Music has a history of artists deserving of wider recognition — especially instrumentalists — and especially now, in the modern era of TV shows that only hype singers and dancers toward their 15 minutes of fame. Los Angeles-based bassist Bryan Beller is on the current short list of those most deserving musicians.
The 48-year-old native of Charlottesville, Va., has gained some degree of acclaim by playing with virtuoso guitarists, from the underrated fusion of former Frank Zappa band member Mike Keneally, and Zappa’s son Dweezil, to the largely instrumental metal of Joe Satriani and another Zappa band alum, Steve Vai. But Beller also has four far-reaching solo efforts since 2003, including his dense new double-CD studio opus, Scenes From the Flood, due for release next month.
And since 2011, his instrumental trio The Aristocrats (www.the-aristocrats-band.com), with British guitarist Guthrie Govan and German drummer Marco Minnemann, has defied categories with a largely improvised mix of jazz/fusion, funk, metal, country and practically every other style imaginable. Think of a mix of Return To Forever, King Crimson, the Dixie Dregs, Brand X and Rage Against the Machine, and you’re in the ballpark.
Guthrie has prodigious technique, and would probably be more of a guitar hero stateside if he wasn’t still based in England; Minnemann’s boundless chops can include separate, Buddy Rich-style solos on drums, cymbals, and stick-on-stick. The group has a new fourth studio album, You Know What…?, and performs at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on Aug. 15.
“We’ll definitely play portions of the new album,” Beller says by phone from Baker City, Ore., in between Aristocrats West Coast tour stops in early July. But we’ll go back through the catalog and play a few select older numbers and fan favorites as well. It’ll definitely be an evening of Aristocratic musical mayhem.”
Such a “rowdy democracy of musicianship,” as Govan has dubbed The Aristocrats, is the trio the versatile Beller has prepared for since starting his recording career 25 years ago. Few other bassists could be creative enough to navigate the serpentining, genre-defiant catalog of Keneally, then turn around to hold down the bottom on Satriani’s nuevo-metal musings. And the trio setting, in which every musician has to listen and know when to pass the baton and when to run with it, is probably the most musically democratic.
The Aristocrats suitably formed in an improvised setting when Beller and Minnemann were paired up to play with fusion guitar icon Greg Howe at the 2011 Anaheim Bass Bash at the Winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. When Howe couldn’t make the performance, Govan (Asia, GPS) became an 11th-hour replacement after an impressed Beller viewed a video of him on a fan’s recommendation. The trio had only one rehearsal, yet put on a spontaneous performance that wowed both the crowd and the participants.
“The chemistry was so great,” says Govan, “that when we came offstage, we all said to each other, ‘This is working. We should record this.’”
You Know What…? features everything from marauding metal (“Terrible Lizard”) to a waltzing ballad (“Last Orders”) and a bluegrass-inspired piece, “When We All Come Together.” The feel is at once loose and tongue-in-cheek, yet airtight in its delivery by the three musicians, each a multi-instrumentalist.
“When you listen to ‘Last Orders,’ you might think I’d written it, because it has such an intricate bass part,” Beller says. “But that’s one of Guthrie’s tunes. He’d even sent me a demo recording with him playing that very same bass part.”
Scenes From the Flood, on the other hand, explores deeper themes, mostly instrumentally, with 26 musicians including guitarists Satriani, Keneally, Govan, John Petrucci, Janet Feder, Rick Musallam and Griff Peters, plus another current vastly underrated musician, drummer Joe Travers. The feels range from techno to to folk; classical to metal, yet involve more space and texture than the comparatively rowdy Aristocrats.
Beller even adds vocals to three explorative cuts, “Everything and Nothing,” “Army of the Black Rectangles,” and “Angles & Exits.” It’s the first release under Beller’s name since the brilliant 2011 concert document Wednesday Night Live, and his first studio effort since Thanks in Advance from 2008.
“It’s been 11 years since I did a studio album,” he says, “and I felt like I had a lot to say. The Aristocrats are a setting where we can have fun and play a lot of notes, but my own material tends to be more introspective and serious. I wanted to write an album that involved a lot of tension and release, based upon the concept of intention meeting reality.”
After moving as a child to Westfield, N.J., and growing up there, Beller proceeded to the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, where intention definitely met reality before he graduated in 1992. His previous studies included five years of piano lessons starting at age 8, plus 18 months of jazz theory lessons as a teenager.
“I had pretty much taught myself how to play bass,” he says, “but once I got to Berklee, I got my ass kicked.”
The school is renowned for humbling up-and-coming players as such, but also for fortuitous introductions. Berklee was where Beller met Travers, who was working with the band Z, led by Frank Zappa’s sons Dweezil and vocalist Ahmet. Another important Z ingredient was Keneally, who would become the conduit that most of Beller’s associations have since passed through.
Beller has been Keneally’s bassist for the bulk of the latter’s 25-plus-year solo recording career, appearing on gems like Boil That Dust Speck, Half Alive in Hollywood, Sluggo!, Guitar Therapy Live, Wine and Pickles, and Bakin’ at the Potato. Part Zappa and Yes, part Beatles and Todd Rundgren, Keneally is an inimitable singing, multi-instrumental blend of progressive rock, pop, and jazz/fusion. His association led to Minnemann, now Beller’s rhythm section mate with both The Aristocrats and Satriani.
“I first met Marco through Mike,” Beller says. “Mike wanted to play a pick-up gig in Europe, and he knew about Marco, who played the hell out of some very daunting Keneally material. And I’m like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He’d listened to the tunes, written his own charts, and was reading them right down. Marco was well-known in Europe then, but I wasn’t familiar with him. He’s since moved to California, and is definitely better-known here now. Mike was also the guy who recommended me to Satriani.”
Recent Satriani recordings and tours have been rounded out by the backing trio of Keneally (doubling on guitar and keyboards), Beller and Minnemann. Keneally’s most recent endeavor is as part of a forthcoming Frank Zappa (1940-1993) hologram tour that will also feature Travers and fellow former Zappa band members like guitarist Ray White, bassist Scott Thunes, keyboardist Robert Martin and percussionist Ed Mann.
“Scott Thunes is probably the bassist I most try to emulate through re-harmonization,” says Beller, whose unique choice of notes may be what most differentiates him from other bassists. “His playing with Zappa taught me to intellectually approach chord structures in different ways.”
Other Beller bass influences include Motown icon James Jamerson, jazz/fusion stalwarts Jaco Pastorius and John Patitucci, and rock and funk players John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine). With such a broad range of influences, Beller is uniquely able to provide a bottom-heavy cushion for vocalists and soloists, then turn around and trade phrases with those soloists with equal aplomb. His Jamerson-inspired tone is intermittently meaty, buttery or biting, and he blends the unorthodox note choices of Thunes and Jones, the slapping of Flea, the grit of Commerford, and the fluidity of Pastorius and Patitucci.
Thunes played with Keneally in Zappa’s final touring band in the late 1980s, and both musicians influenced Beller toward what he calls the “Americana fusion” path his career would become. It wasn’t what he expected.
“As a bassist, you want to support the band and not abuse the privilege,” Beller says. “I was ready to be a groove player who served songs, never thinking I’d be playing music like this. But a trio like the Aristocrats is about pushing boundaries, so it’s a great way for a bassist to open up and stretch. And I did a lot of trio playing with Mike and a few different drummers along the way, which made me up my game as far as what a bassist could contribute. So there’s something else to thank Keneally for.”
See The Aristocrats, with opening act the Travis Larson Band, at 8 p.m. on August 15 at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton ($25-$45, 561-395-2929).