For most bassists coming from rock or funk influences, tackling Jazz is like looking over the ledge of a tall rooftop skyscraper; you could easily survive the frightful leap if you had the right gear. If you've ever thought of entering the wonderful world of Jazz from a Rock setting, this article will try to set you on the right path. Before making the leap however, you must be aware of a couple of things. Firstly and most importantly, you have to ask yourself how much you actually enjoy Jazz. Are you learning Jazz because your buddies tell you that "real musicians must learn Jazz" or because you actually enjoy the genre? Let us not forget that there are DOZENS of styles that fall under the Jazz nomenclature, and you don't necessarily have to like them all! If you hate Jazz, you're not alone! If that is the case, stop wasting your time and read another article. Secondly, you must be ready to invest slightly more time than you do learning most Rock or Funk or Metal styles. This is because Jazz bassists must be as aware of the form and chordal palette as well as the soloists. Pounding the root and "V" may sound awesome for Rock, but it gets tired in a Jazz setting. Thirdly, you have to realize that bassists have a huge role in Jazz but not an upfront role; respect for the soloists is essential as they rely on you to be on-time, outlining the form while maintaining a steady predictable pulse. Once we get through these three issues, you should be ready to strike out on your own! Knowledge of Jazz bassics will put you on the road to an enjoyable Jazz apprenticeship.
Jazz incorporates many styles and sub-styles like: Swing (Ellington, Armstrong), Big Band Swing (Ellington, Glenn Miller, Gil Evans), Be-Bop (Parker, Miles, Rollins, Monk), Modal Jazz (Miles, Coltrane, Hancock), Fusion (Metheny, Weather Report), and Modern (too many to mention). The most important thing to remember is to learn what you like to listen to. Don't kill yourself learning forms for tracks you hate just because you think it is bad medicine. Learning Jazz is much more than learning forms. If you want to get the most out of your learning experience, you must enjoy the music you're learning. I for example have fallen in and out of love with Jazz at least a dozen times over the past ten years. Now on to learning the tunes...
Most Jazz ensembles (bands) consist of a rhythm section (drums, bass, piano, organ, vibraphones and guitar) and a soloist or melody section (trumpet, sax, trombone, clarinet, vocalists, etc.) most instruments at one time or another modulate roles taking over the responsibilities of adjacent ensemble sections allowing for rhythm instruments to solo or soloists to comp (play chords). It is critical for bassists to concentrate on developing their rhythm section duties first and soloing second. More often than not, their playing is grafted to the drums because bass is the critical link between rhythm and melody. The piano/organ plays off the drums as well but fills in the chordal color grounded by the bass. Now that we have an idea of the role of bass, let us move on to learning tunes!
The core of almost all jazz tunes (especially standards) revolves around the melody, often called the "head", and the form which rockers call "the chords". Most tracks start with a stylized intro that sets the tone for the head. The intro segues seamlessly into the head. The head is played by the frontman or in unison with other players over the form. During the head, the soloists sing the song's melody and rhythm sections tend to be as simple as possible in order to add strength and emphasis to the melody upon which the solos will be built. Bassists tend to stick to roots, fifths and thirds/minor thirds with very brief passages into the sevenths allowing for the best consonance with the soloists playing the melody. The head usually encompasses the whole form. At the end of the head, the form starts over and soloists start weaving their melodic madness. This is where the bass, piano and drums shine in the background. The rhythm section is burdened with the task of listening
to the soloist and suggesting a suitable canvas for the soloist to paint on. As the solos move from one soloist to another, subtle rhythm section changes can be heard. The rhythm section could pick up the song by getting stronger or could drop out to accommodate a more ballad-like solo. Once the soloists have said what they want to say, the head is played once more and the form mo
ves to a stylized outro often resembling the intro.
The form forms the basis for bassists. The form (sometimes called a chorus) consists of the chords written to support the melody. They may be as simple as a single chord (or tonal center) vamp or as complex as you can imagine. When learning a song, get the full form from a fake book or sheet music; if you have good ears, you could rip it right off the track, but the sheet music is a valuable reference nonetheless. When studying a form, try to establish the intervallic relationship (the musical distance) between each chord; this will allow you to modulate keys more easily. Play the roots along with the record. Play only roots for a while and get a good feel for how the chords interact. Some intervals like the II, the IV and the V (esp. blues) seem to change easily and make perfect musical sense while others seem more obscure. Listen to the melody and how it changes as you change chordal roots. You will soon get a feel for why each root was chosen. For about two weeks of constant listening I couldn't understand how "Donna Lee" by Charlie Parker and Miles Davis made any sense, but gradually the melody's relationship to the chords gelled.
Once your roots are firmly in the ground, look at those strange markings coming after the capital letters announcing the roots. Your next challenge is to find the right third and fifth degree for each root. Whether major, minor, augmented, diminished, neither or both, the roots, thirds and fifths will make up the basis for about 70% of every walking bass line. Major 7ths, minor 7ths, and dominant 7ths dominate the scenery once the root, third and fifth are established. These degrees will add tremendous color to your idea palette. Now that you know the chords to the form, it is time to look at how we can creatively and musically move from one chord to another.
Moving from one chord to another creatively is where music theory comes into play, but your ears can take the place of music theory if you know how to listen. A walking bass line is constructed of three possible movements usually played in simple quarter notes: arpeggiated movement, scalular movement and chromatic movement. These three notions form the basis for "The Evolving Bassist" by Rufus Reid. No bassist should be without a copy of this book! Arpeggiated movement involves moving from one chord to the next or even moving inside a single chord using its native chordal degrees (arpeggios). Moving from a C major 7 to a G minor 7 in an arpeggiated fashion could involve the C, E, G, or B in any order. Landing on the G on the right beat is critical. Don't be arpeggiating the C when you're supposed to be on the Gm7 (unless you want to be fired)! Scalular movement involves using the scale of the chord you're on to move to the next chord. Moving from a C major 7 to a G minor 7 in a scalular fashion could involve the C, D, E, F, G, A or B. Chromatic movement involves moving up or down chromatically to the destination chord. A strong chromatic movement from Cmaj7 to Gm7 is: C, E, F, F#, G. Rufus Reid's "The Evolving Bassist" shows us that combinations of these movement vehicles is what constitutes a creative walking bass line.
Post-Be-Bop Miles Davis ensembles are always the perfect example of everything we are talking about here. The reason for that is quite simple. Miles was the father of COOL. He worked hard to pull down the often blistering tempos found in Be-Bop so that the melodies could breathe thus accommodating his relaxed poetic phrasing. An excellent simple example of combining the three basic movement concepts has been immortalized by Paul Chambers on the very first track of Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue". The superbly simple and melodic "So What" finds Paul Chambers moving effortlessly on Dm7 and Ebm7 vamps using its various arpeggiations, scalular, and chromatic properties. Chambers' creative but simple lines keep the Dm7 vamp to Ebm7 vamp rhythmically interesting while the brass masters (Miles, "Cannonball" Adderley, and Coltrane) move the melody. In fact, the entire "Kind of Blue" album demonstrates how Chambers supports the rhythm and simplifies its links to the melody. Bill Evans' tasty piano comping is sparse but poignant. Cobb, Evans and Chambers knew to stay out of the horns' way. It's almost like they knew as the session started that something special was going to happen...
Once you feel comfortable moving three ways on a single chord, you will need to look at more complex forms. This is where you'll need to use what you learned on simple examples to make movement from one chord to another interesting. Standards with strong melodies are often helpful to new Jazz bassists because the link between the melody and the chords is more obvious. Look at the forms for: "Night and Day", "Autumn Leaves", "My Funny Valentine", and Pat Metheny's "Question and Answer". Most musicians have heard of the former three, but the latter may seem a bit obscure. "Question and Answer" is easily Metheny's most melodic song. The form and melody are deceptively easy to learn but their interrelationship implies an inspiring complexity.
The 3/4 time track appears in its original form on the "Question and Answer" album and is so simple and complex at the same time that Pat's trio does live 17 minute versions regularly and Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Roy Haynes and Dave Holland recorded THE definitive version with Metheny on "Like Minds". I use this song regularly to calibrate my brain before embarking on a new musical endeavor. The most important things for bassists to listen to on the "Like Minds" version are Haynes (drums) and Holland (bass). Listen to the way they seem to chase each other. Haynes is always moving from behind to forward of the beat almost never hitting the ride right on the quarter note. Holland seems to have as little regard for the beat as Haynes. He foregoes the standard walking line for one that pushes and pulls the melody along in a most complex fashion.
Another aspect often overlooked by bassists involves learning the melody. Until now, we have been discussing the bass' rhythmic duties with respect to the form, but learning the melody of a track often gives the bassist insight into how the chords were chosen. In addition, the melody provides inspiration for solos and walkings that stay true to the song's theme. Soloists regularly paraphrase parts of the melody during their turn to shine and bassists are no exception. I have found that resolving to melody quotes during solos is a good way to re-center yourself when you get lost; and I get lost often.
Let's review some of the most important things to remember when learning Jazz bass:
"Experience is the hardest teacher of all ... it gives the test first and the lesson later."
- Be the unsung hero by supporting melodic efforts. Stay off the soloists' toes!
- Get a strong feel for the chord roots in the form and their timing with respect to the melody;
- Think about how the thirds, fifths and sevenths fit into the color of the chord;
- Learn to walk within a chord using its arpeggiated, scalular, and chromatic properties;
- Learn to walk from one chord to another using those same three properties;
- Learn the melody and think about how your walkings can compliment it;
- Practice and never stop learning!