Bass Players to Know: Bob Cranshaw
One of my favorite pastimes is reading album credits. Who played on that song? This guy did the whole record! They were also the backing band for those guys! It’s music trivia galore and these discoveries are sweet little surprises that build the timeline of music history. It’s often fun to play guessing games, to hone your ear to particular players’ styles and attempt to pinpoint exactly who did what—before cheating and looking at the album notes. If you’re looking for a great catalogue of music to play the “who recorded that?” game, I highly recommend Paul Simon. An incredible array of bass players have played on his records, from Joe Osborn to Bakithi Kumalo, Pino Palladino to Abraham Laboriel, Ron Carter, David Hood, and, the latest bass player to know, Bob Cranshaw.
Known for both his upright and electric chops, Cranshaw was well established in the New York session scene. He recorded most of the music for Sesame Street, held down the bass chair with the Saturday Night Live Band and various Broadway shows, and has played with an astounding number of jazz legends. Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Buddy Rich, you name it; I can hardly think of a better bass player to know.
So Who Is Bob Cranshaw?
Born in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, Cranshaw grew up in a particularly musical family. His father a jazz drummer, Cranshaw and his siblings all took to music at a young age. With experience playing piano, drums, and percussion, he made his way to the bass chair in high school orchestra. Following his studies at Bradley University and military service in Korea, he returned to Chicago to play with various groups, including the quintet MJT + 3 alongside drummer and friend, Walter Perkins. By the early 1960s, Cranshaw finally made his way to New York City to play with Cannonball Adderley, Carmen McRae, and Sonny Rollins, among others. Quickly establishing himself in the jazz community during the glory days of Blue Note Records, he played alongside Lee Morgan, Jimmy Smith, Joe Zawinul, Horace Silver, Shirley Scott, Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Duke Pearson, Buddy Rich, Dexter Gordon, and countless others.
In addition to his work in the jazz community, Cranshaw often found himself on other session dates, lending his bass lines to records by Paul Simon, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Quincy Jones, the music of Sesame Street, the Dick Cavett show, Broadway shows, and the early years of Saturday Night Live. As a member of the musical community, Cranshaw continues to be an active participant of the musicians union, the New York chapter of the AFM. A true advocate for musicians, he has worked with various committees, served on the Executive Board, and continues to help players and their loved ones receive the pensions they deserve.
Let’s Talk Style
The greatest instrumentalists have one thing in common: their ability to communicate through the language of music. Jazz is a particularly emotive and discussion based genre, where the recordings tend to capture the essence of a conversation as much as they do the interpretation of a song. As a bass player, Cranshaw has a keen understanding of when to speak up, when to listen, and when to insert a humorous anecdote. He helps guide the conversation by keeping the band on task, whether he’s elegantly moving through walking changes or keeping a steady groove. He voices his opinion when asked, either in the form of a solo, an exhibition of chops, or with a perfectly timed fill. His execution sounds natural as can be, whether he’s jumping from the higher strings to the lower register with a descending string rake or adding a complex, syncopated fill to a funkier tune.
His extensive recording career spans from roughly 1960 to 1990, where the eclecticism of his credits reflect his diverse musical palette and sophistication as a player. Thanks to his stylistic versatility, ability to mimic and respond to other instruments, and fluency on upright and electric, he can cater his playing to whatever the producer desires. Cranshaw sports the theory knowledge of a jazz master, the groove and soul of a meat-and-potatoes player, and the personality of someone you’d simply want to be around.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“The Bridge” (Sonny Rollins: The Bridge)
The title track of this record features Cranshaw switching back and forth between a brisk walking line and a syncopated Latin influenced groove to match the drummers’ accents. Cranshaw’s bass line provides harmonic context and form for the band, complimenting the swing of the ride and outlining the chords throughout the solo sections. His timing is spot on and as the rest of the band drops out for a bass solo, he maintains a strong and complex walking line that shines all on its on. I urge you to continue listening to this record, as the ballad “God Bless The Child” acts as a wonderful change of pace with a sparse and beautiful upright bass introduction.
“Idle Moments” (Grant Green: Idle Moments)
A fantastic primer for playing a melancholy ballad, Cranshaw’s tone is phenomenal, serving as the table for the other players to converse around. His note duration and execution is impeccable; it clearly defines the rhythm while highlighting the roots and color tones of the chords. A master of chromatic motion, he often creates tension by landing a half step above the next chord and then resolving to the new root. With triplet fills in the higher register and descending string rakes, he injects just enough variation to make his presence known but not overwhelming.
“American Tune” (Paul Simon: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon)
A delightful study in counterpoint, Cranshaw’s bass line acts like the shadow walking alongside Simon’s chord changes. While he often provides the root, he finds just the right moment to favor the inversion of the chord or jump registers. His tone is comforting and sonorous, a soft blanket offering warmth to the lyrics and foundation for the rest of the strings.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Bob Cranshaw? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!