New York-based doubler shares career highlights with some solid advice for musicians!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 14, 2020
Photo: Seymour Pond
Tony Cimorosi has been a mainstay on the New York music scene for over 30 years. Cimorosi attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music before attaining a master’s degree in music composition from Purchase College, State University of New York. A former student of John Neves, Charlie Banacus, Stanley Clarke, Buster Williams, Eddie Gomez, and Lisle Atkinson, Tony has performed and/or recorded with Randy Brecker, Babatunde Olatunji, Carmen Lundy, Michal Urbaniak, and many others. Tony’s latest release, Change At West 4th Street, co-led by drummer Koko Bermejo, features saxophonist Alex Foster, Rob Aries, and Saundra Silliman.
FBPO: Where are you from originally?
TC: I grew up in Delaware. New Castle, Delaware.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing? How did you become a bass player?
TC: I started playing piano when I was 6. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when I was 12. They didn’t have a piano player, so my father went out to a pawn shop a couple of days later and bought me a Kay acoustic guitar. I found it easy to translate what I heard on the piano and what I heard on the records to the guitar, so I kind of put it to the guitar. Then when I was 15, I got an offer to play in a soul band, but I had to play bass.
FBPO: It sounds like you were a little reluctant.
TC: Yeah, well. Hey, listen, you’re playing gigs and you’re making money, and all the rest of my friends are working at McDonald’s. You know?
FBPO: There you go. So, once you became a bass player, did you have any bass influences, bass heroes? Who got your attention?
TC: Of course, back then they didn’t put the names on the Motown records, so, James Jamerson, obviously, but I didn’t know that was him because they didn’t have a name on the record.
TC: But he was a big influence. Coming from closer to the Philadelphia sound and all that kind of stuff, I was listening to those guys, and they didn’t tell you who they were either. So the first major influence that I knew of was Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers, and that Live at the Fillmore record, which I still have and it still has all the scratches in it from lifting up the needle and putting it back on and learning all those lines on “Whipping Post” and “Elizabeth Reed.”
FBPO: You went to Berklee, right?
TC: Well, I was at Berklee for a couple semesters and then I went to a school in Boston called The Contemporary School of Music, where I finished up. Then I did my master’s at Purchase. My master’s is composition at Purchase, State University in New York. The first guys that I really knew were my roommates, Casey Scheuerell, great drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith. We played a trio, trio jazz, playing standards and stuff. Casey and I were roommates, so a lot of the guys would just come over. Neil Stubenhaus, Tim Landers, all those guys were up there with me. That’s how I met Vinnie. And then we did a few gigs together down at Cape Cod. And then we did Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Island, and that kind of stuff. And they were some very educational times for me. I got more out of playing with those guys. It’s like most people do, Jon, you’re on the bandstand learning, and that kind of thing.
FBPO: Were you playing electric the whole time? When did you pick up the upright?
TC: At Berklee, I studied with John Neves, and he was an acoustic bass teacher. And that’s what I had. I had an acoustic bass around since about ’72. I was playing in a prog rock band that was doing Yes and King Crimson and Gentle Giant and original material. And we were doing a whole David Bowie set. We did the “Ground Control to Major Tom,” the “Space Oddity” thing and all that. When we got to the certain sections, the guys would say, “Hey, man, how about if you play with a bow on that?” So that’s why I started really playing the acoustic bass. But I put it off and put it down because I didn’t really have one that sounded any good, and I didn’t know how to make it sound good, so I stuck with the electric bass. Then I got an offer to play acoustic bass with some guys. And that was about ’76, ’77. I was still studying with Charlie Banacos at that time, so I got more into the acoustic bass, and that’s where it went. I really didn’t mess with it after that John Neves passed away. And at that time, they wanted $10,000 for his bass. And back then, who had that kind … I didn’t have that kind of money. So I put my focus in on writing tunes and playing the Fender bass.
FBPO: How did you learn the upright? Did you do it in the traditional manner with Simandl, and going through those methods?
TC: I had the Simandl book, but I really just played it and put together my own technique, my own fingerings, very unorthodox, and it really got me through. Then I put it down for a while because I started playing 6-string bass. Abe Rivera made me a 6-string bass and I put a lot of energy into that while I was playing with (Michal) Urbaniak and a couple of the other guys in town, New York, and I had an opportunity to play, so I played the 6-string. Ned Steinberger came to the Bottom Line and at that time, Michal was playing one of his violins and Ned gave me one of his Steinberger basses. He brought me one of his 5-string Steinberger basses. I really didn’t need it, so about a couple weeks later I sent it back to him. He said, “Why did you send it back?” And I said, “Well, because I couldn’t find the tuning pegs,” you know? [Laughs] I wasn’t one of those cats who would keep the bass and sell it, that kind of thing, so I gave it back to him. Then to move forward a little bit, in 1999, I took one of my students down to David Gage’s, one of my upright guys.
FBPO: Yeah, David’s great.
TC: And I saw the NS electric upright bass and I put my hand on it and I said, “Holy Cannoli, man!” I mean this thing growls like a mountain lion! So I went home and I called Ned and I said, “Ned, man, I just played one of your basses down at David’s and I love it and I’d love to have one.” He said, “Well, we’d love to have you on our advisory board” with Tony Levin, Rob Wasserman, and I think there was another guy too. He says, “How about if I just send you one down?” He sent me one down in ’99 and I’ve had it ever since. That was a great bass.
FBPO: Tell me about the rest of your gear.
TC: Well, I definitely still endorse Ned’s bass. I endorsed La Bella strings, Richard Cocco, and really, really loved them. I don’t really change strings so much now, but I used those. I use the D’Addario’s on my acoustic bass, but what I do, Jon, is I get the concerto tuning strings, so F sharp, B.
FBPO: Solo tuning.
TC: Yeah. Then on my Fender bass, I think I still have the La Bella steel strings on that, and I really don’t change them so much. I endorse the Phil Jones. Phil Jones makes a great bass amp.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
TC: Well, the record Change at West 4th Street. Those tunes are kind of difficult to play, so I get together with a couple different bands and I’m playing those and I’m doing another trio record with a great piano player named Bob Himmelberger and (drummer) Koko Bermejo. There’s a lot in that area (West 4th Street), because there’s a sad part of it and a happy part of it. The happy part of it is that the Blue Note’s right around the corner, and the clubs that I used to play a lot. I lived in the Village, so I was down there a lot. And there’s that basketball court. That’s where Jaco used to hang out.
FBPO: As soon as you mentioned the basketball court, I immediately thought of Jaco. I know exactly where you mean!
TC: Yeah. So Change of West 4th Street has a lot of hidden meaning to it and a guy like yourself would know the rest of that story, the happy parts of it and the sad parts of it.
FBPO: What about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
TC: Well, just keep on sheddin’. I’m working on some classical pieces, the Bottesini concerto in B minor, I work on that. I always work on, like I’m sure yourself too, the Bach suites. And I’ve got to tell you, I love John’s book, Patitucci’s book. I use that and working on those, arco and pizzicato. I think that they’re an excellent study, beautiful, very melodic studies. Music is a listening art, so with music, hearing is knowledge. I always tell students, I say, “Listen, instead of opening up the Real Book and learning a tune, go listen to the tune and use your ears as much as possible.” When I was studying with Eddie Gomez, I said to him, “So, Eddie, what do you think would help me out and keep on getting better?” He rested and he thought for a second. He looked at me, he said, “Learn a tune a day.” That was pretty heavy, you know?
TC: Try doing it.
FBPO: What other advice could you impart to our students here at For Bass Players Only, or to anyone who wants to learn bass? What do you think is important for them to know?
TC: Well, I was a student of Charlie Banacos for a couple years. You know who he is, I’m sure.
TC: I think that his concept of learning jazz improvisation is paramount. Jon, do I have to tell you that the bass player has to have the best ears in the band?
FBPO: You don’t have to tell me!
TC: So that’s what I would say. Just always work on listening and responding to the music. Being able to respond, that’s what really makes a great bass player. I know probably thousands of tunes, lots of standards and stuff like that, so usually when I go on a gig and I’m playing a jazz trio or something with guys, I never really take music. I just go on the gig. I know a lot of tunes. If I don’t know the tune, because of my piano experience, I’ll say, “Hey, why don’t you just kind of play through it a little bit and I’ll listen to you?” Usually I get it the first time and then take it from there. Just kind of ride with it and use all my skills. I would say that really just always work on your technique, work on learning tunes and always try to respond to what you’re hearing.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
TC: I love history, so I would say I’d probably be a history professor. I thought mathematics was going to be good, but my older brother is a math and physics professor and he kind of made me feel that I better not mess with that stuff. [Laughs]
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview, here.
Change At West 4th Street is available here.