Guest Spots: Adam Harrison of the Boxer Rebellion on Latin jazz

The Boxer Rebellion: The Cold StillThe Boxer Rebellion: “Step Out Of The Car” (The Cold Still, Absentee, 2/8/11)

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British rock band The Boxer Rebellion made a splash in the US when it was featured as an unsigned band pursued by a talent scout (“I’m a Mac” Justin Long) in the film Going the Distance. The Cold Still, out in February, is the band’s third full-length, following Exits in 2005 and Union in 2009. We tapped the Rebellion’s bassist, Adam Harrison, to pen a piece explaining the influence of Latin jazz on his musical development.

How Latin Jazz Unlocked the Secrets of the Bass
by Adam Harrison of The Boxer Rebellion

Everybody knows that the bass guitar is the easiest instrument to start from scratch. Like many before me, I had learned guitar and then joined a band that already had a lead guitarist and no bass player. As the “inferior” guitarist (and, in retrospect, the smaller 12-year-old), I filled the role. However, concern at the sudden realisation that I would never be Kurt Cobain soon disappeared when I started playing the bass. I think the deep end perfectly made up for my lack of height, and the more I started to follow the bass players in my favourite bands, the more I realised that they were, in fact, the coolest in the group.

A few years down the road and with many dodgy gigs behind me, I somehow could still not shake the desire to be a successful musician, and on finishing secondary school, I decided that The London Music School would give me the biggest possible chance of future success (somehow my father did not find this to be ridiculous, and off I went).

As a musician up until that point, I had developed a fast technique and a good ear for mimicry; I had been playing mostly covers, and my original bass lines were little more than root notes. I thought I was good until the very first time I heard my new bass teacher, Nico Gomez, play. He defined bass as part of a rhythm section, and the freedom he had whilst playing both melodically and rhythmically made me simultaneously very excited to start learning more and worried that I was nowhere near his level.

Although Nico had been the session guy for many high-profile artists, Björk amongst his biggest, his true passion was Latin jazz and passing on what he knew of it. Latin jazz seemed to be the musical outlet that freed his melodies and his rhythms for use in every other genre that he played, and listening to how he played any bass line made me want that same perspective. Nico also played in one of the best Afro-Cuban jazz bands in the world (Snowboy and The Latin Section), and seeing them perform at London’s Jazz Cafe was one of my most exciting gigs. Suddenly, I was listening to Tito Puente instead of Nirvana on my mini-disk player and loving it.

Over the next months, I learned a great deal about Latin jazz and something strange started to happen: the fretboard of my bass suddenly opened up with opportunity. It sounds odd, but I could suddenly see to the full extent of how I could put together a huge variety of melodies. On the rhythm side, the beat that runs throughout the music is called “clave”; it’s an instantly evocative beat that is a staple of Latin jazz and salsa music, and to me it’s straight rhythm as opposed to traditional jazz’s swung rhythm, which is far more exciting for improvisation.

All in all, I think that my discovery of Latin jazz gave me a completely different perspective on playing. Whilst I don’t overtly use it in the band, it still influences the bass lines I write and hopefully adds something slightly original to what we do. Latin jazz was the catalyst in forming my style, and without it being there, I’d be a very different musician. My biggest lesson was the lesson of perspective; as with many things in life, if you get to know a perspective completely different from your own, many other perspectives make more sense. Latin jazz certainly isn’t the only key to unlocking one’s musical mind, but it was mine.

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