Santana bassist talks about working with Carlos, Miles, Sheila E. and more
By David Sands
Top photo: Alan Poulin Photography
June 3, 2015
Listening to Benny Rietveld, it’s hard not to be a little amazed at the places his bass has taken him.
To start with, he plays with Carlos Santana and acts as musical director for the famous guitarist’s band. As if that’s not enough, he’s opened up for Prince as part of Sheila E’s ensemble and toured and recorded with the late jazz giant Miles Davis.
In 2001, he released The Mystery of Faith, an adventurous genre-jumping solo album. Over the years, he’s also lent his talents to artists as varied as Herbie Hancock, Eagle Eye Cherry, and John Lee Hooker.
FBPO’s Jon Liebman recently had the opportunity to interview Santana’s fascinating bassist, who spoke with us about his musical origins, choice gear and work with Santana, Davis and other artists.
Rietveld’s mellow disposition hints at where he spent his formative years. Although he’s originally from the Dutch city of Utrecht, he grew up on the laid-back Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Piano served as a musical gateway of sorts for him. He started lessons at age 6, but quickly lost interest. At 10, he began dabbling with the ivory keys again and even resumed classes. That didn’t last long, though, as he soon discovered guitar through his older cousin, Fred Schreuders, who’s now a successful musician in his own right. “I started learning guitar and bass with him and then drums,” says Rietveld. “We were just hanging around and then playing and then jamming.”
When he was 13, they formed a band. Rietveld handled drums until their bass player dropped out. After that he took on responsibilities for the instrument that would make his reputation. In high school, he studied saxophone and percussion, but remained devoted to bass.
Prog rock master Chris Squire of Yes was the first bassist to really catch Rietveld’s ear. From there, he was following Paul McCartney’s lead on “Lovely Rita” and other Beatles’ tunes.
After high school, the bassist studied at the University of Hawaii College of Music and developed his chops playing jazz and rock. Gigging didn’t prove difficult in Hawaii’s bustling tourist-fueled music scene. Rietveld found work with musicians like Richie Cole, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Bill Mays, Makoto Ozone, and the Crusaders. He even taught himself to play upright bass in order to play a gig with saxophonist Gabe Baltazar.
Still, he found the tropical locale limiting in terms of learning his craft. So, at the urging of a friend who’d relocated to San Francisco and raved about the music scene, Rietveld moved to California in search of new adventures in 1983.
In San Francisco, the bassist went to work playing with jazz guitarist Ray Obiedo. Sheila E., daughter of percussionist Pete Escovedo, sat in on one of their sessions and jammed on the drums.
They had a great rapport, and she later invited him to join a band she was putting together for a road tour. He expected jazz fusion from her, but they ended up opening up for Prince’s Purple Rain tour, making the kind of funk-filled music that ended up on her breakthrough The Glamorous Life album.
Between 1988 and 1990, Rietveld found himself working with Miles Davis during the sunset of the trumpeter’s luminous career. Along with touring, he contributed bass to Davis’ soundtrack for Dingo, a film about jazz on the Australian outback.
Rietveld compares his time with the great jazzman with training in a dojo.
“Listen to everything all the time. Forget about the past and the future. There’s only just now. Because if you drift off, he had this radar, and he would know,” Rietveld says. “I still use that to this day.”
That amazing experience piqued Carlos Santana’s curiosity. The two ended up together in the same studio one day, and Santana passed along his number, saying that he was looking for a new bassist. They talked, and, after playing with the band he got the job.
Creating music with the group has been a dream made real for Rietveld, who grew up listening to Santana tunes. In addition to his rhythm section duties, he also serves as the band’s musical director.
“I’m really just the traffic cop guy, because you know how bass players usually have the overview of things,” he says. “I think we generally have the best memory of arrangements and the pulse.”
As for Santana’s bandleader, Rietveld is still a little in awe of the guitar maestro. “I don’t think I know a guy who’s more musically intuitive,” he says. “He can always hit that right note, and it’s done with conviction.”
Asked about the group’s fateful 1987 Florida encounter with bass legend Jaco Pastorius, Rietveld says Santana talks about him in the most endearing terms, and, like many others, did his best to help him. Pastorius, who suffered from bipolar disorder, died from injuries he suffered in a bar fight he got into after venue security at a Santana show escorted him off the premises for sneaking onstage
“Carlos is completely positive and pro-life,” says Rietveld. “‘Let’s move on and try to help whoever we can through music,’ [he’s apt to say].”
As for his own music making, Rietveld tells FBPO his go-to instrument is a Music Man Sterling Deluxe electric bass. He primarily relies on four-string basses, but will switch up to five when he’s playing something really contemporary.
The Santana bassist is also known for blasting out rhythms on the futuristic-looking NS Design CR5M Electric upright.
“I love playing it,” he says. “House sound people, band members and even audience members remark how great it sounds.”
“In a high stage volume setting like I’m in, you can’t have a regular upright bass. Even if you stuff the holes, it just sounds awful,” he adds.
His strings of choice? Ernie Ball pinks, mediums. As for amps, for the last few years he’s been using a Grace Design M103 channel strip with a QSC PLX3500 amplifier. His cabinets are a combination of Aguilars and a special set made by their monitor engineer’s custom cabinet company, Bad Monkey.
While Santana keeps Rietveld busy, the bassist can’t help but have a few side projects. Under the banner of a group called Topaz, he just recorded some fusion music with some old high school buddies he used to play with in Hawaii.
He’s also into production and has been working on an album with a Romanian singer named Teodora. What’s more, Rietveld has been spending time in L.A. with an eye towards the motion picture industry.
A while back, he scored music for the 2007 Alec Baldwin crime drama Brooklyn Rules, and grew to really like the work. Rietveld says he wants to do more of that and is interested in working with some friends to develop TV shows and movies.
“I have so many talented friends,” he says. “We’re always trying to figure out a way we can work together, so we can have fun, because that’s really what it’s all about.”