Chromatic Kerfuffle

December 5, 2017

We’re continuing our chromatic journey this month. In this tour up and down the fingerboard, we’ll look at some useful endings, a chromatic walking line, two bebop licks, an internet kerfuffle, and a classical hit.

Does your band ever go into one of those nonstop turnarounds, where no one seems to know how to end the tune? If you’re vamping into the abyss, give your drummer that “Follow me, we’re outta here” look, and throw down one of these beauties (Examples 1 and 2), common endings that use chromaticism. Example 1 starts on the 5th (the note G) in the key of C and scurries up chromatically to the root C. Example 2 moves down chromatically from the G to the root. The rest of the band will be slightly bugged that you strong-armed them, but also grateful you got them out of the bottomless pit of turnarounds and never-resolving sus chords. Sometimes, the bass player has to take charge and end the tune. The chromatic movement from the dominant (the note G) up or down to the tonic (the note C) is powerful and effective.

Example 3 is called the sharp 4 ending. In the key of F, this ending starts on the note B (the #4 or #11) and moves down chromatically to the root. Check out Paul Chambers with Miles Davis on “Bye Bye Blackbird” [’Round About Midnight, 1957, Columbia] to hear an uber-hip variation of the sharp 4 ending.

Bass teachers often preach that repeated quarter-notes in a walking bass line are harmonically redundant, repetitive, and boring. Not true—sometimes the best way to outline chromatic root movement is to repeat the root and emphasize the sound of the half-step motion. Example 4 is a common variation of the first four bars of “I Got Rhythm” (also called Rhythm changes). You could use more complicated alternatives when walking on this chord progression, but your saxophonist will thank you for simply outlining the chromatic root movement with repeated notes, as shown here.

Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey begin their version of “Donna Lee” [Bass Extremes I, Alfred Music] with a half-time chromatic phrase from the melody (Ex. 5) before launching into a furious, high-octane, up-tempo rendition of the complete theme. This chromatic line occurs in the last eight bars of “Donna Lee.” The melody—a bebop anthem composed by saxophonist Charlie Parker—has inspired and plagued bassists since 1976, when Jaco Pastorius kicked off his debut album with a bubbling duet version, accompanied by Don Alias on congas [Jaco Pastorius, Epic/Legacy/Sony].

“Hot House”—another Parker original—is a contrafact based on the chord progression to the Cole Porter standard “What Is This Thing Called Love.” The term contrafact describes any composition based on the existing harmonic structure of a different song. Example 6 shows the chromatic line from the first four bars of “Hot House,” an often-quoted lick that jazz players like to use over a II–V progression.

The most recognizable of all chromatic melodies is probably “Flight of the Bumblebee” (Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, from the opera Tale of the Tsar Saltan). Up to tempo, the melody is challenging on electric bass, and extremely athletic on double bass (Ex. 7). An internet kerfuffle recently arose when a certain double bassist (who shall remained unnamed) posted his MIDI-synced version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” and claimed it to be his actual live playing—a superhuman, metronomically perfect version with flawless intonation. His Milli Vanilli-style performance raised hackles in the bass community and prompted many philosophical thoughts exploring the pros and cons of how music is recorded, edited, manipulated, and presented. The ensuing discussion and dissection of the video on bass forums makes for an interesting study of YouTube culture, integrity and honesty in marketing music, and the perception of sound and visuals.

Aside from the plentiful poseurs seen and heard all over the interwebz, there are several classical masters playing impressive versions of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Google-worthy videos include: Michael Wolff, Alexander Muravyev, Ludwig Streicher, Vardan Hakobyan, and Ivan Kitanović. For a high-speed, mind-and finger-bending flight, listen to Simon Fitzpatrick tap through his high-speed version on 5-string electric (see Connect box). The bar is raised. Even if you never work up to shredding “Donna Lee” or “Flight of the Bumblebee,” you should have the chromatic scale under your fingers.

INFO

JOHN GOLDSBY

John learned the head to “Donna Lee” 40 years ago, but not once has a sax player asked him to play the melody on a gig. Check out his video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook, at truefire.com and johngoldsby.com.

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