Jazz theory has a bad rap. If you hang around online music forums long enough, someone inevitably claims that theorists ruin music, and everyone should just play what sounds good to their own ears. That’s great advice, but it’s also a problem—as soon as a bassist plays some hip stuff, other musicians come along and analyze why it sounds good. We codify the theory behind every blissful bass line ever recorded. However, theory is only a description. What makes a specific bass line sound good, might not work to make everything sound good. As bassist and blogger Adam Neely points out, music theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. The best bassists know when to latch onto theoretical knowledge, and when to shut off that little nerd voice and simply play something that sounds good.
Chris Fitzgerald holds down jazz music theory and bass-teaching duties at University of Louisville. Fitzgerald understands how to describe our favorite bass sounds theoretically, and also how to reconcile conflicting approaches to modern harmony, melody, and rhythm in the interest of excellent music. At a workshop with Fitzgerald, I had the good fortune to record a spontaneous doublebass duet on the standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” We thought it would be helpful to transcribe, discuss, and dissect our improvised performance afterward on video, while listening to the track and looking at the notation. Fitzgerald calls this “Theory in Practice.” After the initial performance, we appear on the video as talking heads to analyze what we were thinking while improvising the duet. Fitzgerald also offers an in-depth postmortem (at the piano) of many possible ways to conceive and play the harmony of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
This month’s notation example starts at 6:09 on the YouTube video, in the last chorus of my bass solo. I’m playing a solo in the high register, and Fitzgerald is holding down the bass line. For a complete transcription of the entire duet, click on the download link on Fitzgerald’s website below the video.
There are several takeaways from this duet and analysis. Both of us know the tune “Bye Bye Blackbird” backwards and forwards, and we’ve heard and studied many historically important recordings of the song: In Person, Friday Night at the Blackhawk, San Francisco, Volume I [Miles Davis, 1961, Columbia, Paul Chambers on bass], Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson [1959, Verve, Ray Brown on bass], and Bye Bye Blackbird [Keith Jarrett, 1991, ECM, Gary Peacock on bass]. We know different versions of the harmony, and we pick and choose as we improvise, confidently landing together on important harmonic landmarks. “It’s important to know many optional harmonic paths on standards, because improvisation is a collective endeavor,” says Fitzgerald.
Because we’re playing with two double basses, our lines sound contrapuntal, leaving the exact harmony ambiguous. The term “contrapuntal” indicates counterpoint, which means two or more melodic lines moving independently. Says Fitzgerald, “In a bass duet, the absence of a dedicated harmonic instrument makes the integrity of each melody important. Collective improvisation is interdependent in its parts.” We occasionally add double-stops to fill in missing chord tones. We listen to each other and strive to outline the form and resolution points logically. Listening intently to other musicians is important in any musical situation, but it’s crucial in a bass duet. Our theoretical afterthe- fact analysis revealed that we were not always thinking the exact same changes, but we always agreed on the precise resolution points.
Fitzgerald masterfully accompanies me during this chorus, and he supports my solo lines. In my solo, I leave some spaces and holes so he can work with me and follow the melodic logic of my line. It’s a musical conversation where we both make our points, but listen while we speak. A music non-theorist might say each of us is chill with the changes—giving the other dude some space to get his jam on.