THE AMERICAN FUTURIST Buckminster Fuller birthed an amazing array of ideas and inventions in the mid 20th century. He preceded Internet gurus and personal marketing consultants by decades when he coined his personal brand name, Dymaxion. A composite of the words Dynamic-Maximum-Tension, the term applies to Fuller’s thinking and many of his inventions. Fuller created the Dymaxion House, Dymaxion World Map, and possibly the biggest missed opportunity of the 20th century, the Dymaxion Car, which got 30 MPG while transporting 11 passengers (in 1933!). Fuller also maintained his Dymaxion Chronofile, which was a hard copy Twitter-like scrapbook, updated every 15 minutes of his life from 1920 until 1983.
What do Buckminster Fuller’s concepts have to do with playing the bass? Dynamic-Maximum-Tension. Everything a bassist plays happens in the context of rhythm, which is the balance between sounds and silences, tension and release. A note by itself has no groove or rhythm until the bassist plays another note. Notes exist in a world separated and defined by rests. Without the rests, there is no tension, no groove, and no rhythm. The dynamic tension between notes and rests is the crux of the bassist’s musical life.
I recently had the opportunity to work with Darcy James Argue, a leading young composer/arranger on the jazz scene. His rhythmically challenging music relies heavily on the groove competence of the rhythm section. “A band lives or dies by its rhythm section,” Argue explains. “If the bass player and drummer have a great rhythmic hookup, then it’s very easy for everyone else to build on that foundation.” In a fitting tribute to Buckminster Fuller, Argue’s composition “Dymaxion” (Ex. 1) contains some choice bass lines, full of tension and release.
“Dymaxion” is a driving rock groove, and the secret to playing the bass line lies in accenting the notes in the right spots. The marcato accent markings—that sideways arrow over some of the notes— indicate that those notes should be hit a bit harder. The dot over some of the quarter-notes is called a staccato marking, indicating that those notes should be shorter than a full quarter-note. The quarter-notes with dots could have been written as eighth-notes, because a quarter-note with a staccato marking sounds the same rhythmically as an eighth-note followed by an eighth-rest.
Start slowly, and be sure to honor the accents, short notes, and rests. Once you get the line rockin’, crank up the tempo.
Example 2, borrowed from Argue’s composition “Ritual,” is deceptively easy at first glance. The trick is to bring out the moving notes on top, descending from the high Db. Notice the long lines over some of the noteheads: These are tenuto markings, which means that the note with the line over it should be played long, with no gap between the tenuto note and those before and after.
Marcato, staccato, and tenuto are articulations, and these markings indicate how a note should be played. Although the notes should always stay in rhythm, the articulations— short, long, accented, connected—have a remarkable impact on the groove and feeling of the line. Argue says, “I think it’s important that players learn to think vertically, rather than horizontally—to think about how a note’s attack and release fit into the overall rhythmic grid.”
Remember the “easy” exercises from my previous Woodshed on rhythms? That’s right, the ones where you said to yourself, “These are too easy, I’m not going to bother.” Well, now is the time to go back and review the basic triplet eighth-notes found in Ex. 3 from last month. You need to have your eighth-note triplets flowing before you tackle today’s next little rhythmic reading gem.
Example 3 shows an excerpt of Argue’s “Hard Up on the Low Down,” a basic rock groove with an underlying eighth-note triplet feeling. For now, count eighth-note triplets on every beat (one-and-a two-anda three-and-a four-and-a) and follow the line on the page without playing it on the bass. Got it? Now pick up the bass and lay down the groove. If the eighth-note triplets on beats one and two of bar 2 are giving you trouble, you can also think of them as the 2nd and 3rd notes of a quarter-note triplet (Ex. 4).
Argue explains, “The most important thing for every musician to develop is an emotional connection to rhythm. A note on beat four creates a completely different sensation from a note on the “and” of four. You have to internalize how every part of the beat feels. Then you have all the nuances of exactly where, inside the beat, the note is placed. Is it on top of the beat, behind it, or smack in the middle? Even basic rhythms require deep mastery to play convincingly and with authority.”
Rhythm depends on notes, rests, and articulations. The notes only take on a groove and feel when their exact placement is complemented by rests and enhanced by articulation. Once you master dynamic maximum tensions— dymaxion, as Buckminster Fuller called it—then you are on your way to your personal brand of rhythm and groove.
John’s newest release, The Innkeeper’s Gun, is out now. Also check out John’s other recent releases as bandleader, The Visit and Space for the Bass [all Bass Lion]. He is the author of The Jazz Bass Book [Backbeat Books] and Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist [Aebersold Jazz]. For more info, visit his webpage at www.johngoldsby.com.