Musician / Producer / Fusion Trail-blazer
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).
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."
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.
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."