Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Bass Groove

The double bass is a classical string instrument, traditionally played arco (with a bow). It entered jazz through the march band route, replacing the brass bass section (tuba, sousaphone, bass saxophone) to provide the bass line. Given the swing that was needed for jazz, it soon transformed itself into a pizzicato (plucked) instrument.  Plucking styles evolved to include the slap and the bounce to keep up with the loudness of the rest of the band. The signature walking bass line that we identify the blues with developed very quickly, and by the 1930s, the upright bass was a standard fixture for most jazz bands. The fretted electric bass entered the scene in the 50s. The compositional and performance dynamics of the jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) brought the role of the bass into greater focus. In addition to clever solos, which is perhaps what most listeners identify it with, the bass plays a crucial role in helping the performance hold on to rhythm, structure and harmony. In this post, we explore the masters of the jazz bass.

The Pioneers

Jimmy Blanton was the first to bring the bass up front from the 4/4 quarter note background of big bands. His style was a major contributor to the new sound of the Ellington band along with saxophonist Ben Webster.  Ellington would later record a tribute album with Ray Brown (1973) called This One’s For Blanton.

Jimmy Blanton Duke Ellington – Pitter Panther Patter (3:12) 

Leroy “Slam” Stewart is overshadowed by his peers Blanton, LaFaro, Pettiford, primarily for the complexity of his classically trained style. He played solos in the arco style while scatting an octave higher. 

(1945) Slam Stewart Don Byas – I got Rhythm (5:00)

Scott LaFaro performed for less than 6 years, and recorded for less than 3 years, but is one of the most flamboyant early bassists, turning comping into a melodic and rhythmic feast. He treated the bass like a guitar, without the blue collar gravity that most bassists of his time exuded.  This track is from one of the greatest ever jazz sessions. 

(1961) Scott LaFaro Bill Evans Paul Motian – Alice in Wonderland (7:06) 

The Great Masters

Charles Mingus’s formidable body of work places him among the great composers, bandleaders and bassists.

(1959) Charles Mingus – Cryin Blues (5:03) 

(1962) Ellington Mingus Roach – Fleurette Africaine (3.36)

Ray Brown was the bass groove behind much of Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Ftizgerald that you can hear (he was married to Ella between ’47 and ‘52). His work spans over five decades and collaborations with masters from across eras and genres. Here he performs with another great bassist, John Clayton.

(1994) Ray Brown John Clayton – Five O’clock Whistle (5:13) 

Ron Carter is the godfather of the jazz bass if there ever was one. He builds upon his richly detailed pure and brilliant sound with melodic and technical innovation that is unrivaled. He has over 2500 albums to his credit, and is one of the architects of the second Miles Davis Quintet (Davis, Shorter, Hancock, Williams, Carter)

(1984) Ron Carter – Willow Weep For Me (7:17)

Dave Holland was Miles’ bass sound for three years after he replaced Ron Carter in 1968. Precision, power, and technique define his work. Like Miles, he too was a great experimenter and collaborator, working on many of the newer sounds that were to emerge from the 80s onwards.

(1993) Dave Holland –Mr. P.C.  (3:38) 

New Directions

Steve Swallow was among the first to switch over entirely to the electric bass. He interprets cool and hard bop, fusion and avant garde with equal ease. His most endearing collaboration has to be with Carla Bley, his partner and bandmate.

Steve Swallow Carla Bley Duet (5:00) 

Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011, the first jazz musician to win it ever. She performed at the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize concert. She topped the Google trends as most searched for person in February 2010. Her influence, interest and style straddle time and sensibilities. An artist to keep an eye out for. 

(2010) Esperanza Spalding – Endangered Species (5:09) 

Marcus Miller is a multi-instrument player, classical trained as a clarinetist. He is best known for his bass work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Here he interprets a Weather Report classic.

Marcus Miller – Teen Town (4:56) 

Jaco Pastorius grew up in the world of fusion, free jazz, and collaborations. It was also the time that the greatest of guitar work was being crafted in the world of rock.  His experimentation with the electric sound, distortion, harmonics and technique have overshadowed his musical genius, but perhaps the fact that one cannot talk about jazz bass without referring to him is an indicator of his greatness. He is best remembered for his work with Weather Report, an electric fusion band fronted by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter.

(1978) Weather Report – Birdland (6:48) 

I hope you enjoyed reading and listening to this post as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Bassists that I could not cover here but are essential listening would include Oscar Petttiford, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Paul Chambers among the pioneers, and Charlie Haden, Christian McBride and Gary Peacock from the great masters. Among contemporary bassists, Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten are must listens.

This post is based on notes prepared for a jazz appreciation series for the Hyderabad Western Music Foundation.

1 comment:

  1. It is nice of you to take so much effort to educate & entertain the readers


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