The Lightbulb Moment: Three’s Accompany
When it comes to accompanying a singer or soloist, there’s nothing like the power of three. The rock trio. The jazz trio. The trio of cheeses provided in the green room. It’s the perfect way to get the bases covered (no pun intended). While there are various forms of trio instrumentation (keys, bass, drums; guitar, bass, drums; guitar, fiddle, and bass), we bass players are usually lucky enough to score a spot in this coveted musical gathering. On the surface, it’s easy to pinpoint why three is the magic number. The stage doesn’t get too cramped, it’s relatively simple to get three people together to rehearse, and the potential for musical conversation is quite high. On a deeper musical level, there are plenty of reasons why trio playing is representative of a player’s maturity and ability.
First things first, what makes this trio setting so ideal? It requires all of the players to take responsibility for making the song complete. In doing so, it assigns an instrument to each of the main musical functions: rhythm, harmony, and melody. The drummer provides the rhythmic foundation, the guitarist or keyboardist can go back and forth between playing chords, melody, and soloing, and the bass ties everything together while clearly defining the root of the harmony. Second, the tonal instruments occupy specific and individual sonic spaces. The bassist lives in the lower register with its smooth and sonorous tone. The guitarist or keyboardist has free range of everything else—the higher register for the melody or the space around “middle C” for chord comping. Assuming the keyboardist doesn’t get too adventurous with their left hand, the three instrumentalists are able to play freely within their sonic space while being evenly spread out across the frequency spectrum.
Now that we’ve discussed the “why,” let’s dive into the “how.” How do we appropriately fit into a trio and, most importantly, how do we fill the role of an accompanist? Again, there are two things to consider: our ability to accompany the vocalist or soloist and how well we accompany the other members of the trio.
As we accompany the vocalist or soloist, our job revolves around knowing the song form, sensing where the form will break for solos or dynamic shifts, and being able to read cues. Sometimes the cues are verbal setups, as obvious as saying “let’s go to the bridge” or by simply following the melody and knowing the song. When it comes to body language, the cues can be as dramatic as holding up a fist to signal the end of the song to as subtle as raising an eyebrow or doing a slight head nod. The goal, in this or any musical setting, is to keep your eyes on the prize (the prize being the music that you were hired to play, the person who hired you to play it, and the other people you’re playing with who will hopefully hire you in the future).
Being aware and sensitive to musical cues plays an important role whether you’re following a vocalist or fitting into the trio itself. Usually, someone takes the reins as the “cue giver,” so it’s equally important to follow them. They’ll usually be the person to pass around solos as well as signal the beginnings or endings of songs. The rest of the time, it’s your job to hear how to best fit in with the trio. If a keyboard player starts off a song, wait until you make eye contact with the drummer and come in together at the appropriate time. This unification of the rhythm section goes a long way when it comes to convincing people that you’re a band. Likewise, if the drummer kicks off a groove, acknowledge the other players and figure out how to either filter in one at a time or join in together. Performing in this intentional manner really does make a difference to the other players and the audience.
In addition to intentionality, players must have an attitude of mindfulness and sensitivity, particularly when it comes to the dynamic moments of the song. Since each instrument carries a lot of weight in a small ensemble, it’s presence or lack thereof will influence how listeners pay attention to the music as well as how the other instrumentalists respond to each other’s actions. Being sensitive and supporting each other within the trio, such as digging in to bring more intensity to the apex of someone’s solo or holding back and letting the chordal instrument carry the “broken down” verse, will demonstrate how present, aware, and sensitive you are to the music.
And finally, know that the musical lessons learned from playing in a trio will influence how you play in other ensembles. In a duo, the bass player assumes more responsibility, usually by taking full control of the rhythm section in the absence of a drummer or by taking a few solos. In a larger ensemble, such as a ten-piece band with horns, it’s important to be even more cognizant of who is filling space and when. Instead of listening for a musical break and attempting to play a fill, expect the horn section or featured instrumentalist to jump in. In the meantime, just live in the pocket and assume the role of the accompanist. After all, bass players are, by nature, the strong, sturdy, and sensitive ones in the band. Let’s do our best to live up to that reputation.