me more about your overall creative process in writing for, planning and recording the album.
ME: For that latest album, I wanted to branch out and feature more of a quartet sound, similar in some ways to past Elements projects but more groove-oriented. Elements is a band that I co-lead with drummer Danny Gottlieb and we have recorded eight projects since its inception in 1982.
As I mentioned, over the past four years I have been playing in a lot of different situations, especially with Bill Evans’ band, Soulgrass, as well as recording with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. The drummer is always the driving force in any ensemble that I am involved with, so I wanted to write the music around Vinnie Colaiuta for Truth Be Told. Many of my listeners are familiar with my bass playing alongside master drummer Danny Gottlieb. So on Truth Be Told, I wanted to orchestrate this recording in a different way. To get more into an improvisational groove concept, which is different than my previous ECM-influenced trio project, As We Speak, which I recorded with guests John Abercrombie and Danny Gottlieb.
This new recording was a conscious effort to do a different type of project, and I wrote with the players in mind, Bill Evans, Vinnie Colaiuta and Mitch Forman. My basic intent was to create music that not only had great grooves, but also would allow space for me to be a soloist. I enjoy being a team player by supporting these great soloists, Bill, Vinnie and Mitch. I wrote tunes specifically for these players in this concept. And I also had some songs from the past that hadn’t been recorded on my own projects, but that had been recorded on other people’s albums. For instance, the first track, “Frog Legs,” is a song that I wrote back in 1998 that I previously recorded with Lew Soloff and Jeff Ciampa on their respective records.
I’ve been so fortunate to play with so many great players, especially drummers, and every one of them comes from a different direction with different influences, which makes me play differently as a bassist. In Vinnie’s case, not only does he have an incredibly strong groove for most any genre, but his masterful technique for soloing is highly evolved and very exciting. He’s a great improviser as well as a great groove player and, in general, very flexible. I knew when I was conceptualizing this record that Vinnie would be the focal point. Beyond that, I really wanted to compose songs that would create an open backdrop that would allow Bill and Mitch to be as free as possible. Many of the songs have open vamps at the end with ostinato-type figures that were great vehicles for Vinnie to solo over, and he blew me away on every take!
As far as the compositions, they all started from a particular groove in mind and I expanded on some basic ideas. Some songs, like “Rhyme or Reason,” were written on my bass while others, like “Truth Be Told” and “Café Risque,” were started in my computer sequencing program.
AL: Looks like—according to the photos on the inside of the album—you guys were able to mostly play “live” in the studio as an interactive quartet, versus just laying down separate tracks sequentially. How does having that immediate interplay influence your bass playing specifically?
ME: We recorded eleven songs in three days “live” in the studio during June 2009 in New York City. The immediate interplay of playing together as a group is what music is all about for me. The musical conversation and interaction is my favorite form of expression and the reason why I became interested in music from the beginning.
I came to the sessions with some preliminary bass lines in mind for the various compositions and also knew that I needed to be open and flexible once we started recording, because I wanted to play off of everyone. I was super-focused on what Vinnie contributed and adjusted my lines in order to compliment his kick, snare and high-hat grooves. What I loved about this experience is the constant interplay between the bass and drums. I enjoy this aspect of interactive playing, just as much as soloing on top of a group. The sessions were all about creative listening, reacting and complementing each other.
AL: Many people think of you/your Pedulla bass(es) as being silky smooth and sonorous. But with this album, it was “funk to the fore.” Did your basses surprise you in their ability to deliver the punch you were looking for? It’s kind of like the Pedullas were speaking a new language …
ME: I played my Pedulla five-string fretted and fretless basses on the Truth Be Told sessions. I knew that they would be perfect for the music since I record with them all the time in a variety of styles. The reason that I like these instruments so much is because they can be very punchy and deep sounding, while at the same time very melodic, with a lot of sustain and with lots of versatility.
AL: Did you actively—for lack of any other word—“study” other funk/soul/R&B-driven tunes before writing the charts for this album? In other words, if you did so, what was the “homework” you did in advance?
ME: I didn’t actively listen to much funk/soul/R&B-driven music for inspiration for this project. Funk/soul/R&B are some of my deep playing roots for many years though and what I did listen to for inspiration were Don Grolnick’s music and some of the music from Steps Ahead and Michael Brecker. The creative writing process is fascinating to me. Whenever I start out with a music idea it always leads to another song that I didn’t have in mind. The most important part of the process is to have the time to be open, to let ideas flow. And one idea just leads to another.
AL: I love “Pepé.” It starts off sounding like a big ol’ Motown groove. Then it traverses in to lots of other territories. Parts of it remind of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones’ tunes. Tell me more about this song; I think it’s one of the boldest things you’ve recorded in quite some time.
ME: “Pepé” is a song that started from a bass line that I wrote in 1974 on a beach with my bass during a very creative period in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I always keep a manuscript book of compositional ideas and when I was assembling songs for Truth Be Told, I wanted to finish this song for this instrumentation and feature Vinnie and Mitch. It was actually inspired by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I added a melody played by Bill Evans and doubled by Mitch Forman. This was a fun song to record. Mitch later added some great synth parts.
AL: “Café Risque” is also another winner. Vinnie’s drum groove is so syncopated, at first, but it still keeps a driving pulse—like David Garibaldi. Then you go in to this fast-paced funky shuffle. That song must’ve been a lot fun to write and play …
ME: “Café Risque” was a lot of fun to record and was right up Vinnie’s alley. The composing of the song started on the keyboard and I kept extending the melody and creating sections that would feature Vinnie as well as Bill Evan’s incredible soprano sax playing. Mitch also plays some amazing acoustic piano parts.
AL: According to your comments in the album, the entire 11 songs were recorded in three days. Had you given the other players your music in advance? Or did it all come together for the first time when you four assembled in Avatar Studios? Again, what’s the backline story about this project?
ME: I sent the musicians a disc and pdf files of the music about two weeks before the session. On the disc were basic demos that I had produced at my Electric Fields studio. We only played the songs when in the studio and most of the takes were the first or second times that we played them. Everyone did their homework and it really came together the first time that we played the songs. I was “all-ears” with my own bass approach being in the presence of such heavy players. Even though I had some specific bass lines, I was very flexible with the creative process.
AL: Why did you choose to use predominately Avatar Studios versus your Electric Fields Studio in Warwick? That’s your home studio, right?
ME: Avatar studios is one of the finest studios in the world and I wanted its sound. My studio, Electric Fields, is a great project studio but for this recording, I wanted focus on being a musician and not have to think about the technical aspect of the recording. Phil Magnotti was the engineer and he got a great sound on everyone.
AL: Playing with Vinnie Colaiuta must’ve been quite an experience. Did playing with him—versus, Danny Gottlieb (and other drummers with whom you’ve played)—influence your bass playing differently for this project?
ME: As I mentioned earlier, all drummers have a different approach to the music and playing with Vinnie was an incredible experience. Danny Gottlieb and I have an ESP- type of connection with music. We have played together so much with the Pat Metheny Group and with our group, Elements, as well as many other musical experiences and we are a team. Vinnie has a different slant on that concept and has so much experience in many different styles of grooves. As I’d said, I just went with the flow and tried to fit into Vinnie’s sensibilities while still complimenting the music.
AL: I really dig “After Thought.” Tell me more about how that song came about; it’s quite different than many of the others. Who’s the Indian voice at the beginning?
ME: “After Thought” is a free ballad that I wrote for the session. I wanted to make a feature for my fretless bass sound for a free-flowing melodic/Indian-influenced space. Mitch Forman orchestrated the song so beautifully. The Indian voices are samples form Mitch’s collection of sounds.
AL: So what’s next for you? What projects are you working on now or are slated to work on in the near future?
ME: I will be recording with a great guitarist, Paul Shugihira, from Germany who I met while recording with Bill Evans and Dave Weckl with the WDR Orchestra on the CD, Vans Joint. It will be a trio with drummer Adam Nussbaum. I am also starting to compose for a new solo project that will be an acoustic ensemble featuring Indian percussion, acoustic guitar, flute and bass. And I continue to perform with Bill Evans’ group, Soul Grass, which is a great experience. Danny Gottlieb and I are also working on a new Elements album that we’ll record in the near future.
In closing, I’d just like to add that I continue to be inspired by the great improvisers of contemporary music. I still practice on a regular basis, which is endless, to improve my playing. My goals are to be in the playing presence of great improvisers and to continue growing and moving with contemporary music. I am also fascinated with composition and creating backdrops that create an environment for highly creative improvisations. What I enjoy the most is being in the moment of creating music with friends … that’s what it’s all about for me. Truth Be Told is totally about this.