“I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.” So says Miles Davis to producer Bob Weinstock before the intro to “If I Were a Bell” on his 1956 Prestige session with Paul Chambers on bass. Davis’ raspy voice, accentuated by plate reverb, signals the listener that real jazz is about to go down. His spoken intro to the musical intro is a gem in the jazz-history treasure chest—it puts a smile on the listener’s face even before the music begins. As we’ve seen and heard in the past two Woodsheds, a solid intro sets the mood for an entire song. This month, let’s look at two jazz intros and two pop-jazz classics.
Example 1 shows the intro to “If I Were a Bell,” with Paul Chambers laying down beats four and one. It’s simple, but Chambers perfectly underscores Red Garland’s doorbell-like piano lick. The track was a hit for the Miles Davis Quintet, and the band continued to play the tune—with the same intro—for years. For a jet-speed “steroid” version, check out Live at the Plugged Nickel [1965, CBS] with Ron Carter on bass.
“If I Were a Bell” remains a jam-session staple, and every bassist should be prepared to jump in with the pedal C anytime the piano intro chimes. Memorize the piano melody, which is all half-notes, and put beats four and one solidly in the pocket.
Example 2 finds Ray Brown playing an intro to the Brazilian standard “Meditation” on 1987’s The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio. Brown often used this type of pedal device: playing a low pedal tone (in this case, a low C) and jumping up to outline changing chord structures on top. His 16-bar statement is underpinned by drummer Mickey Roker’s insistent, almost-swinging bossa beat.
John Klingberg is one of those bassists you’ve heard countless times, yet you probably don’t recognize his name. Klingberg lived in Woodstock, New York in the ’60s and ’70s and made several records with pop legend Van Morrison, including Moondance. Although he passed away in 1985 at age 39, his intro and bass line on this early folk-rock-meets-jazz anthem live on—see Ex. 3. Klingberg made an interesting note choice on “Moondance”: In bar 3, he plays a leading-tone A# on beat two. The A# is far outside the Am7 chord’s tonality, and it pulls the bass line up into the Bm7 on beat three. The effect is subtle, but it’s one reason the intro and bass line have a feeling of perpetual motion—that, and Klingberg’s warm, flatwound sound. His brilliant A# passing tone on beat two (which he uses consistently throughout the song) made “Moondance” a hit. Okay, maybe Van Morrison also helped push the song into the charts with his vocal. The next time you play “Moondance” for those baby-booming, lizard-dancing party animals at the catering hall, give a wink and a nod to Klingberg for his contribution to the bass canon of classic intros.
In the ’50s and early ’60s, bassist Edgar Willis was on the road constantly with Ray Charles. In addition to recording hits like “What’d I Say,” “I Got a Woman,” and “Georgia,” Willis and Charles laid down “Hit the Road Jack,” which features an irrepressible two-beat bass line (Ex. 4). On the intro and throughout the song, Willis mirrors the bandleader’s left-hand bass line. The combination of the unison piano and bass, along with Charles’ mournful wailing and the Raelettes’ catty call-and-response, makes this tune an irresistible, hipster head-bobber. The first thing that will shock you about this simple intro is the not-so-simple key signature. The key of Ab minor, where Charles sang the tune, is the relative minor of Cb major. If you imagine the key of A minor (which has no sharps and no flats) but with all seven notes lowered one half-step, you’ll quickly grasp the Ab minor fingerboard pattern. In this key, some uncomfortable notation oddities occur, like the Fb in bar 2. Notice that I choose to call the corresponding chord an E7, rather than the more theoretically correct Fb7. Practicality wins out over theory! Once you have the notes under your fingers, the line is not hard. Plus, there’s no better song to get the bridal party moving out the door in a conga line at the end of a long wedding reception.
John Goldsby knows intros to songs, intros to the intros, and even intros to the endings. Introduce yourself at johngoldsby.com.
Miles Davis with Paul Chambers on bass, Relaxin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet [1956, Prestige]
Ray Brown, The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio [1987, Concord]
Van Morrison with John Klingberg on bass, Moondance [1970, Warner Bros.]
Ray Charles with Edgar Willis on bass, “Hit the Road Jack” [1961, ABC/Paramount]