Rhythm and Meaning - BassPlayer.com

Rhythm and Meaning

THE FRENCH ABSTRACT ARTIST Henri Matisse saw a connection between visual and musical art.
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The French abstract artist Henri Matisse saw a connection between visual and musical art. Intrigued by the technique of improvising on themes, Matisse had a special talent for capturing frozen moments of rhythm in his paintings and prints. He was deeply inspired by musical improvisers, and he once declared, “Jazz is rhythm and meaning.”


Coming of age in the first half of the 20th century, Matisse and his contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp were known as known as les Fauves, or the Wild Ones. Matisse’s wild take on the visual arts paralleled the development of jazz at the time. His sentiment about the essence of jazz mirrors Duke Ellington’s famous statement, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

If Matisse and Ellington were alive today, they might agree that the bass and drums form the rhythmic backbone of any band. In the real world, it’s the bass player’s job to lock in with a drummer, remain solidly independent, and yet stay supportive and flexible. If there’s no rhythmic agreement between the bass and drums, then there’s no groove and no meaning in the music.

Master drummer John Riley describes the bassist/drummer relationship this way: “When both players have command of their instruments and the musical idiom, the bond can be strong and infectious. When they have a strong pulse and listen to each other, both players will feel completely free.”

Drummer Adam Nussbaum agrees, saying, “A good bass player makes all the difference to me between playing and working. When I’m playing with a good bass player we work together, we take care of each other, and we gain mutual trust. He’s got my back and I’ve got his.”

When Riley and Nussbaum describe the bassist/drummer relationship, it all sounds so perfect, so utopian—like a perfectly realized painting. But, how can you practice so you can really hook up with a drummer?

Subdivide and conquer! The key to feeling any groove and hooking up with a drummer is to divide the main strong beats into smaller groupings. Example 1 shows four possible ways to divide a bar of 4/4 time using groupings of three eighthnotes and two eighth-notes. Bar 1 (A) is the typical baião bass line: dotted quarter, dotted quarter, quarter-note. Bar 4 (D) is the simplest of all subdivisions: four quarters, divided into eight eighth-notes.


Repeat each bar of the example several times to make sure you have the subdivisions in your ears and under your fingers. Try to mix and match different measures from the four-bar example. For example, if you play bar 3 followed by bar 2, you might recognize the rhythm to Herbie Hancock’s famous bass line on “Maiden Voyage,” as played by Ron Carter.


Example 2 goes in the opposite direction, expanding the groupings of two quarter-notes and three quarter-notes over the bar line. Example 3 shows the “macro” way of playing over the bar line using groupings of three quarter-notes in 4/4 time. Example 4 uses the same principle, subdividing 4/4 time using groupings of three eighths (dotted eighths).


Example 5 shows one of the trickiest rhythms known to bass-kind. Once you get the hang of this, you’ll belong to the small group of musicians who can accurately play quarter-note triplets. Start by tapping quarter-notes on a table with your left hand. Now tap three beats with your right hand (quarter-note triplets) for every two beats you tap with your left hand (quarter- notes). This three-against-two rub is the basic feeling of quarter-note triplets. Try the example on the bass, either tapping quarters with your foot, or let your metronome do the quarter-note grunt work.


Got it? Now try the half-note triplets in Ex. 6. You might find it easier to think of half-note triplets as quarter-note triplets that are doubled. Just think of each pair of quarter notes in the quarter-note triplet as being tied together.


This will yield the same rhythm as a half-note triplet (Ex. 7). Make sure to play the half-note triplets evenly through the bar of 4/4. The common trap with this rhythm is that it can easily slip into the dotted-quarter rhythm in Ex. 8.


If you are new to quarter- and halfnote triplets, these exercises will keep you busy for a while.


When it gets frustrating, just stare at a few masterworks from the Wild Ones while listening to your favorite bass hero … my choices at the moment would be Steve Swallow (Chris Potter with Steve Swallow & Adam Nussbaum, Damaged in Transit, ECM/Universal) or Dennis Irwin (The Village Vanguard Orchestra with Dennis Irwin & John Riley, Up From the Skies, Planet Arts).


John’s newest release, The Innkeeper’s Gun, is out now. Also check out John’s other recent releases as bandleader, The Visit and Space for the Bass [all Bass Lion]. He is the author of The Jazz Bass Book [Backbeat Books], and Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist [Aebersold Jazz]. For more info, visit his webpage at www.johngoldsby.com.


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Gimme Six

IT’S A 4/4 WORLD. HOWEVER, MUSIC STYLES SUCH AS LATIN, POP, ROCK, country, and jazz often use other, less mundane time signatures.