Doing what Jaco did (but not what Jaco did)

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by John Metta, Jun 26, 2019.

  1. John Metta

    John Metta Supporting Member

    As I play more I find myself being increasingly pulled into the vortex of Jaco, but not for the reason I originally thought I would be. There's always talk about "The Jaco sound" and "playing like Jaco," and while I can understand that, it's never been very gratifying. I like my sound and playing like me. Yet I keep thinking about his playing, even though I have no interest in playing like him, and I was trying to figure out why.

    I play often with my wife who's musical aesthetic is very modern folk/singer-songwriter. In fact, when I first met her so long ago I thought she reminded me of early Joni Mitchell. Like all (well, most) bass players, I want to fade into the background and just support her music--fill it out, so to speak. The interesting thing about this is she's not the best guitar player, and doesn't care to be. She plays guitar only well enough to have something to sing by. This means she often leans on me to play lead lines or fill in finger picking parts. For a while I had a huge pedal board to support this, to try to effectively play lead guitar at the same time as bass. It was less than gratifying.

    Then I started thinking about different ways to accomplish this, and went back to Shadows and Light and Hejira trying to figure it out. Jaco supported Joni so well, while almost sounding lead like-but not being lead. For a short time I thought "I guess I just have to 'play like Jaco' to do what Jaco did" but again, I want to play like me, so that was less than gratifying.

    Then recently, I heard a quote from him saying that all bass players should learn the melody, and it FINALLY hit me what the REAL brilliance of Jaco was: He didn't JUST map out the chord changes in an interesting way. He brought the melody down into bass clef WHILE mapping out those chord changes. THAT'S what I want to do! I don't want to PLAY like him or SOUND like him, I want to PHILOSOPHIZE like him.

    His genius was NOT playing lead, but having a bass line that filled in like a "lower lead," NOT just playing roots and fifths but still playing roots and fifths, NOT walking the bass, but still walking the bass. I suddenly realized that the reason he changed the bass was not his style or technique, but the fact that he truly brought an understanding of the melody into the bass (See also: Jamerson, I also suddenly realize). I used to think that 16th note groove was just his "shtick," but now realize in some ways it's really a functional necessity: You simply need more notes to play more melody, so he used more notes, NBD.

    It's a cool realization. Both that his real genius was not technique but the philosophy, and the realization of what I'm really trying to do musically. Simply exploring more of the melody in my basslines allows me to just play the bass while almost "invisibly" filling in those lead and finger picking parts that my wife doesn't want to play. In other words, I get to do what Jaco did for Joni, but I don't have to do what Jaco did!
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  2. JohnArnson


    May 28, 2019
    I thought you pulled out the frets of your bass, but not with a butter knife, honestly, when reading the headline.
    BassmanM, Wisebass and John Metta like this.
  3. Garret Graves

    Garret Graves Gold Supporting Member

    May 20, 2010
    Rosemead, Ca
    Nice post John! The bass voice has always had a melodic role in western music, to some extent. Bach and other composers would have a melodic theme that was played at various times by all voices, including basses/cellos. The way bass expresses chord changes is by melodically expressing them- look up 'basso continuo'- this tradition carries over into modern times, and Jaco studied cello music and classical music, as well as all the contemporary pop music. Jaco and you and many other bass players that study bass lines begin to realize that the bass role is a melodic role, a melodic line that can and should be an interesting line that leads, pushes, pulls or follows at various times.
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  4. John Metta

    John Metta Supporting Member

    And there's yet another realization. I remember learning that Jaco studied Dotzauer, so I bought Volume 1 of the Cello studies. Playing them was less than gratifying and now I know why: I was playing them thinking that the point of studying them was to learn technique, like old-school etudes of other instruments I've studied. But you saying that makes me realize that the real value in studying Dotzauer, or any classical music, is to build a melodic vocabulary, not just a technical proficiency. That's a TOTALLY different feeling.
    Garret Graves likes this.
  5. twinjet

    twinjet Powered by GE90s; fueled with coffee. Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Sep 23, 2008
    The Jaco sound and technique was a passing thing in my case. Imitating that style just didn't satisfy, but the idea of being able to support a song how he did also vibed well with me. Cool thread, man.
  6. Garret Graves

    Garret Graves Gold Supporting Member

    May 20, 2010
    Rosemead, Ca
    And notice how the etudes of Dotzhauer and Bach Cello Suites outline the chord changes in the pieces melodically, you can hear the chord changes through the pieces by the use of melodic cues built into the changes themselves, and the way the melody bobs and weaves through the other chord tones being included. One reason those lines are busy and technical is that making a fairly complex and interesting chord progression understandable through melody alone requires outlining chord tones. Technically that is what we do, outline chord progressions melodically (one note at a time rather than harmonically, i.e. strumming chords), and we have a lot of cliche bass lines to choose from. Too many bass players are hooked on linking chord progressions together via roots only, but many of lines we love to hear go deeper than that by establishing the root for the ear, before heading off to other note choices to create a more memorable and melodic line. The bass in general needs to establish a chord, but doesn’t need to hammer on the note exclusively to do it- there are a lot of interesting melodic ways you can do the job. For instance the stereotype blues bass line, root of chord on the first beat, 3,5,6 of chord for rest of the bar- it’s the same concept- establish root, melodically express chord from there.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2019
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