TOM KENNEDY WANTS TO MAKE you feel uncomfortable. But don’t worry, it’s all in the name of better bass playing. Since moving back to New York City in 2007, the St. Louis-native has been one of the most in-demand doublers around. When he’s not dragging his doghouse to Gotham gigs ranging from duets to big bands, he’s globetrotting with his Fodera 5 for Dave Weckl and Mike Stern (including Stern’s recent Heads Up DVD, New Morning: The Paris Concert), or he’s on the road doubling with Ben Vereen.
With plenty of opportunities to blow, one concept Tom likes to focus on is playing solos and melodies with horn-like tone and phrasing. He explains, “With the popularity of 5- and 6-string basses now, there’s a tendency to play across the fingerboard, north-to-south, in one or two positions, as opposed to the east-to-west traveling 4-string players have to do. My contention is when you play lines over the span of the fingerboard they sound clearer, more defined, more open, and the notes ring longer and truer—like a horn. When you play in one position you tend to lose some of the timbre and tone of the instrument; notes all sound the same, and some of them are muted or muffled.” He admits, “It can be challenging and difficult at first to force yourself out of the familiarity of one position, but it will make you a more efficient bassist when it comes to navigating the neck.”
To prove his point, Kennedy offers the accompanying examples, which comprise a chorus of his bass solo on a blues, taken from the board tape of a Steps Ahead gig he did with Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Peter Erskine, and Warren Bernhardt, circa 1985. He stresses, “Play through this chorus very slowly at first, getting the lefthand fingerings together, which will really take you across the fingerboard. You’ll find in bars 1–3 and 6–7, you’re basically traveling the span of an octave on the G string; even further when descending on the D string in bars 10–11. Keep your thumb aligned with your 2nd finger behind the neck, in order to anticipate your next move. Your arm and hand should always be rolling toward the next note in a fluid, relaxed manner; you don’t want to be stiff, jumping from position to position with sudden, jerky moves. Gradually you’ll hear your playing become more lyrical and your time feel will be better because you’re moving smoothly and evenly and giving true value to each note.”
While you’re working on your comfort zone with shifting, Kennedy shakes things up again with another important aspect of his solo: horn-like slurring. “Notice the slurs—the hammer-ons and pull-offs—all start on the offbeat and land on the downbeat. This is right out of the bebop horn school of playing but is very different from what bassists generally do, which is slur downbeat to upbeat. The key is to practice landing squarely on the downbeat with your fretting-hand hammer or pull-off. It’s tricky at first, and it will take some getting used to with your right hand plucks, as well.” Heads up: the last eighth-note of bar 9 into the first two eighths of 10 is a three-note hammer. Also, the Dbm7 to Gb7 over the C7 chord in bar 10 is meant to show the substitute chords Tom was actually playing over.
Overall, Kennedy concludes, “Practice the piece slowly—preferably with an incremental metronome that puts out triplets, so you really feel the swing of it— then work your way up to tempo. And listen to the masters of this kind of phrasing. Two that come to mind are Charlie Parker on “Now’s the Time” [Charlie Parker, Verve, 1947] and Freddie Hubbard on “Birdlike” [Ready for Freddie, Blue Note, 1961].” There, now, doesn’t that feel better?