Last week I spoke of the late Jaco Pastorius and his foundational influence upon my own bass playing. This week I want to take a look at a bassist whose playing has been equally foundational upon mine, Welsh bassist Pino Palladino. When I stand back and listen to my own bass playing I hear more Palladino influences than any other bassist. In fact, my own bass playing sounds to my ears like someone trying really hard to chase down 1/1,000th of Palladino’s greatness in his own playing.
In my recent post praising the fretless bass I made much of Palladino’s enormous influence upon the sound and feel of the electric bass in the 1980s. I refer the reader back to that post for a lengthy, yet still woefully incomplete, compendium of Palladino’s 80s bass credits. Other than Nathan East, I know of no other bassist during the decade that played on more Billboard hits than Palladino. Even if you are just a cursory fan of 1980s pop music, you have heard Palladino’s magisterial fretless work. There is even a small segment on YouTube talking about Palladino’s iconic bass intro to Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home).”
The vast majority of Palladino’s celebrated 80s work was done on a 1979 Music Man StingRay fretless instrument. Palladino abandoned the fretless in the early 1990s and switched over to a fiesta red 1962 Fender Precision bass. The Fender Custom Shop has chosen to reproduce Palladino’s instrument and make it available to the man on the street. Well…to the “man on the street” that just happens to have a spare $4,760 burning a hole in their pocket.
Although his fretless work bears some similarities to Pastorius, Palladino’s muscial approach and rhythmic sense has always felt different from Pastorius. To my ears, Palladino’s biggest influence seems to be the legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson. The Jamerson influence comes through even clearer on Palladino’s fretted work, one example being this clip backing up fellow bassist/vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello.
There are so many things that stand out about Palladino’s playing and most bass players can point to a handful of their favorite tracks featuring the bassist. The following are the most prominent “Pino-isms” that have found their way into my playing:
Follow the singer
I’ve played bass in a variety of settings and my hands-down favorite is a small group supporting a vocalist. Palladino’s recording resume features more than a few sessions where he is part of a small group backing up an iconic vocalist. What always impresses me on those recordings is how Palladino’s playing is ever-sensitive to the lyric as well as the natural rising and falling of a vocal line. Great singers know how to add light and shade to their performances and Palladino always seems to add the right thing at the right time in support of the vocalist. There are so many great examples that demonstrate this. One of my favorites is the song “Everything Must Change” from the album Circle of One by Oleta Adams. Palladino’s bass begins simply and grows more complex as he responds to the added intensity in Adams’ vocal.
The importance of tone
The Pastorius fretless sound was a dark, woody alternative to the other jazz bass icon of the time, Stanley Clarke. Clarke’s sound was bright and sharp with lots of treble in support of his slapping/popping funk style. Bass playing on R&B hits has always followed the Clarke model with lots of slapping and punchy treble. Palladino has re-written that playbook by introducing a darker fretted bass tone back into the music. A great example of this in in the song “Words Hurt Too” by Rhian Benson from her album Gold Coast. Palladino’s mahogany sounding fingerstyle funk are a throwback to and continuation of the Motown school of bass playing made famous by Jamerson and Bob Babbitt.
Going for the unexpected
The 1980s hit “Lady in Red” by singer Chris de Burgh is regularly mentioned near the top of most “worst pop songs of the 80s” polls. Yes, it is a nice song written for the singer’s wife and I’m sure she was flattered by his labors. But the song is so over-earnest and was burned to a crisp by pop radio back in the day. These days, it is impossible to hear the song divorced from that context.
Or is it? The next time “Lady in Red” comes on, listen past de Burgh’s shaky vocal and the awful electronic drums littering the track. Focus on the bass line. That is Palladino’s fretless and his playing enlivens an otherwise saccharine song. In fact, Palladino’s bass is the only thing “human” happening in the rhythm section on the track. Everything else sounds so forced, processed, and dated.
Palladino offers many surprising bass lines that add depth to “Lady in Red.” The bass line in the chorus that directly proceeds the line “I hardly know this beauty by my side” is particularly notable. Here Palladino outlines a Bb7 chord that lands on the third of the chord (D) and leads perfectly into the next chord (Eb). Quirky little flourishes like that one run throughout Palladino’s recorded career and are the hallmark of his style. They are his calling card and probably why he was such an in-demand session bassist in the 1980s.
The shadow of Jaco Pastorius still lingers large over the electric bass world. For fretless bass players, Pastorius’ shadow has proven to be almost too daunting, too all-pervasive. “What else can one say on the fretless electric bass that wasn’t said by Jaco?” In the hands of a musician like Pino Palladino it turns out the answer to that question is, “Quite a bit, actually.”
Here is a Spotify playlist containing ten of my favorite songs featuring Palladino’s playing. The first five tunes on the playlist are examples of his peerless fretless playing in a pop context. The second five are examples of the second phase of Palladino’s storied career as he has moved away from the MusicMan fretless toward the Fender P bass.