In our fourth “Featured transcriber” interview, we chat for the first time with a bassist. Marco Zammuto of Palermo, Italy has been wowing the Soundslice team with his detailed jazz transcriptions that feature the greats of not just jazz bass, but many other instruments. (Vocalists, guitarists, winds, etc.)
What’s particularly enjoyable about checking out Marco’s transcriptions, is that he often records himself playing them. We wanted to find out more about his dedicated process, and the mysterious claim that his channel bio makes: That he’s also a classical musician.
Soundslice: Marco, thank you for being the first bassist in our “Featured transcriber” series. It’s nice to get some commentary from the low end!
Marco: Thanks for having me! It’s been a pleasure for me to take part in your community.
Soundslice: Before we get into your background, something we love about the transcriptions you share on your channel is that you actually perform many of them. What motivates you to spend the extra time doing that?
Marco: Well, I’ve always transcribed music. I think it is the fastest and most practical method to learning a musical language. You improve your ears, you create a routine of active music listening and you also begin to understand why certain things are played certain ways.
My [performance] videos show the mere execution of a solo, but behind them, I study the harmonic analysis carefully. I break the solo into small parts which I learn from. It’s how I enrich my vocabulary.
Soundslice: Ah, so there’s even more work going on that what we see. How long does it take you to learn and break down a solo that way?
Marco: It depends on the length and complexity of the solo. If I’ve transcribed the musician many times before, I have a familiarity with their vocabulary and my transcribing and breakdown speed increases. The process is typically: I learn it by ear, notate it and then compare it with the track.
I usually post a [transcription] video once a week. Sometimes I have to archive it for later study. (To keep up with the 1-per-week rate.) Many times I‘ll focus on just one or two harmonic concepts to practice in twelve keys and with rhythmic variations.
Soundslice: That’s a very dedicated process! Some of your transcriptions are by musicians that don't play bass. (E.g., Ella Fitzgerald, Clifford Brown, Biréli, etc.) It’s fantastic to see you execute them so well on a completely different, and much bigger instrument. What are some of the challenges you find in playing other instrumentalist’s lines on the bass?
Marco: The biggest challenge is to make every execution musical and fluid. When it comes to working out the technical, it’s just a matter of a study routine. But the real difficulty is making everything sound melodic. The sound emission from a bass is much different than other instruments, but it’s still possible to mimic them. In ancient times, stringed instruments were invented to imitate the human voice and wind instruments, so, it can be done. I ask myself, “How does a double bass have to articulate sound like a trumpet?” I have to listen a lot to pick up on these things.
Soundslice: The listening shows. What’s your primary motivation for sharing these transcriptions on your channel? (For yourself, for others, something else…?)
Marco: A few reasons. The first is that I think it’s right to share music, points of view and experiences. I was lucky enough to study in a very open academic environment right from the start. I was used to not being protective of my musical discoveries. I’d share without borders.
Another reason is for self-evaluation. Looking back on these published transcription videos lets me see things that have yet to improve. It’s is also an excellent system for learning many things that have nothing to do with bass playing! I am referring to placing microphones, working with a video camera, DAW, video editing, social media strategies. Following a format helps to self-evaluate, reduce the time in the various steps, and compare with colleagues on the web.
Soundslice: That sounds like a fortunate environment to come up learning music. And I’m so glad you mentioned the practice of music-related things! That’s so true.
Backing up a bit now, would you tell us about where you’re from?
Marco: I’m from a small town in the south of Sicily, but now I live in Palermo, the capital city of Sicily.
Soundslice: Ah, our friend Michael Valeanu has a composition inspired by Palermo. What’s the music scene like there?
Marco: There is a solid jazz and music scene. In my opinion, Palermo is a beautiful city to be a bass player because there are so many different little worlds to play in. I’m lucky to work in big bands, mainstream groups, modern and gypsy jazz combos, symphonic and baroque ensembles, a world music band…
Soundslice: Sounds fantastic.
Marco: Yes, and all those differences between the different music worlds keep your brain fresh! It can give you the motivation to expand your knowledge, meet different players and see music with a different point of view.
Soundslice: Speaking of points of view, you have all these wonderful jazz transcriptions, yet your profile mentions that you’re a classically-trained bassist. Could you talk about your classical music background?
Marco: When I started to study double bass in conservatory, I was undecided about which musical world to choose: classical or jazz. I didn’t want to pick one, as a teacher had recommended. I wanted to learn both. I was drawn to the tradition of classical music, but also had an attachment to the electric bass (my first instrument). So I auditioned for both programs at the conservatory.
Soundslice: You started on electric. Were you already learning jazz?
Marco: On no. Jazz came later. When I was fifteen, I was in a recording studio with a death metal band to record a demo. I was warming up on my fretless bass, and at one point, the sound engineer gave me a record to listen to. It was Jaco Pastorius and I was blown away.
Soundslice: I wonder if that sound engineer has any idea what they’ve done. So what happened with the conservatory auditions?
I ultimately was admitted to both programs and decided to go for both. (Took it as destiny.) The first years were very hard: Each path had equivalent coursework, which meant double the effort. Bass lessons for both, piano lessons for both, music history for both. The list goes on. At one point toward the beginning, I was about to drop the classical degree. The instrument can be very stressful, and I was burdened by the differences in language with jazz. Still, I decided that I could not give up such a beautiful thing. I started to wake up very early to dedicate more time to classical music and to reach more and more distant goals.
Soundslice: What dedication! Do you find that you have different practice routines when working on classical vs. jazz?
Marco: Yes, and I’ve experimented with different routines over the years. These days, my classical routine is:
- Bow exercises. (Open strings, scales, arpeggios and arco strokes.)
- Concert studies (Caimmi, Mengoli, Capricci di Billè).
- Concert repertoire and listening. (I like to listen to one performer for a long periods of time. Lately it’s Marcos Machado and Giuseppe Ettorre.)
For jazz, the routine is:
- Warm up with a standard.
- Work on a specific concept over a medium-range time period (e.g., analyzing walking lines from original recordings, harmonic substitutions, rhythmical pedals, clichés, etc.
Soundslice: Again, what dedication! Do you practice all these topics for an equal amount of time?
Marco: No. The time depends on how new the topic is to me (more time for a newer topic), or say if I have a deadline to prepare repertoire. There is also personal desire. If I’m particularly inspired by something, I’ll spend more time.
Soundslice: You’ve got to learn the material by concert time, there’s no getting around that. Before we wrap up, we like to ask everyone: Do you have a dream feature request on Soundslice?
Marco: Soundslice is a great system! I might even upgrade my account to take advantage of the excellent other features. One thing that would be cool: automatic synchronization between a video and the notation.
Soundslice: Ah, we’ve got that one in the back of our minds as well. Well, thank you again, Marco! We appreciate you taking the time, and look forward to more of your transcriptions!
Marco: Thank you, Soundslice! It’s been a pleasure to take part in this interview and to be part of your fantastic community.