“WE’D LIKE YOU TO MEET A FRIEND OF OURS WHO GOES BY THE NAME of Killer Joe. Picture a so-called hippie or hip cat, standing on a corner in a neatly pressed, double-breasted, form-fitted pinstriped suit.” Saxophonist and composer Benny Golson describes his fictitious, street-savvy character in a spoken intro to his tune “Killer Joe” [Meet the Jazztet, Argo, 1960]. The tune was written for the Jazztet, a supergroup that’s not often given its due by critics and historians. Featuring Art Farmer and Benny Golson with Addison Farmer (Art’s twin brother) on bass, the Jazztet premiered many tunes that are still considered standards. Says Golson in an interview with blogger Marc Meyers, “When the song came out in 1960, Art Farmer and I went all over Manhattan putting up posters that said, HAS ANYONE SEEN KILLER JOE? We wanted to give Killer Joe a mystique from the beginning. One night the police caught me, and I almost got arrested.”
A hit at jazz camps around the globe, “Killer Joe” is generally considered an improvising vehicle for beginner-to-intermediate players. The simple chord sequence in the A sections belies the fact that the tune lives and breathes from the bass line. This puts the responsibility for swing, groove, and forward motion directly in the hands of the bassist. These are great chord changes for the beginner to practice, but the straightforward framework demands that any bassist— beginner to pro—pull out all of the stops to create a compelling walking swing feel. How much can you groove? These changes are a level playing field to showcase your walking chops.
Arranger Quincy Jones recorded a killer version of the tune on his classic album Walkin’ in Space, which featured Ray Brown at the top of his walking game. For a straightahead jazz tune, the tune was a huge commercial success in the rock radio landscape of the late ’60s, charting in the Top 100 in the pop charts—a testament to the groove laid down by Brown and drummer Grady Tate. In a jazz.com interview with Ted Pankin, Christian McBride cited Brown’s playing on the Quincy Jones version of “Killer Joe” as a benchmark of great walking: “As you can hear on the original recording, it’s just bass in your face the whole way through. It really is a lesson in everything that I think encompasses the golden standard in modern bass playing—how you can get the most harmonic, linear creativity from just two chords.”
For years, McBride followed in the footsteps of Brown, his mentor. Lately, McBride has added “Killer Joe” to his live sets, whether playing in a trio or a big band format. When I heard his trio live, I was floored by the swing and power of their take on the classic tune. Almost without counting off, McBride and his bandmates (Christian Sands, piano, and Ulysses Owens Jr., drums) smashed into the downbeat of the first bar, starting a locomotive of swing and hip melodies that continued relentlessly and joyfully for about ten minutes.
Look through the one-chorus bass line on the harmonic progression to “Killer Joe” (Ex. 1). Bars 1–4 show a typical starting point for a bass line, similar to the line Addison Farmer laid down on the original 1960 recording. If you’re a beginner, play the pattern in bar 1 throughout the entire tune: root–fifth–root–leading tone. This approach can swing, but without rhythmic embellishments and harmonic exploration, an overly simple bass line can lull you, the band, and the listeners into a soporific stupor.
Bars 5–8 of our étude begin to break up the quarter-note groove. Note that the eighth-notes on beat one of bars 8 and 11 are played with a triplet feeling. In contrast, the dotted-eighth and 16thnotes on beat one of bar 7 are played with a 16th-note feeling to the subdivision. This type of subtle rhythmic contrast in the fills can make a big difference in the overall vibe. The triplet fills in bar 11 are typical of Brown’s playing style: chromatic triplet eighths up to a high target note, then free-falling down the arpeggio to squarely land on a low target note. Bars 13–14 repeat a funky pattern emphasizing the flatted 7th of each chord.
The B section (bars 17–24) provides harmonic relief from the constant, two-chord sound of the A sections. The bridge starts on an Em7b5 to A7, and then moves to Ebm7 to Ab7. The last four bars of the bridge move between the A7 and Ab7 sounds.
Golson made a brilliant orchestration decision for the B section of the melody chorus: the bass plays whole- and half-notes with the bow, adding a floating feel to the release. On the original Meet the Jazztet version as well as the Walkin’ in Space version, the bass plays the bridge arco (with the bow). During the solo sections, however, the bass walks in 4/4, as seen here in bars 17–24.
Bars 25–32 jump back to Brown-style rhythmic and melodic embellishments. The line in 29 begins on the 3rd (E) of the C7. In bar 30, the line starts on the 5th (F) of the Bb7 before jumping into the stratosphere on beats three and four (the notes Bb and Ab). The two-octave drop in bar 31 brings the line back to the bottom of the bass to set up the start of the next chorus (bar 33).
How much can you groove? Check out the originals with Addison Farmer and Ray Brown, and then add your own personality to this classic, bass-heavy standard.
Visit John on the web at johngoldsby.com for sound samples, videos and answers to all of your bass-related questions.
Art Farmer and Benny Golson with Addison Farmer (bass), Meet the Jazztet [Argo, 1960]
Quincy Jones with Ray Brown (bass), Walking in Space [A&M/CTI, 1969]