Playing without a Chordal Instrument


Photos by PeterTea

Q: I was curious about your approach to playing jazz without a piano player or guitarist. I lead a secret, soon to be a quintet because our piano player is moving away. I respect the kind of stuff presented by Charlie Haden in his work with Ornette Coleman, but aside from the free really “out there” jazz, I’m at a loss for how to provide more structure by simply walking. Is there a simple way to make up for the lack of harmonic structure left by the absence of piano using just bass? Thanks!

A: Great question. There are a number of trio gigs that I’ve done that include saxophone, drums and bass, and they can be both stressful or freeing, depending on your comfort level.

In a way, you are more free than ever to interpret and explore the harmony while providing a supporting role in the music. You can reharmonize to your heart’s content, intersperse melodies into your playing while walking, play chords, and so on. The key is really to not overdo it and to not take too many liberties. It’s actually more important than ever that you connect with the other musicians and maintain that dialogue (i.e.: have a three-member discussion of the song rather than just talk over each other).

The hardest part is the bass solo. We are truly naked and alone out there with just the drummer providing rhythm. It can be helpful if the horn player can provide some root motion as it will give your harmonic content a bit more context.

My general approach isn’t honestly all that different. I still focus on providing a strong pulse and, if anything, make even more sure (than usual) to really outline the changes while I’m walking. I might keep the foundation of my lines a bit more inside the changes, outlining chord tones and not getting too ambiguous but I will also grab little snippets of melody or actual chords while walking here and there if it’s feeling a bit stark.

Don’t fill all of the holes, though. Some of the beauty of this setup lies within the starkness. Sometimes music should be a bit fragile and exposed and it’s up to you and the drummer to decide when spaces need filling or when they should be simply left open.

I would suggest that you do some listening above all else. Pick up some albums that reflect the lack of a chordal instrument (besides the bass, that is).

Marc Johnson has a stunning album of duets called 2×4. You might also listen to some of Dave Holland’s solo albums to explore how he manages to carry the tune while also exploring the spaces and melodic content by himself.

I would make sure to bone up on your chord voicings through changes and practice walking bass lines while tastefully grabbing rhythmic chordal plucks (3rds and 7ths will really help to outline the changes but you can also explore hitting key extensions when appropriate like #11s and 9s). Make sure that your walking line stays solid and doesn’t falter when reaching for the occasional chordal pluck. I practice both plucking chords rhythmically while walking as well as letting them ring out while trying to maintain a walking line. You wouldn’t want to do this the whole time while playing with the trio but it can help to fill out some of the space and provide a chordal backdrop for the horn player without abandoning your role as bassist.

The hardest part will likely be your bass solos. Make sure to keep the form and, even if you abandon changes here and there and go into your own thing, make sure to come back and outline key moments in the harmony to establish the form as well as reinforce the actual song. I tend to play pretty inside the changes so that I can hear the song while also allowing myself the freedom to follow my ears and instincts and abandon or re-harmonize the changes if I’m feeling it. The beautiful thing is that you can’t clash with anybody (unless the horn player is providing a walking line of some kind) so you have a lot of freedom to explore sound on your own.

Really, your role won’t change all that much but you will have more freedom to explore melodic content while still playing the role of bass player. Your job is still the same. That of time keeper and harmony reinforcer. That said, you also have more space and freedom to contribute melodic and chordal content. It’s really just a matter of remaining a great bassist while hinting at the role of pianist or guitarist when you feel it. The greatest teacher will be experience and your own exploration of how others have walked that line. Have fun and listen hard!

Here are some examples I found on Youtube of me playing in this kind of trio setting with Marko Djordjevic and Jeff Ellwood (p.s. – I had a nasty flu on the DW Drum Channel clip so forgive my haggard appearance!):

Readers, do any of you have experience playing in a trio setting with no other chordal instrument? How do you approach it? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Love the sax trio setting. Some good Kenny Garrett stuff out there with this set up. Also, is Damien related to Peter Erskine?

  2. Sonny Rollins ‘Way Out West’

  3. Massimo de Stephanis

    I have a steady trumpet/bass/drums trio since 2000. Playing without a piano (or guitar) gives me a great freedom both in comping and in solos, especially because we alternate between highly structured sections and more free sections. You can search online or take a look here:
    and (same trio plus cello and alto/clarinet)
    Tell me if you like it!