By Rufus Reid
The bassist of any group or ensemble is the core, the foundation, the 'rock', one who stabilizes the unit when it becomes shaky and the individual that everyone depends on dearly 'to always be there!' If this is true, we as bassists must not ask questions as to how should things go. Bassists must take charge and state confidently the tempos when given and maintain them at all cost. If you study consistently and are thorough, you should know when you are in control. All members in the group desire a positive, confident and consistent posture by the bassist. The desired musician has what everyone wants and needs to make the ensemble the best. Let's explore the necessary aspects that will make you that desired bassist.
There are many assumptions as to what is the role of a respective musician when becoming part of a performing ensemble. Along with those assumptions there are expectations too. The bassist is that individual who has the unique ability to sabotage completely any and all ensembles immediately when not fulfilling the necessary musical attributes to make that band swing. It could be said that everyone in the ensemble has that same ability of destruction, but bassists do it better than anyone! The motto of every bassist should be: Always assume that you are the only rhythmic and harmonic substance. This will erase the dependence one thinks is needed from the drums or chordal instruments to clarify the music. The bassist doesn't need them at all to sound good. Ultimately, none of the group members need anyone else either. This independence will guarantee a higher percentage of success on the musical journeys of the group.
There is a particular mindset that a bassist must have to produce an environment that will make the group unified. The job description of a great bassist is to make the rhythm section swing. There is a hierarchy that is not usually spoken but does exist, to be sure. The bassist's primary concern is to become one with the drummer's pulse. The PULSE is that huge entity that allows personalities the ability to find that compromising place to meld together as a unit.
For example, the bassist's right hand producing the walking bass line must synchronize with the drummer's ride cymbal beat and vice versa. This can be done strictly aurally, but for the novice player it is recommended to use the both aural and visual senses to achieve this goal. When this happens correctly, the respective players should feel the unity obtained as a very special sensation that we call 'swing'. Now that the bass and drums have become 'one', the pianist or guitarist does not have a choice but to join them or stay out of the way. These three individuals working together now becomes a single unit, 'the trio'.
The trio is now that single entity that makes the frontline feel and sound better than ever. That is the sole job description of a rhythm section. Once this feeling of the pulse is established and confirmed with visual agreement, the rhythm section can become freer and more rhythmically interactive. The style of the music will dictate to what degree this interaction can be explored. No matter what the degree of rhythmic variations attempted, the 'pulse' must not be severed at all cost. Now the horns or whomever is in the frontline of the group have no choice but to blend and ride on this carpet of swing that the rhythm section creates. Now we have a solid unit, 'the band'. It is the responsibility of each group member to keep confirming to each other to maintain the desired feeling that has been established. That being said, the bassist usually gets the blame if something goes awry, even if it isn't their fault. This isn't fair, but true. All the more reason the bassist must be well-grounded and equipped with the necessary ingredients: concept, confidence, concentration and consistency to defend one's position as the true catalyst of the group.
When you tell people you are a jazz musician, you are actually saying you have myriad attributes well under control. Whether you do or not, that is the assumption. When one says they are a jazz bassist, it is assumed they know how to 'swing', can play the 'blues and rhythm changes', know numerous standards and jazz tunes, can play fast, can play in any key well, etc. Those attributes become crystal clear rather quickly if they are, in fact, under control. Your musical savvy is known immediately or not.
There are four words that I feel are essential and must be kept up front in our minds as we become involved in the creative process of a jazz musician. First, is the aforementioned PULSE. Second, is SATISFY. Third, is CLARITY. Fourth, is RECALL. PULSE:
a musical beat or regular rhythm
The pulse is intangible to the touch but can be felt incredibly when executed properly. For example, the pulse generally can be found when the metronomic beat is divided in half. Those two halves become that large part of the metronomic tempo. The faster the tempo, more than one pulse can be found that keeps dividing up equally. SATISFY:
meet expectations with convincing information
When the bassist plays a song 'a cappella', one should be able to render the melody and harmony as suggested by the music. The bassist should be able to outline the harmony through a bass line that has melodic voice leading which conveys the form and chords of the song without the piano, guitar or drums clarifying what it is. The desired bass line should be melodic and functional simultaneously. This may seem to be an impossible task, but as a bassist, you must appear to be an illusionist, a magician, if you will, to have the listener feel the drums and hear the harmonic instruments that are not present. CLARITY:
the quality of sharpness, transparency or purity of image or sound
All bassists must be clear to one's self before one can be truly clear to our listeners. Our first listener in the jazz group hierarchy is the drums, piano, etc. RECALL:
bring a fact, event or situation back into one's mind
When jazz musicians are creating and improvising music at its highest form, there certainly will be events occurring that were not planned. Sometimes they will be memorable enough to recall for a response of some kind in a musical manner. This is the player's choice to respond or not, but actually hearing the event go by while you are doing what is expected of you is the important thing to establish a musical thread throughout the group. Great continuity in the group will be established.
If 75% of your concentration is NOT on you, you allow new experiences to occur. True jazz improvisation means what happens NOW, in the moment, if you will. To best achieve this, the remaining arbitrary 25% must be securely grounded with rhythmic and harmonic skills. Therefore, functional knowledge of the keyboard is essential, no matter what your primary instrument. It is the brain that is initiating the thought process into the bass using scales and chords with rhythmic dexterity. Through daily practice this skill will emerge and become second nature. The ability to have 'peripheral hearing' will be the desired outcome of this practice. This is when the real fun will begin.