One might say Bebop jazz has recently found a very unlikely home in the mandolin. Through the frets and apt fingers of Vermonter Will Patton, this is especially true, the experienced jazzer has plead a most convincing case that the blistering, harmonically fluid style of music makes sense, even on a “folk” instrument built four decades before the inception of the genre.
“General” Patton’s signature sound vintage Gibson A mandolin not only reincarnates the souls of Dizzy, ‘Trane, and Bud Powell, it croons marvelously throughout his now decade-long discography with other eclectic styles like South American Choro, and the sweet Gypsy sounds of Django Reinhardt and his Manouche kin. On the verge of releasing his fifth CD, the master has established himself as one of a handful of jazz mandolin global titans.
We took some time to pick the brain of this most innovative of musicians, one who started his professional career on the bass, and you might quip, worked his way up (register-wise) to the mandolin. We appreciate the way Will has innovated the mandolin, pulling (and picking) it in an exciting new and unconventional direction.
— Ted Eschliman
Writer/Music Industry Consultant
Ted Eschliman: You started your musical career as a bassist. Was this any kind of physical barrier, going from such a large instrument to the smaller frets, or how was the instrument helpful in understanding the mandolin early on?
Will Patton: Actually, about half my gigs are still on bass, both string bass and electric. I’ve always thought that “bass player logic” is a great way to understand tune progressions, the architecture of the harmony. I was very lucky to get to play for 20+ years as a bassist with some very soulful and accomplished older jazz musicians who never opened a book on stage but knew 1000 tunes. I assimilated lots of standards that way.
For some reason the difference in scale length and fourths vs fifths tuning isn’t a problem. They just feel so different.
Ted Eschliman: Along these same lines, how do you approach the “limitations” of 3- and 4-note chord voicings on the mandolin in a genre known for insanely complex chord extensions, and does your experience with the bass help in creating these voicings?
Will Patton: My experience having a great bassist in my group helps a lot. If he has the roots, I can play the glory notes, 7ths and up. Context is everything of course, and one of the advantages of playing with the same folks for years is knowing where they’re headed harmonically and trusting they hear your direction and provide support. Most of my chord study was worked out on piano in years gone by.
Ted Eschliman: You run counter to the stereotypical MAS afflicted mandolinist in that most of your music is recorded and performed on one instrument, a sweet, vintage Gibson A. What are the playing characteristics and tonal qualities of that instrument that make it so universally appealing to you and audience in the music you play?
Will Patton: Oh, I’ve got the MAS syndrome, just not the bank balance! I do keep returning to the Gibson A for that full woody sound, but I’ve also been playing a nice JBouvier that has a radiused neck and sometimes feel some limitations on the old A. I’ve been fortunate to play a few of Joe Campanella Cleary’s instruments of late and am trying to convince one to follow me home.
Ted Eschliman: You recorded with an Old Wave guitar-body octave mandolin in recent years. How do you use this voice of this instrument and what do you consider its potential contribution to a jazz ensemble? Any other mandolin family instruments?
Will Patton: I’ve been using both a ’30 National Steel tenor guitar and a lovely new tenor made by Adam Buchwald when he was at Vermont Instruments. The new tenor provided the inspiration for two tunes on my new CD. Both these tenors and the octave mandolin provide a somewhat fuller sound for comping in an ensemble setting, but certain voicings are a bit of a challenge with the longer scale, and some rootless voicings can sound muddy. I’ve been playing a fair bit of Irish music lately and the tenor is great for that sort of modal John Doyle style rhythm. I’m experimenting with some open string voicings to try to suggest that DADGAD sound. As far as jazz, I can make it work with swing but not so much for more bebop stuff.
Will Patton with Ninine Garcia
Will Patton in the studio rehearsing the tune Caporal Swing with French guitarist Ninine Garcia, a regular performer at La Chope des Puces, a small bar in Northern Paris famous for hosting gypsy jazz performances….Read More From The Mandolin Cafe