Kevin Glasgow: from Britpopper to bebopper

    The Scottish electric bassist is noted for his virtuosity, often heard in fusion contexts unfashionable in the mainstream jazz establishment

    Kevin Glasgow at Wakefield Jazz in November 2014. Photo © Brian Payne

    “As simple as it may sound, the role of the bass player in a group is to play the low notes in the music. Nothing crazy!” asserts Scottish six-string electric bassist Kevin Glasgow. “And as the years have progressed I more and more see the beauty and the value in that and take more pride in it. So my goal is to be rock solid so the other musicians can feel comfortable and inspired to play their improvisations.”

    Glasgow is dedicated to developing his skills. “My main obsession in music is practising. I love the process and exploring how to practise more effectively and trying to push myself to do more. I have a diary and keep track of what I’ve been doing every day and I’m always trying to improve that side of things.”

    ‘I liked Colin Greenwood from Radiohead, whose bass lines and the way they work with the music are incredible, and Paul McCartney. And Mark King from Level 42 with his slap bass playing was a hero of mine’

    One of Glasgow’s main bands in recent years has been Preston Glasgow Lowe, whose self-titled 2016 debut album and its 2018 follow-up Something About Rainbows were greatly acclaimed. “In my mind it’s a power trio, like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience”, he says, “but with more modern jazz and modern classical influences. And we take influence from fusion guitarists like Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin.”

    Glasgow compares the trio’s two albums: “The first was very highly arranged. We went overboard trying to figure everything out but with Something About Rainbows we left more to chance. It was more like capturing the moment.”

    Glasgow and guitarist David Preston are the trio’s main composers. He acknowledges, however, ambivalent feelings about composing. “I enjoy it but get extremely frustrated with it. I don’t feel extremely skilled as a composer, I don’t put as much time into it as I do into playing, and it means that sometimes it’s a real chore for me to write something and it takes forever to get the thing finished.

    “I mainly compose on the bass,” he continues. “But I use the computer as well. I’ll use Logic and put stuff directly on to that. There’s a kind of grid on Logic where you can drag notes and it can be fun to move things around and experiment. And occasionally I’ll use scoring software and compose directly to that as well.”

    Sadly, Preston Glasgow Lowe are currently on ice. “We didn’t have a big bust-up or anything but we needed a break from it so we’re all doing different things at the moment.”

    One of Glasgow’s other great musical partnerships has been with guitarist Nicolas Meier, in whose World Group he currently plays. “Nic’s got wide-ranging influences – Turkish and world music and heavy metal – so he utilises all that in his music and dynamically it will go from very quiet and intimate to full on which is great fun,” he says. “And when we’re playing, in a split second he’ll decide to maybe take it very quiet or he’ll go straight to a duet with the percussion player or the violin or the bass. He’ll rearrange the song on the spot and that makes it exciting.”

    Meier’s music incorporates so many different styles that inevitably his musicians can’t be experts in them all. “I’ve picked up bits and pieces over the years but I’m not an expert in flamenco, for instance, or any Latin styles. But we’re not really playing authentic flamenco or authentic Latin music. It’s Nic’s music, with those influences embedded.”

    Meier played to his biggest audiences as a member of Jeff Beck’s band. “I didn’t get to any of those gigs”, admits Glasgow, “but we did a tour recently supporting Steve Vai, a long-time hero of mine, and it was inspiring to see Nic on a large stage like that because he’s one of the few jazz musicians who can work well in that setting with large rock audiences. I’m more of an introverted jazz musician hiding-at-the-back kind of guy! I felt nervous and not that comfortable but he really brings the music to the audience in a very powerful way and I imagine he would have been the same on Jeff Beck’s gigs. Those large stages are perfect for him.”

    Of Tommy Smith: ‘He’s a machine when it comes to his work ethic and practice ethic . . . He’ll always give me some line or melody that’s almost impossible to play so if there’s a project coming up with him I have to score out a week in the diary beforehand to practise the material!’

    Tommy Smith, in whose Scottish National Jazz Orchestra he has played, is another bandleader whom Glasgow admires. “He’s an incredible musician and composer and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so driven and naturally talented. He’s a machine when it comes to his work ethic and practice ethic. He’s always working and always composing and creating music so it’s inspiring being around him. And he writes music [which] really pushes you, probably more, in a technical way, than the other people I work with. He’ll always give me some line or melody that’s almost impossible to play so if there’s a project coming up with him I have to score out a week in the diary beforehand to practise the material!”

    Glasgow explains what he enjoys about working in other people’s bands: “The lack of responsibility! And getting taken to places where I normally wouldn’t get taken to musically. Someone else’s project gives you challenges you maybe wouldn’t come across in your own music.”

    Glasgow moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland when he was nine when his parents, Dick and Sabina, who were keen Scottish and Irish traditional musicians, relocated. As a teenager he began to learn guitar: “It was at the height of Britpop and the first song I learnt was Oasis’s Roll With It but as soon as I could play two or three chords my parents were bringing me to [traditional] music sessions and getting me to play along with them.”

    “I love listening to traditional music now but at the time I wasn’t passionate about it. I was more into doing rock and blues and eventually jazz. But the sessions were great fun and a chance to play with other people. And it was great training because there was no written music. They would just play the tunes and you’d have to listen and figure out what key the song was in and decide what the chords would be, based on what you were hearing in the melody. So I was forced to use my ears and to improvise [which] was helpful in my later jazz career.”

    On visits to his parents nowadays, however, Glasgow isn’t tempted to join in on any sessions. “I wouldn’t dare, no! I’ve not played that stuff for a long time and I’d feel out of my depth doing it now.”

    As a teenager Glasgow began to play bass guitar. “I liked Colin Greenwood from Radiohead, whose bass lines and the way they work with the music are incredible, and Paul McCartney. And Mark King from Level 42 with his slap bass playing was a hero of mine. So [they] tempted me towards the bass.”

    Glasgow first heard a six-string bass guitar played live by Ross Hamilton in an Edinburgh jazz club on a visit home to Scotland. “He’s an incredible player and I was blown away by it. It was mind-blowing to the point where I was scared by it!”

    When he returned to Scotland to do the Popular Music course at Napier University he finally bought his own six-string. “As soon as I touched it, it was ‘I’ve got to buy this! This is the instrument I’ve been needing.’ In my early years I was torn between guitar and bass and the six-string had a foot in both worlds. You’ve got the bass but you can also creep up into the guitar register.”

    Like most jazz musicians Glasgow has multiple income streams. “Yeah, I do weddings, functions, all those gigs. I really enjoy them. It’s an opportunity to play some of the greatest songs from the pop repertoire like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Motown stuff. And there are so many great bass players in pop it’s an opportunity to study and I do a lot of practising for those gigs. I write out the charts for myself and the bass lines and study them, to really learn the music and get something from it.

    “And I teach in the Academy of Contemporary Music and for the last couple of years at Sienna Jazz in Tuscany. To be honest, I feel out of my depth there. They’ve got incredible players like Gregory Hutchinson, Jeff Ballard and Seamus Blake so I feel terrified every time I go. But the students are incredible and it’s great to share ideas and play with them.”

    Glasgow is currently developing another aspect of his playing. “Now that Preston Glasgow Lowe are taking a breather one of my main goals is to develop my solo playing. I’ve always wanted to figure out how to make the bass work in a solo context but I’ve always found it very difficult and I’ve hit brick walls that have stopped me getting to where I wanted. But through lockdown, having extra time to focus on it, I’ve managed to get through some of those.

    “I still haven’t the courage to do a full solo concert. But I’m working towards it. It will happen.”