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Shaping A Jam Session From The Bass

Bassist

Q: I go to a few jam sessions in my city, which have given me great times and contacts. For the most part, I’ve been able to get over most of the pre-jam jitters and adopt more of a “whatever happens, happens” approach to sessions. But I have encountered one stumbling block related to bassist conduct that I wanted to get your take on.

During certain jams I’ve taken part in, usually, when no particular tune is called and the band is making music on the fly, there comes a clear moment when somebody needs to lay down a new idea, or the music hits a wall. On more than one occasion I have found myself in this position, wondering how to move the band on from an idea that we’ve already thoroughly played out and hesitating in uncertainty. It has happened enough that sometimes I’ll just start playing something completely random and unrelated, often leading to better results than if I just continued playing what I had been, though it does feel abrupt like there should be a better way.

Nobody has ever outright said to me that it’s the bassist’s responsibility to keep things moving, and in my ideal world each musician would be giving and taking more or less an equal amount. Yet, on the bandstand, it continually seems like all eyes are on me or whoever is on bass to take things in a new direction. Sure enough, most of my favorite bassists at jam sessions do appear to be subtly steering the ship as they navigate through seemingly stream-of-consciousness ideas, and I too am trying to achieve this greater level of comfortability and flow. Right now I feel like I merely “hang” at the jams, keeping up with the rest of the band well enough but not necessarily asserting myself or playing at my full potential. I think the hesitation and thoughts of “what if this sounds bad?” at the moment are mental blocks I still need to get over, but do you have any concrete advice on how to more effectively and smoothly navigate through various feels and chord progressions in different keys on bass? I feel like I’m missing something here. Thanks!

A: Been there! Yes, there is a tendency to play an idea to death and then some when in a jam session and, to my ears, it always seems to make sense that the bassist would have an easier time steering the ship into new waters than some (although anybody can really do it as long as they do a decent job of a) making people aware that something is about to happen b) spells it out in an obvious way. Still, it’s easier to move the bottom of the chord and get everybody to hear what it is.

I think that the key to a successful transition is contained in the vocabulary, in addition to thinking simply. If a move is random or hard to hear (ie: “we’ve done this F minor thing to death so now I’m just going to jump to A minor… Why is everybody so confused?”, it’ll take longer for everybody to find their way. If a move makes sense as it relates to the previous section, everybody should be able to hear it, especially if you lead into the change well.

  1. Use your knowledge of the genre to make a move that everybody will hear. If it’s something that everybody will be familiar with, at least in its intention, it will make the transition happen more quickly and with less fumbling around by everybody.
  2. Think about how you are going to make it obvious and try to lead the band by the hand. Maybe a nice chromatic walk up with a strong quarter note pulse, for example.
  3. Make sure that you are looking around and making eye contact beforehand to let everybody know that it’s coming.
  4. Make sure that it happens in a natural place in the music. It’s important to keep the thing moving with basic song structure tenants. Don’t change horses in the middle of a 4-bar phrase!
  5. Think of the current section as a verse or A section and the new section as a Chorus or B section. This way, you are being more compositional and will have at least two sections which you can bounce between. Milk that tune for all it’s worth!
  6. Use common progressions and turnarounds within the genre
  7. Don’t worry about having a new section fully flushed out in your mind. You don’t have to mentally pre-compose something. Just make the change and start simply until it organically evolves.
  8. Contrast can be impactful. If you guys are all cooking and blasting along with a busy and hyper-rhythmic groove, make the move and introduce space into the mix. Leave room for growth. Sometimes I might just hit an enormous ONE and then leave a hole.

This reminds me of a quote I heard (can’t remember where): “You should leave some space. You never know, some music might fall out!”

or go the other way. If things have been open and spacey, introduce an 8th note or 16th note line. Again, it doesn’t have to be fancy. You could just rock the roots and see where it goes. Maybe a little Tower of Power-inspired line. Start with simple harmony and let it evolve and go where it will go. Your line would generally change based on what other people are doing anyway (hopefully), so give it room to happen naturally.

9. You can imagine different players in your mind’s eye and imitate a little bit. If you’ve been rocking the James Brown funk jam for a while, make the move and think of …. anybody Rocco, Jamerson, Will Lee, whoever! It’ll give you the beginnings of a framework from which to operate and may lead you in some new directions.

Hope that helps a little bit! The important thing to remember is that it’s a jam. Things will go up, things will come down. The excitement comes from the connection with other people and where things travel. It’s ok if something goes sideways, just keep your ears open and head up and once the band locks into something, it’ll feel that much better. Keep it simple, make it obvious and don’t sweat the details.

Have fun!