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Meet Ari Giancaterino

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ari Giancaterino.

Ari, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I first began my musical experience, like a lot of people, through my elementary school. I was lucky enough to have a music program at my school and t came at the perfect time in my life. Maybe around 6th grade, I joined my school’s orchestra at Eagle Rock Elementary. This was a rare thing for a public school to have a small band/orchestra. In any case, I started on cello. My dad is a bass player and had a long career as a performer and composer as well and, while he never necessarily pushed me in the direction of playing an instrument, he was definitely happy about it. He and my mom both worked really hard to pay for my music lessons on cello and I’m forever incredibly grateful to them for this. As I got into middle school and high school, I decided to start playing bass for a few reasons.

First off, I started becoming much more interested in playing jazz because of my middle/high school band director, Mr. Greg Samuel. He was an intense but awesome teacher who really pushed his students above and beyond their own musicality and I always feel a sense of gratitude for his encouragement when I expressed an interest in playing a more classic “jazz-oriented” instrument like the bass (again, I’m super grateful to my dad and mom for working so hard to get me an upright bass and electric bass to practice on.) I also just kind of felt like the bass was a better fit for me as I was listening to a lot of different kinds of music, especially rock and jazz- I would listen to music from Coltrane to the Beatles to Rage Against the Machine. To this day, I feel like the spirit and energy of all these artists remain at the core of the music I write.

Around sophomore year of high school, I was looking for a change. Like a lot of teenagers, I always felt somewhat isolated at school. I was a band geek and kind of a dorky/weird kid (same as today haha). One day, my mom was looking through the newspaper and she clipped out a small ad for a school called the Los Angeles County High school for the Arts. They were a public high school that specialized in arts education and intense focus on arts of all kinds and they were having auditions for their 2010 school year. I decided to audition and it was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.

Here I learned so much about jazz performance, music theory, composition, and I was lucky enough to study with incredible greats in the music world like Jason Goldman, Walter Smith III, Bill Wysaske, Kenny Dennis, & John Clayton to name a few! Aside from my teachers, every other student at LACHSA taught me so much about music and art and I felt so incredibly lucky that I have friends who motivated me, inspired me, and pushed me to become a better musician and individual. I was constantly around musicians who were not only more advanced than I was at a technical level but on an artistic level. Looking back on it now, I was incredibly spoiled.

After high school, I went on to study music at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music (so I guess I really was spoiled haha). I always felt a lot of pride in this, especially because I had worked really hard at school to get scholarships to be able to go to a good university- like a lot of families, my family didn’t have a ton of money during this time due to the recession and some other factors. I was also one of the few in my family to go to college so getting to go to USC off of merit of my grades and my playing was a huge thing for us.

While at USC, I was so incredibly fortunate to have studied with some of the greats in jazz including Bob Mintzer, Alan Pasqua, Darek Oles, Peter Erskine, Ambrose Akinmusire, Russ Ferrante, Vince Mendoza, & Roy McCurdy. Every single one of these giants undoubtedly continues to shape my music and has influenced me in profound ways. On top of these amazing teachers, my peers were a huge influence on me and I have gained so many life-long friends through that program at USC.

After graduating from USC, I took some time off from college to gain some real-world experiences. In that time, I taught music, worked at Trader Joe’s, saw a ton of musical acts, played gigs at night throughout LA, and went on an amazing West Coast tour with my friends from USC in our band “The Crowtet”. It was a great time, but also a time of a lot of self-doubts and, frankly, periodic depression. The market for jobs isn’t easy and that’s especially true for the music industry. On top of that, I really felt like my direction as an artist and as a professional musician was undefined. There were still so many directions I could go and it was easy to feel like giving one thing my attention was taken away from another possibility.

It was also often petrifying because I would see my peers on Facebook and Instagram and they would already be touring with some artist, or getting a record deal, or landing some nice secure job. This definitely inspired me and I’m proud of all of them, but there was, of course, a side of me that felt as though they were going down the right path, and… well, what the hell was I doing? What was the merit or value of anything I did? Anything I created? What really did I want to show the world? What did I want to say? Did the world really need to hear what I had to say or was I just having an ego trip? Was music really the thing I had to do, or have I just wasted all my time? And then I met Bennie Maupin.

One night, I was playing a gig at a restaurant with one of my keyboard professors from USC- David Arnay (1,000 thanks to David). David asked me if I’d be down to go see Bennie Maupin perform the following Sunday at a local Zen garden in Pasadena. David also said he’d introduce me since they were friends. I couldn’t believe it. I would get to meet the saxophonist for Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters! I played that album at least 1,000 times since I was a teenager! When I first met Bennie, he immediately had a presence that filled the room. Bennie’s the kind of guy that doesn’t need to say much, doesn’t need to play much, and nobody can deny the weight behind everything he does. I could tell, immediately, I wasn’t just meeting some jazz celebrity. I was meeting a whole person with a staggering life-force, a language, and a philosophy that extended through and beyond the notes, he played on his horn. Needless to say, I was so nervous to meet him, and after he invited me to jam with him and his band, I was near-petrified.

Luckily, Bennie’s openness was contagious and he and I grew to be close friends as well as him being an incredible mentor to me. I eventually went on to play throughout L.A. with Bennie and his ensemble and in this time I learned not only a ton of musical tools but also about the importance of developing oneself as a whole person. Bennie is still a great mentor to me in this regard. As a devout Buddhist, Bennie always shares musical concepts in the contexts of its application to life. He taught me that we have to separate our egos from all of our actions and the truest and purest expressions of ourselves are the ones worth pursuing.

Like music, life takes focus, persistence, and practice and all the tools to reach our highest potential are already available to us. It’s just about being open to the possibilities that lead us there. I am still processing and unpacking a lot of these One night, I was playing a gig at a restaurant with one of my keyboard professors from USC- David Arnay (1,000 thanks to David). David asked me if I’d be down to go see Bennie Maupin perform the following Sunday at a local Zen garden in Pasadena. David also said he’d introduce me since they were friends. I couldn’t believe it. I would get to meet the saxophonist for Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters! I played that album at least 1,000 times since I was a teenager! When I first met Bennie, he immediately had a presence that filled the room. Bennie’s the kind of guy that doesn’t need to say much, doesn’t need to play much, and nobody can deny the weight behind everything he does.

I could tell, immediately, I wasn’t just meeting some jazz celebrity. I was meeting a whole person with a staggering life-force, a language, and a philosophy that extended through and beyond the notes, he played on his horn. Needless to say, I was so nervous to meet him, and after he invited me to jam with him and his band, I was near-petrified. Luckily, Bennie’s openness was contagious and he and I grew to be close friends as well as him being an incredible mentor to me. I eventually went on to play throughout L.A. with Bennie and his ensemble and in this time I learned not only a ton of musical tools but also about the importance of developing oneself as a whole person. Bennie is still a great mentor to me in this regard.

As a devout Buddhist, Bennie always shares musical concepts in the contexts of its application to life. He taught me that we have to separate our egos from all of our actions and the truest and purest expressions of ourselves are the ones worth pursuing. Like music, life takes focus, persistence, and practice and all the tools to reach our highest potential are already available to us. It’s just about being open to the possibilities that lead us there. I am still processing and unpacking a lot of these lessons.

Bennie’s lessons gave me a lot of confidence to pursue my own independent artistic endeavours, but I still felt like I needed more training. After a recommendation from Bennie, I decided to get my master’s degree in music from the California Institute of the Arts. I fell in love with CALARTS from Day 1. The openness and passion of the students/artists are unmatched. I was so fortunate to have professors like the musical greats Joe LaBarbera, David Roitstein, Larry Koonse, Steve Lehman, Vinnie Golia, Bennie Maupin, & my bass mentor Darek Oles to name a few.

My time at CALARTS was also accompanied by some incredible musical milestones in my life. I had never composed as much music as I had in my time there and it was here that I wrote all of the music that I would have on my 2018 released album “Fear Animated”. This was the first in a series of albums and projects I plan to release throughout my life. I had also never yet been quite so active as a musician at this time in my life. It felt like every day I was playing bass for someone’s own project or co-collaborating on a composition or performing in LA with a new band. With CALARTS, I made friendships that I know will last the rest of my life.

As it wasn’t so long ago that I graduated with my master’s degree, I am still becoming reacquainted with the trials and wonders of everyday life. I am not only performing my own compositions and others’ projects throughout LA and California, but I am also teaching young students. Teaching is another one of my passion projects and I hope to continuously make this a part of my life. I am also planning on releasing a new project by the end of this year with more of a focus on songwriting fused with my particular musical knowledge. I now see the future as a thing to look forward to. Even with all of life’s challenges, I get to create things and make things happen every day. I also get to share it with other people. If I can continue to make things and share them with others, I am truly happy.

Has it been a smooth road?
I still never feel like I’ve fully reached a destination with my career. In fact, I really feel like things are just beginning for me. I think as long as we’re alive, we’re constantly going “along the way” to something else. This being said, it hasn’t been and still isn’t always a smooth road. I’m the kind of person who can become simultaneously inspired and distracted by possibilities. Especially in my younger formative years as a musician, I often compared myself constantly to other people and NOT in a flattering way. I always sort of had an inferiority complex about how good of a bassist I am, or how good of a composer, or how good I am at “hustling” or “making connections”. I used to really think I was a burden on others and always felt I needed to be great all the time just to stay afloat.

While I still have these negative thoughts from time to time, I think in general I’ve become happier with myself and also more understanding that everybody on this planet goes through the same negative self-deprecating thoughts. At least, I think most people who create anything go through this. That’s why Bennie Maupin’s lessons really helped because they reminded me that we have to separate our egos from what we do. Honestly, I think my biggest struggle in life has been an anxiety about showing others what I can do out of fear of rejection. Now, I just make stuff and perform and let people think what they may.

Please tell us more about your work. What do you do? What do you specialize in? What sets you apart from competition?
If I had to sum it up, my company is myself. I’m a freelance bassist by trade. I’m really known for my professional performance on upright and electric bass. I have performed countless recording sessions and performances throughout Los Angeles in all kinds of genres. This is my bread and butter. But I think what I’m currently known for and what I specialize in is my highly stylized and individualized tone and voice on the upright bass and my ever-evolving improvisational, punk-rock-like approach to jazz composition.

Currently, I’m most proud of the fact that I still am composing and creating original music. I never want to lose this, and I believe most people don’t get this opportunity. I think what may set me apart from other performers and composers is the combination of my openness to perform and compose in so many different styles of music while still maintaining a defined and highly personal voice in these performances or compositions. I have always prided myself on being open, evolving, supportive, and consistent.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
In many ways, it is difficult for me to speak on this subject matter because I was born in Los Angeles and have lived here all of my life. In some respects, I do not know entirely what music scenes really are like in other cities, so comparing LA vs anywhere else is sort of a difficult thing to do. However, having lived here all of my life thus far (25 years) I can say that there are positives and negatives to being a musician in LA.

First, I’ll start with some of the challenges of music life as I see it in LA. For starters, L.A. is a very expensive place to live and this can often leave you feeling like the things that you do aren’t “enough”. I heard recently on NPR that southern Californians on average actually have a lower life satisfaction regardless of economic background and they think it has much to do with a general high cost of living. I can definitely see this and I would advise anybody coming into LA, no matter where you come from, to be conscious of this factor of L.A. However, I’m seriously hoping this advice doesn’t deter anyone from coming here. I have a lot of friends from all over the country and world from a myriad of different socio-economic backgrounds and I’m so inspired at how almost all of them have been “making it” here due to their hard work and determination and they’ve been building a great life for themselves. Secondly, L.A. is also very competitive.

I’m proud of my work as a bassist and composer and I feel I have been really picking up steam through the years with the amount of performances I’ve done and the material I’ve put out. Yet, there are a lot of bassists and composers with my background and training that all want to gain from the incredible opportunities L.A. has to offer. I’ve concluded for myself that the best way to stand out in a crowd is to not think too much about the crowd and just be genuinely who I am and keep my nose to the grind. I know it sounds cliche, but it makes sense because everyone in the world has a unique worldview that, at times, overlaps with others’. If you just keep working on yourself as a person and artist and continue to develop that thing that genuinely stands true to you, it’s my belief that you’ll find your audience- even if it takes a while. I don’t know, maybe I live by romantic cliches but sometimes it feels true to my reality.

Ok, so the positives- L.A. is incredibly diverse and you can find literally any kind of music here. If you had an interest in, let’s say, Afro-Cuban “salsa” music. You could literally go to a Cuban restaurant with a live band playing, go up to one of the musicians in the band, and 9/10 times, you’ll get your first connection that will send you down a rabbit hole of opportunities and jam sessions and gigs. Colleges are a good place to learn a lot of music too. Even if you couldn’t enroll in a college music program, plenty of schools around LA have incredible music programs where students have an incredible thirst to play with new musicians in town- if you ask nicely, that could be you! L.A. also has a lot of venues, a lot of artist centers, opportunities for grants, and it’s one of the strongest centers for commercial music in the world!

If someone was just starting out, I might advise them to come into L.A. with an openness to opportunity and new experiences yet a sincerity to what they want to do and who they are as a person and artist. This is the instance I may advise them to start out in L.A. I’m still trying to figure it out too so if anybody has any advice for me, I’d love to hear it.

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Image Credit:

“Fear Animated” Cover Painting- Amanda Sciulla
Ravinia Institute
CALARTS

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1 Comment

  1. Susan

    November 5, 2019 at 19:34

    What a great article about a fine young musician. Ari is delightful, appreciatie and humble. I expect his talents and personality continue to take him in great directions.

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