Bassist Joshua Crumbly grew up around Westlake Village, California and was enthralled by jazz at an early age. With a gifted ear for music, he worked hard, taking piano lessons at age 3 before moving on to electric bass and finally upright bass before he was a ten. His early teachers included lifelong inspirations like Reggie Hamilton as well as legend Al McKibbon (who took over Ray Brown’s seat in Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band and recorded landmark sessions for Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, the All Stars at Newport LP with Coleman Hawkins, and Randy Newman’s classic, 12 Songs). During Crumbly’s freshman year at Juilliard, he was invited to join the Terrence Blanchard Quintet where he formed a friendship with legend Ron Carter. But today, Crumbly has brought his love for melody to the rhythm section for GRAMMY winner (and Sheraton II PRO fan) Leon Bridges whose mix of pop and R&B has made him one of the brightest—and most intriguing—new artists in the Americana scene. The road from jazz to Rhythm & Blues can be short or long, depending on who is driving. But Crumbly—equipped with an Epiphone Jack Casady Bass since last summer-- is bringing a new kind of swing to Bridges’ original and ever-evolving sound.
Thank you for speaking with Epiphone, Joshua and welcome to the House of Stathopoulo. How did you choose the Jack Casady Bass for your work with Leon Bridges?
Kenny Wayne Hollingsworth, who is one of the guitar players in Leon’s band, he talked me the into going guitar shopping and bass shopping with him at various stops along the course of a tour. We were in Chicago at the Chicago Music Exchange. At the time, Leon had two albums out that were very different from one another. I was carrying one bass on the gig and I was looking to get something new to give me specific sounds to tailor a special unique sound for a few of the songs, just to get closer to the record. I came across the Jack Casady Bass in the music store and I kind of fell in love with it. We did a show in Austin in the middle of my first tour with Leon about 6 months ago. Codey from the Epiphone office in Austin graciously gave me a Jack Casady and I used it the very next day. For the rest of the tour it’s been a mainstay. Everyone loved it.
The Jack Casady has been used on a lot of different tours—Paul McCartney, Jack White, the Stone Roses. As someone who learned to play on high quality upright basses, what makes the Jack Casady so versatile for you?
I found that it is a very high quality instrument. And what I’ve been enjoying most about it is kind of testing the limits of the bass--trying to play it on songs that one wouldn’t think to use that bass on. And it hasn’t failed. We did a GRAMMYTM after-party for Leon a few days ago. We played the first set of the night for one of the producers of the album, Nate Mercereau, and his original music is like jazz-fusion. I thought; You know what? I’m going to use the Jack the whole night. So I played it on his set and Leon’s set, too and it was an amazing. It really doesn’t have any limitations that I’ve found. I use it with a pick, my thumb, my fingers. It really does it all.
How has your background influenced the feel of Leon’s rhythm section?
I’ll try to keep this brief (laughs). I come from a jazz background. But I always wanted to play electric bass since maybe the age of 3. My dad is a saxophonist and I would follow him to all of his gigs and sit there with my coloring book. So he suggested I start on the piano because it’s a great musical foundation. I started taking classical piano lessons and then at 9 years old, I said: “Ok I’m ready!”(laughs) and I started playing electric bass. I was learning by ear in the local church that we were attending and then also playing a lot of rock music in the music store for the student concerts that my first teacher would put on. For about a year after that, I was continuing to play both gospel and rock. And then I started doing jazz gigs with my Dad playing standards. And then I met this guy--Reggie Hamilton (whose credits include Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Stanley Clarke)--who took me under his wing and he encouraged me to start playing upright. I was a little reluctant at first but then through his recommendation, I was able to study with Al McKibbon who played with Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. Al was technically my first upright teacher until he passed away--he was about 96.
So then I studied with Reggie for awhile and ended up graduating high school and going to Juilliard and getting to study with Ben Wolfe and Ron Carter. Until two years ago, I was in the jazz world playing with Terrence Blanchard, which was my first touring gig once I moved to New York. I played with Stefan Harris Quintet, Kamasi Washington. All in the jazz world. So what I’ve been able to bring to Leon—and I’m thankful that he allows me to do this from night to night--is bring that sensibility of playing the songs just a little bit different from night to night--kind of going with the flow and bringing a unique vibe to the show every night depending on what someone else plays or reacts to the energy of a crowd. I’m really grateful for Leon for being somebody that is in the R&B/pop world but is not afraid for people to react differently from night to night. He actually feeds off of that. It’s been awesome. The Jack Casady is the kind of bass that bridges all of my prior musical experiences—coming from a lot of upright and the jazz world as well as electric. It’s a bass that does it all. It can encompass everything.
Are you finding that you and Leon are developing a telepathy together—he knows when you’re about to push him forward and you can tell when he’s asking you to take him somewhere?
I do. And it’s funny. I would almost consider him a jazz musician and I didn’t know what to expect coming in. From the very first gig, it was kind of a natural communication where he would feed off of my bass lines and I was sort of trying things. But now it’s kind of a comfortable balance of being able to play melodically within the framework of his songs but also a level of interaction melodically between me and him.
Was there a particular artist that inspired you to tackle upright bass. I’m trying to picture you at the age of 9, taking on this physically big instrument and finding your way. And your teachers, of course, were all fluent in playing both rhythm and horn lines on upright.
(Laughs) That’s true. Before the interview, we were talking about Jimmie Blanton (Ed: Blanton was the pioneering bassist who played with Duke Ellington from 1939-1942 whose horn-like phrasing influenced a generation of bassists including Ray Brown). Blanton is still one of my favorites. He played what sounded like horn lines. “Jack the Bear” is a great example of that. Another guy that opened me up to thinking about those kinds of lines--besides my dad—was Victor Bailey. He exposed me to a lot of horn music like John Coltrane and I transcribed some of that to the bass. I enjoy playing in a jazz-like manner as far as playing lines like a horn player would. I would credit (Miles Davis’) Kind of Blue and Something Else by Cannonball Adderley, too. On those albums, I could hear how the upright had such an amazing sound. When I heard those, I thought, I’m ready to do this!
What are you listening to on the road for inspiration?
I was listening to Ron Carter’s bass line on “Seven Steps to Heaven” (Dear Miles, 2006) the other day--just brushing up on walking in faster tempos. And a lot of Chic, with Bernard Edwards. I’ve been falling in love with his style. Eddie Kendricks, Bill Withers--a lot of different stuff. And some music from Indonesia. I go to Amoeba Records and buy way too many things just to explore. I’m always looking for something new.