Alan Hampton is a jazz-educated singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who has written and recorded with Robert Glasper, Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Gretchen Parlato, Meshell Ndegeocello, and more. He has also released two solo records that put his range of musical talents on display. He is a regular bassist on Live from Here, and he recorded the bass parts for Chris Thile’s studio album of reimagined Songs of the Week, Thanks for Listening.
When you were growing up, were you in school bands or groups outside of school?
I was mostly in bands with friends, rock bands and stuff, until about high school. There's a great art school in Houston called HSPVA, High School for Performing and Visual Arts. There's a whole lineage of musicians that have come out of there and it is really well-known to all the young musicians in Houston, and I really wanted to go there. They had a great jazz program and I was very curious about jazz. I picked up drums in middle school and was taking lessons with a guy that got me listening to a lot of jazz – Art Blakey and these classic drummers and records. That led me to paying attention to this school, which had this intense audition process.
So, the school is known for having just a ton of these great, great drummers. I knew I wasn't going to make the cut, they were loaded with drummers. But, I knew they were losing all their bass players, that they were graduating around the time that I wanted to go. So I started taking bass lessons, borrowed an instrument from a friend and did the audition [and got in].
When did you start on the upright bass? Is it typical that if you can play bass guitar, you’re also learning upright bass?
They're very different, actually. That's a very different musculature, and just the gravity and the physics of the instrument is very different once it's upright. But I was encouraged by my band director in that high school, Dr. Robert Morgan, he encouraged us all to get on the upright. The school had an upright that they let us practice on, so that's where that began.
When did you have your first paid gig?
It was in high school. My friend Reggie Quinerly, who's still a good friend of mine, he was a drummer at [HSPVA] and he had a gig somewhere playing at a country club or something, a restaurant somewhere in Houston. And I was terrified. It was just playing in the corner of a public place – put on a suit, look nice and play tunes – a really low-pressure gig. But I didn't know the music that well, I didn't know the repertoire, so I had to memorize all the stuff. It was a huge undertaking for me.
What did you do after high school?
After high school, I moved to New York. I went to The New School, they have a jazz school there. That was great for networking and meeting a bunch of young, like-minded musicians. I was there for about three years, and then I auditioned for this other school called the Thelonious Monk Institute, which is sort of a floating program. It has been housed in several different campuses around the country. That was an intense and very cool experience. It was located at USC at the time, and so I moved to Los Angeles and studied with Terence Blanchard. Herbie Hancock was around a lot. Wayne Shorter was there quite a bit. We would get to play concerts with these guys and we would teach younger people. It kind of operated more as a working band rather than a school. There weren't classes, you would rehearse five days a week for five hours a day and write a lot of music. Then you'd talk to Terence a lot and get private time with the different instructors that would come in and out, but it wasn't like a traditional school structure. That was a great two-year program and I went right back to New York after that and just got to work.
Were you part of a set band or were you getting pulled in as an individual into ensembles?
I would get called as a bass player just from various people I had already met along the way. Before I left LA, I picked out a few people that I really wanted to play with and learned all the music of theirs that I could and then contacted them out of the blue and said, “Hey, I'm coming back and I know your tunes, if you need to set up a rehearsal or a gig, I'm at your disposal.” That paid off, a few things happened that way.
Talk about how you got into songwriting.
When I was in Los Angeles, I was kind of like a closeted songwriter. I grew up on rock bands, and then I got into jazz and really immersed myself in it. But the songwriting stuff started tapping on my consciousness after a little while, and I was writing songs in my free time.
When I got back to New York, I was playing all these bass gigs for a good few years, but anytime I would write, I would write on guitar. I can't play piano, so that was my chordal instrument.
Around the same time, I started singing backup in a lot of the bands that I was playing bass in. That got me comfortable with the microphone, and eventually I started playing gigs and singing these songs.
I wanted to make a record at some point and I was kind of burnt out on jazz at the time, and the songs I was writing were ones that I was singing, so I made this album called The Moving Sidewalk.
And, much to my surprise, the jazz musicians that I was playing with responded to that much more than they had responded to my instrumental music. So I started writing songs for a lot of these jazz musicians who wanted to have a vocalist, and they were great at composing these musical things, but they weren't lyricists. So that was kind of my niche for a little while, being a liaison for the jazz community to the songwriting community.
And then I made a second record called Origami for the Fire – which isn't as cynical as it sounds – and I'm working on a third.
How did you get involved with Live from Here?
I think that happened through Ted [Poor]. Andrew Bird, who I work with, he and Ted Poor came and did a show and then I think Ted recommended me for some stuff.
What's challenging for you about the show and what's exciting for you about it?
The first few were like whirlwinds, and I was amazed at how much music there was to learn and the span of it and how different everything was. I found it to be a really demanding, intimidating gig. But I really liked it, it felt like boot camp. A lot of reading, a lot of bowing on the upright, which I don't have a huge background in. It was doing all this stuff, some that I was comfortable with, some that I wasn't. I definitely felt pushed and challenged, and I really liked that.
It feels great, I come home feeling like a better musician. I really like working with Chris and watching his process for solidifying the content. I think he's an incredible writer and he's very good at music, and it's really fun to try to keep up and give him what he wants.
When do you get the music for the show? How much time do you have to mentally prep and fiddle with it before you come to rehearsal?
It's usually a Wednesday the stuff comes in, when you get the list. You can identify what's going to be the really hard stuff, if there's going to be something that's really going to make you work hard and you prepare yourself for those. And the Song of the Week is always a wild card.
This is one gig where I've learned that overpreparing doesn't really help because so much changes once you get here.
Does the fact that it's being broadcast live change anything about how you think of the performance?
I am aware that it's being played on the radio, and I think it helps me focus a bit. You have that mentality like, mistakes are permanent and they're heard. But I also think that that's part of the spirit of the show and part of what's fun about live music. I like the possibility of failure, and I think most listeners do, too.
Any personal highlights or memories that really stand out to you?
Meeting Fred Newman was awesome. I was already a huge fan and had been for years, and my wife was totally blown away. That was killer. And seeing John Prine was really special. I was in tears the whole time.