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Michael League Masterclass

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This is an orderly summary of all the masterclasses and talks by Michael found on the web.

Improvisation

I think it's important to learn as much about music as possible- fill your head- and practice it until it becomes effortless. Then, when you're performing, forget all of it. I used to have preconceptions about what my solo "should" be, and I didn't start playing solos I liked until I rid myself of that mentality. My main focus now, during each solo, is to keep my ears open to what's happening around me from the other players on stage, and to try to create a meaningful dialogue with them. Coincidentally, this mindset takes a lot of pressure off of you!

My main approach to improvisation actually comes from a brilliant keyboardist named Bernard Wright. It's really all about phrasing, and he does it like no one else.

Composition

The first step is deadlines. If I don't have them, I can't write. I like to use a tune or two from the last album as a starting place for the next record in order to create some continuity, a common thread in the timeline. But the real question is, "What do I want to hear?" Then write it!

Transcription gives you so many tools- I love to learn songs that move me. But ALL of the song. The form, the melody, the chords, the voicings, the variation in the lyrics from verse to verse, etc. It's so much fun. But to be overly simple about it, I just try to write things that I would want to listen to. This can give you a real breakthrough when faced with writer's block- just imagine what you would want to hear next if you were in the audience.

Writing for the ensemble, everything is trial and error. Don't underestimate the power of repetition, and the value of time. We want things quickly these days, but the rule of 10,000 hours is a real thing, I believe.

I learned a lot in college, but not much about composition. I learned that from song learning and transcription.

You never know if it's good or bad until you try it with humans playing. Sometimes the reality is the opposite of your preconceptions!

Instruments

My favorite bass at the moment is my go-to, a 1959 Precision with a maple neck. BUT! F-Bass just built me a P/J 4-string that has completely blown me away.

Advices

To become a session bassist

Study the greats, and emulate them to every subtle detail! Get familiar with different basses and their sounds, different preamps, DIs, amps, boards... everything that goes into the sound of a bass being recorded. And most importantly, learn how to get all of those different sounds with just your fingers!

To really be in the environment while playing

The simplest thing is to force yourself to keep your head up! It's just a habit.

About odd meters

Don't try to write in them. Anything we have in an odd meter is just because the phrase itself was that way, naturally. If you want to write in odd meters, listen to odd meter music that feels natural, especially folkloric music.

Being a successful musician

To be a successful musician you have to have 3 things together. You have to be:

1. Good at music

2. Responsible

3. Enjoyable to be around

If someone is negative, moody, complaint, or a jerk or whatever, it kills everything. Even if you are the best bass player, people won't call you.

Improving as a musician

Anytime I have grown as a musician it's from experiencing other musicians that were better than me and also by getting sick of sounding bad. I played a groove that wasn't funky and I was like "Man you're not being funky" I have to fix this. You figure out how to fix it. Generally that comes from playing and going to see great musicians

Influences and Inspirations

The majority of the people who inspire me, especially in terms of improvisation and composition, are not bassists. But some of favorite bassists are James Jamerson, Pino Palladino, Paul McCartney, Bootsy Collins, Joel Smith, Tim Lefebvre, Thaddeus Tribbett, Jon Jon Webb, Dave Holland, Ray Brown... there are so many more.

I listen to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and Shostakovich's 5th almost daily just because I hear hundreds of new things in them every time I hear them. Susana Baca's Eco de Sombras and Salif Keita's Folon are on constant repeat for me and have been for years, as is Concha Buika's La Noche Más Larga.

Albums that changed the way I think about music.

1. Abbey Road. I was at 5th grade and I didn't even know how to start feeling all that stuff.

2. Xtc - Apple Venus Volume 1. My brother gave me that on high school and broad my world. The sense of harmony, orchestration, arrangements, melodies...

3. Songs In the key of life - Steve Wonder. For obvious reasons

4. Ok Computer. I was in the passenger seat of my brother’s Suburu Legacy station wagon, rummaging through cassette tapes, when I first saw the name Radiohead. I popped it in and didn’t let him stop the car until it was done. For a young teenager, this was the perfect album. It rocked, but was sonically ambitious. And most of all, it had a unified sound from beginning to end. I think this was the first time I really thought about albums as stories, and producers as storytellers. Ever since, Nigel [Godrich] has been one of my favorites.

5. ModeReko: ModeReko. At the time my brother showed me this record, it was the holy grail. Funky, jazzy, textural… it had everything I was interested in. I actually modeled Snarky Puppy after this band conceptually: funky grooves with colorful harmony, rich textures, and simple (but creative) melodies on top. It’s still the M.O. for my band, though the direction continues to evolve. Specifically, I love the work of Bobby Read (bass clarinet, flute and sax) and John D’earth (trumpet) on this album. They get so many colors out of their instruments! And finally, I love that this record is so short – around 30 minutes – with almost no solos! It’s unheard of for this style, but it made a real impact on me. There are so many things you can do inside of a tune without just defaulting to solos, and these guys took that idea and ran with it.

6. Oscar Peterson Trio: We Get Requests. This was the first “real” jazz record my brother ever gave me. He was playing a weekly trio gig at a restaurant in Manassas, Virginia, and I would go occasionally. I think he saw my interest in jazz developing, so he gave me this album. To me, no trio on earth swings like these guys. It’s a joyful, jumping swing. To this day, Oscar is my favorite jazz pianist and Ray Brown is my favorite jazz bassist. It instilled in me the idea that jazz should swing, jazz should groove, and it should be felt more than thought about. I still feel the same way.

7. Väsen: Whirled. My brother is a folkloric musician, and this was the first “world music” (as silly as that term is) album that really reached me. This Scandinavian neo-trad group takes the tradition of Swedish folk music and steers it in another direction, especially compositionally. The instrumentation itself inspired me: a medieval Swedish instrument called nyckelharpa, viola, acoustic guitar, and an unconventional percussion setup. But more than that, it was the soulfulness of the melodies, which felt both old and new at the same time, and the richness of the harmony and rhythm beneath them that opened compositional possibilities in my own mind.

References

[1] Michael League Responding Questions in Reddit

[2] 10 Questions with Michael League

[3] Michael League Visiting Artists at Berklee Valencia Campus

[4] Interview by Andre Vasconcelos for the Berklee Blogs

[5] Snarky puppy 5 albums that changed my life