“Music has always been about a good time for me,” explains guitarist/songwriter Hiram Bullock. “It’s always been fun. I didn’t do it because I didn’t have any other options. I didn’t do it because I thought I would become rich. I did it because it was fun. So basically that’s my perspective on everything that I’m doing.”
Since arriving in New York in the mid-Seventies, Hiram Bullock’s engaging, upbeat personality and wide-ranging musical skills have made him one of the most in-demand session men and soloists in contemporary music. Bullock has worked with vocal divas the likes of Phyllis Hyman and Barbra Streisand, rocking song stylists such as Billy Joel and Steely Dan, and funky instrumental ensembles fronted by David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and Gil Evans, bringing an irrepressible brand of energy and soul to each setting. His sweet soaring chord-melody style is much fuller and more harmonically varied than that of your average rocker, yet wilder and woolier than that of the average jazz picker.
But what really attracts Hiram Bullock to music, what really turns him on, is the feeling. “That’s because for me learning music was never something theoretical—it was always very emotional, and now it’s come full circle, because that’s the way it is for me on my latest recording, Carrasco. I’ve always loved these different sounds, and I wanted Carrasco to be my tribute to Latin music. This was certainly a very special band with all these cats from different musical cultures, and while it certainly isn’t authentic, in a true Latin sense, I’ve written a lot of tunes in this vein over the years, and given the opportunity to work with some of the top Latin players, I thought the time was right to do this kind of album.”
For Hiram Bullock, Carrasco is a travelogue, a weekend in the sun, a musical party which reflects his broad interests in a variety of musical tributaries from south of the border, with a nod to the cream of contemporary R&B and jazz. So at any given moment along the river you might encounter Bullock’s own Latin-flavored originals or fresh renditions of classic groove tunes by the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Dizzy Gillespie.
“It’s not as if I made this record to make a career out of playing Latin styles,” Bullock offers by way of clarification. “I wanted to have some fun and pay homage to this genre with Carrasco. You see, I used to live in as a kid, and that’s where I first started to play music—in the Canal Zone. My father worked for the government. As a teenager I used to tune into the shortwave radio, and that was my first exposure to Brazilian music. Last winter I spent a good deal of time in , playing and recording with one of their biggest stars, a guy named Ruben Rada playing candombe music. He’d recorded in New York, and he wanted to go back home and do a big show, so I ended up playing some shows on my own and some more with him. And I stayed the winter, which is their summer, and that’s where many of the songs began to take place.”
For Hiram Bullock, the musical journey began on September 11, 1955 in Osaka, , where he was born, the son of a CIA career-man. Growing up in Baltimore, Bullock studied classical piano at the Peabody Institute, but drifted from music into sports. He taught himself the saxophone one weekend at a military boarding school so he wouldn’t have to carry a rifle in parade, then took up bass guitar when the saxophone didn’t prove loud enough and he discovered that rock ‘n’ roll was a neat way of getting girls to talk with you. “We were a high school band in Baltimore, playing at a teen center, and our guitar player passed out in the middle of ‘Mississippi Queen,’” he laughs. “He was howling away when he just fell right over, and ten girls leaped onto the stage and were all over him—‘Oh, my God, John!’—and I thought, ‘You know, I ought to play guitar.’
“You see, for me it was like a social thing. It was not some kind of jazz destiny.” But when Hiram began attending the University of Miami, he got to study a semester with Pat Metheny, who challenged him to evolve and excel on his instrument. “Even though I had studied piano classically, the guitar was a totally colloquial instrument to me,” Hiram explains. “Pat was only a year older than me, but he was a guy who knew exactly what he was doing from the beginning. He was extremely focused, and a very good teacher. He told me ‘What you have can’t be taught, and everything else, you can learn.’”
Bullock soon found himself working regularly with singer Phyllis Hyman, “doing all the usual schlocky gigs. We played five sets, from a dinner set to a disco set. We started off with ‘Satin Doll’ and ended with ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ And you learned to play everything over six nights a week.” On a lark, Bullock accompanied Hyman to New York over a spring break, convinced they’d be home in a month. Bullock soon found himself swept up in enthusiasm for the singer’s work, and in the space of one month he’d abandoned his plans to attend law school because he was having too much fun. He began performing with David Sanborn and the Brecker Brothers, working round the clock as a session man, and doing high-profile gigs for producers like Narada Michael Walden and Phil Ramone. Within six months he had gold and platinum records on the wall—he was all of 19.
And in the intervening years—from leading his own 24th Street Band, to those regular Monday nights with musical guru Gil Evans (the arranger loved him for his “unguitaristic-guitar”), to making his own recordings for Trio, Atlantic, Big World, and Venus—Bullock has sustained his love of music, and his joy in sharing it. Unlike some working pros, it’s never stopped being fun, and you can feel that deep in every groove on Carrasco.