Jazz Concepts: Playing a Ballad Like Scott LaFaro

March 17, 2017

Slow ain’t easy. Most bass ists first learn to groove on medium tempos. Then, after their chops improve, they tackle fast bass lines and solos. Learning to play a beautiful ballad with solid time and just enough space is often the last skill they develop. That’s why jazz players call slow ballads “adult tempos.”

Scott LaFaro earned his reputation as a bass genius by playing soloistic flurries up and down the neck while interacting musically with his bandmates. His work with the Bill Evans Trio was brief (1959–61), yet it changed jazz ensemble playing forever. We seldom talk about LaFaro as a brilliant ballad player, even though he pioneered the art of playing open, freely interpreted time at achingly slow tempos. This month, let’s look and listen to LaFaro playing a simple ballad, and see what we can learn about the art of playing low and slow.

“Blue in Green” was first recorded on Miles Davis’ milestone jazz album Kind of Blue [1959, Columbia, Paul Chambers on bass]. Davis and pianist Bill Evans were originally listed as co-composers of the gorgeous tune with its luxurious harmony, although in 2002 the Davis estate finally gave Evans full composer credit. Evans also recorded the ten-bar ballad on his milestone trio album Portrait in Jazz [1959, Riverside], with LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums.

Find a quiet five minutes and 25 seconds, and listen to “Blue in Green” from the Bill Evans Trio. Now that your pulse has calmed and you’ve languished in the sound of the trio, listen again—this time focusing on LaFaro’s bass line [Ex. 1, take 3 from the 1959 session]. In the first two ten-bar choruses, LaFaro plays whole-notes, laying a foundation for Motian and Evans to frame the sparse melody and form. This is an example of perfectly improvised orchestration. Evans floats through the melody while sparsely fleshing out a few chords; Motian plays light but steady quarter-notes with almost no embellishment; LaFaro underpins the piano and drums with perfectly placed, full-bodied notes.

LaFaro plays the first two choruses exactly the same, his fat whole-notes cushioning the collective sound. In the third chorus (bar 11), the trio moves into double-time. There are two types of double-time that jazz rhythm sections use:

1. Implied double-time: The harmonic rhythm (the movement of the chord progression) remains the same, but the bass and drums and possibly other instruments imply a tempo twice as fast as the original tempo. The feeling is illusory, because the underlying tempo (the movement of the harmony) is not faster. This type of double-time is often described as a double-time feel.

2. Double-time: The harmonic rhythm doubles along with the rhythmic feeling. In other words, the pulse and the harmony move along twice as fast. This type of double-time is often described as a real double-time.

On “Blue in Green,” the trio moves into real double-time in bar 11, after the first two melody choruses. All three musicians double the rhythmic pulse and the harmonic rhythm from the third chorus onward. The tempo of the first two melody choruses is 64 bpm; the third chorus doubles to 128 bpm, when Evans begins his improvised solo. Starting in the third chorus, the feeling of the groove is like a medium-swing, and the chords move by twice as fast as in the first two melody choruses (bars 1–10). In bars 13, 17, and 20, LaFaro leaves out the downbeat—beat one—which establishes an open, interactive feeling.

In bars 13, 14, and 20, LaFaro uses quarter-note triplets, creating the illusion of stretching the time. Listen to how the three musicians interact, complement, and push each other. The Bill Evans Trio was famous for their open, communicative way of playing a groove; they didn’t just pump out the traditional soloist-on-top-of-bass-and-drums style that had been used in jazz for decades.

The beauty of LaFaro’s ballad playing lies in his ability to listen and play the appropriate part. LaFaro doesn’t always break up the time and play a lot of notes. He plays what is appropriate in the moment. In the first two melody choruses, he hypnotizes us with minimalism—the fewest notes he could play and still outline the harmony. In the following choruses, he steps out and provides the perfect commentary to Evans’ solo.

LaFaro was a brilliant technician and bass soloist. He was also a consummate team player, and will be remembered for his supportive playing in one of the greatest jazz piano trios. Talking to Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz [1979, NPR], Bill Evans said, “I choose the people in the trio as responsible musicians and artists. I can give them that kind of freedom and know they’re going to use it with discretion.”

INFO

JOHN GOLDSBY

Check out John’s new video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook. More info at truefire.com and johngoldsby.com.

LISTEN

Bill Evans, Portrait in Jazz [1959, Riverside]

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