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Bottoms Up: Melodies in Bass

Hi, nice to meet all of you.

I’m here to discuss melodies in the bass: bass lines as part of tunes and great melodies written by bass players, and maybe a few surprises thrown in. In this column I’ll be discussing one of the all time great bass players in history who also penned more than a few tunes that we should be familiar with.

I’m talking about Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960), one of the fathers of the upright bass.

A lot of folks know about Pettiford’s playing on standards like “StarDust” and “The Man I Love”, but I’d like to draw your attention to one of the great tunes he wrote, which is an important piece of repertoire for any bass player to be acquainted with, “Bohemia After Dark”.

“Bohemia After Dark” was a favorite of Cannonball Adderly, who played with Pettiford’s band. It’s a fairly straight-forward tune, simple but profoundly effective especially on the bass. It’s basically just this for the A section:

Bohemia After Dark transcription

…If you don’t know it, try playing it.

So, what makes this a strong melody and particularly good for the bass?

First, there is definitely some gray area to what people consider good or beautiful melodies; but one thing about this melody that makes it work is that it breathes. The phrases set you up so that there are some nice large holes.

Secondly, I’ll bet if you played it on the bass you already know this: those open strings on A, D, and G make it go a lot smoother. So the answer is the key: something a non-bass player might not think of.

And last is the harmonic structure. The melody itself unambiguously defines the key center.

Why is this so important when writing a melody for the bass, especially in what is referred to as the bebop era? Because one has to remember that when the bass is playing the melody, then no one will be playing the roots of the changes below- mostly because it would create an incredibly muddy sound.

This reminds me of sitting in arranging class in school and being handed what was referred to as the ‘low interval limit’ chart, which is something I recommend if you are writing any arrangements which involve more than one instrument which reads bass clef. In summary it basically details for you where different intervals start to become poorly defined, and could potentially destroy your sound.

Next time I’ll go into another one of O.P’s tunes, a real bass classic- and if you have any thoughts, good, bad or ugly please feel free to send them my way.

Mark Saltman of SaltmanKnowles has a new CD coming out Jan. 26 entitled ‘Yesterday’s Man’ on the Pacific Coast Jazz label.