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Jazz Great Teaches Concordia University Irvine Music Students

March 07, 2022 - 7 minute read

One of the leading jazz bassists of the past 50 years, John Patitucci, spent nearly a week at Concordia University Irvine as an artist-in-residence, teaching students a variety of skills, and presenting two concerts.

“I don’t know that this campus has ever hosted a musician with as strong of an international, award-winning resume,” says Steve Young, Concordia University Irvine’s director of commercial music, who met Patitucci 25 years ago at church. “John is superwarm, genuine, and caring. He’s very funny and is also a really strong believer. He has done a great job of navigating the world of secular music with his faith in a way that’s authentic. Everybody respects him.”

Patitucci, a longtime studio musician and live player, has earned multiple Grammys with various bands. He was nominated this year for a Grammy for Best Jazz Record for the Akoustic Band LIVE album with bandmates Chick Corea (who died in February 2021) and drummer Dave Weckl. As a studio musician, Patitucci has played on countless albums with artists such as B. B. King, Bonnie Raitt, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Grusin, Natalie Cole, Bon Jovi, Sting, Queen Latifah, and Carly Simon.

John Patitucci

John Patitucci

“I was mentored by a lot of amazing elders, especially in music, so I feel like I need to mentor and encourage people, too, because that changed my life,” Patitucci said. “I am proud of what Steve [Young] is doing. I’m enjoying working with the students.”

Patitucci spent four days on campus in January, teaching master classes for student-musicians, specific master classes for bass players, and classes for jazz and commercial music students. The week culminated with two concerts in which Patitucci performed with acclaimed pianist Alan Pasqua, who also led a piano master class, and legendary jazz drummer Joe LaBarbera. One concert featured a straight ahead jazz trio, the other a fusion of jazz and chamber music that was performed by students from the Concordia Sinfonietta.

“I’ve done master classes and residencies a long time,” Patitucci said. “When you have a limited amount of time, you have to focus on the non-negotiables. For musicians, that’s rhythm, sound production, expression, playing with a strong feel, emotional playing, and sensitivity and listening to the players around you.”

Theory alone doesn’t cut it, he says.

"What audiences and musicians react to is the sound, your rhythmic feel, your time, how sensitive you are. They aren't going to ask you about theory and stuff, not that you shouldn't know it," he says. "When you get together with other people, the successful ones are the ones who listen well. You have to learn how to listen."

What audiences and musicians react to is the sound, your rhythmic feel, your time, how sensitive you are. … You have to learn how to listen.

Listening means getting a feel for the song, rhythmically, musically and lyrically, he taught students.

“You get a sense of the flow and the right tempo for the song, the place where the lyrics have space to breathe,” he says. “You’re listening for the message: what is the song about? … There are a lot of things you have to key in on. How do we make the music rise up? In pop music, the verse is leading to the chorus. It’s the payoff, the most important thing in the song. Sometimes it’ll rise up in intensity.”

Recalling his many years in some of the best jazz bands of the twentieth century, he related how relationships between band members elevate music such that “the sum is greater than the parts.”

“It’s infinitely greater, exponential,” he said. “Students have to buy into the fact that if they’re willing to support and allow space for others, everyone is playing their best and the music will be a million times more powerful because there’s space for everything to happen.”

Maximus Upchurch, a sophomore commercial music major from Wake Forest, North Carolina, plays piano and percussion instruments like xylophone, bells, chimes, triangle, and wood block in the orchestra. He says Patitucci’s lessons hit home—and changed the way he and other students play together.

“As a band, we’re very in tune with connecting with each other now,” Upchurch says. “I’ve seen a difference in our commercial music and worship where we’re getting out of our music, looking up at each other while playing, not looking at it as individual thing but how do we create a song and mesh together. That changes so much about a song and what is being played.”

Patitucci’s career began in the late 1970s with session work in L.A. In 1985, he landed a permanent gig with Chick Corea’s band, and went on to play and tour with other jazz luminaries such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, an all-time great jazz saxophone player.

Throughout the decades, Patitucci has consistently played in church worship bands and served in lay leadership, including as an elder.

John Patitucci and CUI music students rehearse.

At Concordia University Irvine, John counseled students not to fear their true musical selves.

“Sometimes people are scared to show who they are, being authentic in the moment, taking a chance to do something,” he noted. “It doesn’t always mean playing more notes. It’s about being vulnerable. Wayne Shorter said something I love: ‘Sometimes musicians hide behind their instruments.’ They don’t step forward for the greater good of the piece you’re playing. All this stuff takes time. This is hard-fought wisdom. It doesn’t happen tomorrow. You have to fail a couple times.”

Avery Smith, a senior saxophone and bassoon player who is studying music education, was one of more than a dozen students who played with the trio at the first concert.

“Something John said to me and others was, ‘Keep developing your language. Listen to other greats and imitate them,’” Smith says. “That’s where I am now. I’m developing my language, not just playing what’s on the page, but saying something with the way I play.”

Patitucci gave her “a really sweet compliment,” she says. “He said, ‘You have a great sound. Never sell your horn.’ That was special,” says Smith.

At Concordia University Irvine, even the rehearsals for the concerts were open to students who wanted to observe and learn.

“What is rare about John is he is fluent across musical lines,” says Young. “He can play any style at the highest level. He’s a musician’s musician in that way.”

Jeff Held, assistant dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, calls Patitucci’s residency “an important part of the expansion of Concordia’s music program.”

“John Patitucci has been an ideal artist-in-residence,” says Held. “He talks about how his faith centers his artistic approach, shows how he interacts with other musicians with camaraderie, and discusses a world class work ethic and lifelong approach to learning music that makes him one of the very best.”

Lately, Patitucci has been scoring films, writing “all kinds of music” and performing original pieces of chamber music—including at Lincoln Center in New York City, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He continues to write jazz pieces, works as a session musician and plays in the worship band at his church in New York City. Patitucci’s brother is a pastor in Northern California.

One of the biggest lessons he teaches is the importance of strong character.

“Character is a big deal,” he says. “I remember knowing musicians who were really gifted but hard to deal with. A lot of them never got to have the creative opportunity and career they should have because of being tough to be around for more than five minutes. That goes right along with character development. If we say we’re Christians and trying to emulate Christ, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. You can’t fake that.”

Sophomore Maximus Upchurch gets tips from
pianist Alan Pasqua.

Bass players in particular are called to servant-leadership with “a role in the music that is foundational and supportive,” he says. “Facilitating and setting people up to really play their best is very much in the job description of the bass. The rhythm has to be strong, the sound has to be great, and you really have to learn how to read music. Your ears have to be strong.”

Concordia’s Wind Orchestra also hosted a residency with Boston Pops principal trumpeter, Terry Everson, and composer Jim Stephenson in the fall. Young says the music department will continue hosting marquee-level musicians, to deepen the learning experience of Concordia University Irvine music students.

“This is the kind of thing we do,” Young says. “We bring in people from different corners of the music world to expose our students to all different types of excellence.”

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