October 30, 2014

The Bass Solo

Most of us have heard the jokes about bass solos: A couple complains to a marriage counselor that they’ve lost any ability to communicate. The counselor leads them down the hall and into a room where a jazz trio is playing. Just as they take their seats the bass solo starts, and immediately the couple starts talking to one another.
Or, the short version: Q: What happens when the bassist starts to solo? A: No one knows, everyone starts talking.
There’s some truth to this. Why is it that audience attention tends to wander when it’s time for the bassist to have his/her moment in the spotlight? I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and recently two incidents increased my focus.
I was listening to a wonderful Benny Carter CD, a 5-piece saxophone section with piano, bass and drums. In one particular tune, after multiple choruses of soloing by Benny Carter and Frank Wess, the bassist had his solo spot. Immediately I reached for the volume control.
Last week during my college radio show I was playing one of my own CDs which features Keter Betts on bass. During one song it was Keter’s turn in the spotlight. Once again I went for the volume control.
The string bass has always been a difficult instrument to amplify and record, and when it comes time for their solo they are often close to inaudible. In addition, have you ever noticed what the other musicians in a small jazz group do when it’s time for the bass to have its say? Typically they all stop. Is it any wonder that the audience attention can wander? When the sax, trumpet and piano solo, they are backed up by the bass and drums, providing both the groove and the song form. Then the bassist gets handed the ball and the rest of the team walks off the court. Admittedly there is an acoustic issue about playing during a bass solo. Any extra sound from horns, piano and drums tends to drown out the bass and cause them to play at a volume that is inconsistent with the feel of the music. If it’s not hard enough already, the bassist is usually the last in line for soloing. Just when the hands are going numb they become the focus.
Bassist Chubby Jackson, a veteran of the Woody Herman band, commented on this phenomenon:
Chubby Jackson
MR:    I’m always impressed by the physicality that must have been required to be an acoustic bass player at those times. I think of you back there, with, like you said, very little amplification, driving that whole band. Did you ever experience any physical harm?
CJ:    Oh yeah. A lot of times your arms get numb, your fingers too. You’re playing and all of a sudden they start to shake because your whole body is carried away with what’s expected of you. But physically at that moment, you’re not up to it. You know what I mean? Because everybody else in the band has a moment to sit with the horn in their lap, until the end of time. I said “the end of time.” You like it?
MR:    I picture some of those jam sessions where the horn players are lined up and playing “I Got Rhythm” and they come up for four or five choruses, next guy. And you guys are back there.
CJ:    Yeah. And then someone looks at you and said “take one.” Jeez. Take one. That’s the laugh of the century, when somebody points to the bass player, after 28 choruses have been in front, and your hands are in one of these. You know you walk around — I had hands on me that were so ugly, I used to keep my hands in my pockets all the time.
Chubby relied on his ebullient personality and stage presence to help him get through these trying physical moments.
I’ll admit that my jazz attitudes fall more in line with the previous era. I don’t think a jazz combo needs to have a bass solo on every song, just like I don’t believe having a drum solo on every song is necessary. But I also believe that the standard (melody—everyone solos—melody) format can induce audience apathy.
Recently, Jay Leonhart, one of the finest bass players working today, visited Hamilton College. On the drive to the school from his hotel we were talking about making a living in the music world, and Jay casually stated, “no one hires me for my solos.” I had the opportunity to interview Jay the next day and asked him, then why do other musicians hire him?
Jay Leonhart
JL:    I was always making enough money to pay my bills, to do what I needed to do. And I always worked. And that was because, I mean I don’t mean to sound arrogant at all, but it’s because I’m at the top of the class in terms of what I can do on the bass, in terms of the various things I can do. You know, Broadway, jazz, even symphony if need be. Oh I’m not a great symphony player but I’ve done it. I can read anything. And I’m very skilled. And I’m one of the guys who makes a living at it. And there’s so many who don’t. There’s so many musicians who can’t because the competition is ferocious. And you’ve got to have everything. You know, what do bass players need? Good pitch. Good time. Good sense of music. Good musicianship. It goes on and on — that list of things that bass players need to know how to do. And if you don’t do it just great, there’s somebody right around the corner who does, and people are going to find out.
MR:    Plus don’t you have to add to that, to sort of be likeable — a personality that people are going to want to call you back because of the way you are?
JL:    Oh God yes. That’s very important. I mean in any business, in every business, people say, like Woody Allen says, most of work is just showing up. That’s what he says. Then people say well if you’re not easy to work with, people don’t want to work with you, and they won’t. And that will get around and all of a sudden you’ll be out of business.
I think bass players have to have a certain mindset. They need to be musically fulfilled and take pleasure by playing the most significant role in the rhythm section. For me, it all starts with the bass. There’s no other instrument that can provide both the time and the harmonic guidelines of a song like a string bass can. I’ve noticed a phenomenon in the last number of years: bassists who play their instrument like a saxophone. In other words, bass players who just aren’t satisfied with their role in the band and play as if they are responsible for both the melody and the soloing at the same time. Invariably the feel of the group suffers.
Here’s my own ideas about what might keep the audience conversation from peaking during the bass solo:
 Break up the routine — find a different order for solos; instead of sax, trumpet piano, try having the bass be the first soloist.
Let the bass play the melody — there’s an interesting concept — either a solo bass melody or in unison with one of the horn players. This will get the audience’s attention and let the bass player have a memorable moment.
More bowed bass solos — it’s been my observation that when the bass player picks up his bow people perk up.
The horns, piano and drums play hits (chords on the downbeats) during the bass solo, marking the time and keeping the audience with them while letting the bass fill the spaces in between. This works especially well with the 12-bar blues. Or, have the horns do what clarinetist Kenny Davern called “footballs” (barely audible whole notes on the chord tones).
Consider limiting the bass solos, but limit everyone else’s solo as well. Vary the soloists on subsequent song selections. There’s no written rule in jazz etiquette books that horn players and piano players must solo on every song. Distribute them across your set and go for some variety.
My advice to young bass players echoes Jay Leonhart’s. For every hour you work on your technique and your bass soloing abilities, spend two hours learning to play time and memorizing the songs that you’ll be called upon to play.
Milt Hinton, the “Dean of Jazz Bassists” summed it up: the players in the rhythm section are providing a rhythmic service, don’t ever forget it.