Red Mitchell’s search for identity inspired him to create an immediately recognizable sound. Even in the late ’50s, his early groups, co-led with saxophonist Harold Land, put the bass on equal footing with the horns. After his switch to tuning in 5ths in 1966, Mitchell continued to push the boundaries of what bassists could do melodically. His legacy lives on.
Mitchell’s defining techniques include unique left-hand articulation (often in a vocal or horn-like style), a wide range of right-hand plucking techniques, and an intuitive combination of music theory (Mitchell was also an accomplished pianist) and heartfelt playing. A pioneer of horn-like solo playing, Mitchell was one of the first bassists in the ’50s to experiment with lower string action on the double bass. The lower string height allowed Mitchell to develop intricate left-hand articulations and a fleet, two-finger right-hand plucking style.
Mitchell became a go-to guru for many bassists of the era, including Scott LaFaro, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Haden. A tinkerer and electronic-gadget freak, Mitchell developed an amplified sound—in the ’60s and later—that allowed him to completely express himself.
I spent time with Mitchell in the ’80s, and I can still feel his presence when I play certain melodies, licks, and articulations. This month’s étude, “Embraceable Red,” is my tribute to this unique musician. The line is based on the harmony of “Embraceable You,” one of Mitchell’s favorite standards, and it uses many of his signature melodic and rhythmic devices. Visit my website to hear my recording of the étude, along with a play-along track for your own use. Embrace the sound!
Note the following:
Bar 1 The line begins on the note C, the 6th of the Ebmaj6 chord. Mitchell had a keen melodic sense and played singable solo lines.
Bar 2 The motif from bar 1 is developed and continued on the Gbdim7 chord in bar 2.
Bar 3 The 16th-note triplet on beat four characterizes Mitchell’s style. Attack the Ab with the right-hand plucking finger once, and slur the Ab, Bb, and Ab with the left-hand, like a trill. Re-attack the note F on the last eighth-note in the bar.
Bar 4 Mitchell often joked that as he got older, he was trying harder to play “lower and slower.” This melody at the bottom range of the bass should speak like a rich baritone singing voice. Slur the last note, G, into the Ab in bar 5.
Bar 6 The line into the first note indicates a slight slide. Think of articulating like saxophone player Lester Young or singer Billie Holiday.
Bars 7–8 This melodic sequence extends over several harmonic changes, heading toward the Cm7 in bar 8.
Bars 9–11 Slide into the high Eb in bar 9, the C in bar 10, and the Bb in bar 11. Mitchell would often slide into notes but had spot-on intonation. Be sure to nail the center of the pitch when you arrive on the target note.
Bar 12 Mitchell told me that Dizzy Gillespie showed him how to superimpose chords on top of other chords to find the hip, upper-structure notes. On beats three and four, I use an F#m6/9 superimposed over F7 to capture the altered notes: #5 (the note C#), #9 (the note G#), and b9 (the note F#).
Bars 13–14 The top, repeated note in this phrase is Bb. The bottom notes change to imply the moving chords.
Bars 15–16 More slippin’ and slidin’! The harmonious sound of the C to Bb on the Fm7 chord in bar 15 moves up a half-step in bar 16 to imply the #9 (the note Db) and b9 (the note Cb) of the Bb7b9 chord.
Bars 17–19 The repeat of the A section begins with arpeggios from the top of the chords downward.
Bars 19–20 The triplet figures are left-hand articulations. In bar 19, attack the G with the right-hand plucking finger once, then slur the G, Ab, and G with the left hand, like a trill. Re-attack the note F on beat four. Repeat the lick on beat one of bar 20.
Bars 21–22 This is a quote of Charlie Parker’s famous melody from “Quasimodo,” also based on the harmonic structure of “Embraceable You.”
Bars 23–24 Mitchell was a master of double-stops. Here the line moves down diatonically, headed for the target chord Abmaj7.
Bar 26 Four groups of 16th-notes are played with left-hand articulations. The last eighth-note in bar 25 should anticipate the first group of 16th-notes in bar 26. Strike the first note of each group with the right-hand plucking finger once, then use left-hand hammer-on and pull-off techniques to play the remaining 16ths.
Bar 27 One of Mitchell’s favorite licks, this is a variation on the famous “Cry Me a River” melody.
Bar 29 The 16th-note triplet is articulated with the left-hand. Pluck the first note, and hammer on the remaining notes.
Bar 30 This technique is classic Mitchell—reminiscent of saxophonist Lester Young’s false fingering technique. Alternate playing the same Bb on the G and D strings for a slight variation in tone and pitch.
Bars 31–32 Another tribute to Billie Holiday, these patterns move from the 9th of the chord down to the root.
Bar 32 Slow down before the last note, and tune down your E string to Eb!
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.comfor sound samples, videos and answers to all of your bass-related questions.