About seven years ago I was visiting a couple friends in Portland, Oregon. Being the classic rock junkies we are, we had jumped on the opportunity to plan a road trip up to Tacoma to see Van Halen live in concert. The seats weren’t great, but we were determined to rock-out like it was 1980 nonetheless. I remember asking my buddy on the drive up who was the opening act – none of us had even bothered to check, all too excited and focused about seeing the legend Eddie Van Halen mystify us with his guitar abilities. Little did we know what pleasant surprise lay ahead.
That concert changed the way I listened to music. Not due to the performance of Van Halen, as great as it was to witness the reunion of singer David Lee Roth with the band, but because of the opening act, Kool and the Gang. I walked away from the nearly decrepit Tacoma Dome thinking that I had entirely misunderstood music to that point. It wasn’t the melodies of the guitar anymore that for me served as the foundation of a song, but rather the raw power of the bass guitar. Hearing those low pitched grooves on Celebrate had me wanting to boogie like Travolta, and I rarely dance. It was as if the bass groove exerted control over my body. From that point forward, I began actively listening to how the bass guitar interacts with the rest of a given track, from small nuances to transitional progressions building up to a chorus or solo. The bass guitar holds a gravitational pull that can manipulate emotion, movement and obviously, groove. It is the force that makes you want to bob your head up and down, and it is the spark which ignites the dance floor.
Over the course of my time researching the subject as a journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to interview multitudes of musicians, composers and producers. For one reason or another, the majority of the bass players I have interviewed exuberate a vibe similar to the instrument with which they specialize – upbeat, eccentric and lastly, down to earth. One persona in particular who grabbed my attention was Giovanni Giusti, a bass player and composer originating from Florence, Italy. Giusti’s mastery of his instrument and ability to play a variety of genres has led to him obtaining idiosyncratic yet lucrative opportunities across the globe as both a session player and performer, with his trajectory showing no signs of slowing.
Inspired from a young age, thanks in part to his father’s own love for jazz, Giusti began listening to a wide range of music including American artists such as Miles Davis; However it was when he heard the playing of Jaco Pastorius that Giusti instantly knew he wanted to play the bass for a living. Not an easy goal to accomplish, but the years of playing that increased Giusti’s musical range were matched by an appetite to broaden his horizons in entrepreneurial fashion. After receiving his formal music education he was given such an opportunity, being asked to tour across China was jazz-fusion band Sun Beatzz as the group’s bassist in addition to co-directing and arranging the performances. As a musician with a western background, Giusti recalls the excitement over experiencing new cultures of audiences coming to see his performance, “The largest venues and crowds were definitely in GuangZhou, Kunming and Xi’an, where we played in the city’s theatre performing together with American r&b artist Gabrielle Goodman and traditional Chinese music star Yazhi Guo. That show was also streamed nationwide. The band had excellent success with packed venues and enthusiastic response.” This success and fascination didn’t stop at the walls of the venue for the talented musician however. “Chinese people are very interested in western music, people and culture. We were stopped by people who wanted to take selfies not only after the shows but even when walking in the streets,” says Giusti. The esteemed bassist akins being able to transcend cultural boundaries thanks in no small part to his instrument, explaining that he views his performances as a conversation of sorts between himself and those around, including his bandmates. This observation helps explain why in so many instances, myself as well as millions of concert goers every year feel as if they are physically ‘responding’ to the music being performed in front of them.
The short tenured nature of being a musician – getting one gig after the next – makes every opportunity all that much more important. A musician’s career is built on collaboration and momentum, a trend even the public can witness when rising stars begin to somehow establish themselves on Billboard’s charts. This is no coincidence. Giusti recalled this notion with his own experience gaining such momentum, through the very same China tour with Sun Beatzz. The success of the show Giusti took part in with Gabrielle Goodman brought forth an opportunity to work as a session player for the r&b artist, and shortly after, he was also hired to play two shows performed in front of the Chinese government and streamed nationwide. “I remember we had just one rehearsal to prepare the shows and arrange the music,” says Giusti. “Of course I was initially very nervous, the first show was kind of ‘break-in’ show. For the second one, with politicians in the audience and national streaming, that went very well, with long standing ovations.” Such is the road a musician travels along, one that can twist, turn, and shoot up to the stars seemingly overnight.
It is easy to see excitement among those in a given audience – clapping, gleaming faces or hands and fists waving in the air, synchronized to the groove. But how does the bass tangibly affect a song and performance to create such energy and movement? As an avid concert-goer,I have come to expect the low frequency projections of the bass to instigate my movements, but I never entirely understood how this occurred until Giusti came along. “Bass is the very foundation of music because it takes care and affects at least three crucial aspects of a song: rhythm / groove, harmony, and song form,” says Giusti. “It creates the appropriate foundation for the melody of the song or for a soloist to come out in the foreground and shine.” He went on to explain that the root notes a bassist chooses as the foundation of a song can completely change the mood and atmosphere of a track. One of the more interesting things mentioned was that most of the time the average music listener (aka: you and I) thinks of the bass as working as a team with the drums; however this is not always the case. A great bassist knows how to work against the drums to create new and different grooves, instigating smaller, more nuanced movements among audiences.
Whether performing across China, the US, or serving as the music director on an MSC cruise ship playing jazz to pop and attracting the same audience every night, Giusti’s ability to continue sparking movement in those who witness him play is uncanny. Technical skills are one thing, and an important asset, but it is obvious after speaking with Giusti that the bass is not just the foundation of a band or song. Those low notes have the ability to strike us to our very core, to sway our emotion and mood, and can serve as the foundation for connecting cultures and groups of people in ways traditional language simply cannot.