Written music notation provides a visual description of sound. Some bass players don’t read well, but they deliver an electrifying pulse. Others can read notes, but their rhythmic pocket is less than compelling. Great all-around players can read—even sight-read on the fly—and groove their straps off. Let’s get out the reading glasses, look at a Latin-jazz line in 12/8, and improve your reading skills.
This month, we’ll continue our exploration of bass lines in compositions by bebop and Latinjazz pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. I’ve based my étude, “A Dizzy Bass Line,” on the harmony and rhythms of “Con Alma,” the Dizzy Gillespie Latin-jazz standard. The line alternates between a broken 12/8 groove in the A sections and a 4/4 walking bass line in the B section. Note that even though the rhythm looks like it changes when the time signature switches from 12/8 to 4/4, the tempo and underlying pulse remain steady. In other words, three eighth-notes in 12/8 have the same value as one quarter-note (or three triplet eighth-notes) in 4/4. Listen to Ron Carter and Grady Tate play “Con Alma” with Stan Getz and hear how the masters make the rhythmic transitions.
“Con Alma” shows Dizzy’s melodic cleverness and his affinity for clear, song-specific bass lines. The form is AABA, 32 bars long. In the A sections, there are several key centers where the melody comes to rest: E major, Eb major, Db major, and C major. The bridge (or B section) starts at bar 17 with a haunting Cm7(b5) chord, before winding around to land on two satisfying bars of Emaj7 in bars 21 and 22. Listen to several versions of “Con Alma” to hear how the beautifully simple melody is framed by the descending bass line.
Once you find the groove, playing in 12/8 is easy. Reading 12/8 is often simpler than reading a lot of triplets in 4/4 time because there is less information for the eyes to process. Ultimately, your goal should be to play “A Dizzy Bass Line” in time and up to tempo: = = 110.
Until your 12/8 reading chops are honed, play the line in slow motion. Tap your foot in the dotted-quarter pulse to lock in the groove. Remember that the pulse stays solid, even when you change some of the rhythms on top of the pulse. For example, in bars 1 and 2 (in the second half of each bar), there are three groups of two eighth-notes. This creates the three-against-two feeling that is common in Latin-jazz music.
In the 2nd A section at bar 9, the entire feel changes to the three-against-two feeling. In the first half of each bar, you see three groupings of two eighth-notes; in the second half of each bar, listen for the rhythmic figure that extrapolates the three-against-two groove.
The B section or bridge begins at bar 17. The written information at the beginning of this section might seem daunting: = , 4/4 walking bass. The rhythmic pulse remains steady, but the groove changes to a quarter-note walking feel. Keep tapping your foot in the previous tempo of dotted-quarters, and your steady foot-tap becomes the new quarter-note pulse in the B section.
Dizzy and his bebop compatriots were fond of the sound of the half-diminished chord, which is also found in standards like “Round Midnight,” “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “I Love You,” and Dizzy’s composition “Woody’n You.” The half-diminished chord is also commonly called a minor 7 flat 5 chord. The notes of the Cm7(b5) arpeggio are: C, Eb, Gb, Bb. The chords in the first four bars of the bridge move from a IIm–V (minor-2–5, often written as “ii–V”) to a II–V: Cm7(b5) to F7(b9) and then F#m7 to B7. The beboppers love their ii-V progressions! The Emaj7 chord in bars 21 and 22 provide some breathing room in the dense cloud of harmony.
The last A section, beginning in bar 25, changes the rhythmic feeling back to 12/8. The line once again emphasizes the three-against-two feeling found in the first two A sections.
Latin-jazz, also called Afro-Cuban jazz, belongs to the core canon of 20th century music. Expand your horizons by listening to bass-friendly Latin-jazz tunes. Your playing will also benefit when you learn to read and interpret 12/8 grooves.
Check out John’s new video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook.