Maurizio Rolli was interviewed for the Polish magazine Basista, by Wojtek Wytrążek. Here is the interview, translated to English:
How did you learn to play the bass?
For the most of the time I was a self-taught musician, playing Iron Maiden and Rush stuff. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer, not a musician. I convinced my father to buy me a bass but I never told him that I needed an amplifier, because otherwise it would have been too much money, so he never bought me both. For two years I had been practicing at home seven hours a day from 14:00 until 21:00. I was completely crazy to be the best, the fastest bass player in the world. Then I started to go to a teacher who was a guitar player. He taught me the basics of jazz harmony–he was a good guitar player and a competent teacher of harmony. I was curious about music. After that I tried to study with everybody I could, listening to the records of Alain Caron, Cameron Brown, Gary Willis, Jaco and many others.
Did you switch from fretted to fretless bass because of jazz?
I was completely addicted to Rush---Geddy Lee was and still is one of my heroes, Chris Squire too. They both had Rickenbacker basses so I tried to buy a Rickenbacker when I was eighteen. I told my parents and family that I didn’t want a party as a gift, I wanted a bass. Everybody came for a big dinner and gave me some money to buy a Rickenbacker. I went to the store, and it discovered I didn’t have enough money. So I was trying to find some other bass. I needed a professional instrument, because I was playing some gigs at that time. I found an Ibanez Musician and it was a fretless bass. I was completely unaware that the bass could be fretless. I passed my fingers over the board, heard that “boo!” and felt that it was my bass! I completely forgot the fretted bass for many years. For me the bass is without frets. The fretted bass is only another version, to me---in my mind, the bass is fretless.
Is that the reason you started playing the upright bass?
Some Italian upright bass player convinced me that if I wanted to play jazz, I had to play the upright bass. In Italy nobody wants to play jazz on electric bass. Only a couple of musicians play jazz on electric bass. I’m trying to avoid playing an upright bass every way I can. Every time I want to move around with it, I have to disassemble my car to put the bass inside or buy an extra ticket for a plane.
So you’re not an orthodox jazz player.
It’s true, I’m not a real a jazz player. I like improvising and playing my music–I call it "contemporary jazz", because I don’t really know what kind of music it is. It’s jazz, because of the fact that it’s improvised, but I try to take rhythms from different traditions. One of them is swing; the others include flamenco, montuno, tarantella, samba... I like to explore things I’m not able to do, so I learn something every time and it makes my music a little bit different. Even if I do it wrong, for example a wrong buleria that I called "Kaggo" (Kaggo is the word Roman people use for people who are not Roman), since it really is “wrong” as a buleria, it’s different from the traditional buleria and different from traditional jazz.
You have no limitations.
That’s the way! If I had to stay inside a style, I’m probably not passionate enough to stay inside the hedges of that style. I only try to have fun doing what I love.
In 2001 you made a record of the music of Jaco Pastorius. It seems like he was your favourite bass player.
He was not only a bass player. For me he was some kind of demigod, a complete musician, like Charles Mingus. But I didn’t want to play like Jaco. I had been trying to play unlike him every time, so I recorded it almost entirely on upright bass with a big band. After that record I started various jazz projects and recordings with people who worked with Jaco–like Peter Erskine, Alex Acuna, Bob Mintzer, Wynton Marsalis, Mike Stern and the unforgettable Hiram Bullock. I started to appear in magazines like "Bass Player" (CD of the month in August, 2002) or "Bassics" sharing pages with the likes of Michael Manring, Jeff Berlin, Alain Caron, etc… It was embarrassing for me, because they were my heroes and true virtuosos and I don’t feel that I’m in their league. But I write for a big band, and apart from Lawrence Cottle, there are no bass players writing for a big band. That made all the difference.
Do you have any favourite bass player now?
I like everybody. Each one is different and I like them for different reasons: Marcus Miller for groove and composing skills, Alain Caron for his sound on fretless, Hadrien Feraud for technique and time, Jeff Berlin for harmonic concepts and chord changes, Dominique Di Piazza for his right hand technique and flamenco stuff, Michael Manring because he is a true genius (with has 6-dimensional brain, changing tunings and clefs), Wojtek Pilichowski for his slap technique. I have met so many musicians, that choosing only one would probably be a mistake, because music is so big and universal that you can learn something from everybody. Even now I’m a student.
It’s nice to hear that sentence from an expert.
I’m an expert because I’m old, but I’m still trying to learn something more. I try to understand what people play and try to bring that new understanding into my own music.
What is important in playing the bass?
The first thing is the sound. The better the sound you have, the more people will listen to you, because of the sound. The second one is time: you need to play time in the right way, with the right accents. Depending on the style you play, whether it’s hard rock, flamenco or jazz, the accents make the difference between the types of music. You can play the same notes in buleria and shuffle, but the difference comes from the rhythm. So you can change the kind of music by moving the accents of your phrasing. The third one is harmony, which we need to create melody–harmony that is consonant or dissonant. The most important of those three is rhythm, because if you don’t create a solid foundation, people won’t understand what you’re playing. When you’re accompanying someone, you’re creating a foundation. When you play a solo, the foundation becomes the job of others. It’s a mistake to play solo when you’re accompanying. When you're playing the groove, to play "the one" is definitely "your job". But when you solo, you shouldn’t start your phrasing on the first beat. You have to be aware of what you’re playing all the time: I mean, being aware of the names of the notes, the sounds of the notes and where the notes are one the fretboard–on every string and in every position. Try to name the note before you play, not after. Don’t ask yourself: what am I playing. Try to do it reverse: you decide what to play, not your instrument–I need to play C, and then D, and so on, without looking at the instrument.
It’s very useful when you’re playing from a chart.
Yes! If you look at a chart, you can make some mistakes, but it’s better to play one wrong note than to lose yourself from the part, or the form of the song, because when that happens the whole band can be completely thrown off. Everyone makes mistakes; the only way to not make mistakes is to not play. We need to just accept it. When you’re a bass player, you have to be aware, because the bassist and the drummer are the conductors in the band. It’s also important that you don’t concentrate entirely on playing the bass, you have to concentrate on the band, so you have to practice a lot in order to be able to play easily while keeping your mind free of technical issues, so you can think about the music and the band.
How would you characterize the job of the bass player?
Our job is to give the band the “ONE” in a beat. People pay for evenly giving them “ONE”, not for tapping, slapping or solos. I’ve never taken one Euro for slapping! Probably because in Italy slapping is not popular and nobody wants to play funk.
It’s really nice when Italian bass players play an Italian amp brand, but as a professional musician you could play any amp you want. Why did you choose Markbass?
The first reason is that Markbass is my favourite amp manufacturer. They make these amps one kilometer from my house so we know each other very well. Sometimes I help them develop some amplifiers, and they do it the best way possible for my personal taste... In my own Momark LMK model I have the additional XLR input with phantom power to plug in the microphone for upright bass. I like this line, because instead of changing amplifiers you can change only one part of it, so it’s a great idea. Marco De Virgiliis is a man with true passion and a real genius---every time I speak with him I have the feeling that he's amplifying what I say and generating so many new ideas… he's incredible. The factory is an amazing place. There is a gym with exercise machines. Every Thursday we play ping pong. They have drums, basses and amplifiers everywhere, so it’s easy to have a jam session. They also have a big bar and lots of portraits of famous musicians all around, so it looks more like a club than a factory. They finish work at six o’clock and then they start to have fun. Some of the guys working in the factory are my students. They told me that when they wake up in the morning they can’t wait to go to work.
What’s the reason you put the wooden plate between the fingerboard and the pickup? It seems to be getting more and more popular everywhere.
I played really hard at the beginning of my career, and after a while I tried to make my attack lighter. When I’m nervous or I’m in some kind of difficult situation, I start to play really hard; so to avoid that, I put this plate under the strings, because it forces me to use only a small percentage of the skin of my fingertips to move the strings. It works like a guide to ensure the same percentage every time, and it’s also useful for very fast phrases–it ensures that you don’t use more finger than you need. When I started to play fretless, I stopped to play funk, so I needed something that helped me in playing percussive phrases–it sounds like it was slap, without slapping. In addition to that, it looks nice–like a big pickup!
You have a really nice fretless, is it neck-through?
It’s a neck-through, semi-hollow fretless from Mayones, with a Nordstrand system and a piezo pickup in the ebony bridge, so it can sound like an upright bass. The woods used are spruce for the top, maple for the body and neck, and ebony for the fingerboard… exactly the same woods used to build upright basses. I worked with the guys at Mayones to design a bass that would be made only of wood, without metal parts. It's a signature model that has my name, but I call it "Pinocchio" because it's a piece of wood that has Italian roots and can "talk"… and with my voice! I'm very proud of the job the guys at Mayones did on Pinocchio, and it’s a great honor to be a part of the Mayo Family.
Thank you for the conversation.
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We're very proud to have her in our family!