Jethro Tull's Glenn Cornick: This Was Bass

When original Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick left this earth on August 28, 2014, the bass world lost an under-appreciated giant of the instrument.
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When original Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick Left this earth on August 28, 2014, the bass world lost an under-appreciated giant of the instrument. Cornick played on the British group’s first three albums, and raised the bar for aspiring bassists everywhere. If forced to pick one track that establishes his place in the Hall of Greats, no doubt it would be “Bourée” from the band’s second album, Stand Up. A jazzy take on a Johann Sebastian Bach piece, “Bourée” starts with Cornick playing walking lines under Ian Anderson’s Rahsaan Roland Kirk-inspired flute lead, but at 1:50 he begins a solo that is outstanding even by today’s standards. His crisp execution, clear melodic voice, musical use of chords, and gorgeous tone make this a truly epic solo. Like many bassists of this experimental era, Glenn approached music with melodic and rhythmic drive—rock bass playing had not yet been beaten into submission to the guitar. His style strikes a perfect balance between solid foundational lines and creative bursts, all implemented with prodigious technique. Cornick crafted parts that became an equal voice in the music, making you notice without overstepping.

Flute rock! Cornick with Ian Anderson Although Jethro Tull is largely known for its fusion of progressive Celtic rock and jazz, like many British bands of that time, Tull’s first album was heavily blues-based. Guitarist Mick Abrahams was cut from the same cloth as Clapton, Peter Green, and other notable English blues players of the ’60s, but he only lasted one album with Tull. His departure signaled the band’s shift away from blues, but the tracks he recorded firmly established Tull as a blues outfit.

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Let’s look at “It’s Breaking Me Down,” a 12-bar blues performed in 12/8 time, that features singer/frontman Ian Anderson blowing some Jimmy Reed-style harmonica. Cornick stays fairly true to the idiom with patterns built from the fertile R–5–b7–8 box, interspersed with chromatic runs between chords. The walkdown and turnaround of bars 11 and 12 are certifiable blues classic gold—but the coolest element of the entire performance is the rhythmic “gotcha” in bar 4.

In 12/8 time, we count 12 eighth-notes per bar. In a slow blues, the count is interpreted in four groups of three, shown in Ex. 1. Most people will hear this as a slow four-count rhythm that is broken up into triplets, as shown in Ex. 2. Bar 4 is a typical spot in most blues for a walkup line, or a fill, but in this case (Ex. 3), Tull messes with your mind by craftily interpreting the 12/8 count in six groups of two, playing only the upbeat of each group. The result is a syncopated two-over-three pattern that feels like you hit a short patch of ice on the highway. Mathematically it works out, but not always in performance. Throughout the track, you can hear several attempts by drummer Clive Bunker go awry, but his jazz instincts allow him to land safely—most of the time. In the first chorus of the harp solo, bar 4 comes together beautifully; a Brit might call it “brilliant.” Glenn Cornick’s tenure with Jethro Tull produced some of the most creative bass playing in rock, but as this example shows, he was firmly rooted in the blues.

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Jethro Tull, This Was [Reprise, 1968]