A bassist will certainly notice the problem inherent with Amy Winehouse’s platinum version of “There Is No Greater Love” [2003, Frank, Island]: There’s no bass player on the track. Hip-hop producer Commander Williams did a fine job of showcasing Ms. Winehouse with vinyl-record pops, cricket sounds, and sexy sax in the quasi-tribute to two of her heroes, jazz singers Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. But the great standard, written in 1936 by Isham Jones, would have benefited from a real bassist laying down hip lines under Winehouse’s seductive yearnings.
Holiday (with legendary bassist Bob Haggart) and Washington (with Keter Betts) recorded definitive vocal versions of “There Is No Greater Love” in the ’50s. However, two instrumental recordings cemented the 32-bar song into the jazz repertoire for time eternal: Miles Davis’ 1955 version with Paul Chambers [Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige], and Sonny Rollins’ 1957 version with Ray Brown [Way Out West, Contemporary].
Way Out West presents three masters—Rollins, Brown, and drummer Shelly Manne— at the top of their game in a chord-less trio setting. According to the liner notes, the trio had never played together before, and the album was recorded in a session that started at 3 am—ingredients for either catastrophe or magical triumph. In this case, magic was made, and the album remains a landmark in jazz history.
“There Is No Greater Love” belongs to the canon of standard jazz songs that every bassist should know. The tune could pop up on a hotel gig, jazz jam session, concert (“We don’t have time to rehearse, but we can just call some standards!”), or with your local pop–jazz–Winehouse–Holiday–blues singer. Yes, if you work with a lot of singers, you should be able to play it in every key.
Ray Brown undoubtedly played “No Greater Love” countless times in his career. In 1995, he revisited the standard with his own trio (plus Ulf Wakenius on guitar) on the album Seven Steps to Heaven [Telarc]. Example 1 shows Brown’s line from the melody chorus. “No Greater Love” is a 32-bar AABA form, with four eight-bar sections. Note the following:
Bars 1–16 Brown is a master of playing in two. Although he mainly uses half-notes in the A sections, Brown creates rhythmic drive and forward motion by staying on top of the beat, and adding rhythmic embellishments and leading tones to emphasize changing chords.
Bars 2, 10, 26 The note A on beat three of bar 2 is a surprise choice, which Brown consistently uses at the same spot in the A sections throughout the melody chorus, as if to say “This is my trio—we’re playing an A7 here.” The note A leads into the D7 in the next bar.
Bars 3, 7, 11, 28 The triplet figures in these bars are signature Ray Brown devices. He had a way of homing in on a target note several beats in advance, launching a somersault-like triplet rhythm, and landing on his feet every time.
Bars 9–12 In this characteristic move, Brown travels the complete range of the instrument, ascending one-and-a-half octaves in four bars.
Bar 13 Brown places the 3rd of the C7 chord, the note E, on beat one. This breaks the “root always on the downbeat” rule and creates a melodic bass line.
Bar 14 Even though the note E doesn’t technically match the F7 chord, Brown slams it out and justifies its use as a leading tone to the F7 in bar 15. If it were played weakly, the E would sound wrong. Brown stays confident and in your face with his note choices.
Bars 15–16 Normally, the harmony would move to Bbmaj7 in bar 15. Brown chooses to delay the resolution to Bbmaj7 until bar 16, when he begins to walk in four and leads the band into the song’s B section.
Bars 17–24 Brown swings like nobody’s business when playing in two. When he shifts into four on the B section, it feels like an almost-too-powerful muscle car easing out of the merge lane onto the open highway. No one drives a band like Ray Brown playing in four.
Bars 21–22 This is textbook R.B.—outlining moving harmonies by using open strings on the roots (A, D, G) and guide tones at the top of the bass. The note G is the 7th of the Am7b5. The note F# is the 3rd of the D7. The note F is the 7th of the Gm7.
Bars 31–32 Brown plays a big, fat low F during the last two bars of the head. This creates a cushion for the guitar solo break, and builds anticipation for the swing fest about to break loose in bar 33.
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