Smitty: If you love volcanic, explosive grooves, cutting edge melodies, and a style of music that makes you get your groove on, then you will fall in love with my next guest. Of the several hundred bass players that I’m aware of, only a handful of them can break you off a piece. My next guest falls squarely among this elite group. She’s convincingly the best dressed bass player that I know of. This young lady knows how to get her four-string on. Case in point is her latest CD, RS2. She’s living life in the jazz lane and I just adore her vibe. Please welcome the incredible and amazing Ms. Rhonda Smith. Rhonda, how are you, my friend?
Rhonda Smith (RS): I am excellent, my friend. Thank you for having me. What a pleasure.
Smitty: Yes indeed, my pleasure as well and I’m loving this record and just love what you do with the bass, and I just gotta ask you. When your brother introduced you to the bass, wow, what did he say to you to make you do what you’re doing today?
RS: Well, here’s the thing. He didn’t do it voluntarily, so that was the great thing about it. He brought a bass home one day when he was about 13, 14 and he told me not to touch it, so that was my introduction. (Both laugh.) I waited for him to leave and I touched all over it.
Smitty: (Laughs.) Oh, you know, when they say don’t do it, you know they’re gonna do it.
RS: Oh, you know it, you know it.
Smitty: So talk about that whole experience. I know it was a young age, but sometimes when we do things at that age, it is such a “who knew” moment of what happens later on in life. Talk about what that experience was like for you just to get in there and play with it and touch it and just make sounds with it. Talk about that experience.
RS: It was wonderful. It was as if it filled a void for me. It became my imaginary friend and my best friend at the same time. I love wood. I’ve always loved wood. I’m a lover of wood like in my home—ash wood, dark woods, light woods—and I just love this thing to death. I really got obsessed with it quite ridiculously at a young age and that’s all I wanted to do. Even I remember when I was in elementary school when everyone was taking music class and they were playing ukeleles, for instance. I talked my music teacher into letting me bring my bass in because it had the same amount of strings and they were tuned the same way that the ukulele was so, I mean, why couldn’t I bring my bass?
So she let me do it and I used to haul around my little amp with me, and I remember in high school, I shouldn’t say this, but I used to carve right into my desk with a little ink pen my pictures of guitars. I just loved them. We had garage bands. That’s what I used to do after school, did the high school bands, high school orchestras and jazz bands. I really think it saved me. I know it saved a lot of kids. Music is a wonderful thing. It allowed me to be creative and whether I came up with great stuff or if we really sucked, that was beyond the point.
RS: No, the point was that we were creating, we weren’t hurting anybody. We were letting our minds go, I wasn’t sitting in front of the TV, and I never did it because I thought, you know, what I would do later in life or maybe what—I thought that I might get out of it or who I might work with or where I might go. It had nothing to do with that. It was just something that I absolutely truly loved to do and still do now, and it’s just been really kind to me and I’ve been really kind to it, and it’s still the same thing for me now. I can only go so long because we get older, and I’m not saying I’m old, but we get older and we get other interests, you know?
Smitty: True that, yeah.
RS: And it’s never changed for me. I can only go so long without having that void again that needs to be filled by it, so I’m really happy to know that it’s a genuine friend. I love music and I love the bass. I never regretted it for a moment, and I’m so grateful and I’m so happy still for the journeys and the stories and the people that the bass allows me to enjoy. It’s really great, great life.
Smitty: Yeah, absolutely, I know, because I know you’ve had quite a career and you’ve had a lot of fun.
RS: (Both laugh.) Who knew? I never would’ve imagined.
Smitty: Yeah, you’ve really had a great career and I just love what you do with the bass, and I think sometimes when you’re on stage you’re somewhat of a sneak attack because I think sometimes people are not ready for what you’re about to give them or they’re not aware of what you can bring until they actually witness it for themselves and it’s mind blowing. I remember just this past summer in Rotterdam. I noticed the reaction of that huge crowd when you did a solo and people were going nuts, and I still remember Marcus Miller back there fanning with a towel. Marcus has been at the top of his game from day one! (Both laugh.)
RS: I love Marcus.
Smitty: Yeah, he’s a great cat, but he has so much respect for what you do with the four-string, you know?
RS: And he’s such a great guy too, a great teacher and a great role model too, and it’s also a lesson that with every other artist that I’ve played with or had the opportunity to be in bands, it’s always been a different type of role, so that’s why it’s kind of fun to surprise people all the time because not in every situation that we’re in all the time do we get an opportunity even to get a solo sometimes. Or to be up front, so sometimes when you have those extra guns and you pull them out, it’s really fun to get a crowd reaction like that. That’s priceless.
Smitty: Yes it is. Your solos are so strong.
RS: Oh, thank you.
Smitty: They’re so profound and they’re totally different and distinctive from any other bass player, and I think that’s the beautiful thing and I think that’s what people love so much about your musicianship. Now, you mentioned that, in the beginning, at an early age, you were just having fun and playing, and you still do, but at what point did it hit you that “I can make a career of this and I can go out and actually tour and have some fun and play in front of larger crowds than the people lined up in the driveway,” you know? (Both laugh.)
RS: I started in an all-girls group when I decided to go to college as a jazz major, because I really, always loved jazz, even though that’s unfortunately not one of the main things that I’ve been able to make a career out of playing, but I grew up with jazz in my family with my mother. That was the music that she always played in the house. I loved (Charles) Mingus, Ron Carter, I mean, all of those guys, and (Eddie) Gomez. I used to listen to them all the time, but where I came from it really wasn’t something that was financially pleasing. It was just really hard to make a living in Canada at the time where I was from, Montreal and I ended up starting to play R&B even though I was trying to be a jazz major because I still loved the acoustic bass and loved to play it, and I found at a very—still at a young age that we were able to go out in these clubs—and I had an all-girls band, I was the youngest—and people really loved what we were doing and at that time and because I was getting a weekly salary which wasn’t great, but it was a start.
Smitty: Yeah, I feel ya.
RS: And I realized at that point in time that I didn’t want to further my education because I probably did not want to teach, for me personally….Later on go the academic route, and my brother has done that, he does that, he is a professor of jazz composition, actually, very well known, very talented guy, actually a bass trombone player and he plays a lot of other instruments, but he’s a great writer, orchestrator. He does tons of things, but I realized for me that that was probably not where I wanted to go. I wanted to go more into performance and I had to make a decision at that time that it was more valuable for me to have the practical experience rather than needing the plaque on the wall. So at that point, that’s when I made the choice.
I knew it was probably gonna upset my parents a little bit but, again, that was the great thing about them, because they have always and still do support me in whatever decisions I’ve made and that makes it so much easier and, of course, I’m very proud of them and they’re very proud of me and I’m proud of all my brothers and sisters, and it’s been an easier journey because of that because not everybody wants their little girl to go on the road with this person and that person (laughs) and be in a club at night and hauling gear around. So they were supportive but they pretty much knew I was gonna be responsible about it, and that’s about the time when I made that decision and I don’t regret it but, I mean, I wouldn’t advise it for everybody, you know? It’s a personal decision. Some people make great teachers, some people want it. Probably if I was in an orchestra playing acoustic or classical music my whole life in an acoustic bass chair, I might have been very happy with that, you know?
Smitty: Yeah. Well, I think you could’ve excelled and had fun at anything. You have that vibe to where you adjust and transition and adapt and have fun, you know? And I think that’s a beautiful thing. Not everyone can do that.
RS: Well, I think that’s what it is too and I always loved music, any kind. It’s just that when I took that journey, it took me down a different place, and when I first started funk and R&B and Prince and all that stuff was not really something that I did all the time, so once I got to America, I really had to learn that stuff and really quick. I had to get up on what was happening because there were a lot of people who were way more advanced and who had played that all the time, so I’m the last one he’s gonna want. I didn’t wanna be the dullest knife on the cutting board. So I had to pull my britches up and get it together. I think I did.
Smitty: Yeah. (Both laugh.) Well, I think you did too. (Both laugh.) And then some.
RS: Oh, thank you.