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Bass as only harmony instr?

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by toddinjax, Nov 15, 2015.

  1. toddinjax


    Nov 18, 2006
    A question for bass players: In a trio with drums and sax, when the sax solo's and you are laying down the harmony, do you go out of your way to play the root note on the downbeat of one? The reason for the question is, as a guitar player I know how the 3&7 guide tones really define the chords, make you "hear" the changes. I've been fiddling with a bass lately and catch myself often instinctually playing one of those "important" notes before I walk my way to the root. Obviously with a piano or guitar comping things could be different. Your thoughts please.
    davidhilton likes this.
  2. As a sax player I say keep it recognizable. I've had more bass players go into "awesome bassist" mode during my solos - leaving me wondering where the #eLL they think they are going and what happened to the chord changes.
    Who da Ville and eukatheude like this.
  3. Dogbertday

    Dogbertday Commercial User

    Jul 10, 2007
    SE Wisconsin
    Blaine Music LLC
    Well the sax player should also be paying harmony. It's definitely still very important to play clear lines and listen well. Sorry for the non answer, but just play music WITH your bandmates. Their playing will tell you what you need to play.
    Groove Doctor likes this.
  4. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Doesn't it depend on what the sax player likes to hear? If they like roots, roots, if they like less obvious lines, then less obvious lines? Whatever makes the music the best it can be.
    Sam Sherry, Groove Doctor and carl h. like this.
  5. When in support mode, support!
  6. toddinjax


    Nov 18, 2006
    Thanks for the replies…but, I feel I need to clarify my question. I'm saying I hear the chord changes myself more "clear" and "obvious" via the 3rd and 7ths (doesn't everybody?)rather than via root movement. So, I respectfully repeat my above question.:D
  7. The only situation where you absolutely need to play the root on the first beat is with a slash chord like E/C or A/C. If you don't do it there the root is unclear and the chord character gets lost.

    Singers get more irritated when they don't get the root note on the first note than most instrumentalists, so if you find they may have problems with thirds or minor seventh on the first beat (I would try to avoid a major seventh on the first beat), go back to root notes on the first beat.

    On the last European bass convention in Almere, Netherlands we were encouraged not to use the root note AT ALL in the bass line to get away from the root note oriented playing.
    Personally I often don't use the root note on the first beat but may use it on a later beat (often the second one). Players may need some time to get used to it first, but if the line had a logical progression they adjust to it rather quickly.
    toddinjax and Tom Lane like this.
  8. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    I gig with a trio a lot; personally my preference is as a quartet, but the other folks don't like sharing the pay with another person. Playing with a trio, the number one thing that everyone should focus on is what can I do to make the trio sound the best, not what can I do to make me sound the best or intellectually stimulated.

    Some would argue with me, but the way I look at music and composition, a drummer is not realy part of the equation. A "trio" with a drummer is a duet with a time keeper; that means holding down the groove and recognizable changes as much as possible and always when somone else is soloing. It drives me nuts when I hold it down for the others when they are up, but as soon as the bass solo starts, everyone else stops playing and drops the groove. If the other folks are knowledgeable enough to understand what you are doing, then great, but too much noodling out of turn in a trio usually means I don't get invited back for more trio gigs...
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2015
  9. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    The root is an important aural signpost to both the audience and the other musicians. I tend to outline changes pretty clearly during the melody (because the harmonic foundation - including chord roots - was constructed to resonate against the melody) and during the initial portion of the sax player's improvisation to establish the harmony of the tune in the ear of the audience and the other players. After I feel it is established, I'll often take a more contrapuntal approach to the bass line where I simply think of the line as countermelody to what's being played up top. Given that this involves listening to what's happening, it's hard to say anything prescriptive about what might work in these circumstances. What I will say is that (IMO) a player should have absolute control over outlining the harmony clearly via root motion before deconstructing the line in an effort to be more creative. As Hal Galper once famously said, "your outside poopie is only as good as your inside poopie".
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2015
    Treyzer, David Jayne, hdiddy and 4 others like this.
  10. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    The beauty of playing horn-bass-drums is the enormous flexibility for everyone to explore together.

    If somebody's exploring alone while their band mates wait back at base camp, the trip will be different (and not always better).

    Respectfully disagree. A trio with a drum can be a duo with timekeeper but that's not The Only Way Things Must Work.

    It's been 50+ years since the Bill Evans Trio showed that if everybody knows where 'one' is everybody doesn't need to play 'one' all the time. They applied that to the 'one' function both rhythmically and harmonically. I think they sounded pretty nice, don't you?
  11. Very well said Chris.

    Excellent question. I guess it just depends, as we can all hear different aspects of the music. Each bass player will also hear different bass lines that weave thru that music.

    There's a strong relationship between the bass line and the melody/solo being played, a dance if you will. You can anchor, mirror, contrast, or counterpoint the melody. You can both respond to and inspire the soloist. IME, it's all about making sparks fly.
    Tom Lane and toddinjax like this.
  12. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    I believe it was Chet Baker who said, "It takes one hell of a drummer to sound better than no drummer at all....", or something similar. Everyone has their own perspective. If I have to choose between a drummer as a third in a trio or a piano / guitar player, the drummer is not getting called until I can pay for a quartet! There is no contest for what I want as a player and what I need as an audience member listening. I know folks who hire the bass player last or regularly omit them; that seems just as off to me.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2015
    carl h. likes this.
  13. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    IMO, it's everybody's responsibility to maintain the music's fundamentals: roots and time. Things get stale very quickly if one person is complete t limited to a support role only.

    A good example is playing a duet with a horn player who can't keep time on their own. They have to completely rely on the bassist, locking him into a position where he's just chopping wood. It's fine for a couple times but it gets old quickly. It's much harder to interact because as soon as the bassist moves away from keeping time or roots, it starts to fall apart cuz the horn player can't play a support role. I've been in this position many times. Everybody has a responsibility to the outcome as a whole.

    When you have other players that are able to share the workload regardless of the instrument, it's far more enjoyable and far easier to play. Drummers may not be able to play roots but they should know the firm well enough to outline the phrases.

    To me, drummers are a source of creating drama and excitement. If anybody is responsible for time, it's the bassist. When drummers are locked into a timekeeper role, things tend to become more static.
  14. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    If you want to know what to play in pianoless duos and trios, go listen to some and transcribe.

    Any of the recordings of vocalist Sheila Jordan with either Harvie S(wartz) or Cameron Brown are worth listening to for ideas.

    Some with horns to consider off the top of my head:

    Sonny Rollins "Way Out West", "A Night at the Village Vanguard"
    Charlie Haden "Montreal Tapes with Don Cherry and Al Foster", "Montreal Tapes with Joe Henderson and Al Foster"
    Ornette Coleman "At the Golden Circle vol. 1&2"
    HateyMcAmp and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  15. It is always good if keeping the time is distributed over the players, so they interlock to avoid rhythmical holes that destabilizes the time. It needs more attention but also gives more freedom.

    I kind of feel like the drummer plays roots if he doesn't anticipate any beat (usually going with the soloist) and basically plays the same pattern mostly on the beat. I find I need to play four to the bar which I rather dislike if it is a whole piece or even several ones.
    But this is mostly with the amateur scene and some jazz students in Germany. They are often too locked in a BeBop-phrases and classical music phrasing and hardly anticipate a beat. It's often like a cage if I play with them.

    I don't think keeping the time vs. drama and excitement exclude each other. It is possible to do both, but too much drama and the time gets lost. Well, the same with the other players including the bass players, too many notes in a short time at the border of what we can play might loose the time too. Every player needs to know always where the time is, even if they seem to play rhythmically free which just is in time (on a subdivision) but not on the beat.
    But you are right, it can take a lot of time until the horn players understand that they are as well responsible for the time as any player from the rhythm group.
  16. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    Yup, it changes from moment to moment depending on who you play with. There's lots of give and take and support that the moment one person gets off track, the band should step in and help them get back into place. I like playing with drummers who are giving that even when I fail to do what I'm supposed to, they'll step in and help me get back on track and make the overall product seem like nothing happened. Of course there's guys who will just let you twist in the wind, but at that point it's no longer about music but about ego.

    Anyways, I feel like we're shepherds half the time. If the flock gets out of place, we have to bring them back through time or harmony. If the flock is well behaved then you can relax and do other things.
  17. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Agree. It's all about everyone being solid in all aspects that allows freedom to happen. If someone is weak in one or more areas, they have to be propped up, and that limits the freedom of the other players. In playing with some players who are way over my head like Jean Michel Pilc, Ari Hoenig, and Ben Monder, I have had to hang on for dear life, and all told me that the best thing for me to do was to be clear in order to let them know that they were in fact free to continue exploring on top of that. It is a hard lesson, but one well learned when playing with folks who play at that level; it also reminds me that at other times, I might be that player to someone else, and then the tables are turned. When that happens, I need to be ready to offer an aural helping hand if I feel it's needed. What comes around goes around.

    There's also the aspect of amount of freedom that the listener can comprehend. In most situations, the role of "anchor/lifeline" is necessary for the audience not to get completely lost and lose interest. In the best groups I've played with, that responsibility shifts effortlessly from player to player on an intuitive level.
  18. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    But doesn't it go the other way as well? My experiences playing briefly in jams and clinics with Edward Simon, Eddie Marshall, Randy Porter, Bruce Forman etc. is that their sense of pulse is always clear regardless how crazy out they might go. Maybe they were playing with kid gloves around me but I never got lost around those guys. You hear the fullness of music coming from each of them, regardless of the instrument.

    The only time I ever really run into trouble is with really good drummers who know how to polymeter everything to death but also expect everybody else to understand time like they do. Usually it's everybody else with the "deer in the headlights look". But again, at that point it seems to be often that it's more about ego and music.

    That should be a topic of it's own: how to follow drummers during their solos and not get lost. The guys I play with are kind and tasteful enough to outline the melody on the kit. Not always so with everyone else.
  19. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Most players, yes it does go both ways. But with the amazing time benders I mentioned, they are superimposing other times over the time, and if you follow, there is always the danger of losing the original time and adopting the superimposed one as the new time.

    Just a random example and they get much crazier than this, but...

  20. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    So bringing this back around to the OP's question: should he play roots on one with his saxophonist or can he play less obvious lines, and considering the solid advice to

    As I think about some of the duo/trio transcriptions I did of RB, he seemed to do more of what @Chris Fitzgerald refers to as "functional" harmony. The best way I can define that is to say that many of the harmonic phrases start with a root on beat one, and the next significant harmonic movement to IV or III or V also "tend" to get the beat one root treatment, not always, but the measures in between have less roots to support a more interesting melody in the bass line. IMO, that's a nice compromise because it makes the form pretty obvious without being "restrictive". Maybe Chris can provide a better description.

    Here's an example I transcribed that I think illustrates my point; IMO, the form is clear but Ray's outline of it is sophisticated.

    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.

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