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Ron Carter – “All Of You”

Ron Carter attended the Eastman School of Music with the intention of becoming a classical bassist. When he was a senior, legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski told him “Young man, you play wonderful bass. But I’m in Houston, and I know that the board of directors is not ready for a colored man to be in its orchestra.” Just like that, his dream was crushed. So as a fallback career, Mr. Carter became the most-recorded bassist in jazz history. We continue to stand on the shoulders of the black American geniuses who have created so much influential and innovative music in the face of unfathomable discrimination. Black Lives Matter.

This performance of “All Of You” exemplifies so much of what made Ron’s tenure with Miles Davis in the 1960s special. It can be found on the album My Funny Valentine, which is a collection of the slow and medium-tempo tunes performed live in concert at Lincoln Center in February 1964; the uptempo numbers from that concert were released separately as Four & More. Although this concert did not feature the full Second Great Quintet (George Coleman is on sax, as Wayne Shorter had not yet joined the band), the rhythm section of Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams is on full display.

Miles’s Second Great Quintet was famous for deconstructing the well-known standards they played live, and the rhythm section especially was known to work out ideas together before each performance. This is abundantly clear on “All Of You,” as Hancock, Carter, and Williams are fully in-sync on a variety of alterations being made to the form and harmony of the tune, many of which seem to be unique to this particular performance: the dominant pedal point over the A sections of Miles’s choruses, which is rhythmically unsettling since it doesn’t come in until the second measure; the Bmaj-Emaj turnaround in bars 15 & 16 of the form; the use of minor-major chords in bars 9-11; the unusual C pedal during Miles’s solo (you can actually hear Williams cue this on the drums right before it starts); the different rhythmic and harmonic variations on the descending harmonies in bars 13-16; the chromatic harmonies on the A sections of Hancock’s first chorus; and the straight-8ths Latin feel that first appears late in Hancock’s solo, then weaves its way back in for the beginning of Miles’s final chorus. Any one of these devices would make for an interesting take on an old standard, but combining them all into a single performance shows how much Miles and his band were working together towards forging a new direction in their music.

“All Of You” is a standard 32-bar ABAC form, and on this recording Davis, Coleman, and Hancock each only play two choruses, with Davis adding one more chorus at the end. The band turns these seven choruses into a 14-minute performance by converting the last 4 measures of each soloist’s final chorus into an open iii-VI-ii-V turnaround. Adding an extended turnaround to a solo was an old trick in Miles’s book – the first example I can think of is “I Could Write A Book,” which was recorded in 1956 for the Relaxin’ album, but while the extended turnaround on that recording is rather short and of a predetermined length, by 1964 Miles and his band were really stretching things out, allowing each soloist to go on for as long as he wanted before cuing the rest of the band to go on. Thus, a significant portion of the performance is the band extrapolating one of the fundamental building blocks of the jazz idiom into their own unique language, which the Second Great Quintet would continue to further explore and develop for most of the decade.

The way Mr. Carter’s bass line navigates these turnarounds is an absolute masterclass in note choice and harmonic invention. But he is on record as saying that he doesn’t put much stock in transcribing bass lines, since they don’t exist in a vacuum – any good bass line is in constant conversation with the other musicians and can only really be understood in context. Therefore, with the chord changes I tried to match up the chords I believe Carter is outlining with his lines with what the rest of the band, especially Hancock, is playing, though admittedly my ear for piano voicings is not great so I welcome any feedback in that regard.

Finally, this recording is a wonderful example of how a bassist like Ron Carter can anchor a band. Hancock’s solo on this track is famous among piano players, especially for his triplet flights of fancy, and it’s impressive to hear how when he goes off, and Williams follows him, Mr. Carter holds everything down underneath them until they come back to Earth.

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.