Evolutions and Revolutions, with the bass leading the charge!
I have been playing the bass for 44 years now, and I have made my living by being a full-time bass player for my entire career. During this time I have been keenly aware of things that surround the bass, and the role that the bassist plays in popular music. I have transcribed songs and bass parts, studied styles and techniques, navigated the constantly changing technologies and followed the careers and artistry of many bassists. I am a music lover with a broad range of experience and a wide variety of musical influences. This background helps me feel qualified to express the following thoughts here on Blake's Blog. I am going to address two topics here,
1. The antiquated way that many people think about the bassists' role, and
2. The recent trend in the music world that has moved the bassist into a whole new role.
Hope you will find it interesting reading!
Okay, here we go...
One of my closest childhood friends joined me in pursuing a journey into playing music during our teen years. We both loved rock and roll, typical for kids our age and our environments.
I later went more down the jazz and fusion path and he went more into the rock/pop realm. One day he told me that he didn't think a bass player should ever play a solo. I was like, "what?!?" Here I was listening to Jaco and Stanley Clarke, Jeff Berlin and Marcus Miller...players who played brilliant solos. I didn't agree with his opinion. I knew that his opinion was a result of his own experiences and tastes in music, and certainly everybody has their own unique preferences.
Recently I have seen some social media posts which reminded me about how some people think about the bass, and revealed an old way of thinking that I have been exposed to throughout my career. Many musicians still cling to beliefs such as: The bass should be felt and not heard (ridiculous) The bassist should never play in the upper register (completely ridiculous)
Bassists who play anything 'fancy' are just frustrated guitarists (hogwash) Bassists don't need a 5-string, they just need more practice on the 4-string (utterly delusional) If you're noticing the bass player then they're doing something wrong (@*&!%*)
I have heard these types of comments throughout my career, and they reflect limited thinking, ignorance, narrow mindedness and also envy, jealousy and other nasty negative behaviors.
I know very well how some songs are best served by playing a simple and understated bass part. I have made a living doing that. However, not every song "should have" simple, less-is-more bass, even though many people think they should. The fact is, sometimes a bass part can be exciting, artistic, flamboyant and interesting. Some of the best music includes a bass part that is creative and 'busy' and doesn't fit the less-is-more category. There is some amazingly great bass playing by Chris Squire (Yes) Verdine White (Earth, Wind & Fire) Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) Steve Harris (Iron Maiden) John Entwistle (The Who) Dee Murray (Elton John) Mike Dirnt (Green Day) Sir Paul McCartney (The Beatles) and so many more. These players play 'busy' parts, not just simple, basic roots. For you guitarists who are getting all bent out of shape reading this, here's a bone to chew on...mastermind Tom Scholz (Boston) played all the bass parts on the Boston records. His bass playing is very busy. Just listen to "Rock & Roll Band" and "Used to Bad News". He plays fills in every single bar, passing notes, and active, moving lines.
I'm glad that Tom Scholz didn't subscribe to the less-is-more strategy. How about the beloved Tower of Power? Rocco Prestia is the busiest bass player you will ever hear, and yet without his signature style T.O.P. just wouldn't have the groove they're known for.
Okay, Part II. The evolution of the bass as a lead melody instrument.
When I was a beginner back in the 70's there were only a couple electric bass players known for playing solos and melodies. Jaco and Stanley. The music industry and radio did not play music which featured the bass as a lead instrument. That has changed here recently, in a big way.
I have recently been listening to Sirius/XM satellite radio's "Watercolors" station, which plays the smooth jazz format. Cable tv has a similar channel on Music Choice called "Smooth Jazz".
This genre/format has been around for many years and really hasn't evolved much in the last few decades. There are artists who have had huge careers in this genre, mostly sax players and guitar players. Saxophonists include Dave Koz, David Sanborn, Najee, Boney James and Gerald Albright to name a just few. Guitarists include Russ Freeman, Norman Brown, Peter White, George Benson, among others Keyboard players like Brian Culbertson, Phillippe Saisse and Jeff Lorber are well-known in the genre. These artists are all great, and yet their music all sounds pretty similar. Funky, R&B-based drumming, solid, modern groovy 5-string bass and perky, upbeat instrumental songs. Again, not much new here even after many years of releases and airplay in this format.
What is new, you ask? The bass as a lead instrument. This is definitely new, and I think it is revolutionary. Nowadays there are bass players playing the lead melody on songs, and on the radio they are represented equally among the sax, guitar and keyboard artists. Amazing!!!
Typically these bass players will lay down a nice deep 5-string bass track and then also play a bright, snappy tenor-type melody on their songs. If you spend the day listening to this radio format you will hear lead bass frequently, and there are some monster bass players representing the genre. Names I see often are Julian Vaughn, Blair Bryant, Rohan Reid and Byron Miller. These players play in the upper register (gasp) and have style and phrasing as melodic and groovy as any player of any instrument. They harmonize and build excellent arrangements. It blows me away to hear them get so much airtime. Yay for the bass!
These bassists currently enjoying their heavy rotation in the airplay mix definitely owe thanks to those who paved the way. Nobody was a bigger icon and pioneer than Stanley Clarke, who is still going strong. We all owe a tip of the hat to Stanley. Also deserving recognition are the iconic Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Michael Manring, Jeff Berlin, Adam Nitti, Brian Bromberg, Bunny Brunel and the late Wayman Tisdale. It gives me much joy to witness this recent development in the music industry and the evolution of the bass and the bassist. So glad these artists didn't listen to the nay-sayers and the bass haters. Glad they didn't hear my friend say a bass player should never play a solo!