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Paul Chambers – “Oleo”

Next up on the transcriptions list – Paul Chambers’s bass line on “Oleo” from the 1958 classic Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. PC is such a valuable resource for bassists, not just because he’s one of the all-time greats but also because of the effort he put into his studio sound – the story goes that he spent a long time alone in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio working on getting his bass recorded as clearly as possible, and whatever they came up with, Van Gelder was reticent to share their methods with others.

“Oleo” is particularly great in this regard, as it combines PC’s unusually clear sound with the fact that, for most of the track, he is the only person accompanying the soloist. On most of the choruses, the piano and drums only come in on the bridge, with the A sections having just Chambers walking underneath the soloist. (The full band does come in for the entirety of Coltrane’s 2nd-4th choruses, and as a result there are portions where the bass is inaudible. Because of this, I skipped those choruses in the video.)

What stands out the most to me in this bass line is his sense of perpetual motion. As the main motor powering the rhythm for most of the song, PC’s lines are constantly moving forward – almost every measure has leading tones or chromaticism that points to an arrival point, but each arrival then becomes a jumping-off point for the next destination. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he only repeats a note in two measures over the course of the entire song.

There is also some harmonic interest in his navigation of the 5th and 6th bars of each A section (traditionally a ii-V to Eb – he sometimes never arrives at the Eb, and throughout the song he avoids the common E-diminished passing chord in bar 6), and his use of ii-Vs rather than just 4 dominant chords on the bridge. The chord changes in the video are my approximations of what I think he was trying to outline on each chorus.

Enjoy the bonus bass solo on the bridge on the head out!

Larry Grenadier – “Number 19”

Well, this seems like a good time to finally get started on this, so here is the first of what will hopefully be a long series of transcriptions and discussions. First up – Larry Grenadier’s bass solo on “Number 19” from a live concert with the Brad Mehldau Trio. (“Number 19” starts at the 8:22 mark. The song was later released as the title track on Brad’s 2012 album Ode.)

Transcribing and learning this solo was a game-changer for me as a bass player in many ways. Technically, it is a great exercise for working on the middle register of the bass, especially navigating the break. The overall construction of the solo is a masterclass, particularly with Larry’s phrasing and use of space; his use of open strings to connect some lines while punctuating others; and the way he builds his ideas from chorus to chorus. This tune is a very long form (64 bars) with some unusual harmonies, and between the two choruses he takes you can see that he approaches many sections of the form in similar melodic and rhythmic ways, but with clever variations throughout that make it a truly incredible artistic statement from start to finish. If you watch the full video clip, the “yea man” Brad gives to Larry at the end of the bass solo says it all.

Larry is probably my favorite bassist around today, largely because his mastery of the instrument isn’t tied up in flashy runs or showy licks; his technique instead comes out in the clarity of his lines and the perfect construction of his ideas. Studying this solo really opened up my approach to improvisation.

(A side note on the chord changes: I took them from someone else’s transcription of Brad’s solo from the same live concert and made a couple of changes, they seem to mostly fit what’s going on but I can’t guarantee they are fully accurate.)

“Think more like Charlie Haden”

Very sad to hear the news that the great bassist Charlie Haden passed away today at the age of 76.  He had an enormous impact on me as a musician, but unfortunately I only got to see him live once, at Birdland in NYC with his Quartet West, and this was right at the onset of his post-polio syndrome.  He had to walk off the stage in the middle of the second song, and the band continued without him, though he eventually managed to muster up the strength to return for one more tune, an absolutely gorgeous rendition of “Blue and Green.”  This remains one of my most treasured musical memories; you could see the pain in every note he played, but if you closed your eyes all you heard was the beauty and emotional weight that defined Haden’s music for his entire life.  For those few minutes, he played his heart out, and then, spent, he left the stage for good.

I will hopefully be able to write much more about his music at a later date, but for now I will just say this: I’ve often found that when I’m not too comfortable with the chord changes of a tune, or I don’t have much to say solo-wise, my go-to crutch is to cover this up by playing a lot of notes.  One of my bass teachers caught on to this right away, and for two years whenever I would start doing this during a lesson, he would stop me and say, “Start over, and this time think more like Charlie Haden.”  He never explicitly stated what this meant, but I came to interpret it as slowing things down (not tempo-wise, but idea-wise), removing all the extraneous notes, and simply seeking out my own melody within the music.  I’ve tried to follow this mantra ever since, and the fact that it continues to be such a difficult ideal to achieve speaks volumes about Haden’s genius.