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Interview: Pat Senatore

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Back in September, I posted on the V.I.P. Trio, a group featuring Cedar Walton (p), Pat Senatore (b) and Billy Higgins (d) that recorded two superb albums of standards for Japan's California Breeze label in Los Angeles in 1988. Though the albums were not released in the States, they recently were re-issued by Fresh Sound on two CD volumes. You'll find Vol. 1 here or here, and Vol. 2 here or here.

Pat is the sole surviving member of this trio. In addition to being a superb bassist, Pat managed Pasquale's a jazz club in Malibu, which overlooked the Pacific from 1978 to 1983. More recently, Pat recorded two excellent albums for Fresh Sound—Ascenscione and Inspirations. The former album was recorded in 2008 and 2012, featuring Josh Nelson on piano and Mark Ferber on bass. The latter was recorded in 2016 and included Tom Ranier on piano, Christian Euman on drums plus special guests Larry Koonse on guitar and trumpeter Herb Alpert.

Born in Newark, N.J., Pat attended high school with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In school, Pat began playing baritone horn before switching to trombone and then to bass in his senior year. After high school, he studied at the Julliard School of Music for two years.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Pat:

JazzWax: How did you come to play with Stan Kenton in the early 1960s? 

Pat Senatore: When I moved to Los Angeles in 1960, the musician’s union was very strict. You had to establish residency for six month before you could work. During that stretch, I got a job at Wallich’s Music City (above) selling records and working as the night manager. This left me free to hang at the union during the day and make rehearsal bands and meet cats. One of these guys was Jules Chaiken, a great lead trumpet player who was at the beginning of his career as one of the top contractors in L.A. Once six months had passed, I was able to work. Jules asked if I wanted to go with Stan Kenton. When I asked if I had to audition, he assured me that they already knew about me. Being 25 years old and still considering myself a student of the bass, I was intimidated at the thought of playing with a band that had been a dream growing up.

After nine months on the road with Stan, we came back to L.A. and recorded for a week at the Capital Tower in Studio A. I didn’t realize the magnitude of this studio until much later when I recorded there with other people. Bill Holman wrote most of the arrangements for Stan, and they were all masterpiece. But my favorite was The Blues Story, written by Gene Roland for Adventures in Blues. It was a blues album, and Stan always told me it was my album because the bass was featured and recorded out front. Gene’s charts weren’t as complex as Bill’s, where the bass was often there to set the groove. At the time, getting a groove was my strongest asset and the reason for most of my successes in the business.

JW: You were the bassist in the Tijuana Brass. Was the brass underestimated by many?

PS: I think so. Herb handpicked the guys, and each one brought a strength to the band. The rhythm section was guitarist John Pisano, drummer Nick Ceroli and myself. We could always get a groove going and that’s why we were there. As far as the arrangements go, when we recorded, Herb brought in chord charts and told us the feel he wanted. Other than some of the standards we recorded, we had no idea what the tunes would be. They were mostly originals written by a number of different guys Herb knew and liked. Most of the tunes we recorded were done in one take. Herb would then take the tracks and work his production and trumpet-playing magic. Five or six months later, the albums would be released and we'd be surprised at what he did. The material then became part of our repertoire on the road.

My musician friends had no idea what the Tijuana Brass was at first, nor did I. We were all hardcore jazz guys and never listened to pop radio. Herb had two or three LPs that were great successes before he put our band together. All of these early albums were recorded with session guys. After he put the band together, we did all the recording and touring.

JW: How did the idea for the VIP Trio albums come about in '88?

PS: Producer Ken Akimoto was a big fan of Pasquale’s, my club in Malibu. He’d fly in from Japan and often come directly from the airport to my club. As a result, we became good friends. After the club closed in 1983, I lost contact with Ken. About five years later, he called me and said he had some partners in Japan who had a new process for recording hi-resolution CDs that sold for $40 each in Japan. He said he wanted to record at least 10 albums to demonstrate this new process. He wanted me to do two trio albums and gave me a list of guys that included George Cables, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Cedar Walton. I didn’t know Cedar but had worked with George and Tommy. Only Cedar could make it. When I called him, Cedar said, “Sure, I have no problem being a sideman.” But I said, “No, we’ll call it the V.I.P. Trio.” Billy was no problem because we were great friends. He was my house drummer at Pasquale’s for years. In any case, I wasn't going to be the leader with those two greats.

JW: Was Cedar at first reluctant to play standards? 

PS: Not at all. Cedar wanted to do all standards. We conferred and chose the tunes. We did 11 songs in 22 hours at Mad Hatter Studios with Bernie Kirsch, who ran the studio for Chick Corea, the owner. Bernie was also Chick’s sound cat on all his live performances and recordings. In my humble opinion and experience, he was oen of the greatest jazz engineers and a beautiful guy.

JW: From your perspective on bass, what made playing with Cedar and Billy particularly special?

PS: They had played together so often and were so easy to work with in every way. I was amazed at how at how at ease I was playing with them, especially with Cedar, because I had never met him before the sessions. He was together and creative. We didn’t rehearse anything and didn’t have charts. Cedar would just make the arrangements up as we played, and Billy was so musical that his ideas with Cedar were automatic. I just had to fill in the bottom. One of my strengths was knowing a large number of standards. Growing up, I listened to Frank Sinatra and all the great crooners of my youth. I also was a singing bassist in New Jersey after I got out of high school. I probably could have had a career as a singer. But I promised myself when I came to L.A., in order to be taken seriously as a bassist, I'd give up singing, even though I loved it.

JW: What don’t most people know about that V.I.P. Trio recording session? 

PS: The sessions were relatively straightforward without pressure. As they went on, Cedar and I became more friendly. Eventually, he moved to L.A. for quite a while. He said I was responsible for him moving here and buying a Steinway and a Volvo, but that was a great exaggeration. Ken and his partners in Japan were pretty generous. I paid Cedar and Billy well. We did four, three-hour sessions in two days. The studio had three great pianos that belonged to Chick: a Bosendofer, a Steinway and a Fazioli. Cedar had his choice and liked the Steinway best.

I was so proud to record with these guys, and really think I held my end up pretty well. In order to play with these guys, you had to have something to offer. Billy (above) was my friend for years before these sessions, and he continued to be so until his death in 2001. He was the best drummer I ever played with, and I played with all the greats. If you couldn’t get a groove going with Billy, you didn’t belong in jazz. Cedar was the kind of cat who could scare you if you didn’t have your stuff together. But he was so kind and gentle with me that I was overwhelmed. We remained friends until his death in 2013. I loved Cedar and Billy dearly.

JW: When you listen back to these albums today, what goes through your mind?

PS: When I listen back, I think of the nerve I had to play with these cats. At first, I was afraid to listen to the CDs. But now, I’m proud of how I played. It was so natural and organic. I’m also proud of the fact that you can never take back what has been done. Thanks to Fresh Sound, I’m not gonna die wishing people here had been able to hear these album. On the contrary, I’m proud of my playing on that project. I thank Ken for feeling that I was at that level when he asked me to do it. Long after I’m gone, I hope I’ve left something for people to listen to and enjoy. And if there's a hereafter, Cedar and Billy will be some of the cats I'll get to play with again.

Here's Pat Senatore with the Tijuana Brass playing Lollipops and Roses in 1966. Pat is in the green shirt...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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