Fusion Trail-blazer

By Bill Milkowski

(Reprinted from Bass Player magazine: August 1996)

In 1973, Ralphe Armstrong - a 17-year-old Detroit kid just out of high school - tried out for a gig with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. "The other person who auditioned at the same time was Jaco Pastorius," he says. "Jaco had a different sound then; he had an old, beat-up fretted Fender Precision, as I recall. I got the job because I played fretless."
Armstrong was classically trained during his four years at Michigan's Interlochen School of Fine Arts, where he studied the Josef Harvey method; later, he transferred his acoustic technique to electric while also putting up some ferocious funk on a trio of powerful mid-'70s Mahavishnu recordings: Apocalypse, Visions of the Emerald Beyond, and Inner Worlds (all on Columbia and reissued in the '90s as part of the label's Legacy series). "If you're going from the double bass to the electric, you have to know the technique in order to figure out arpeggios and come up with fingerings," Ralphe maintains. "You can't just look at a composition and make it musical without coming up with some kind of constructive fingering that makes it musical. That's what I teach today."
Following his three-year Mahavishnu stint, Armstrong joined a stellar fusion group led by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, a former Mahavishnu bandmate who had also appeared on Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Ralphe can be heard ripping it up alongside guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Daryl Stuermer and drummer Steve Smith on Ponty's 1977 landmark Enigmatic Ocean [Atlantic] as well as the 1978 follow-up Live [Rhino], which Ralphe calls the "best example of my electric bass playing on record."
Armstrong has been focusing more on upright lately in a jazz-trio setting with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Lenny White - but he did pull out his Gibson Les Paul Bass, equipped with Bartolini pickups, last year to participate in a Jimi Hendrix Festival at Bumbershoot in Seattle, where he was reunited with Mahavishnu guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Narada Michael Walden. "It's been 20 years since we recorded together," says Ralphe, "but that connecton is still there. After the gig we stayed up all night, just hugging each other and reminiscing. In fact, we talked about getting together again for a recording and a reunion tour. Both Michael and I love John; he's responsible for getting us started in our careers."
Armstrong also credits two bassists for giving him important early guidance. "Ron Carter was one of my biggest influences when I was a teenager. Whenever he came to Detroit, he would give me pointers on the bass. He and Buster Williams would always call whenever they came to town. If it weren't for them, I might be a shoe salesman today."
For all of those aggressive yet extraordinarily intricate fusion outings from the '70s, Armstrong played a Fender Jazz Bass with a fretless Precision neck through a chain of archaic effects pedals that gave him an especially nasty edge on his solos. (For a taste, check out his rampaging, distortion-laced solo on "The Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea, Part III" from Ponty's Enigmatic Ocean.) "I used a device called a Maestro Bass Brassmaster," he recalls. "It was supposed to make the bass sound like a trombone, but it sounded more like Jimi Hendrix. I used that in conjunction with a Morley wah-wah pedal and a Maestro octave box. It was good for its time - but now I'm using a DigiTech device that has over 100 sounds programmed into it. It's much superior to the stuff I used in the '70s."
Some good examples of Ralphe's acoustic playing can be heard on two fine Warner Bros. recordings by guitarist Earl Klugh: 1991's Earl Klugh Trio, Vol.1 and 1993's Earl Klugh Trio, Vol.2, both produced by Don Sebesky and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. On those projects and on his recent trio work with pianist Geri Allen, Armstrong played a 3/4-size, C-extension-equipped bass made by luthier Kevin Flannery of Grand Rapids, Michigan. "That's the one I use for jazz," says Ralphe. "I also have a Steiner made in 1847, which I use for theater work and classical situations. But it doesn't travel very well, so I take this 3/4-size bass with me when I'm touring because it's more durable."
Though Ralphe maintained a low profile in the '80s, working occasionally with saxophonist Eddie Harris, he says he's now ready to get back on track with both the electric and the acoustic. "I stayed home to raise my kids," he says. "I think that was important; if you have children, they have to know who you are. Now I'm starting to travel again, getting back into the swing of things. Between working with Geri Allen, doing sessions with Michael Walden at his San Francisco studio, doing clinics around the country for Gibson, working theater gigs here in Detroit, and teaching bass at Oberlin Conservatory, I'm very busy these days. I feel blessed."