Photo by P.B. Photography
Q: I am at a stage with playing jazz where I feel confident playing bass lines, such as walking through challenging pieces. Given time to learn the chord sequence, I am pretty confident at playing solos over the top of backing tracks and grooves. My problem is that when playing with a jazz band – when everyone cuts out for the bass solo – my playing falls apart and I get lost (unless I have spent time arranging a specific solo). How do you advise learning to improvise interesting solos, which reflect the tune’s harmony, without just playing arpeggio licks for each chord?
A: I think most bassists can relate to that feeling (making exception for actual solo bassists, of course). We spend all night supporting other players and helping to help them sound good when they play and when it’s our turn to get the spotlight for a second, every drops out completely!
This is a historical remnant, I believe, left over from days before quality amplification and, of course, electric basses.
Here are a few things I’d recommend:
- Get some support
Mention to the pianist or guitarist that a little accompaniment would really help. Even horn players can play root motions here and there to help move things along.
- Use the melody as your guide.
If we learn the melodies to the tune, not only can we hear it in our heads (hopefully), but it can serve as the entire foundation for our solo. Nothing wrong with one solid chorus of an ornamented melody. Now, if you’re going to play multiple choruses, you might not want to just repeat the process. A solo needs to develop and lead somewhere, so you’ll need to continue to develop your playing in order to have something to say on your own.
- If it’s solo, you’re free!
One thing that’s nice about everyone dropping out is that it doesn’t always matter if we follow the form. We can, in fact, abandon the tune all together and go off on our own planet (groove solo, for example) and simply cue the band back in by going back to that last A section (for example) and leading everyone back in gently (or even better, by playing the end of the head).
In addition to the options listed above, I think the answer only really lies in further study, development and experience. It should be easier to keep your place if your are indeed using the chords as your guide. Playing more musically through changes will continue to come – slowly – with practice and experience. Make sure that you are practicing playing through changes in different ways (arpegiatically, with inversions, linearly, considering chord scales, voice leading melodies through changes, and so on).
Practice playing along with Band in a Box, iRealb or any other play-along method and try muting other instruments and just playing the tune with the drums.
Practice doing exactly that which you are having trouble with and you will inevitably get better at it, in essence.
How about the rest of you? How do you handle the “entire band goes to get a drink at the bar during the bass solo” phenomenon? Tell us about it in the comments.