Interview – Mike Pope

Mike PopeMike Pope

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
June 23, 2014

Multi-talented doubler and writer talks to FBPO about his hot new album!

Mike Pope plays acoustic and electric bass, as well as piano.  He is also a skilled sound engineer, electrical engineer, writer and arranger.  Originally from Bowling Green, Ohio, Mike attended the University of North Texas, after which he migrated to New York City, where he was an active part of the music scene in the ’90s.

Throughout the course of his career, Mike has performed with Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, the Gil Evans Orchestra, Larry Goldings, Teo Macero, Manhattan Transfer, Lenny Pickett, David Sanborn, Paul Shaffer, Mike Stern, Jeff ’Tain Watts and many others.

FBPO’s Jon Liebman caught up with Mike to talk about Pope’s newest release, Cold Truth, Warm Heart.

FBPO: First of all, how’s your health, Mike?

MP: As you’re aware, I had a stroke back in 2011, which kind of sucked.  But unlike a few folks I know who’ve suffered strokes recently, I was extraordinarily lucky to literally walk out of the hospital a week later with approval from the doctors to drive, etc.  Played with DiMeola the next week!  When I told him my symptoms, he said, “My God, I have a stroke every day.”  It was a full-blown stroke, not a small one, but the part of my brain that was affected was the part that keeps me from giving short answers to questions, but nothing else. [Laughs]  Truth is, I didn’t have any physical deficits and what deficits there might be – or might have been – have been are either nonexistent or very insidious.  It’s a bit of a blessing and a curse, as now anytime I have difficulty with anything cognitive, which was not unusual before the stroke, I am left wondering if it’s a deficit manifesting, or just my advancing age.

At any rate, I’m just fine now and in better health than I’ve been in for many years, so it’s all good.  It was a little like someone holding a gun to your head.  Doesn’t hurt you much as long as they don’t pull the trigger, but it still changes you.

FBPO: Tell me about Cold Truth, Warm Heart.  Start with the title.

MP: It kind of refers to your first question.  Life can be really cold.  It’s not always good and sometimes it’s bad.  But one day, as I was lamenting my woes, I realized that if I become bitter, I’ll never turn things in the direction I want them to go.  Gotta put the best foot forward and approach life with a warm heart.

FBPO: In our first interview with you, back in 2011, you were describing an upcoming record.  It sounded like you could have been talking about Cold Truth, Warm Heart.  Coincidence?

MP: It was all part of my master plan to sell tens, nay, hundreds of records!

FBPO: What prompted this release?  What were you trying to say?

MP: I got tired of bass players not knowing I was bass player and never wanting to talk about anything but electronics and gear.  I figured it was my own fault for spending more time building preamps than writing music.  So I made a record.  I’m the least gear-oriented person I know.  I designed what I designed to serve the music better, that’s all.

FBPO: You’re quoted as saying this record was “written for the players who were playing it.”  What did you mean by that?

MP: I meant that I specifically heard these players’ sounds and touches as I wrote this music.  I tried, I think successfully, to make the written parts stuff that would sound good in their particular hands and thought carefully about what they were probably going to bring to the table in an improvisatory context.  I had a lot of ideas of things I wanted to compose, but I really didn’t want to bind any of the players to a paradigm that was outside of what was natural.

Even with as much as I thought ahead, as we actually played it, I thought, “Man, I should have written one measure and an infinite repeat.  Twelve tracks.  One in each key.”  But alas, I didn’t.

FBPO: There are some great tunes on this recording, over half of which were written by you.  The title tune, case in point, sets the tone and makes the listener expect an authentic straight-ahead jazz record. 

MP: Yeah, stylistically it sort of is what it is.  There was I time when I thought, and I think many guys did, that a record had to adhere to stylistic parameters throughout.  The record company says, “What bin does this go in at the record store?”  Record what?  But now that people are buying just the three tunes they want, or whatever, I don’t worry that much about it.  I worried about a cohesive aesthetic more than anything else.  And I think it’s there.

FBPO: “Shadow of a Doubt” definitely has a funky feel.  It almost seems like the tendency might have been to gravitate to the electric bass at first, but the upright gives it so much more soul.  Was that a conscience decision or did it just happen naturally?

MP: Yeah, conscious for sure.  Acoustic bass can be funky.  It sure as heck is organic!  And the best funk, to me, is organic.  Bootsy, Louis Johnson, etc.  Plus it’s part of the aesthetic thing.  Playing that tune on electric would have made it less unique and less a part of the whole in the greater context of the CD, in my opinion.

FBPO: There are some great solos on all the tunes.  Is Geoff Keezer actually playing acoustic piano and Rhodes at the same time?!

MP: Sheesh.  Yes!  And I have to tell you, the stuff he did on the CD is amazing and the stuff he used to do when we were on the road with Sanborn was even more mind-blowing!  Like the same kind of thing, except harmonizing with himself, diatonically, through key after key at break-neck speeds.  He can just go “eff” himself! [Laughs] Of course not.  But man, it some serious you-know-what.

FBPO: There’s lots of saxophone playing on the record and even more vibraphone.  How did you go about choosing the instrumentation?

MP: Well, saxophone is an instrument I just hear.  It’s a texture I just have stuck in my palette.  It can be a little rough around the edges if not handled by a great player, and Seamus (Blake) is particularly good at keeping the saxophone in a place of beauty without sacrificing real inspiration and intensity when the music wants it.

As for vibes, Joe (Locke) is one of my favorite musicians to collaborate with on any instrument.  Anytime I do a project, I think of him.  He transcends the instrument, making it possible to do a multitude of things with it.  Plus his writing is amazing, as evidenced by the last track on the CD, “Dear Life,” which, to date, holds the title of most complimented tune on the CD.  Plus his instincts as a leader/arranger are great, so he brings some good musical direction with him, which I generally find to be in synergy with my thoughts.

FBPO: You’ve got some other great originals, including the straight-ahead minor swing tune “Bare Minimum” and the funky 7/4 “Ral and Tonto.”  You’ve even a couple pieces from Chopin and Glière.  How did you decide what music to include?

MP: Well, “Bare Minimum” was just that.  I was only concerned with writing the bare minimum of a tune as a vehicle for everyone to solo on.  But, as usual, as I sat at the piano, a more complicated bridge appeared.  I wrote it on purpose.  I wanted a tune that wasn’t too heady and would just be fun to play.

The classical tunes are just always interesting to me.  For me, so much of jazz is in its harmonic content.  And harmonically, between Mahler, Chopin, Bach, Dohnányi, Ravel and Brahms, it’s all been done before.  So I’m always open to embracing music from that period, particularly the romantic period, and doing something with it.  Alan (Blackman) had already written the Glière adaptation and I’d played with him. The Chopin was something I’d reharmonized a long time ago.  The cool part about the Chopin is that the solo is over old Fred’s original harmony instead of my own changes.  I basically looked at what I had, decided what I needed to make a complete album, wrote what I needed and adapted what I could to make it all go together.

FBPO: “What I Meant to Say,” which you composed on piano, is a stark reminder of how accomplished you are on the keyboard as well.  How much writing do you do on the piano?

MP: Almost all of it.  I recently dug up the scratch recordings of me at the piano when I made up “What I Meant to Say.”  It’s interesting. Except for two or three chords toward the end, I improvised that tune in its final form and transcribed it.  I fixed up the part that didn’t work as I’d expected because it used language I was hearing but didn’t know at the time.  And that was it.  Done.

But I find that my hands do a certain amount of “writing” on their own, so the instrument I’m playing colors the result to some degree.  So this time, like on “Shadow of a Doubt,” it was a groove in C on bass.  Then I just vaguely heard a bridge in my head and the bass line that currently exists sort of stuck its head out.  Then I said, “Okay, AAB is enough,” figured out what chords would work over the bass line I played, which flowed the way I wanted, and then I wrote a melody.

I couldn’t come up with a melody for the life of me! For the A sections, the bridge was already in my head. I half stole it from Michael Brecker’s Quindectet record.  All I could think of was a line that started out very suspiciously like a tune by a good friend named Christos Rafalides, which he called “No Doubt.”  I finally gave up and used it and named my tune after his.  The heart wants what the heart wants.  You should have seen the look on his face the first time he heard it!  Hilarious!  But I got his blessing.

FBPO: While much of the collection is jazz oriented, in “Out of the Ether,” all the finger popping and toe tapping come to a rather abrupt halt, with a complete change in mood.  Tell me about that.

MP: Not much to say, actually.  I just wanted to try it.  I didn’t have an agenda and I had the luxury of not having to answer to a record company, so on it went!  It kind of divides the CD, in a way.  The intensity level sort of starts high, works it way down, then etherial, then it creeps back a bit.  The Chopin, fusion tune and “Dear life.”  It was hard to sequence at first, but that works for me.

FBPO: Your solos are fantastic, not only on the upright, but on the electric too.  And I just love those low, “sub E” notes!

MP: Thanks.  The solo on “Ral and Tonto” was no easy one.  It took me a few stabs to bring that one to fruition.  It’s like 360 bpm or something abusive like that.  But I got one that was pretty cohesive and has some motivic development to it.  It has a shape and that’s most important to me.  I wish I could just scream eighth notes at that tempo, but we have Hadrien (Feraud) for that! [Laughs]

As for the sub-E notes, thank Vinny Fodera.  That bass really growls down there.  Pretty ferocious.  There’s a minimum of compression and stuff on there. Pretty much straight in.

FBPO: You mentioned Joe Locke’s “Dear Life,” the album’s closer.  What a gorgeous tune!  There’s an interlude, played twice, that’s hauntingly beautiful too.

MP: Well, that tune is basically AABA and what you’re referring to is the B section.  It is haunting, isn’t it?  I think it’s chromatic parallel fourths with a third on top over a pedal. Forgive me if I’m wrong. It’s something like that. I didn’t play the piano part.  And I think it’s all in a “four-over-three” rhythm.  It’s super cool.  It’s dedicated to the late great Bob Berg, who was a good friend of Joe’s.

FBPO: I know you’re more of a “homebody” these days, but do you plan to do at least a little touring to support the new release?

MP: Yeah, I get out whenever I can.  I love to be out playing, but there’s just not as much of it to do these days.  I just did a mini tour, with a date at Blues Alley in DC, then at An Die Musik in Baltimore and the RegattaBar in Boston.  I plan on doing another little tour in the early fall sometime.  Info will be available on my website for sure.  That’s being updated more frequently now.

FBPO: What lies ahead for Mike Pope?

MP: Ya know, who the heck knows?  If it’s up to me, a record a year and a more active touring schedule.  I’ve got a studio and I know how to use it.  Engineered, mixed and mastered the whole CD myself, here.   I’m still developing bass-related electronics, but I don’t engage in the level of sleeve-rolling-up I used to.  I’m involved in a really interesting project you’ll be hearing about soon enough, with a couple guys I’ve known a while and had not had an opportunity to do anything with until now.  That’s gonna be cool!

To purchase Mike’s new CD, Cold Truth, Warm Heart, click here.

Mike Pope: Cold Truth, Warm Heart

Mike Pope: Cold Truth, Warm Heart

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