Playing Bass In A Big Band
ABC Studios Singing Guitar and Bass Lessons
Bass Lessons, Bass Teacher
Stephen Galvin writes about the skills needed for Bass-Playing in Big Band
I love playing Bass. We had a bass in our house when I was around eight or nine years old. I viewed a fender Precision Bass with a Fretless Maple neck in a catalogue at a Music shop in Vivian Street, Wellington and I knew that I wanted to play that instrument. A few years later I was working in a band in Queenstown and bought the instrument of my dreams. That was 1976.
This article is about bass-playing in a Big band. Now a big band does not mean just a large band. It usually refers to a particular style of band that was popular world-wide from about 1925 to today, although the style was very popular in New Zealand culture in the 1940'5 through to the 1960's. The music is usually jazz style with a strong emphasis on swing rhythms and sometimes Latin influenced genres such as the Bossa-Nova and Samba. Big bands feature, Trombones, Saxophones and Trumpets usually in groups or sections of from four to as many as eight players per section. There is usually a rhythm section consisting of Piano, Guitar, Bass and drums.
For this rehearsal I was asked to fill in for another bass-player at a rehearsal at the University of Auckland. After setting up the equipment, amplifier and for this session, video, recording gear, and a music stand the band leader counted out the time and I had to play about one-hour of music. Rehearsals often stop and start so the whole rehearsal took about two hours. The first thing you notice is that the music is written out on a five-line staff, not TAB. Although TAB has been around for at least five-hundred years, even today most arrangements for big bands continue to write using this system. Because the music features brass and saxophones, the composers and arrangers are trained in notation using the five-line staff. So you really do need to be able to this kind of notation to function in the Big band. I should also point out though, that in this music there is a strong tradition of 1) improvisation and 2) reading from chord symbols. so a bass player is expected to be able to function in these styles. That is one of the strengths of big-band jazz. The music-reading part of the style is all about precision and accuracy, while the improvisation and chordal playing is about flexibility and creative musicianship. You need to be adept at all three to play this music.
A glance at the score for the first number; Won't You Come Home Bill Basie shows this style of writing. Above the notes the chord symbols are written out. This does not mean that you should just play from the chord symbols and ignore the lines. What the chords do is help you to recognise the harmonic structure of the music and see where it is going and how your line fits in with the harmony of the band. Bass-players hear music and think structurally so those chord symbols act as a kind of harmonic road map. Personally I use a combination of reading, improvising and playing from chords to build the lines I play. It is difficult to say exactly how I do this but generally I improvise lines on repeat passages, and I play embellishments, grace notes and figures that sound and feel good even though they are not written. All of this of course has to be guided by two main principles: The lines have to sound good and they need to be in the groove. In jazz they say the line should 'swing'. Really all music does this. Human beings do not play like machines and if you ever listen to MIDI files of your favourite songs you can hear what this means. You need to be able to play accurately but in all music, and in this case Big Band Jazz you humanize the lines by all sorts of rhythmic embellishments and extras.
One of the techniques I find effective is to tap the foot to keep a sense of groove and to ground the music. In some styles of music, foot-tapping is frowned upon, but for me it works and it helps me to keep a sense of groove and flow to the music. Another trick bass players use is to add a twelfth-note just before each quarter note. The pitch of the note does not matter; some bass-players play an open string, sometimes just a light click. That sounds good too. You can hear it at the opening of this tune just before the ensemble enters. Now I do need to say that stylistic embellishments are always at the discretion of the performer but if the band-leader says to leave them out them of course you do. Generally in jazz performance it is accepted that you can stray from the score quite a bit as long as it sounds good and it is in the groove.
In Won't You Come Home... the bass line is what is called a 'walking' bass line. Usually written in quarter notes it was originally meant to match the steady quarter-note rhythm played on the bass drum in early jazz styles. Curiously that same rhythm has more recently become the standard for club remixes with 'four-on-the-floor' favoured by DJ's world-wide. The bass tends to accentuate the first beat of the bar, and to a lesser extent the third, although there are many variations on this rhythm. Bass-playing is an art and there is more to playing bass than simply reading the notes and going home. After this rehearsal I spoke to a local music teacher about what he expects from the bass in a big band, and this is how he put it: The bass player provides time to all the band-members. Remember the big band may have twenty players. He needs to play the rhythm confidently so that the drummer is free to play the hits or accents that the melody instruments play. So big band drummers do not use the bass drum as much as rock players do. If the bass player plays reliable steady time all the players of the band can hear where the 'one' is and play around that rhythm. What he said was that he does not care what the bass player actually plays as long as the rhythm is clear and strong. By coincidence that is also what the band-leader on this date asked me to do. Before we started the rehearsal he said, "I am relying on you to hold the band together" so the way I interpreted that was to play right on the beat and project the sound. Now there is a lot of talk that goes round about playing 'on the beat' or 'ahead of the beat' and there are many myths also. Sometimes people refer to 'playing on the beat' but do not actually know what it means. Some people say that a bass player should play behind the beat, because it is 'relaxed'. Well when you think about it these terms are so vague and imprecise as to be meaningless. Behind whose beat? What beat? Every musician has his own internal beat which he uses to count time and synchronise. Now the problem is that sound takes time to travel, compounded by the fact that high-frequency sounds are very directional while lower frequency sounds are diffuse. This is a complicated subject but I am going to wade into it briefly.
This is how I perceive it. When we play music with a another person it takes time for the sound from the other instrument to reach our ears. Then there is also a reaction time in our bodies. So we need to hear sound from outside and respond to it in many ways to truly say we are making music together. Now if every musician in a twenty-piece band was to wait to hear what each of the other musicians are playing, then respond, the music would not sound together because some musicians would be playing later than the others. In an orchestra the conductor, who stands in the centre, provides visual cues to musicians. So instead of waiting to hear what the other players are playing the musicians can anticipate what they are going to play and make sure that their sound arrives to synchronise with the conductor's visual cue. In other words, in the classical orchestra, which can be a hundred feet wide, the 'beat' is where the conductor shows it to be.
...the 'beat' is where the conductor shows it to be.
More precisely when I studied choral conducting with Karyn Grylls she explained it by saying that the down beat or beat one is the point in space and time where the conductor's baton reaches its lowest point. Some time ago I spoke with a double-bass player for the NZSO and he explained it by saying that in his band the basses would have to play early to make sure that their notes would travel across the orchestra in time to meet the conductor's beat.
Now you can hear a similar effect if you live near a harbour: During a fog the ship's captain 'plays' a loud bass note to help him navigate the vessel. You can hear the delays and echoes as they bounce off the hills and buildings.
So what does this mean for the big band? To play together the band members need to be able to anticipate where beat one will be and target their notes to meet that beat. When they achieve this nobody is waiting for anybody else, the music resonates and the band plays together. In a word it swings, and it is a beautiful thing to hear. You just want to go there. Putting it all in perspective.
Stephen Galvin teaches singing, guitar and bass at ABC Studios in Auckland City Centre.
, Bass Teacher
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