Part 2: The Mysterious Inner Workings of the Rhythm Section--A Bass Player
“ To create the illusion of swing requires a bit of bounce and elasticity from the bass. ”
In the first part of this article, I described what the initial meeting and “getting-to-know-you” pre-bandstand event is for the rhythm section. Bassist meets drummer. Drummer meet bassist. Let the vibes begin.
The goal, obviously, is for the entire band to work its way toward a meaningful musical exchange that delights the audience. But what exactly do I mean by “musical exchange,” and how do you know when it’s working?
A musical exchange is a connection, a give-and-take, a conversation in the voice of music. The musical exchange usually takes time to develop—but it shouldn’t take the entire gig. Often, the band uses the first song as a way to adjust to one another and the environment. Everyone is busy adjusting either for the room acoustics, bandstand volume, or faulty equipment. As a bassist playing for a decade or three, however, I like the first song to count, and can usually make it count as long as I have the right chemistry with the drummer.
Let’s say the first song works—it’s a lot of fun and feels good. The drummer and I look at each other and let out a loud ‘Yeah,’ and the connection is made. You would think the night is guaranteed to be a success. You would think...
What happens now is the next level of the exchange. Some cats will just coast through the night and make the gig a walk in the woods. Others will try to push the envelope and see how far they can take the band. Either one is fine for me. I’ll have fun. Unless I run up against another dynamic: The bass-drums power struggle.
The Power Struggle
The power struggle is an interesting dynamic within the musical exchange. Let me illustrate it through my personal experience during a jazz gig I did on upright in a major city a couple of years ago.
I was setting up at the club when the drummer arrived and also started setting up. We said hello and began talking. He was older than I was, and I gave him the respect he deserved as a seasoned player. We seemed to get along famously. The first tune started and BANG! Groove city. It was great!
Then something happened. We lost the groove. Half way through the set a power struggle over where we were going to put the time began. I made adjustments left and right, wondering why we weren’t connecting. I immediately assumed it was something I was doing wrong. I thought to myself: “Maybe he doesn’t like where I’m putting the time, because I’m sure not loving where he’s putting the time. Is my amp blasting him?” I took the tactful approach and asked if there was a problem, and the answer was “no.” Everything appeared to be cool. Hmmmm.
As we continued into the next tune, it just wasn’t happening. At this point, the drummer began fluctuating the time as soon as we hit a groove. It seemed like he was undermining every opportunity we had to groove. I was puzzled, but remained (relatively) patient.
The second set was better. I had hope, but then sure enough the time got stupid again on the third song. By now, I had to believe that this drummer was copping an attitude with me. That he was a control freak. So, on break I decided to talk with him again, to try to connect on a personal level. And wouldn’t you know it, shortly into the next set we finally hit a groove and maintained it the rest of the night.
When playing time, bass and drums have to establish how they will attain the groove. Will it happen with the bassist playing on top of the beat and the drums playing true time? Or does the bass play real time and the drummer on top or behind? Or is it a combination of things depending on the tempo of the tune, the soloist’s approach, the chordal instrument’s comping? (Comping is another important factor, but that relationship belongs to the chordal player and soloist.)
It has taken me a long time and a bit of analysis to understand my approach to helping achieve a groove. I know that I tend to play too far on top of the beat if I’m not careful. What can I say; I get too enthusiastic at times.
I was taught that a good drummer will not budge. To create the illusion of swing requires a bit of bounce and elasticity from the bass. But this can easily get out of hand if the drummer misinterprets this as the bassist trying to bully the drummer. If this misunderstanding occurs, you’re back to the frustration of a power struggle, and that never amounts to good music.
Instead, another hard bop up tempo tune might be just the thing needed to exercise those demons and reset the backbone of the band, enabling them to finally hit a groove.
The Learning (and Re-Learning)
I remember having the opportunity to play with Steve Gadd in the studio, as well as live, some decades ago. This man is a human metronome. The first day while getting sounds, I took my handy pocket recorder and put it next to the studio monitors to have a sample of Mr. Gadd’s playing (that’s sample, not sampling ) for my own analysis.
I took the tape home and I played it in sync with a metronome. Well, let me tell you something: I had five minutes worth of Gadd’s playing on that tape and the time stayed with the metronome for all of it. Obviously, there was no doubt whose time I would rely on!
The next day, we started tracking, and my time deficiencies showed up within four measures. I was so far on top of the beat (mind you, I was excited about being on the session with a legend) that it became obvious to me that I had to do some major readjusting with my ‘feel.’
In contrast, when playing live with Gadd, I was awed by his intensity. His ability to adapt, to play with such intricate precision and passion was a real benchmark to match my playing against. This was the ultimate time lesson for me.
Every bassist and drummer pair have a special relationship—whether it’s the first time they’ve played together or the 91st time. The strength of that relationship—even if it is a temporary one—is projected on the bandstand through every note of every song. When a personal connection is made, a more genuine meaningful musical exchange can take place. And that makes the gig a hell of a lot more fun than dealing with four-hour power struggle.