How do you progress from playing single notes on an acoustic guitar to playing bass with the world’s best-known musicians? Let’s ask the great Tim Lefebvre...
Life after Bowie, explained in detail by the great Lefebvre. Jennifer Bickerdike asks the questions
Imeet up with Tim Lefebvre on a windy, rainy pre-spring evening. He has just completed a masterclass at the British & Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) in London, ahead of performing with JZ Replacement at the Vortex in London. Star-struck students line up to get autographs and take selfies with the native East Coaster.
Despite his well-earned celebrity status and his history alongside jazz legends and rock titans such as Wayne Krantz and David Bowie, Lefebvre is incredibly down to earth, joking around about our shared American upbringing, records we both love and how expensive real estate is in his adopted home of California. It’s a lot of
fun comparing junk food in the US with that in the UK, but it isn’t long before the conversation turns to music and we get down to the business at hand…
How did you get into playing the bass in the first place, Tim?
In my school band programme, you had to start with a woodwind instrument, so I played saxophone initially. One Christmas, someone gave my sister an acoustic guitar; I was snatching it up and playing it along to records. I was only playing one single note; I wasn’t playing chords. I was trying to figure out the riffs. My dad was a middleschool music teacher. He heard me messing around and said ‘You’re a bass player’, and he was 100 percent right. I ended up playing some gigs with him. He did a lot of corporate functions and weddings, so I had to learn all the songs: swingy standard stuff, three-part harmonies, barbershop quartet. I never loved it, but it was a good way to learn.
Who are your bass influences?
The holy grail for me is Darryl Jones, Victor Bailey, Marcus Miller, Sting, James Jamerson, to name a few. Then there are the classic jazz bass players – Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro. Too many to count.
You just showed me your Blackstar tattoo. What’s the story behind you working with David Bowie?
As a child of the 80s, I grew up with [Bowie’s 1983 album] Let’s Dance. I knew all the big hits, like ‘Fame’ and ‘Young Americans’, but it wasn’t until I started
“LISTENING TO COLTRANE WAS A PRETTY RADICAL NOTION IN HIGH SCHOOL”
working with Bowie that I became a real fan. When he put out The Next Day , he decided he wanted to do a jazz record. I think he initially asked Maria Schneider to do it, but she was too busy working on her own record and handed him a Donny McCaslin CD with me, Mark Guliana and Jason Lindner on it – and he loved it. Bowie then came to see us at the 55 Bar. I didn’t know until after the gig that he attended the show. He was sold, and hired us to do the next record, which became Blackstar.
The rest is history.
How did you first discover jazz?
My dad listened to a lot of the big band LPs. He liked Benny Goodman and all the white swing stuff, so there were always records around. My older brother Steve was hipper, and he started influencing my taste, so we just went down the wormhole – hard. Miles Davis, Coltrane, you know: just obsessed. Listening to Coltrane was a pretty radical notion in high school.
How can a bassist who is interested in jazz get started?
An album to begin with is by Miles Davis. It has that combination of being both just easy on the ears and still radical. It is completely different from anything else. Miles went from playing
Kind Of Blue
standards to playing what you hear on that LP. It’s dark sounding, but at the same time, it has this pleasing quality to it that everybody resonates with. I’m pretty sure it is still the best-selling jazz record in history. Another one that comes to mind is Coltrane’s
Sound. There is a box set on Atlantic that’s in mono, as those records were originally recorded that way – it’s amazing.
What advice should all bassists remember?
Just the basics, but they are crucial. Always be prepared, of course; have a good time doing your job; and get the good fundamentals down. Lastly, it is important to try to be creative within whatever gig you’re working on.