Blues You Can Use: Jazzed Up

March 21, 2012
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RECENTLY, A READER WROTE TO ME complaining that I was presenting the blues as a dead platform with no room for creativity. He felt that my recommendation to learn the classic blues lines somehow stifled individual thought. He also expressed dismay at my reiterating the concept of playing in support of the song, as if it were my intent to keep bass players down, or in some way deny them musical freedom. He pointed to Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten, Niels- Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and other wellknown innovators of the bass as examples of what bass playing should be. No arguments there—but I contend that as bassists, sometimes we push the envelope, and other times we just lick the envelope. One man’s rut is another man’s groove.

“The blues” is a diverse, living art that takes on many forms, unified by the feelings expressed through it. There is no single “correct” way to play blues music, but in the early stages of this column, I want to discuss what is expected of a bassist on a blues gig. The reader’s complaint conveyed an unwillingness to play “the same old thing” and a desire to stretch out and explore new ideas through the blues.

My 35 years of professional experience have taught me that you must be able to play the blues straightahead and true to the idiom first, and “take it out” only if the vibe is right. I believe that most of the time, what you play is not as crucial as how you play it. I have spent many nights playing the “same old lines” on a blues gig and come home feeling enlivened because the band was in the groove, and the music lifted everyone up. If my agenda had been to reinvent the wheel (musically speaking) on those nights, I would have been a major buzz kill. If having the freedom to play whatever you want and push the bass to the forefront is your thing, find the right situation in which to do that. Chances are, however, that it won’t be a blues gig.

But what about jazz? Blues and jazz are inextricably linked, and jazz is well known for its emphasis on spontaneity and creativity. Blues artists like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Louis Jordan, Wilburt “Red” Prysock, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson straddled the line between jazz and blues, as did jazz artists like Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine, and Ray Charles. Jazz offers several freedoms to bassists not typically found in other styles of music, but keeping the form, outlining the chord progression, and making the music groove are still required. In jazz, however, we can take some liberties with bass player Rule No. 1 (play the root on beat one). In a 4/4 walking jazz line, for example, we have four notes per bar to outline the chords— if you don’t play the root on one, you can always shoot for the other three beats, or perhaps skip it altogether in the pursuit of a larger idea. It is possible to create lines that outline the big picture without getting hung up in the details.

Example 1 is a 12-bar chorus of jazz influenced blues. When a “jazzy” tune gets called on a blues gig, it’s an opportunity to break away from standard lines, but remember that you still have a job to do. This line has several examples of avoiding the root on the downbeat, and yet you can still feel a sense of direction. Example 2 is a 12-bar chorus of blues influenced jazz. The standard 12-bar form is augmented with some extra chord changes, and the line avoids much of the tried-and-true approach of the previous example. If you examine the relationship between each note and its chord change, the way the notes work together within one bar, and the overall shape and fl ow of the line, you will see that this unorthodox line still does the job. All you have to do is make it groove. These lines both veer away from simple pattern-oriented playing, but they remain functional and grounded. Finding that balance is one of the key skills of bass playing.

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