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Playing As One

I’m pushing the pause button on questions this week thanks to an experience I had just last night, which is a great lesson for all musicians.

I’m traveling to Tokyo with the Jaco Pastorius Big Band at the moment. Last night, we had our warm up concert in Sunrise, FL. After the gig, I got into a conversation with fellow bandmates about how well the horn section plays as a whole. Every member really listens to the entire band, not just themselves. They pay close attention to dynamics, length of notes, articulation and the length of spaces in between the notes.

This is the critical foundation for what it takes to be a great band. You can hear it in the great rhythm sections past and present, from Motown’s Funk Brothers to Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan, to Victor Wooten and JD Blair, and Marcus Miller and Poogie Bell.

I think that this concept is one that often takes us bass players a while to really grasp. This is especially true in this modern age of the technically astounding bassists and drummers, and the progression of the bass and the bass’s role in music. The art form of locking together through listening and offering up the appropriate reaction is lost on many players today.

Hopefully this column will plant the seed in the minds of technically great players to aspire to be equally great musicians. If you’re in a band, you want to be a great band, not a bunch of individually great players.

While there are plenty of gigs awarded simply on the merits of pyro-technics and ability, the vast majority of bigger, or A-level gigs are awarded based on this ability.

Even the attempt to be aware of these things can help to make you a better musician in addition to becoming a better (and more in demand) bassist.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t really let it all hang out if that’s what the gig calls for. It’s often the guys who know how to shine when it’s time, but also know how to sink in to a groove and play as a unit that really start to get the calls.

Here is a list of things to help get you in the mindset of being a band member over a player:

  1. Listen to your volume. Is your bass louder or as loud as the vocalist, soloist or lead melody? It shouldn’t be!
  2. Listen to yourself and how you are aligning your feel with the drummer. Are you guys really locking in together and not just playing in time together? Are you responding to each other? How does your bass line lock with the kick?
  3. Are you planning licks and fills ahead of time? If so, it will often feel forced. Try not to play anything that you don’t hear. Interact with the music and not with what you want people to hear you play.
  4. Are you being more rhythmic than is necessary? Sometimes all a song really wants is some nice long tones. Don’t be afraid to not be noticed.
  5. If you get a solo, are you letting it breathe? Don’t be afraid to make good use of space. Sometimes playing absolutely nothing for a few bars, and then coming in with one nice melodic line can really pull the audience in to what you are about to do. Don’t feel like you need to blow people minds right out of the gate.

What would you add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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