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Project M - September 2008


With the release of their self-titled collaboration, Project M features a non-traditional quartet of bassists including Michael Manring, Jim Stinnett, Rob Gourlay, and Grant Stinnett. Accompanying a 10-track audio CD of original compositions, is a 92-minute DVD, Making Project M, which contains a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process in the studio along with interviews and demonstrations. Individually, each member of Project M has produced their own bass-fronted endeavors. Through his virtuoso technical innovations, Michael has completely redefined the function of the bass guitar as an unaccompanied instrument by merging all of the contemporary bass techniques with his unparalleled utilization of the EBow, harmonics, and altered tunings. Jim, a professor at Berklee College of Music where he has taught bass and arranging since 1986, is considered one of the world's finest bass educators. In addition to the numerous independent publications he has authored for bassists which document his teaching methods, Jim is the founder of the Bass Workout, intense weekend workshops for both electric and acoustic bassists, and the director of the annual New Hampshire Bass Fest. Having compiled a very popular series of transcribed bass lines, Rob is an accomplished educator who recently issued his first recording as a leader. While Grant is the youngest member of this ensemble, his compositions and performance facility reveal a level of sensitivity and depth which extend well beyond his age. As a quartet, Project M explores the expansive spectrum of textures and sonorities accessible on bass guitar in an unconventional format. Employing an assortment of fretted and fretless instruments, Project M has produced a dynamic repertoire of expressive tracks which transcend the traditional bass repertoire.

In this interview, Jim, Michael, Rob, and Grant discuss the making of Project M, their future as a quartet, and more.




What initially ignited the concept of forming Project M?

Project M Jim - When my family and I decided to present the first New Hampshire Bass Fest in 2007, we were very concerned about choosing the right people as guest artists to represent our vision. Michael Manring turned out to be a perfect choice in every way. His high level of musicianship and professionalism were on full display, but what impressed me most about Michael was his interaction with the bass fest attendees. I could see that Michael cared about people. Michael also performed a duet with Grant, playing one of Grant's original compositions. His empathy and support was wonderful to see. Prior to the 2007 bass fest, I was aware of Michael's incredible playing but really had not known Michael, the person. My wife, Jamie, and I decided that we liked Michael's influence on our bass community.

As we invited Michael back for New Hampshire Bass Fest 2008, it made sense to take advantage of his presence and propose a concert so we could share some stage time. I presented the idea of a bass quartet to Michael, and he was immediately excited. Because of logistics and Michael's busy touring schedule, I knew this was going to demand a lot of preparation and work so I started exploring how we could maximize our efforts. The overall vision developed into a concert, CD, DVD, new basses, and gigs. This began an extensive year-long plan consisting of rehearsals, composing, recording audio, recording video, plane flights, hotel reservations, designing basses with d-tuners, artwork, advertising, and coordinating the schedules of four people. Our first rehearsal was in October 2007 at Michael's place in Oakland, California. After this first session, it was obvious to me that Project M would become something very special.

Rob Gourlay has been my good friend for many years now. He was first my student and is now my colleague. Rob and I have taught at the Bass Workouts and performed together extensively. Our performances are always special. Rob's bass playing is nothing short of tremendous. His sensitive ears and touch compliment everyone he plays with. I could think of no one better suited to enhance the synergy of a quartet. Rob always brings a positive energy and life that fills the heart.

The name, Project M, was not an easy choice. I solicited potential names from my family and students. Nothing seemed quite right. Everything we came up with seemed too artsy, too trite, too hard to pronounce, not strong enough, already used, x-rated, boring, too obscure, too technical, too touchy-feeling, or too cutesy. For a while, Grant and I were calling it the Manring project. This eventually morphed into Project M.

What special aspect of their playing was each member able to contribute to this recording?

Jim - This is a great question. It is, however, a difficult question to answer as each player has numerous strengths. First and foremost, each member of Project M has the same priority when making music which is to listen. These guys always place their ego subservient to the music. Perhaps the most special aspect of each member's playing is what they don't play. This intense listening and willingness to not play allows the music to breathe and develop a variety of textures. I also feel that each member's unique background brings a pleasing mix of compositional styles to the music.

Rob is a chameleon. When Rob plays, he creates tremendous synergy. His groove is powerful, but he never overplays. His touch is so beautiful that his playing always sounds personal. He can offer a solo that is in perfect contrast to whatever came before. Rob's fingerpicking on his own composition, "Blessed One," is a beautiful example of Rob's sensitive approach. Contrast this to his kick-ass aggressive rock style soloing on "Lambent Flame," and then hear his solid, understated latin bass line on "En Chinga." The most special aspect of Rob's playing is that you can feel his love for music. Rob's value is tremendous in a group like Project M. He shines in doing whatever is needed.

Grant plays with deep empathy for his fellow musicians. Grant has mastered the use of dynamics to help convey his feelings. He has discovered the joy in playing the role of accompanist and displays a mature subtleness. Grant also adds spice to songs like "Lambent Flame" with powerful sweeping riffs. Grant has a great ear and can double anything he hears. A shining aspect of Grant's contribution to Project M is his compositions. From his catchy slap groove on "Money Talks" to his beautiful chords on "Companion's Journey," Grant's music is powerful and memorable.

Michael has so many special qualities it is truly amazing. He played beautiful EBow on a number of tracks. Every one of his solos is scintillating. He laid down some funky solid grooves. Michael blew us all away with his gorgeous melodic interpretations. His single line phrasing is nonpareil among bassists. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Michael's huge contribution to Project M was his professionalism. Michael met us at our level which is far below his. He allowed our abilities to shine and complimented our efforts. When given the opportunity, Michael elevated the music far beyond our expectations. He played every note as though it was his last. He truly made us sound and feel good by his presence. That is a special talent in a person, and he was such a pleasure to work with.

Did you, Michael, Jim, and Grant ever play together as a quartet before recording this project?

Rob - Jim and I have played together extensively over the past several years and, more recently, a lot with Grant, but the four of us hadn't played together until our first rehearsal session at Michael's place in Oakland. I thought of it as kind of a Lewis and Clark expedition to see how things might work with the four basses and to get an idea of what the possibilities might be. It was immediately obvious that this was going to be both amazing and fun. There's a great chemistry in the group and for me that begins with the friendships. These are just great guys to be around long before the music starts.

Since everyone composed music specifically for this recording, how did you write material given that three of you live in New Hampshire while Michael lives across the country in the Bay Area?

Michael - I thought about the kinds of sounds I'd like to hear the four of us create. I wanted to come up with music that would reflect our common experience and offer us an opportunity to stretch our skills. I wasn't exactly sure who should play which part in the music I wrote, but I tried to come up with tunes that I thought could be realized on just basses alone.

Rob - I had some basic ideas before we got together, but after our first playing session, it became really clear to me how to develop those seeds of ideas for the group. I used my loop pedal to work out the multiple parts on each of the tunes and found it to be an incredibly useful tool for writing.

Grant - The distance did create a bit of a challenge when it came to writing and arranging the music. I already knew that Rob would be able to learn any kind of melody or fast line I could create because I have seen his ability to transcribe and learn melodies by ear. I could also anticipate the solid time and experienced flavor my dad would bring to any song, but for a long time, Michael was an unknown factor to me. I couldn't really write a whole song without knowing what he could do in the studio. I was stumped so I went to California, hung out, played with, and learned from Michael on two separate occasions. After these trips, I learned that Michael could do anything I could think of. This made it very easy to write parts for him. I would just think of what I wish I could do and then tell him to do it! It's fun to write music for a group of guys who play better than I do. When writing "Money Talks," I wasn't thinking about the other players or who would play what parts. This song just, kind of, fell into place. After I came up with the main groove and recorded it, my dad had an idea for a melody. Later, when we were all in the studio, we had Rob double the melody while Michael added a cool rhythmic chord part. "Money Talks" was probably the easiest tune to record. "Grok" was written by both Michael and I. On my second trip to Michael's house, I asked him to help me write a song. I already had the opening chords down so he took my idea to a whole new level and started re-tuning his bass to drop D. He then sat silent, staring off into space. After about thirty seconds he said, almost to himself, "yeah, I think that should work." What I heard him play next was absolutely amazing. He took the same chords I wrote and started playing them using harmonics and open strings. This made it sound like three different bassists playing at once. That is what you can now hear on the CD. Later, I spent hours listening to what we had recorded, trying to learn how to play Michael's part.

Were most of the compositions arranged during pre-production or were they primarily improvised in the studio?

Project M Jim - Virtually all of the music was specifically arranged prior to going into the studio. I knew if I left the arranging of all the songs until studio time, they would end up somewhat the same flavor. I wanted to avoid the "jam session sound." I also wanted to make sure we had plenty of time in the studio for the four of us to get comfortable with the music and take a few left turns. Grant and I did quite a bit of arranging and recording months prior to the two days with all four of us at the studio. We would go into the studio to test sounds and textures. We would lay down multiple parts and then send roughs to Michael and Rob. We also had two very good quartet rehearsals, one rehearsal on the West Coast and one on the East Coast.

The only song that was completely composed in the studio was "Piscatorial Dreams." I had the sound in my head and asked Michael to help me with a tuning matrix so the four basses could detune and still sound tonal. I setup a predetermined group-flipping rhythm, described the form, and gave a few textural suggestions. Jon Chase added the midi drum kit, and we did it in one take.

How was it decided who would play which parts?

Jim - This was a major issue that I struggled with for some time alone in my mind. Of course, I wanted everyone to have equal input into the creative process, tune choices, arrangement form, who plays the melody, who solos, and so forth. I also knew that anything with more than one head is a monster. At some point, someone would have to be the decision maker. Initially, I was thinking maybe we could share leadership duties from tune to tune, but the more I thought about it, the more this seemed cumbersome. Because of my daily life as a teacher, I constantly take charge of musical environments. I was scared to do this with Project M because I did not want to appoint myself leader and inhibit any creative ideas or concepts. Besides, these guys all play better than me so who am I to dictate when they should play a particular part?

Michael, Grant, and Rob all have a very similar personality trait. They always put others first. They will normally defer any decisions to the "group's choice" in an effort to allow someone other than themselves to have the spotlight. After our second rehearsal, I realized that I would need to take the lead to make decisions that would solidify our arrangements. I knew from working with Grant and Rob for years that they would follow my lead with pleasure, but I was afraid to direct Michael. I remember mustering up the courage and saying to Michael, "I am going to need to tell you what to do." That was a big step for me. Michael, the consummate professional that he is, allowed me to take the reins.

From there, it was easy. I heard most of the songs in my head with very specific players and specific basses. Many of the arranging choices and compositional choices were made to fit each player's unique talents. Michael and Rob had sent me rough versions of their songs, and it was easy to envision the combination of sounds that would work with their music. Can you appreciate my position of luxury? I was the arranging king for a day! I could listen to a simple melody and imagine to myself, "what would this sound like with Michael playing his EBow?" I would also think, "let's try it now with Rob playing the melody on his Rob Allen bass and Michael doing an EBow single guide tone line." Or, "how about one more version with myself playing the melody very straight while Grant fingerpicks beautiful chords, Rob quietly doubles the melody an octave lower, and Michael only plays the solos?" I still have a few alternate takes of these tunes hanging around in my head. Occasionally, when I was not absolutely sure of what I was hearing in my head, I would simply ask for suggestions from the other guys.

Grant and I had recorded the entire songs "Money Talks," "Companion's Journey," "Lambent Flame," and "Mr. Gordon," playing all of the parts ourselves. We then took out the parts Rob was to play and had him overdub his own hipper version. We added Michael playing solos, doubling melodies, adding countermelody, or some extra little thing that only Michael can do. This process was very effective as we could focus on a specific part of the tune or a specific bass sound without the other guys sitting, holding their instruments, and not playing. I had already spent the time, in prior sessions, getting some of my challenging parts recorded because it can be very tense trying to play a difficult passage while everyone else is watching.

Most of the other songs were arranged in the studio. Everyone had practiced all the parts of each tune ahead of time so we were well prepared to play the melody, harmony, chords, solo, accompaniment, percussion, or whatever was needed to create the texture and sound we wanted. I had very clear concepts and sounds in my mind so we simply plugged in the players and listened to the result. Most of the tunes were done very quickly and easily. We had two very full days to rehearse, record, listen, rearrange, and record again. The secret to the success of our recording was selflessness.

How did you record Project M?

Jim - All of us plugged our basses directly into the board. I am not a big fan of recording equipment. If your bass sounds good, don't clutter it up. We all have a few tremendous instruments. The quartet recorded for two consecutive days consisting of about seven to eight hours each day. Grant and I recorded five times in the six months prior. We did three to four hours at each of these sessions. I can't begin to express how beneficial our pre-planning and recording turned out to be. Not only did it save time when all four players were together, but it also allowed us to change the pace during the two days of full band recording.

From an engineering perspective, was it difficult to record a quartet of low frequency instruments while so many different techniques and dynamic ranges were utilized in each of the compositions?

Jim - No, it was not difficult. Using good sounding basses with no EQ or effects when recording kept the sonic space clean. Playing the instrument with dynamics was a must, and understanding that not all four voices needed to be heard equally all the time allowed the music to breathe.

Every once in a while, we would record a track and then record it again using a different bass to create a better balance of timber and texture. Here's an example using "En Chinga." I played the melody on a Rob Allen fretted bass using nylon strings with a high C-string. Grant played the melody in unison with his Stambaugh Turtle bass using steel strings which was also strung with a high C-string. That bass has a very pointed but dark sound. Much of the melody was played on the C-string. Rob played the bass line on his fretted Rob Allen bass with nylon strings. Michael provided rhythmic comping on his fretted, headless Zon bass. For the first solo, Rob played a Fodera with a very clear and bright sound. During the second solo, Michael played his Zon Hyperbass Junior. On the outhead, Michael doubled the melody two octaves higher on his Zon Hyperbass. This song would sound drastically different if, for example, we all played fretted basses using steel strings, fretless basses, or we all played in the same register of the instrument.

An important factor contributing to the clarity of the combined sound of four basses is the fact that there was very little effects and no EQ added to the mix. On some lines, you will hear a bit of reverb or perhaps an even smaller amount of chorus. I believe EQ was used on only one solo to make it stand out more. No song is painted with a big brush of effects. I spent too many years enjoying the unmixed versions of my recordings better than the final mixes on the record.

Left-to-right positioning of each line in the sonic spectrum was vital. Because of multiple overdubs with different basses, some songs required careful panning changes from one section to another section. This panning placement was determined by just using common sense.

Is there one particular track that exemplifies what Project M is all about?

Rob - "En Chinga" is the track that comes to mind for me. It was a great tune of Michael's that has some challenging sections in it and is great fun to play. We all play parts of the melody at different times and switch roles throughout the performance. Changing roles is something that came to be kind of a Project M trademark. It's also a tune that pushes the boundaries and takes us into some uncharted territory which is something I really enjoy about the group.

As someone who has been involved with numerous bass-centric recordings in the past, what has been your favorite part of playing with Project M?

Michael - The important thing about any project for me is the people involved and this one has been great because this is such a warm, caring, and dedicated bunch of guys. Lately, I've very much enjoyed listening to music from the perspective that a performance always reflects the true nature and soul of the musician. When I listen to these guys play, I hear the friendships, the father/son legacy, the love of the instrument, and the drive for excellence.

Can you tell us about those unique Stambaugh basses you utilized on the recording and the Making Project M DVD?

Project M Jim - After hearing and seeing Michael play, close up, at New Hampshire Bass Fest 2007, Grant and I both kept talking about how much we liked the sounds of his detuning. Grant had already begun using alternate tunings a year earlier after hearing Michael's CD, Soliloquy. Just prior to the 2007 bass fest, Chris Stambaugh made our first bass, "The Shark," for my daughter Sarah using our new ergonomic design. I borrowed the instrument and played it at the bass fest, and in the following weeks, Grant also played the bass. We were both very taken by the feel and ease of playing this instrument. Part of our vision of Project M was to hang with Michael and try to learn a bit about alternate tunings. We needed basses with d-tuners and realized what a tremendous opportunity had been presented to us. We decided to have Stambaugh make shark shape basses with d-tuners on all the strings. Any bass Stambaugh makes is a beautiful piece of art that plays like a dream, but the Sea Turtle and the Salmon basses are fantasies realized! We kept telling Chris what sound we were hearing and how we wanted our basses to feel. He turned those ideas into great instruments. Both of our basses have very small headstocks, shark shape bodies, and tails which house the tuners at the bottom end of the body. We are very fortunate to have a stable of great instruments, but our Stambaugh's are our main axes. While my Trout and Grant's G$ model were not designed specifically for Project M, they are both played extensively on the recording.

Grant - The basses that I used on Project M are definitely abnormal. The first of the two Stambaugh basses is a straight-ahead 4-string, built specifically for slapping and other rhythmic techniques. This bass has a mahogany body, an ash neck, and a walnut top. The other Stambaugh is a 5-string with a high C-string and five d-tuners. This bass is known as the Sea Turtle bass because it has a beautiful inlay of a sea turtle on the body. The unique shape and design of the body allows for a very comfortable feel when sitting or standing. The tuners for the A, D, G, and C strings are all on the tail end. We decided to place the tuner for the E-string on the headstock so that the tail end wouldn't get too long.

What have you devoted the most time to studying in order to attain the performance level you have achieved over a relatively short span of time, and how has your dad influenced your playing?

Grant - My dad has been my only teacher for all of my musical career. His method of teaching begins with the ear. Because I learned so much using my ear, I've been able to learn things much more quickly than if I had learned from written music or a theoretical base. Learning theory and reading have all been made easier because of the ability to use my ear and play well.

When I was twelve years old, my father decided to host his own bass boot camp, calling it "The Bass Workout." He scheduled three days of intense learning, practicing, playing, and performing. About eight students showed up and worked diligently during the three-day weekend. At the end, it was such a success, and we decided we couldn't stop. We had to do more of them. We continued and expanded them to the point that there were four or five every year by the time I was fifteen. The positive students and incredible faculty created a feeling of belonging and fellowship, but I could only join during their breaks. When I told my dad that I wanted to join in, he said, "why don't you?" At that point, I started practicing the bass. Bass Workouts have been motivational boosters for as long as I've been playing, and they have accelerated my musical growth dramatically. I have now attended over 25 workouts and am becoming part of the faculty.

What was it like working with three professional bassists who have so much experience?

Grant - It was so much fun to work with these consummate professionals because any time I had an idea, one of them would be able to make it work. There had to be over a hundred years of collective knowledge in one room any time they were all together. That fact alone would overwhelm anyone easily, but Michael, Rob, and my father can all make you feel comfortable and welcome. It wasn't until after the project was over that I wondered how many times I had showed my lack of experience and understanding by asking dumb questions.

Rob can always make you feel at home with his incredible sense of humor. Michael will listen to you and give you the same respect he would give anyone, even if your opinion comes from four years of experience instead of forty, and my father disarms with honesty and a sense of what is right and fair. These are some amazing musicians and people to be around.

Where should people be directed to purchase this recording?

Jim - The Project M CD/DVD package is available for purchase through our web site, ProjectMBassQuartet.com, and you can also find it on Amazon.com.

Will you be doing any shows as a quartet to promote this project?

Jim - Yes. We will be performing in the New England area February 16-19, 2009. The details are being worked out so please visit our web site for specific locations and times. Tom Arey on drums and guitarist Everett Pendleton will be joining us for these shows.

Now that you have produced your debut as a quartet, do you expect to release further recordings as Project M?

Jim - I hope so. This type of endeavor is a ton of work and expensive to produce but worth it. At the moment, I am still enjoying basking in the satisfaction of completing this one. I haven't grown tired of this music yet so perhaps down the road we will look into the possibility of releasing another recording.

In addition to Project M, what other endeavors are you currently working on?

Project M Jim - I just finished the very long process of authoring "Jazz Bass" for BerkleeMusic Online. The new 12-week online course starts this fall, and it promises to be very popular. I am also deep into the process of co-writing and producing Fishing For Grips - Melodic Harmonization For Bass Guitar. This is Todd Johnson's new book and DVD which introduces his methodology for learning to play his incredible jazz style. Todd and I will also record a CD featuring his beautiful grips. Joe Hunt and Dino Govoni will join us on this recording. Grant and I have just started organizing material for his first educational offering, Tapestry. This will be a multimedia presentation on the tapping style for electric bass. Grant will demonstrate, teach, and share insights into his compositional ideas. After the first of the year, I will also begin to complete a book I started in 1986, Fundamental Technique For Electric Bass.

Michael - I play in a group with the great fingerstyle guitarist Alex de Grassi and percussionist Chris Garcia, who is a member of the Grandmothers Zappa alum band. We recently released our first recording which is called DeMania. I've also been collecting a lot of video footage for a DVD release, but I've got so much now that it may have to be two! As usual, I've been doing a ton of touring and sessions and trying to find time to record my solo music!

Rob - I just released my first solo recording titled Let's Do It which features my great friend and amazing guitarist Tim Theriault along with the incredible Dave DiCenso and my brother Gord on drums. I'm also working on a new book/recording set called The Chord Tone Cookbook.

Grant - At this time, I am expanding my performance resume to include solo work, clinics, and recording dates. In the coming year, I will also be publishing a book on two-handed tapping called Tapestry. My solo CD will be released by the end of 2009. This CD will include music in the style of Michael Manring, Victor Wooten, Todd Johnson, and Marcus Miller. I will be releasing instructional videos, online lessons, and all sorts of other fun bassistic creations this coming year.



Selected Discography

Project M
Recordings
Project M


Contact

For more information on Project M, visit: ProjectMBassQuartet.com.



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