Letter To A Talented Young Bassist

This is an adaptation of an email exchange I had with a very gifted young bassist who played in one of my groups. I thought it would be of interest to any aspiring bassist. His name has been changed to ensure his anonymity. The following is his question (which took a lot of courage to ask) and my response, both of them edited to be more coherent than an email exchange and to protect the innocent.

Hi Mike,

I would like to thank you for your class and ask, as a completion to your class, if you could give me bare bones criticism. You know my playing pretty well by this point. I’m getting older; I’m 26 now and I want to bring my playing and my career to another level. So I want to know in “ruthless” terms, what separates my playing from that of someone you or one of your peers would hire. And I don’t mean for you to answer with something obvious like “experience”; I need something more specific. Judge me not in terms of someone that you are teaching, but in terms of someone you might be stuck on a gig with. What thing would annoy you, hold you back, or minimize your experience? This is what I need to grow. Thanx. peace, _______

Hey ________

I am attaching something I wrote which is of relevance to you and any other jazz player looking for that final step or two. Use what is useful to you and discard what isn’t.

As for specifics, the number one thing I look for in a bassist is an unshakeable and rocklike dependability as a player. Frankly, I couldn’t care less as to how someone solos on the bass. I have met several bassists with tremendous chops, who seemed to be either A) soloing behind the soloist (ala “look at me, look at me”), or B) itching for their solo spot. I have never hired a bass player because of soloing ability. Among my all-time favorite bass players to play with are: Jimmy Earl (Corea, Robben Ford, Crusaders), James Genus (Brecker, Herbie, Dave Douglas), Drew Gress (Fred Hersch, Don Byron), Ed Schuller (Lovano, Motian), and John Shifflett (first call bassist in Bay Area). While they are all good to great soloists, that is not why I love their playing so much. They are all quite different than each other but they have these things in common:

  1. Perfect, unshakeable time and a beautiful sound.
  2. Never forcing things musically, understanding that in many situations, it is the bass that stands between freedom and chaos.
  3. A subtle, deep and sophisticated understanding of harmony and HOW the bass fits in (IE, knowing that one needs to focus on the F in an E/F chord or the chord doesn’t have the quality of being an E/F, and knowing that the B, C and G# are the next most important notes for the bass to emphasize).
  4. Knowing where it makes sense to pedal, how to have a broken feel, how to make a ballad work legato-wise.
  5. NEVER fucking up the form.
  6. Always listening to the soloist and not falling prey to rhythm sectionitis. What is rhythm sectionitis? Well here’s an example. I remember doing a high profile festival gig where we were playing goodbye porkpie hat. During the course of two choruses, the bass player and drummer went, I kid you not, through 7 different rhythmic feels, from montuno to reggae to funk to 7 against 4, and NOTHING I was doing would have led a LISTENING musician to do that. They were engaged in solipsistic, self-indulgent and highly unmusical masturbation, and needless to say, I never hired that combination again.
  7. Be the anchor in the storm. You know, when all else about you are losing their heads…? I once asked James Genus how he hung when certain drummers were dropping absurdly difficult and sometimes highly awkward counterrhythms against the groove. I had noticed that sometimes James just closed his eyes and seemed to be counting quarter notes. He told me that yes, when it got really crazy, sometimes he just had to block it out until the storm subsided. He was the anchor in the storm.

I think a lot of younger musicians today are so into the free thing or the odd meter thing or the Indian thing, that they don’t learn the meat and potatoes of the role of a bass, or any other instrument, in the common language jazz tradition (roughly the 30 years from Bird and Diz through Miles’ 2nd great quintet). If I were you, I would be transcribing and studying Ray Brown, Chambers, Carter, Holland, Mingus, Lafaro, Haden and Peacock, because those are the paradigms of various modern approaches to the bass. So much boils down to a taste, thing, and those eight bassists give you eight different paths to becoming a superb bass player.

I would also hasten to say that you are a talented young bassist, with potential for great things. In addition to what I told you above, I would specifically work on embracing being the most solid, unshakeable, selfless, form-perfect bassist you can be. Become completely solid on form and time. Don’t overplay or play too loud. Your soloing (other than slipping on the occasional form) is good enough for a top-level bassist now. Interesting that John Pattitucci remade himself from being a virtuoso and very flashy fusion electric player, into being someone who truly embraces the zen calm of the great acoustic masters and understands and honors his role in a trio/quartet. I’ve also noticed Steve Smith has moved from being an extraordinary virtuoso whose virtuosity one was always aware of, to someone who is using his virtuosity solely in the service of the music. Maybe it’s a life thing, or a maturity thing, but almost every player I know of gets more economical and spacious as they get older. I know I have.

For bass playing, I would hold Haden and Holland up as your living models. They are both soulful, perfect bassists. They solo beautifully in their own ways when it’s their time, and yet their main musical purpose is to celebrate, as Heidegger might have said (though I don’t get the idea ‘ol Marty was much of a jazz fan) the bassness of the bass.

Does that start to answer your question?

Peace, MZ