Versatile bassist speaks on his musical journey from Austria to NYC
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
July 19, 2021
Coveted as a sideman in both Europe and the United States, George Farmer has been known to put his mastery of the low notes to work for everything from classical symphonies to rock shows and Broadway musicals. The son of famed trumpeter Art Farmer, George grew up in Austria and trained at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Seeking a change of locales in 1997, he relocated to New York City, eventually finding work playing with the “Young Lions of Jazz” ensemble and serving as producer Don Freeman’s musical director. Around the turn of the millennium, Farmer joined jazz great Benny Golson’s band, with whom he toured and helped record The Athens Sessions album. Over the course of his career, he’s also worked with the likes of Natalie Cole, Wolfgang Ambros, and Amel Larrieux. Prior to the pandemic, Farmer played bass in the Broadway production Ain’t Too Proud, based on the story of the Temptations.
FBPO: How’d you become a bass player?
GF: I became a bass player because four strings they’re easier than six!
FBPO: Are they though?
GF: Well, that was the presumption at the time. I was playing in a band, and I did have an electric guitar, but the band needed a bass player. So I borrowed an electric bass from a friend of mine, and that’s how it started.
FBPO: Was that in the US?
GF: No, that was in Vienna.
FBPO: Is that where you spent most of your formative years?
GF: Perhaps. I’m a foreign-born American. I was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, with American citizenship from the get-go. I was there until ’96, so I studied there, I did my high schooling there. I did my … the equivalent of colleges there. Yeah, you could say I spent my formative years in Vienna.
If you take a look at formative years, though, I don’t believe that that ever ends. Case in point, going to any New York club, and seeing someone like Ron Carter, Rufus Reid, Anthony Jackson, whoever, play, try not to be inspired. So yeah, I spent a lot of time, I spent my youth in Vienna. My formative years, I would say no, because I don’t think that that ever finishes.
FBPO: You had a very famous father. I interviewed Mike Merritt recently. His dad, of course, was Jymie Merritt.
FBPO: When Mike was a little guy, his father would have guys like John Coltrane come by the house. Did you have any experiences like that with your dad?
GF: Not really. I did meet some people, but very, very few. The romanticized version of growing up with another musician in the household is that you end up playing, you end up getting into music. I did get into music, but I got into music despite of my parents.
FBPO: What do you mean by that?
GF: They were not really enthusiastic about that. I got into it despite my parents. It was a wish of mine and I followed it through.
FBPO: What prompted you to pick up and come to America?
GF: Work and sound. The music of the States. I grew up in Vienna. Vienna was the center of classical music for a very long time, inasmuch as it is the epitome of what I call European music. American music, jazz, rock, blues… everything that comes out of the African-American history and experience, I call American music, and that’s what I wanted to get into. That is something that’s unique to this country and unique to the people of this country.
FBPO: Were there specific musicians who inspired you?
GF: Not necessarily. I mean, I’m a big fan of (James) Jamerson, obviously. I’m a big fan of Marcus Miller. That’s just electric bass players, although Jamerson played a lot of upright as well. I will always be a fan of Israel Crosby, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, of course. Rufus Reid, players like Charlie Haden, loved his sound, absolutely. Steve Swallow. Anthony Jackson. But then even moreso, outside of the bass players, there was this idea that you can make a living, being a sideman here, and that intrigued me. My understanding was that that is a reality over here. I didn’t see that reality back in Vienna, even though I have to say that I was working full-time in Vienna as a musician and studying. But it was the sound, the sound of New York, which I defined as coming out of the Stuff era, going into the Dave Sanborn, Hideaway era. It was the sound of New York that really caught my attention. That’s really what brought me here.
FBPO: When you say sideman, what kind of work were you hoping to get when you came to New York?
GF: Everything. The way I define sideman is someone who gets called for whatever comes along and the people who call that musician know that they’re going to get a product that works every time. No matter what you throw at the side musician, it’s going to come back in an excellent fashion. Not very good, not good, but excellent. So that’s really what intrigued me and that’s really what I was looking for. And that’s what I heard in these recordings, be it Paul Simon, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” be it Stuff Live in Montreux. Any of the heyday, late ’70s, early ’80s, because that’s my generation. What I heard was enthusiasm for music and enthusiasm for excellence. Coming into any situation, no matter what was called for, and just killing it and then leaving and going to the next one and doing it again. That’s really what intrigued me. I wanted to be a part of that.
FBPO: How did you break into the New York music scene? Did you know a lot of people? Did you have a lot of connections?
GF: No. I knew two musicians. One let me live in his studio apartment for a while, while he wasn’t using it. And the other musician was playing on the street, busking. So when I arrived in ’96, I called that musician up and I started busking with him and with a variety of bands and basically played on the street for a year and-a-half, all the while going to jam sessions, open mics, wherever I could basically meet people. That’s how I started getting my first calls, my first gigs. And some of these relationships are still ongoing. It’s been a long time now. It’s been over 20 years.
FBPO: How did you hook up with Benny Golson?
GF: Benny Golson was the musician who let me use his apartment!
FBPO: How many times have you played “Killer Joe?”
GF: A number of times.
FBPO: I bet it’s a big number!
GF: [Laughs] A number of times, yeah. Yeah, that’s a great song. That bridge is not easy. Benny Golson has a very unique way of writing harmonies and putting harmonies on the melody. Nobody sounds like that. The way he writes is something that you don’t hear right away, and I think that therein lies an incredible art form, really.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
GF: Obviously we’re coming out of the pandemic. During the pandemic, my home recording has taken off. That was surprising to me. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I get calls for recording and that people are kind enough to want me on their tracks, so that has taken off. Ain’t Too Proud is about to start again in October of 2021, and I’m going to be the bass player again. During the pandemic I had to, out of necessity, go back to teaching. I’m going to continue that because I have a number of students now and their motivation inspires me to go further. I am getting gigs again, but obviously it’s not as full of a workload as before the pandemic.
FBPO: What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn bass?
GF: I think it’s important to work on your ear. There are the technical aspects of playing the bass, which means knowing where the notes are on the fingerboard, knowing left- and right-hand coordination. All of that is important. And all of that can be learned by going an academic route using written material or using just your ears and learning stuff from recordings. Nevertheless, I think where the professional musician differs from the amateur musician is the use of their ears and the ability to identify musical content after hearing it one time. That’s really the difficulty. Young students, or older students, it really doesn’t matter where you are in your lifespan as a musician, one thing that we constantly need to do is check our ears and make sure that we are able to identify chords at a moment’s notice, identify the sound of scales, identify melodies, all of that. Our ears are the one sense that we have to get the audio communication in.
FBPO: How about specifically for a bass player? When you identify the chords, the quality of the chords, the movement of the chords, how do you think a bass player should approach those things compared to, say, a horn player or a piano player?
GF: Well, I think for bass players, the difficulty or the uniqueness of the approach lies in the function of the bass in the band. The bass ties harmony, rhythm and melody together, right? And as such, it can be the only instrument that does exactly that. The bass is the only instrument that ties all of the ingredients of what we define as music. There are only three ingredients: rhythm, melody, harmony. That’s it. There’s nothing else. The bass puts all of that together. So, ear training, identifying chords becomes, a necessity if you want to compete in a professional setting, and the quicker you are able to identify certain notes, chords, melodies, the better it is.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
GF: My upright is 120, 130 years old. A Juzek copy from former Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic. Favorite 5-string is my Pensa, originally built by Mas Hino. Now it’s being built by Makoto Noguchi. Makoto is the luthier who’s working now with them. My favorite 4-string is a ’76 jazz bass that I found in a pawn shop in Vienna. It’s the same bass, make, and production that Marcus Miller has. Interestingly enough, I have the same pickup configuration, same everything on both instruments, and that’s Lindy Fralin pickups and a Pensa preamp, and that’s it for me.
FBPO: What about amps?
GF: Amps, I go two ways. On the one hand, I have an Ampeg SVT-4 Pro that, if necessary, I can power two 4X10 speakers. I happen to have old SWR 4X10 speakers, one or both of which used to belong to Stanley Clarke. Through the magic of eBay I got his speakers, so that’s awesome! For smaller venues, I use Aguilar, the TH 500, and one 12-inch speaker cabinet,
FBPO: What kind of strings do you play?
GF: A variety. With all of my equipment I try to be as local as possible. That’s a big thing for me. I try to minimize my carbon footprint. Pensa is a local bass that was put together here. Aguilar is a local company. That amp was made here in New York City. My strings are local, D’Addario and La Bella, both New York companies. I also happen to have one of my prized possessions is a ’63 Precision bass, all original. Same year, make, model that Jamerson played, one of the L series. And of course, I got La Bellas on that one. Aside from my ’63, I also have a ’57 reissue. And now, the most recent edition is actually a 5-string Precision. That’s the one that I’m playing at Ain’t too Proud right now. All of those get strung with La Bellas with the Jamerson set.
FBPO: What kind of pickup do you have on your upright bass?
GF: David Gage. Again, local.
FBPO: The Realist?
GF: The Realist. Yeah, I have both versions of the Realist. I have those two pickups on my upright. In addition to the pickups, they have something called a docking station. It’s a volume knob for your upright. Very often, I get called to gigs where I double, and of course you either have an A/B switch and you turn one line on and the other one off. If that’s not the case, though, you can turn the volume of your upright bass off. And that’s an incredible luxury. So if you switch and you go to electric bass and music is pumping and everything is really loud, the upright bass will immediately start to feedback. With the docking station, you turn all of that off. You bypass all of that.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
GF: I have a second line of income, where I am a real estate developer. I buy real estate. I buy houses. I renovate them and I rent them out.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.
I’ve been a fan of George and George’s Bass Chat since discovering him in Spring 2020. What really intrigued me was that he originated the bass books for Fun Home and Spring Awakening, two musicals I have worked on in regional productions. I have been following George steadily since then. Glad to see him interviewed on the other side of the mic!