Bassist Al Caldwell planned to be a music teacher until his college professor convinced him to travel and share his gifts. The result is impressive list of accomplishments spanning over 20 years.
“I’ve been around the world three times with various artists, played in front of royalty, and have been on several television programs including Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” says Caldwell from his home in St. Louis where he’s busy working on projects and caring for his daughter.
Caldwell also has written thousands of songs, produced dozens of recordings, and has helped develop several custom basses, including the Benevente 11-string Al Caldwell Signature Bass with midi.
As unique as his sound and contributions are now, as a young man in the late ’70s, Caldwell worked hard to sound like the top bassists of his day: Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham and by the time he was 23 he could emulate all of them. “I put in a lot of work to be called another man’s name,” he recalled.
Caldwell credits bass legend and father of the extended range bass Anthony Jackson, (Jackson conceived the first six-string bass in the late ’70s) with helping catalyze the search for his own voice. “Anthony suggested I stop trying to be the best bass player and start being myself.”
Caldwell shares another Jackson jewel: “There are a 100 ways to play quarter notes. If the drummer isn’t dictating the phrasing, it’s up to you. They’ve given you all that power. It’s up to you to see the chart in a musical sense and bring your wisdom to it. If you’re establishing a hump in the music, the drummer can do less. But then it’s up to you to bring something to the conversation.”
But Caldwell is most passionate when it comes to the topic of learning and coming up with original bass lines and inventive solos.
“It is important to first connect the brain to the mouth, rather than brain to hand. When you connect brain to hand, all you have is muscle memory. You can work on a lick for two weeks and maybe you’ll remember it, or maybe not. Sing what it is you want to play, then teach it to your hands. This is the key to finding yourself, your voice, and is the key to transcending your current ability.”
Now that he’s teaching, Caldwell sometimes gives his students this exercise: He tells them to imagine their individual dream concert, consisting of 90 minutes of music, played with any musicians they want. Then he asks them to tell him what happened. He says “Sing me your grooves. Tell me what your first song was and why you picked it.”
“Music is a language,” Caldwell emphasizes. “Emotionally challenge yourself to create something true and honest. What comes out of your mouth is honest.”
The bass is merely a tool, another alternative to the human voice, says Caldwell, and by going through this process, “You realize what you really like, because nobody told you.”
That said, Caldwell suggests all bassists study key songs from the 30-40 bassists that have strongly influenced the sound and evolution of the bass. Just a few of his suggestions are: Chuck Rainey: Theme from Sanford & Son, Until you Come Back to Me, I Want You from Marvin Gaye. Stanley Clarke: School Daze, Silly Putty, Upright: Song for John. Jaco: Continuum, Portrait of Tracy, Punk Jazz. Anthony Jackson: Naughty, Money,Money,Money (which he co-wrote with O’Jays and played with a pick), House Without a Home. Larry Graham: The Jam, Can You Handle It?, Release Yourself. Marcus Miller: Run for Cover, A Tear for Crystal, TuTu.
“Just learn three to start to identify what makes that person special. Three is all you need to start to understand.”
Today, Al Caldwell possesses many very distinctive ways to express what he refers to as ‘those twelve tones that western music has given us’. He plays, at last count, 28 instruments, and is able to replicate the sound of all of them and more on his Benevente 11-string bass (tuned C#-Eb) which is equipped with midi.
Caldwell wanted a way to express his feeling and knowledge and voices of these instruments and more, without having to put down the bass. “Midi enables me to sound any way I want, without having to change – or carry extra – instruments.”
What’s next for Al Caldwell who already has numerous recordings and tours to his credit, including a long tenure as bassist with Vanessa Williams’ band? He’s planning a tour with his band The Travelin’ Black Hillbillies, where he plays banjo, an instrument he loves almost as much as the bass and he’s working on his first instructional DVD.
For more information about Al Caldwell go to his websites: 9stringbass.com, and Travelin Black Hillbillies.