How Many Bassists Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb?

February 23, 2012

HOW MANY BASS PLAYERS DOES IT take to change a lightbulb? You know the answer: One, five, one, five! The reason bassists can laugh at this stupid joke (as opposed to detuning the offending joke teller’s guitar when he’s not looking) is because it’s true. Bassists earn reputations, feed families, and get by in life partially through their ability to outline a basic I–V–I chord progression in a gazillion different ways. It’s the most common harmonic movement in all genres of Western music: I to V, and V to I. The progression is a type of turnaround, a series of chords that lead back to a harmonic starting point. Name any busy bassist, famous or not, and I bet you’ll fi nd a player who can really walk the dog—up, down, backward, forward, and sideways—all around the tonic- dominant-tonic turnaround.

I was inspired to write about this turnaround after listening to Sam Jones on the Barry Harris album At the Jazz Workshop [Riverside, 1960]. Jones had a wicked hookup with drummer Louis Hayes; at the time, they were a top rhythm section on the jazz scene, known for their funky brand of hard-driving bop with Cannonball Adderley. Jones had a knack for playing simple lines that nailed the harmony, but with a personal tone and earthy groove. He wasn’t one to flaunt chops, but his bass playing had attitude—and we all know that attitude trumps chops. Let’s look at ways to walk and embellish the tonic-dominanttonic progression, using some of Jones’ classic patterns.

Example 1 shows a walking line beginning on Bbmaj7 (the tonic, or I chord) to F7 (the dominant, or V chord), and moving back to Bbmaj7 (the tonic).

Once you have the pattern down in Bb, play it through all 12 keys (Ex. 2).

Example 3
shows a line that approaches the 5th (F) chromatically. I think of this as the “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” bass line, made famous by Walter Page with the Count Basie Orchestra [Complete Decca Recordings, 1938, GRP]. Sam Jones also uses the line numerous times on the Barry Harris album. The line is so perfect that it belongs to the common vocabulary of all bassists—from Walter Page to Sam Jones, and beyond. Play through the line in all 12 keys at various tempos. Want to funk out on the turnaround? Play the 16thnote version in Ex. 4 while channeling your inner James Jamerson.

In Ex. 5, Jones adds a bit of blues to the Bbmaj7 chord by walking down from Ab to F. This works, despite a slight harmonic clash: The Bbmaj7 chord contains the note A, not Ab as Jones plays in the line. The chromatic movement leading to the F on the downbeat is so strong that the listener doesn’t perceive a clash—it just sounds funky. In Ex. 3, the three chromatic half-steps lead upward to the target note F, whereas in Ex. 5 the three chromatic notes also lead inevitably downward to the F.

Examples 3, 4, and 5 show how you can produce a strong bass line using three chromatic leading tones. Example 6 uses two half-steps to approach the F in bar 2. Chromatic movement in a bass line is a strong way to emphasize target notes, usually the roots on the downbeats.

In Ex. 7, Jones suggests an added root movement, augmenting the basic Bbmaj7 to F7 progression by playing notes in bar 2 that imply Cm7 to F7. We can think of this as a substitution, a chord that is not in the original progression. Bassists, pianists, guitarists, and soloists often play or imply substitutions. In this case, Jones implies a Cm7 (the minor II chord in the key of Bb) before moving to the F7. Adding a IIm chord before a V chord is so common that it is arguably not a substitution, but rather just an embellishment of the basic harmony. A bassist can imply the IIm chord almost anytime a dominant V chord appears in a progression.

Example 8 strays even further from the basic Bbmaj7 to F7 progression. Jones plays Bb, jumps to Db on beat three of bar 1, and proceeds down chromatically. The Db clashes with the sound of the Bbmaj7 chord, but it works because of the strong chromatic movement back to the tonic (Bb). The line implies the substitutions Db7, Cm7, B7 leading to Bbmaj7.

There are countless books outlining theoretically correct ways to construct bass lines—but as Sam Jones shows us here, it’s often enough just to walk chromatically to a target note. Experiment with Sam’s lines, and next time we’ll dig deeper into the world of turnarounds.


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