Burgess’ first musical performance was hardly an auspicious occasion. “When I was seven – I think, I was entered into a piano competition and I was so nervous, that I refused to go on stage!” Stage fright is clearly no longer an issue, as Burgess is currently being kept very busy building up the bass lines with Ronnie Scott’s house band, Tom Cawley’s Curios, pianist John Law and songstress Gwyneth Herbert.
But how did it all start? “Well, I guess I have a musical heritage”, says Burgess. “My great grandfather was a professional cornet player and became a musical director of shows and played all over the country. My grandfather played violin in amateur orchestras, as did my mum and of course my dad plays double bass with Dave Sheppard’s band.”
Burgess remembers his parents pushing him to play the piano and almost forcing him to go to piano lessons. “I never enjoyed them – but I loved music.” He freely admits that music was the only thing he was any good at school. “I played lots of instruments. Apart from the piano, I played the euphonium, the guitar, the trumpet, the tenor horn and of course – the bass.”
His first musical experiences came from playing the trumpet with brass bands and orchestras. “Then I discovered the bass guitar at 15 and rocked out! I got together with some school friends – we called ourselves Accrington Stanley, and we got lots of gigs in pubs etc. In fact, when I was 16 we were playing in a pub as it was raided. We carried on playing and the police forgot to age check the band, who were entirely sober – obviously. I got on to the two-year diploma course at the West London Institute, then went straight on to Guildhall where I studied classical and jazz music for four years. I had a great time there and met a lot of people that I still play with today. But I was kind of late into it and didn’t actually start playing the double bass until I was 24.”
I ask which musicians he listens in to. “I love Dave Holland, Ray Brown, Christian McBride, Paul Chambers and Avishai Cohen. There are loads of great bassists in the UK too. I get to see them play at Ronnie’s a lot. I really wanted to play double bass after I saw Mick Hutton play. I followed him from gig to gig for a while! So inspiring.”
And what about your double basses? “Well, I sold the first one. It was a cheap new bass and I can’t remember the make – why should I – it had no sound production or bottom end. Frankly it was rubbish! Now I own two. My main bass, which is the one I use for most of my gigs is French and 180 years old. A friend at college was selling it. Oddly enough, I didn’t like it until Roger Dawson performed a miracle on the set up, totally changing the sound. I love the resonance. It’s earthy, organic and has this wonderful rich sound. At least I think it is! I’m completely smitten with it and will probably never sell it.
My second bass is for travelling. It was built by Roger Dawson four years ago. It has a small body which can be partially collapsed by de-tensioning the strings, taking off the bridge, which is held in position by 2 dowls, unscrewing a bolt at the nut of the bass and pushing the fingerboard to the body. This makes the bass almost half the width, side on. Then it goes into a bespoke carbon fibre case – which helps to keep the weight down. It sounds really good, much better than you'd expect from such a small body.”
“I use spirocore softs. I’ve tried loads of strings that are more expensive but they always seem to have something missing: too thin, too fat, too dead, not good with the bow etc. I used to play medium spirocore strings until Christian McBride told me to try the softs to ease the tension. He tried my bass and said it was way too hard to play. It’s still quite a tough tension though, but I like it.” And as for bows? “My main bow is a 100-year-old French bow made with white hair. However, I also have a lightweight carbon fibre bow which I take on my travels.”
“For amplification I use a Hartke Kickback 12. I’m on my second one, so I must like them! They’re simple amps, just plug in and play. It has three features: treble, middle and bass. It’s just right for me – it has a nice sound and is not too heavy. Again, I’ve tried lots of more expensive amps with all kinds of chicanery, but simple seems best.”
Interview - David Gallant