One of the enduring prejudices of the jazz world has been, and likely will continue to be, that the electric bass/bass guitar has no place in jazz music. This sort of mindset likely was solidified during the 1980’s during the reactionary revolution of Wynton Marsalis and the neoclassicists, but existed long before and continues to exist long after. Now, as a bass guitarist myself, it’s fairly easy to get indignant and self-righteous hearing my chosen instrument belittled like this. How dare these people, many of whom aren’t really all that hot players to begin with, dismiss my entire career and advanced knowledge in music because of an instrument that I play? However, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that there is a fair bit of truth in why the electric bass mostly relegated to beginning college jazz ensembles and people playing jazz standards poorly in small cafes for tips and a small meal. Why is this, exactly?
Just to give a background on myself, I’m a bass guitarist first and foremost, but I double on the double bass (ha!) the same way that any working sax player would have a woodwind double (flute, clarinet, bass clarinet). Granted, in the jazz world, it’s usually upright bass players doubling on electric, but as long as you can perform at a professional level as a session player at both, it doesn’t really matter which is your main instrument.
As an electric player, I’ve been often asked why I didn’t switch fully to upright and keep the electric on the side. Part of the reason is because I don’t really want to play straight ahead music and music “of the tradition” – the music I write is more or less devoid from the tradition of swing, ballad and afro-cuban writing that so defines the “classical” style of jazz. I mainly enjoy playing music more along the lines of “fusion” or otherwise more diverse and disparate musical styles and grooves that leave the swing rhythmic concept behind. Another reason is that there are a lot of technical things that can be done on electric that can’t be done on upright – sixteenth notes grooves for instance are extremely difficult on upright and don’t have anywhere near the precise rhythmic quality that can be delivered on electric. Another part of the reason is that it’s far easier to handle – carrying an upright bass around everywhere is a bitch and a half, and anyway I can get around without having to deal with carrying that damn thing the better.
But that doesn’t really answer the question of why I enjoy playing music “from the tradition” on the porkchop, and why I’ve stuck with it playing at the Manhattan School of Music for the performance part of my jazz degree. A lot of actually has to do with the nature of the sound production itself on upright versus electric. Upright bass is known for it’s unique ability to be felt and not necessarily heard that clearly. If you are listening to a swing groove with a good double bass player and drummer that have really locked in to one another, there is a very physical sensation, the specifics of which can vary depending on the players involved (“bouncing,” “gliding,” “like a freight train going out of control…but in a good way…” etc) This has to do with how the upright bass produces sound – it essentially is a giant speaker about 40 inches across, and projects sound accordingly. This is far larger than any typical electric bass amplifier (the largest I’ve ever heard of was 18 inches), and anybody who knows about amplification even just a little bit (in other words, me…just a little bit…) knows that the larger the speaker, the “wider” the sound projects. Upright bass projects sound in a very “wide” way.
Electric bass/bass guitar, on the other hand, projects sound very linearly, since it almost entirely relies upon the size of the speaker that amplifies it. It, in other words, is more heard than felt, and for that very reason it’s far more difficult to get that physical sensation of locking in with a drummer to get a genuine swing groove. This is why upright bass has always been the preferred instrument in straight ahead. You will almost always get a better groove happening with the instrument that hits you with a wave of sound rather than an instrument that hits you with an “arrow” of sound. It just feels better.
Ironically, what makes the upright bass so great for jazz is what makes me not like playing it all that much. If I’m playing a purely supportive role 100 percent of the time then double bass is my go-to instrument, for sure. However, the contemporary performance standard in all of it’s forms, including the tradition, treats all instruments of the ensemble as equals, and there are a number of circumstances where the bass needs to be at the foreground, or at least heard more than felt, whether it be part of a solo, or just outlining something very important which isn’t doubled or implied by any other instrument. As any person who has ever heard an upright bass solo knows, it is at these times where the energy of the piece is immediately killed, and it becomes a desperate struggle to get back to the level of intensity that came before. Instead of the bass being the best feeling part of the ensemble, it becomes this struggle to be heard and understood. Nuances of articulation are extremely hard to project, and unless the room has perfect acoustics and the drummer is playing incredibly soft (not to mention, if people aren’t talking….cafe gigs…grumble grumble…) nothing of any particular substance will ever be heard by the audience. The upper register of the instrument is difficult to make sing and project at the same time. It could be an absolutely brilliant solo, but nobody will ever hear it.
Granted, if you have really low tension strings and low action, you can amplify the upright bass so it does sing and does project during solos. This sort of thing can sound amazing. However, when upright players do this, they are imitating things that sound and work a lot better on electric. With electric bass, there is a lot more higher harmonic content in the sound, so there never needs to be any sort of struggle during a bass solo – electric players can exist very comfortably in all registers and not need to worry about projecting or dealing with the epic, Herculean fight against the instrument and the crowd to be heard (although, to be fair, a lot of players enjoy this struggle, I don’t). It, in my opinion, is a lot easier to sing lyrically on an electric because of the much longer sustain and control over articulation, and even, in certain circumstances, scream, which is something that upright basses aren’t really equipped to do (unless you happen to be particularly well-trained with a bow). When playing a supportive role, electric bass can assume a much bolder position in outlining harmony and bass notes since the members of the ensemble can actually hear the definite pitches a lot easier and not be overwhelmed by the physical thump. Counterlines and melodies are a lot more effective, and don’t require the piano or anybody else to be doubling them in order to get the point across.
Going back to the original question, however, on why exactly electric is so maligned, I feel it has to do with two separate problems, if you want to call them that. First, electric bass is a physically less demanding instrument than upright, and so more people start on the instrument in jazz than on upright bass. For this reason, there is the more-or-less correct perception that the majority of electric bass players are beginners to jazz or otherwise have a (non-pejoratively) amateurish approach to jazz music. The market is flooded with less than stellar electric bass players playing it poorly, so a lot of people make the very easy to assume conclusion that electric bass should be anathema to jazz. I don’t really blame them too much, unswinging electric bass is tough to listen to (which is why I rarely listen back to myself….ha, just kidding. Kind of.) . Because its heard at lot more than upright bass, it tends to intrude upon virtually everything and leaves a foul taste in a lot of people’s listening palates.
Second, although electric bass is a physically easy instrument in comparison, it is very difficult to play convincingly within the jazz tradition or otherwise and lock into that physical groove. Upright is significantly easier in that regard. At the point when aspiring, serious electric bass players realize this in their musical development, they almost always abandon ship with the electric to dedicate themselves to the upright. Almost none keep at the electric exclusively within their jazz playing. The result of this is a stunning lack of really good electric players within the jazz tradition, and reinforces the whole notion that bass guitar is not for jazz.
To give you an idea of what I’m shooting for with my straight-ahead playing on electric (in addition to all the other styles I enjoy/get paid to play), here’s a collection of killer electric bass players playing some straight ahead stuff convincingly.
This first one is of Bob Cranshaw playing with Dexter Gordon. Bob Cranshaw often gets a bad rap because of his electric playing with Sonny Rollins, but it certainly isn’t because he isn’t a fine musician. Often the complaints come from the very reason why Sonny likes playing with electric bass over upright – you can hear it and don’t necessarily feel it as much. Check out the JazzTimes interview with Bob Cranshaw if you ever have the chance, it provided some of the inspiration for this blog. His tone on this is what a lot of people don’t like about the electric in jazz (the fact that his G string is slightly out of tune doesn’t help), but you certainly can’t deny the man can swing.
Here is Ronan Guilfoyle with Dave Liebman burning it up at the 55 bar in the Village. Ronan plays an acoustic fretless bass guitar and his playing here sounds very similar in timbre to an amplified upright bass. There is a lot of small idiomatic gestures that he does, however, that are very (bass) guitaristic that distinguish his playing from upright playing, and its very clear that he’s approaching the bass guitar as its own instrument rather than an imitation of an upright. Great stuff. It’s interesting that he he makes sure to call himself an “acoustic bass guitarist” on his website to be specific, and I think there is something to be said about how the acoustic sound of the amplified acoustic bass guitar gels with the sound of the jazz tradition a lot easier than, say, a Fender bass does. I myself recently switched to one.
Here Lawrence Cottle rips it on Cherokee. Killer swing that holds its own with a very “electric” tone – this is most certainly not an electric bass player trying to sound like an upright. Also, check out the insane unison that comes out of nowhere from the blowing at 2:50. What a cool small group arranging technique!
Finally, no discussion on electric in jazz would be complete without mention of Steve Swallow. There are a lot of “eh” clips of him on youtube, but there’s a series of them with him playing with Adam Nussbaum that are pretty decent. I really dig his straight-ahead playing (and writing!) on his album “Real Book,” so check it out if you have the chance. He gets a really nice sound out of his semi-acoustic bass that’s both guitaristic (playing with a copper pick will do that) and full and bass-like at the same time with that nice and wide envelope to the sound. He really is the master of that style of playing. Besides, walking 7/4 swing isn’t easy to make groove on any instrument, and it he manages pretty well here.
Now, I know Jaco wasn’t a card-carrying member of “the tradition” by any means, but just like Steve Swallow, he is impossible to leave out of a discussion on swinging the electric bass. The story goes that when Joe Zawinul first heard that Jaco had died, he let out a long, slow sigh and said solemnly, “Man, that guy could swing.” Yes, in this clip he might be overplaying and he might be way too high in the mix. But man, that guy could swing. This style of bass playing I really dig, by the way, that sort of flirtation in between funk and walking a bassline – Jaco pioneered this, and nobody really ran with it, unfortunately.
And Joni! Holy smokes…
Sorry, I just have to post the live version of this, because this is some f*cking ballsy electric playing, and Michael Brecker blows his ass off. Notice the sixteenth/eighth thing too in the walking section that he does to build tension, that’s something that I like to do. Upright/double bass really can’t replicate that effect at all. And the harmonics too, forget about those on upright.
There’s a couple of interesting points that can be made from watching the above videos. One, notice how electric bass really seems to hold its own in contexts where there are no comping instruments. I think this is largely because, like I was alluding to before, that the electric bass takes up far more of the upper sonic spectrum in terms of harmonic content, and with comping instruments out of the way, it can really full up space by itself. Normally in trios or in groups that don’t have comping instruments you have this gaping hole that goes on forever in the harmonic spectrum that can feel very empty evening in contemporary playing (which is an aesthetic unto itself, of course), but with electric you fill that a lot more convincingly, and as an electric player, you feel like your sound isn’t ever intruding on anybody else. In playing with a piano, or even worse, a comping guitar player, you’re sharing a huge range of the harmonic spectrum with them and you end up sounding like you’re encroaching on their sonic turf, no matter how sensitive you are to their playing and vice versa. I’ve found that the comping instruments that give the most sonic room for electric bass are vibes and electric piano, specifically rhodes. Their sounds are very transparent and emphasize the upper spectrum, rather than the mid spectrum like guitar or the entire freaking harmonic spectrum like piano.
The second thing you can notice from these videos how electric swings a lot more (in general) on uptempo tunes than it might in slower contexts. I think there are a lot of reasons for that, but the chief among them is that electric bass sustains a lot longer than upright bass. Significantly so. A big part of what makes upright bass felt more so than heard is the fact that there is such a solid and defined attack to the initial tone, and a relatively quick decay, at least as compared with the electric bass. When you’re playing at a quick tempo, there is less a distinction between the initial attack and the decay that follows it, so there is less of a problem of the longer sustain, but as soon as you start slowing down the tempo, the sense of initial attack and decay is lost on electric. I think this is one of the reasons why Steve Swallow has chosen to play with a pick. It puts a lot more attack on the sound, so he can get that quicker initial envelope that playing pizzicato can’t give you. Interesting that his clip is the only clip can could be considered “medium” tempo…
Anyway, all of this is just food for thought for those interested in what I think about as a working bass playing in jazz and other musics. Hopefully it can give some perspective on why I’m sticking to the ol’ porkchop for my own artistic pursuits, and why the instrument has had such a hard time being accepted as a “real” jazz instrument when the electric guitar, it’s close cousin, is such a mainstay.
On a side note…if you search “bass solo” on google images, I come up on the 4th page. Bitchin!