In 2005 I traveled to Zurich for my first gig with an iconic jazz pianist (out of respect for his privacy, he’ll remain nameless). We haven’t rehearsed. We haven’t spoken about what we’re going to play. I’m told we’ll go over everything at the sound check but said pianist never shows up. We have a quick 10-minute talk before hitting the bandstand, and that’s it.
The band is announced. I walk onstage and pick up the rented “bass du jour”. The pianist/leader stomps off the tempo, and we’re off.
No rehearsal, no charts, no set list. It stayed this way for my five-year tenure in the bass chair. While frightening at times, it was always an absolute thrill. But, never knowing what the plan was, I had to come up with an approach that would prepare me for this extremely spontaneous playing.
So, I developed a series of principles I could rely on no matter what was thrown at me. I sometimes think I could compile them as a “Field Manual For the Working Bassist” – a guide for surviving in high-stakes musical situations.
These are some of the most important things I think a bassist should focus on to perform optimally in real time on stage. Here, in the first article of a four-part series, I’ll address the first principle: Timekeeping.
In the ever-expanding online world of bass playing, soloing seems to predominate (especially on the bass guitar). Soloing is, undoubtedly, an essential skill for the contemporary bassist, and one that I’ll discuss in a forthcoming article in this series. But, amidst this landscape of bass virtuosi, let’s not forget that our most important responsibility is to groove; to lock down the time and make the band bounce.
Here are six tips for better timekeeping on the bandstand:
A maxim for anything in life, and especially important for musicians. For bassists, as part of the engine of the ensemble, there’s a tendency to muscle it out, to pull too hard, to force a sound from the instrument. This is only going to make one’s beat sound frantic. As soon as you pick up your bass, close your eyes, smile, and take a deep breath. Think of your playing as meditation. Say to yourself, “This is going to be a fun one” and hit it.
2. Focus on the drummer’s ride cymbal
When we’re playing in a traditional swing-oriented context, the foundation of the band’s beat is going to be determined by the lock between our quarter note and the drummer’s ride cymbal. Make establishing this connection the first order of business. Use your eyes and ears to do so.
3. Let the high-hat be your guide
Many modern drummers don’t play the high-hat on beats two and four. But when they do, look to it as a touchstone. It’ll give you a reference point for where the critical backbeats of the groove are, which will keep you from rushing.
4. Get kinetic
Don’t be afraid to move when you play, whether that means a slight bounce on two and four, or just tapping your foot. Getting your body into it in some way can do wonders for generating a steady and swinging pulse.
5. Watch the leader’s feet
You want to be on the same rhythmic page as all your bandmates, but especially the leaders. Look to see If she’s tapping her foot or head; doing anything physical to mark time. Check it out and sync your movement with hers. This will help ensure that you’re both putting the beat in the same place.
6. Leave your ego at the door
I once asked legendary bassist Bob Cranshaw how he was able to hook up with so many different drummers. His response was, “ You know drummers have big egos; but because I want the music to feel good, I let them do their thing, and I’ll just adjust because I want the music to swing – I want us to have a ball.” A beautiful lesson. We want to be demonstrative with our beat, but we need to be flexible, willing to defer to the drummer when need be. The ultimate goal is for the music to feel great. To that end, there’s nothing wrong with taking one for the team from time to time.
Hopefully, these tips will help you to have a ball on stage, give you a more focused approach when it comes to timekeeping, and ultimately, keep your phone ringing and pinging.