Randy Jackson: American Bass Idol

BEFORE HE BECAME A TALENT SCOUT and TV personality, Randy Jackson was a great bass player—and a BASS PLAYER columnist.
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From Summer 1990

BEFORE HE BECAME A TALENT SCOUT and TV personality, Randy Jackson was a great bass player—and a BASS PLAYER columnist. We signed him up right at the start, and he contributed a column called “Pop Bass” during our first year. (That’s “pop” as in popular music, not string popping— although Randy is good at that, too.) Even before “American Idol,” Randy was a very busy guy—touring, recording, and producing for everyone from Journey to Sister Sledge to Madonna—so getting 1000 words from him on a regular basis was an adventure. Sometimes he’d just call to talk about what was on his mind, and I’d cull his column from a transcription of our phone conversation. He did this once while he was eating dinner, and somewhere I have a cassette of Randy munching and chatting and chuckling. Here’s a selection from his second column— check it out, dawg.

The relationship between bass and drums is like husband and wife. You have to meet on a common ground: the groove. For the song to be happening, you have to listen to each other and play what fits, not just a bunch of crazy licks you learned in your room.

In a good bass/drums marriage, the players have styles that fit together. In some bands, like James Brown’s, everybody is concentrating on holding the groove. In other bands, the bass player might be very busy and the drummer more stay-at-home, or the other way around. You’ll notice that the bands with bass virtuosos like Jaco and Stanley always had a solid, time-keeping drummer—not just a metronome, but a good drummer who stayed in the pocket. But, hey, don’t take my word for it. I asked some top pro drummers about the marriage between bass and drums. These cats have done sessions, club dates, concert tours—all kinds of gigs—and they’ve played with everybody.

Jim Keltner: The bass player is often the guy who makes it or breaks it. If the foundation is not happening, nobody sounds good. You’ve got to use your ears. Bass players and drummers should listen to records together, listen to how other musicians do it. A lot of drummers don’t really listen to the bass player, or anybody else. They just sit down and start playing. The chemistry is the key element, and that can be mysterious. To this day, there are people I cannot play with. I don’t know why, and I can’t quite figure it out.

Terri Lynne Carrington: The bass player and the drummer must have the same concept of time. They have to feel the downbeat together. Some people hear the beat a little further back.

Jeff Porcaro: When the bass player is laying down the foundation—the notes, the figures, the harmonic element of the tune— I’ll go along with that. If the guy is really feeling the song, if it’s in his heart and he’s grooving, I’m not going to sit there and say, “Excuse me, this is where it is.” I’m going to listen to him and keep the time consistent. And that works the other way around. If I’ve got the groove, then I want the bass player to listen and follow.


Men in the Mirror: The Bassists of Michael Jackson How Alex Al And His Predecessors Pumped Up The King Of Pop

THERE’S A REVEALING EXCHANGE ABOUT FIVE MINUTES into This Is It, the documentary about the late Michael Jackson’s planned world tour, in which the Gloved One is encouraging his keyboardist to play the answer riff to the penetrating bass line of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” funkier. “It’s not there yet,” he says gently, before singing the entire two-measure groove flawlessly in the pocket, while playing air bass. Real bass seems to have always been at the forefront of Jackson’s music, whether it came from studio savants in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York, or his landmark use of synth bass that remains in vogue to this day. Alex Al, Jackson’s bassist since 2001 and a member of the seven-piece band featured in the film, concurs. “Bass was the most important instrument to him. He’d make references to Paul McCartney’s melodic playing with the Beatles, James Jamerson being upfront and center with Motown, or Stevie Wonder’s left hand.”

Man(Ring) & Machine From May and June 1991

ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS ABOUT working at BASS PLAYER was the access it gave me to both musicians and instrument makers. As a freelance writer, I had done many artist interviews and profiles, but I hadn’t had many opportunities to talk to bass builders and learn about their work.