Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 2

Understanding the idiosyncrasies of the rhythm section can be a challenge for many jazz educators, especially if their main instrument isn't within the rhythm section.  Toronto-based trombonist, Jules Estrin composed a questionnaire which he issued to a group of professional rhythm section players to shed some light onto their formative years.

Bassist Mike Downes' responses are posted below. Mike is the author of "The Jazz Bass Line Book," published by Advance Music. He has been the Bass Department Head at Humber College in Toronto since 2000.  His CD, "Ripple Effect" won a JUNO award in 2014.  Here's a sample of his playing with Molly Johnson:

How did you get started on your primary instrument?

I began with banjo and piano lessons and took bass lessons from my father, who played and owned a bass.

What made you choose your instrument?

I quickly realized that I loved the bass. I gravitated to listening to bass players on recordings, and learning bass lines from those recordings.

Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

I played trombone through school and studied piano but I also played electric bass. I spent a lot of time playing in rock bands as a young musician (I started playing in these bands at age 10). Playing with other people is the primary way I learned about music and learned how to listen and make music collectively. Also, I saw the way my friends and band members were learning their instruments and that influenced me a lot.

Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

The first player that really made an impression on me was Geddy Lee from Rush. Before I got into jazz, I was influenced by progressive rock bands like Yes, Rush, etc., so Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and other rock bassists were a big influence. They played bass lines that were quite complex and musical. That led me to other great electric players like Jeff Berlin and Jaco Pastorius. Even before that, my father was playing jazz recordings with bassists like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers. I listened to all of them. This is a bit more than you asked for, but all of them made a big impression on me.

Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

In the jazz world, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden are a few of the bassists that one should listen to and try to emulate.

Ray Brown - played with an incredibly powerful, even and dynamic sound and has one of the greatest time feels ever. He is on thousands of recordings, but Night Train and We Get Requests with the Oscar Peterson Trio are two incredible ones.

Paul Chambers - Paul had a great sound and feel and played beautifully supportive walking lines. He soloed pizzicato and arco and his solos are a model of bop bass playing. Any of his recordings with Miles Davis (Milestones and Round about Midnight are both great) are worth checking out.

Scott LaFaro - is known primarily for his work with Bill Evans, although he is on many other great recordings. Listen to how he created an interactive dialogue with Bill and Paul Motian. He revolutionized the role of the bass, playing bass lines that were melodic and interesting on their own while still supportive. He was also a great soloist. Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Explorations and Portrait in Jazz (Bill Evans Trio) are all fantastic recordings.

Charlie Haden - Charlie's depth of tone, time and note choices in his walking lines are inspiring. His playing on Don Cherry's Art Deco and Pat Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky are great examples.

Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

Resources then and resources now are very different. YouTube and iTunes didn't exist when I was young, so I had to buy (and wait for) recordings through record stores. I also studied with various teachers in Winnipeg, where I grew up. I also listened to the radio quite a bit.

What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

The primary role of a bassist is to provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. The bass "voice" is also a secondary melody below the other melody or melodies sounding at a given time. Outlining the form is a by-product of the harmonic foundation.

Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

Learn to produce a great sound with the least effort possible, learn to listen to bass lines as a part of the musical whole, learn how to outline harmony with walking bass lines and just generally learn how to play the instrument with a consistent and even tone.

Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

There are many, but the bass/ride cymbal relationship is very important. Listen to recordings and focus in on how the bass and ride cymbal interact. Where are they playing in relation to the pulse? Next, since the bass provides the harmonic foundation, the relationship with guitar or piano (comping instruments) is also very important. What notes does the bassist play to outline the harmony at any given moment? What happens when the bassist does or doesn't play the root of the harmony?

How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

That depends on the style of music one is playing. Typically, the small band would provide a more "open" environment where everyone can be "looser" with their roles, but that is not always the case. Some big bands provide more freedom to rhythm section players than certain types of small bands. So.... if the music is highly arranged with specific parts in either sized band, then your role is defined by the arrangement. If the part is more improvised, you have the freedom to choose whatever approach you feel best serves the music.

Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

My middle school and high school teachers were both influential. My middle school teacher was Elaine Marks, who was very encouraging, and gave me a lot of feature trombone parts and solos. Jim McKay was my high school teacher, and he gave me the opportunity to play both bass and trombone, to study arranging and write big band charts for the school band.

What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

Bass, and in particular acoustic bass, is a physical instrument that demands specialized attention. Unless this is a music teacher's main instrument, I would recommend that they help students find a private instructor. I would also recommend that teachers seek out books on the subject. There are many excellent books on bass line construction, etc. that will give them at least a working knowledge of how bass players think. Teachers can't be expected to be specialists in everything, so there is nothing wrong with asking for professional help.

What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

Get a private instructor as soon as possible. Bad habits are difficult to break, so it is a good idea to establish good habits right away. Don't rely on YouTube and other online sources exclusively. They may or may not be giving good advice. Find someone you respect and ask lots of questions.


About Jules:

Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer months, he has served as jazz program coordinator

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