Notes From The Bandstand: Supporting the Soloist

Lorin Cohen

As jazz bassists, we know this scenario all too well: after taking their solos, the players in the front line head offstage, only to chat it up with each other until it’s time come back to trade or play the head out. Meanwhile, we’ve been playing non-stop since the downbeat.

Frustrating right? Do they realize how much we’ve been playing to support them? Let’s do some math: if we’re playing a 4/4 walking bass line through a standard 32 bar tune totaling, say, 20 choruses, we may play over 2,500 quarter notes!

Bassists and drummers do the heavy lifting on the bandstand. A big part of what we do in laying down the foundation of the group is “meat and potatoes” stuff; not necessarily the most expressive dimension of the bassist’s art, but essential for a groove that sticks to the ribs. And, in addition to establishing the pocket and the harmonic foundation for the group, those 2,500 quarter notes have to support the soloist in significant ways.

This is often overlooked when itemizing our priorities. So, here are four things to think about when it comes to supporting a soloist:

1. At first, do no harm

Many gigs we’ll do are the first or second time we’ll play with people. In such cases, we haven’t had the time to learn a soloist’s particular preferences as to how he wants bassists to play behind him. In these situations, it’s usually best to hold back on your desire to show how brilliant you are at metric modulation and such, and simply hold down the fort.

2. Don’t disrupt the flow

Primarily related to #1, playing too much can get in the way of the soloist. Interactive stabs and harmonic embellishments can interrupt the story the soloist is trying to tell.

3. Follow the soloist harmonically

As bassists, we can change the harmony by playing different roots and implying substitute chord changes. But in most cases, the soloist dictates the extent to which we can make such alterations. This means we have to develop highly trained ears to adjust to any substitute changes the soloist might imply.

4. Ask

Don’t be afraid to ask the soloist how she likes bassists to play behind her. Does she like an interactive player with whom she can have a musical dialogue, or does she want to rely on you to lay it down so she can solo freely, feeling secure upon your solid foundation? From my experience, most soloists will appreciate your consideration of their needs.

We, as keepers of the low end, have to be selfless folks. It’s a quality that defines our background responsibilities as timekeepers and supportive accompanists. Once we’ve established these foundational elements, we’ve earned our right to shine, which will be the focus of my next column. Until then, stay supportive out there low-riders!

Lorin Cohen is a New York City double bassist and bass guitarist. You can learn more about him, his music, and his availability for lessons in NYC and via Skype at

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