April 13, 2024
Featured Interview – Lorenzo Farrell – Blues Blast Magazine

Cover photo © 2024 Marilyn Stringer

imageRick Estrin and the Nightcats have long been heralded as one of the top blues band in the world. Their live performances are a splendid mixture of fine music delivered with an entertaining style that is beloved by audiences. Estrin is the consummate showman, while guitarist Kid Andersen is consistently nominated for awards acknowledging his impressive skills, And then there are the high flying excursions of drummer Derrick D’Mar Martin.

Tucked away on one side of the stage, Lorenzo Farrell can often be overlooked in the midst of his band mates’ stage activity. But make no mistake, his role is essential to creating and maintaining the rhythmic foundation that drives the band’s sound. Without a bass player, it falls to Farrell to play the bass lines on the piano or organ, sometimes utilizing both instruments at the same time. While he is handling that responsibility, he also manages to add sonic textures that bring extra layers to the arrangements.

“It doesn’t matter what the instrument is, you’re providing a certain function in the band. A lot of what I’m doing is using a synthesizer to get a very close sound to the sound of an electric bass or an upright bass. To me, a Hammond organ has its own kind of bass sound that is wonderful, but it’s not exactly the sound I’m going for. So I had to learn how to kind of adapt a keyboard or synthesizer to get that kind of sound. And then once you have a sound you like, it frees you up, you know. It only takes one hand, most of the time, to play bass on keyboard.

“That’s the whole reason why I do it, to give myself the potential to fill in other sounds in the song. When I started playing keyboards, I’d already learned a lot about what it means to play bass. I think keyboard players who had not studied the bass beforehand would have a lot more difficultly learning how to play bass lines. If you don’t have to constantly cover the bass part playing keyboards, there’s a lot more freedom. The thing about the bass is it has to keep going basically through the entire song. You can’t screw that up, it’s the top priority.

“You can get a much fuller bass sound on the organ, but the electric piano is a lot easier to carry around. I just always loved the organ sound. It’s such a nice addition to the palette of tones and sounds you can get in the blues. The Hammond organ is such a beautiful, beautiful invention. But the instrument is heavy to drag around, so that is one drawback. It’s worth it if we can get venues to provide a Hammond organ. It’s hard to duplicate that sound.”

In 2003, a friend of Farrell’s, drummer J. Hansen, was playing with Little Charlie and the Nightcats, co-lead by Estrin on vocals and harmonica. In those days, Farrell was playing electric and upright bass. After getting an audition with Hansen’s help, he was offered the job.

“I didn’t know Rick or Charlie Baty at that point. Oh, it was incredible. I mean, they were a wonderful duo. They had been together professionally since the 70s, and to be dropped into this situation where I’m playing with two of the greatest living blues musicians together and touring the world, it was an incredible education. Charlie was a really special guitarist. I learned so much in those days from playing with him.

“We’d always do a trio song in the beginning of the set. And he had a lot of jazz in his playing. I think one of the reasons I got the gig is that I could handle those jazz tunes, playing bebop tunes like “Cherokee,” playing fast tempos, improvising. Thank God that Rick is still with us. Being able to learn about real Chicago blues with him as a mentor has been priceless.”

Born in Kentucky in 1976, Farrell’s family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and later to California. His father was a university librarian, eventually settling at UC Berkeley as the university archivist.

image“My family on both sides loved music. My dad and all my uncles studied classical piano when they were kids. That was very important to my grandfather. They were really into classical music. There was a story about them meeting Arthur Rubenstein one time backstage when they were kids in Long Beach, California. They liked classical music and everything else just didn’t measure up. They definitely weren’t snobs, but they loved classical music and they do to this day. They still go to the opera and the symphony, but they also were children of the 60s, so I remember looking at their vinyl albums that had their names on it from whatever fraternity house they were in.

“On my mom’s side, they were from Kentucky and were more into folksy music, more country kind of stuff. So there was a lot of music in the house when I was growing up. My parents sang quite a bit and they loved the Beatles, so we’d always hear the Beatles around the house. They asked me when I was about five if I was interested in piano. I jumped at the chance because I thought it was a cool instrument.

“I never fell in love with the classical the way I did with the Beatles or pop music, or rock and roll. By the time I got to high school, I was losing interest in it, but I loved music and I loved the idea of being in a band, and there was an opportunity to join the Berkeley High School Jazz Band, which is a world famous high school band. But they already had a piano player, but not many people wanted to play bass, I guess because it’s kind of in the background. I was happy to pick it up and learn it in order to keep playing music. So pretty quickly I was in this world class jazz band, and was able to travel around California, go to Japan playing bass, playing jazz, so that was pretty exciting.

But the transition from piano to upright bass wasn’t without some trials and tribulations.

“Physically, it was pretty demanding right away because the string bass is kind of a beast of an instrument. You get blisters and bloody fingers, but it was a pleasure for me because I was going from not much musical satisfaction, struggling through Brahms and Chopin on piano, to all of a sudden playing with great fun, not just by myself, but interacting with great musicians and learning from great musicians. So that kind of took off, setting my path for 20 years of playing bass.”

Education was very important to his family, and the bass player loved school. He was able to attend UC Berkeley, continuing to play music in the school’s jazz ensembles.

“It’s hard to make it as a musician. I mean, everyone knows that. Some people think of us as superstars who are making millions of bucks, but that’s very rare. I thought music was great, but how am I going to make a living doing this? I didn’t really have any other great idea. So it just made sense to go to college. That’s kind of what people do. It’s kind of a default if you don’t know what to do, go to college, try some things, and get a degree. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to UC Berkeley, which is a great school.

“I had the opportunity to study abroad in India for six months. That whole period I had little involvement in music, but it was a great alternative path to explore. I went to Delhi to study religion. I was really interested in philosophy of religion. So technically, I was studying Indian philosophy, but a lot of Buddhist philosophy, history of Buddhism. This was in 1997, so I’m sure things have changed a lot, but for me at that time it was being in a culture and a place and a world that was basically totally different than everything I had known up until that point. The food, the music, the way of life, the economy, the population density, you know, it was all totally different and yet it was working just fine for people there. It was a totally different world and yet it was doing all right.

“We spend so much time on the road with Rick Estrin, going to all kinds of places from top of the line spots in Switzerland, funky places in Brazil, and everything in between, and none of it is that shocking to me. I’m very comfortable traveling and being in different worlds, probably because that experience in India helped expand my mind and comfort level. I remember most days, the hot water and electricity would go off. And we were living in Delhi, India, a world capital. It is important to learn how to adapt, and it helps be grateful for what you’ve got while also being prepared for when things get difficult.”

imageGraduating in 1999 with a degree in Philosophy, Farrell spent several years gigging around the Bay area primarily playing jazz and some swing & jump blues with bands like Steve Lucky & the Rhumba Bums.

“I recognized so many sounds in blues music from growing up, listening to rock and British bands, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin. The first time I really got into real blues, I think it was because I was playing jazz, and then playing dance music, playing jump blues, as there’s a lot of connections there. I was inspired by the great jazz bass player Ray Brown, then Willie Dixon, and James Jamerson, who played on so many of the early Motown hits.

“And, of course, the living legend Jerry Jemmott. When you meet him and when you get a chance to record and play with him, you can see why he is indeed a legend. His name pops up again and again on these timeless records that everybody knows. It’s not an accident and it really shows the importance of the bass player. Jerry’s just got an unstoppable groove, plus a wonderful attitude and presence wherever he is. He’s always about the team, making the lead artist shine, providing them the great groove and a great backdrop against which to do their thing. It’s not like that means the bass player has no personality. I mean, it’s actually far from it. Jerry’s got such a distinctive sound, groove, and musical personality, and yet it’s somehow always in service of whatever the vocal artist needs. He doesn’t rest on his laurels, even though he’s one of the most recorded bass players alive today.”

Little Charlie Baty decided to do a “soft” retirement in 2008. It was a time of change, with Kid Andersen being added to the band. Farrell was tiring of playing solely bass. It seemed like the time was right for another shift in the band.

“I wanted to do something new. There’s been a number of great musicians, starting with Jimmy Smith, I would say, or Wild Bill Davis, who’d been able to play bass lines on the keyboard, the Hammond organ. That was something I really wanted to do. And luckily the band was all in favor of it, and they’ve given me this space to bring that into the Nightcats.

“For piano, two of my favorites are Otis Spann and Lucky Peterson. Lucky is another great who is sorely missed. I was able to spend some time with him in various situations on the road. I found him to be a real inspiration. Another hero of mine is Les McCann. We just lost him recently. I wouldn’t call him strict blues, but he was soul jazz, and he did wonderful stuff. Jim Pugh is another great player. On organ, it’d be Lucky Peterson again, then any of the great organ jazz players like Jimmy McGriff and Richard “Groove” Holmes. I also should mention Billy Preston on all these instruments. Billy Preston and James Booker on all the keyboards are two of my favorites.”

The band’s 2012 release on Alligator Records, One Wrong Turn, was the first to highlight the bass player on keyboards as well. Soon after, he was sticking to keyboards exclusively. He hasn’t picked up a bass guitar for at least seven years, fearing that the muscles he had worked so hard to build up may now have atrophied. Among his work with other artists, a highlight was taking part in Little Charlie’s Organ Grinder Swing project, Skronky Tonk, on Ellersoul Records.

Glad to be free of the Covid years, Farrell is excited about the many opportunities that are coming to fruition.

“I love what I do, so that is the focus. The Nightcats have a new album coming out May 10th on Alligator Records entitled, The Hits Keep Coming. Rick’s such a great songwriter. He wrote a lot of stuff on the album. Then there’s a Leonard Cohen cover, which is pretty cool, an unusual step for us, but I think it worked out great. I think people will enjoy that. And then there’s a Muddy Waters cover too. The rest I think is all Rick, other than a couple instrumental things that we collaborated on. And there’s some great guest artists on it. We’ve got Jerry Jemmott and The Sons of the Soul Revivers, a fine gospel group. One of my favorite tracks is the title track, “Hits Keep Coming”, and that’s one of they’re on.”

imageIn his spare time, Farrell is involved in a production company in the state of Washington, where he lives.

“ I really believe in the value of live music, which needs more support than it’s getting. There is a hunger and appetite for great live blues and jazz locally. So in the last couple years, with some partners, I’ve started a company called LTD Presents. We’ve been able to bring some great musicians to this area that wouldn’t otherwise have been here. Guitarist Duke Robillard is one name. We’re going to bring Rick and the Nightcats soon. We’ve had the award-winning Chicago blues artist John Primer, and we’ve had the Greaseland All Stars. Most of our shows have been in Tacoma, including the Tacoma Dock Street Blues and Jazz Festival. This year is going to be the fourth edition, on August 25th. We just confirmed Tia Carroll as one of our headliners.”

Farrell is also proud to be a part of a fundraiser taking place on March 28 at Harlow’s in Sacramento, CA that will feature Estrin and the Nighcats, Anson Funderburgh, Alabama Mike, Marcel Smith, Kyle Rowland, and Quique Gomez.

“It was a real tragedy when we lost Little Charlie in 2020. He died during the Covid lockdown era and almost no one was able to go to his funeral. One of the things that’s been satisfying in recent years is the band and I have been organizing with the Sacramento Blue Society and Mindy Giles to stage the Little Charlie Memorial Concert in Sacramento. The Sacramento Blue Society created a Little Charlie Baty Memorial scholarship fund for talented young musicians. When things started opening up in 2022, that was the first year we did it. We’re coming up on the third annual this March. That’s a great event for people to know about and support if they can.”

It has been quite a ride for the multi-talented musician, who certainly appreciates everything that has come his way throughout his musical career.

“I love the role I have, keeping the bass going. You know, like I said, I love to play with great musicians, to improvise and interact, so I’m just having a blast up there playing, especially watching these guys do their thing.”

“The hope is to keep doing this as long as we can. I mean, the band is in such great shape right now. We’re all dedicated to it. It’s definitely the best it’s ever been. You know, it’s challenging these days with how expensive travel is. And like I said, it’s never been easy to be a musician. But we’ve got such a good thing going here. So, I just want to keep playing with this band as much as we can, for as long as we can.”

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