Unlocking The Mystery – with Vail Johnson
Bass Monster and JazzAmericana Crooner
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For me, ear training was essential. I learned every bass line to every album or cassette I could get my hands on.
AI – Wow! What a great pleasure to have you here for an interview at Andy’s World of Bass Vail. I dare say it was around 86 when I was first really drawn to your joyful funky playing and to your unmistakable yellow X-Factor bass. You have been very inspirational to me for many years. Cool that we’ve become friends these days! Let’s please start at the beginning – where and how did you first find an interest in music, and how did a bass guitar land in your hands? Also, what were your earliest playing, and performing experiences like?
VJ – I come from a musical family, the youngest of 7 boys, so there was always music happening in the house. Our mom (and her mom) was a professional musician from an early age, playing keyboards. The mighty Wurlitzer, church organ and piano. It just seemed that you were expected to be a musician in my house. I remember hearing the Beatles for the first time and McCartney’s bass lines just jumped out at me, I had an old acoustic guitar that I learned them on. Got a proper bass guitar and amp when I was around 12 and played in garage bands and the junior high stage band. Taught myself how to play and read music, which was easier as I had already been playing trumpet in the school band since 4th grade.
We played for some school dances and an assembly or two throughout high school.
I was always very serious about playing and the rest of the guys I played with were not so interested in being really good. After high school I began playing a steady gig with two of my brothers in Pioneer Square in Seattle. Bluegrass, Dixieland and such, lots of learning on the spot so great ear training. Did that for a few years, then started the long journey of the top 40 band, playing 5 or 6 nights a week in lounges and hotel bars on the west coast, right up to 1986 when I started up with Kenny G.
AI – Your career has been rich with performing and recording experiences, contributing your unique bass playing style to Kenny G, Keb’ Mo’, Herbie Hancock, James Ingram, Whitney Houston, Gil Scott, Michael Bolton, Patti Austin, George Benson and the list goes on! I’ve always found your enthusiasm on stage infectious and magnetic and still do! Will you please share with us a few of the many memories that you hold close to your heart as those WOW! moments or experiences on your musical path? Times when you might have said, “holy crap is this really happening”?
VJ – There’s one that stands alone at the top of my musical career; 1986 Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. 18,000 people, Bill Cosby as MC sitting 20 feet away on stage. They use a rotating stage there so that as one band is ending, it turns and the next one starts so no delays in the music. Here I am, used to playing smoky bars and such, sharing the stage with Miles, Chick Corea, Brecker Brothers, etc., etc. The stage turns, we’re vamping the intro (we were a high energy funk band back then with vocal tunes) 18,000 people come in to view, so exciting!! The 45 minute set seemed to last about 3 minutes, we got such a great response, the press said we stole the show and we were off and running!
AI – In addition to your extensive session musician accomplishments you are a singer and composer with 6 solo album releases to your credit. You have a skill set and stylistic diversity in your playing that stretches far and wide. What advice might you give to aspiring bassists for developing music appreciation and skills to learn to play many styles correctly, to sing and to compose?
VJ – For me, ear training was essential. I learned every bass line to every album or cassette I could get my hands on. Past that, I also learned the chord changes and the melodies, whether they were instrumental or vocal. For instance, when I was getting into David Sanborn, I learned not just Marcus’ bass lines but the melodies and chords as well. I think I’m fortunate that I like so many different styles, it makes it easier to learn them, I’m sure. Whether it’s the classic rock that we grew up with (Zeppelin is my favorite) or Brazilian Bossa or Samba, Latin or folk; whatever, I would suggest learning all of that by listening and learning all the elements of the music, not just the bass lines. When you know the chords, rhythms and melodies, it unlocks all the mystery and can become second nature. This will be reflected in your writing as you have all these different reference points to pull from.
As for singing and playing, I would learn the bass part so well that I could stop thinking about it, then start adding the vocal parts. It’s just about working at it.
AI – It was fun hanging with you recently over in Europe, and always is so nice running into you here and there. I think I read you will be heading out for shows in Asia soon? What is going in your career these days? Please tell about all your current projects, the artists you’re touring/recording with, and future music solo project goals!
VJ – Yessir! I had a ball at the Warwick Bass Camp. We’re nearing the end of the Kenny G European Tour 2016, playing Birmingham tonight and Royal Albert Hall in London in a couple days. Back home to Nashville for a slew of sessions that have been piling up and off to a big music festival in Beirut in a view weeks with Kenny. August will be some time off, maybe a little vacation with my lovely wife. End of August back at it with Kenny, September will be China and Japan and so on….. I’m enjoying playing my solo shows in town with just bass and vocals. Keb Mo and Christopher Cross gigs will come in here and there, and I’ll be riding my motorcycle cross the countryside in the fall! Thanks Andy!
AI – Thank you Vail! and if you come through Colorado on your bike trip – do stop by!
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