Sometimes when listening to music, any kind of music really, I’ll say something like “man, that bass player is great.” Often, people will ask me how I can tell. This is a fair question – it’s the bassist’s job to play the low notes in music; keep stuff grounded, provide a deep foundation for the other musicians.  That said, a good bass player can really enhance any kind of music with a great rhythmic feel, nimble fingers, or clever melodic invention.

When playing jazz, which is fairly unrestricted in terms of what musicians’ roles are, bass players get to do all three. The common way a bassist works in a jazz group is to play a walking part. Walking bass is a long, winding series of low notes that may evoke the feel of a person’s alternate footsteps while going for a stroll. Bass players achieve this effect by improvising notes in between the ones they have to play to match the chords in a song

Today, we’re listening to Paul Chambers on double bass (the tall wooden kind that gets its name from playing twice as low as a cello.) On this 1958 recording, he’s playing “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise” as part of the pianist Sonny Clark’s trio. During the head or melody part of the song, Chambers only plays the notes he has to, and they match the bottom notes of the chords the bandleader plays on his piano. Exactly one minute into the recording, Clark begins to improvise a solo, and Chambers starts improvising a walking bass line in kind. Let’s listen.

So what makes the walking bass line interesting, and how can you tell if Paul Chambers is any good? First of all, he constantly finds new ways to connect the dots between the required bass notes for each chord. Secondly, his timing is spot on. Lastly, when the footstep rhythm gets boring, he throws in quick little extra figures to mix things up. He strikes an excellent balance of support and self-expression in his role

It may help, when listening to jazz, to use a speaker with good low range so the bass pops out at you more. I love using headphones when I can, because it gives a sense of standing right next to the bass player. The next time you hear this kind of music, it’s worth it to divert your ears down to the low end on occasion, and see if the bass player is any good. You’ll be surprised what you hear, and for me, it often changes my impression of a song altogether. Have you heard anything interesting down under lately? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg