6 Bassline Strategies

I had the privilege recently of writing bass grooves for two awesome bands, Zaska and Mescalito. When I pondered over the lines I’d composed, I noticed certain techniques recurring. Today, I’ll briefly explain each technique. Plus I’ll link to a nice example of it in the reggae, funk, jazz or hip hop repertoire.

(If you want to hear the actual lines I wrote, come see Mescalito on March 24th in the Opium Rooms supporting Vernon Jane, or on April 14th in Sweeney’s, or see Zaska’s single release on April 23rd in the Sugar Club!)

1. Space

Silence can be one of the most attractive features of a cyclical bass groove. A gap, whether for half a beat or a full bar or more, lets other parts emerge, particularly drum hits. (Cutting off a bass note right on a snare backbeat is a cliche example.)

A short gap works as punctuation, giving the groove more of a shape, and therefore, it seems to me, more physical catchiness/danceability. For example, the “Stalag” riddim (which you may know as the groove for Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), here underpinning Tenor Saw‘s hit “Ring The Alarm”…

 

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The “Stalag” bassline

Here’s another awesome 1-beat-ish gap in a reggae groove (beat 3 in the 2nd bar):

 

 

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Robbie Shakespeare’s line on “Computer Malfunction”

Longer spaces have a call-and-answer effect, as in this afrobeat groove…

 

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Leaving space for call-and-response (I’m not certain that this is really where the 1 is, by the way…)

2. Funky Melodic Cells

Like any other musical part, a strong bassline should be melodic. In a funky context, though, the tendency is usually towards blues melody rather than diatonicism. Out of the pool of blues notes I discussed a while back, a few 3- or 4-note cells emerge that are by far the strongest for constructing basslines. For example, 1 2 b3, 1 6 b7, 5 6 8 9, and the definitive cell for funk basslines, 1 5 b7. A catchy hook (i.e. with an intriguing rhythm) made from one of these cells can easily be a strong enough bassline to carry a tune.

 

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The opening bass riff on “Not For Nothing” uses the 1 6 b7 cell

 

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The basic groove (coming in around 0:32) played by Hunter on 8-string guitar, using the 1 5 b7 cell

Here’s an example of a hook-y bassline built off the 1 2 b3 cell followed by a sequenced, retrograded version (that is, the first three notes are then transposed up a fifth and reversed in order).

 

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Slap riff from A Certain Ratio’s “Waterline” (0:21)

More important than the motivic derivation, though, is the space in every 2nd bar which is used for call-and-response (in the form of improvised fills). Check out that nasty double-tracked slap sound too.

Contour

Another important aspect of that line is the clear direction of movement – up and then down, quite simply. A clear, uncomplicated contour like that strengthens the riff. For instance, the ascending bassline off the classic Scofield/Metheny collaboration…

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The A section groove for “Everybody’s Party”, with an ascending contour in each bar

As an aside, I would bet that this groove and the Dave Holland groove were both originally notated using 8th notes where I have 16th notes. Jazz musicians like reading 8th notes. It’s purely a notation decision with little or no musical impact, but I think 16ths are a more accurate reflection.

Octave Jumps

Steve Swallow’s bassline ascends a minor pentatonic scale before jumping from the b7 (Eb) back down to the root (F). We can imagine a variation of the where the scalar ascent continued, so instead of a jump down a minor 7th we would have a step-wise movement to the higher F:

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Steve Swallow’s groove without the octave displacement at bar 2

The played line uses octave displacement of what would otherwise be step-wise movement. Another example of this is Marcus Miller’s nifty elaboration of the classic “Red Baron” groove (composed originally by Billy Cobham).

 

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Octave displacement of step-wise movement

The Meters’ “Funky Miracle”, here sampled by DJ Premier for an early Gang Starr track, features both a (pentatonic) stepwise melody and then its octave displacement.

 

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Octave displacement of expected high Ab

Even simpler than octave displacement of step-wise movement, is a plain leap of an octave. This James Brown sample (1973’s “Blind Man Can See It”) has a downwards octave leap to the tonic note:

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Sampled bassline used in “Funky Technician”

(Note also the clear contour and the use of space, albeit with the note ringing out rather than silence.)

Here’s an upwards octave leap from the IV note. (Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns’ “Four Play”, sampled by DJ Premier.)

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What a rugged groove! Premier’s sub-bass and scratching helps of course.

5. Circularity Via Pick-Up

Emphasising the cyclic nature of a groove creates a hypnotic, trancy effect. One way is to use a phrase that starts before beat one. I read somewhere that landing on, rather than starting from, the downbeat is a characteristic of African-derived music. That’s surely a huge generalisation, but it does tie in well to how bebop improvisation and alternate paths are based on directionality towards target chords.

Starting basslines on a pickup in this way is not a very common technique, but here’s a nice example:

 

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Paul Jackson’s line on “God Make Me Funky” (drops around 0:50)

6. Circularity Via Dynamic Balance

This is a concept I picked up from Steve Coleman’s writings, but I’m not at all qualified to say much about it. As I see it, it’s a characteristic of African-derived rhythms such as clave… basically, the quality of having points of rest alternating with points of tension in a syncopated rhythmic cycle, producing forward motion (“dynamic”) and also a self-contained, universal circularity (“balance”). Hmmm, my prose is not really up to the task here! Anyway, do we find clave-like rhythms in the funk repertoire? Of course we do, in these classic basslines:

 

Gonna sign off here! Hope you picked up some groove wisdom from all of that. Like, follow and share!

Independence Day

In this short post, I’ll look at some ideas for practising rhythmic independence over a Charlie Parker melody.

“He started playing a song, he didn’t play any of the original melody but I knew which song he was playing; you could hear the whole rhythm section and everything. My father used to say the guys sounded like they had a drum in the horn, they had such strong time.” – Steve Coleman reminiscing about Sonny Stitt, from this interview.

This is a great quote, and one that started me thinking when I encountered it some months ago. It suggests that great jazz musicians imagine rhythm section parts as they play, convey that in their improvising, and that this contributes to their great time feel.

To try get to grips about how that could work, I made exercises for imagining rhythmic parts independently of a melodic line.

I chose Charlie Parker’s famous tune “Blues For Alice” as my basis. The first thing I did was count through it, 4 beats per bar. What’s nice about this is that, when you first try (and fail), you can feel very clearly what parts are tripping you up. In this melody, after the basic 8th note syncopations are internalised, the hard parts are the triplets in bars 4 and 9.

I discovered something when I first started using this exercise. Namely, that I was using my vocal imagination to perform the rhythms, making little muscle movements in my mouth as if singing the melody “boo bap a doo bap a dooby apa dapada ba”. How I discovered it was that my “1 2 3 4” count kept getting dragged into the melody rhythm, because my mouth was trying to phrase the melody.

So, even by simply counting through the tune, I tapped into another way of imagining the melody – by muscle memory and by ear. The two ways feel quite different.

When I’m using my vocal thinking to guide the melody, it feels like it’s in the front of my head, behind my nose, say, kind of blocking out other aspects. When I imagine it by how it feels in my hands and how it sounds, it feels like the melody is surrounding me, and I can connect more to the head-nod feeling of the swing pulse – and also imagine hits against the melody.

(Obviously this epiphany is not relevant to wind instruments or vocalists who have to use their mouth to play their instrument. I suspect that drummers also are used to the muscle memory mode because drummers often say they are singing the melody to themselves as they play.)

Some ways to make this more complex are to use a different length of pattern instead of 4 beats, to use syllables other than numbers, and to use a different subdivision than quarter notes. Here I am repeating ten syllables from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in swung 8ths.

Making the exercise harder like this increases the benefits. Talking in swung 8ths is particularly nice because it forced me to fully internalise and understand the triplets. Having part of my brain occupied with the spoken phrase meant I also felt as if I was supervising my hands instead of forcing them to do things. Both of these things made me feel very relaxed, physically and in terms of time feel.

However my tempo in that video isn’t as bang on as I’d like it. I worked on a different exercise to try bring together laid-back/behind-the-beat playing and strict tempo-keeping.

Although here I’m improvising on a 3-chord blues, there is a similarity to all the other exercises – I’m trying to open up what’s going on in my head, feeling the music streaming by instead of having the current line in the forefront of my attention. In particular, finding space between my tempo perception and my played phrasing. Attempting to play laid-back can disturb my pulse if I don’t have this space.

In this video, I stay conscious of how every note relates to the nearest beat, using my kinesthetic sense. This is instead of trying to somehow play in a steady stream that is just off-set from the pulse – I can’t do that yet. I have to keep track of every beat, feel it slotting in correctly, and place my laid-back notes intentionally around it.

(The feeling of the kinesthetic sense, by the way, for me is kind of imagining a bigger wind-up movement for notes I want to be laid-back, i.e. imagining swinging my arm way back to hit a drum. So the notes are late as if I had to travel further to hit them.)

Obviously there’s much further to go in that direction.

That’s all I have this week. These exercises gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to play at a higher level – relaxed and open. I’d have liked to get into improvising over spoken counts and rhythms, speaking normally while playing the melody, and other vocalising techniques. Check this cool video if you haven’t seen it already:

I’d love to hear your experiences with time feel, independence, and what goes on inside your head when you play. Follow, comment, like and share!

Alternate Paths on a Blues

Today I’ll use “negative dominant” progressions to solo on a jazz blues. These ideas are from Steve Coleman – and I’m not the only one to have tried to interpret them. I had to cut them down a lot, so I recommend you read his stuff, with the warning that it is hard! After I do my best to explain the idea, I’ll show how these movements are present in typical jazz harmony, then play through entire alternate chord progressions built off them.

To understand a “negative dominant” progression, we should consider a traditional dominant to tonic cadence.

Trad 2

The tritone B F (actually tritone plus an octave in this voicing) resolves to C E, a major 3rd (plus an octave). The chord moves down a 5th (or up a 4th) – G7 to C. These resolutions are the basis of mainstream jazz harmony… but not the whole story.

Although this cadence happens all the time, spelling the notes of a plain V I progression makes a very corny melody. Jazz musicians have long avoided that sound in favour of altered and substitute chords.

Steve Coleman has characterised the harmonic/melodic techniques used by Charlie Parker to avoid the V I sound as “alternate paths” or “invisible paths”. He brilliantly uses symmetry to explain how they are the “dark side” of a normal V I. (He is also brilliant at coining names for these things, evidently.)

Symmetry emerges from mirror images.

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What would be a mirror image of a V I? I can “reflect” it by inverting it, for instance around the axis note D. (For the nerds, this is because the C major scale is symmetrical around the note D.) So, every note in the original progression is replaced by one equally distant to middle D…

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The process of reflecting each chord of the original progression. G7 turns into D-6, C turns into A-.

… but on the opposite side of the D axis note. Below D if it was originally above, and above D if it was originally below. E.g., the B in the G7 ends up as the high F in the D-6.

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Comparing the original progression with its reflection in bar 2.

What is the new progression? D-6 to A-. It has a tritone resolving to a major 3rd (B F to C E, again separated by an additional octave) but the chord moves up a fifth, not down (D-6 going to A-, not G7 going to C). And both chords are minor, not major. Steve Coleman calls this a “negative dominant” resolution to A minor.

This by itself might explain how a lot of II V licks seem to be more tonally weighted on the II- than the V7. A melody over a II V I could imply a II-6 to VI- movement (negative dominant resolution) rather than a V7 to I movement. Although the chord tones are almost the same, the mental model and the tonal gravity would be different.

Such melodic shapes can be shifted to other positions and still retain their cadential power. This is due to the phenomenon of borrowed chords, or modal interchange in jazz speak. So, instead of the negative dominant that fits in the C major scale (D-6), we could use the one that fits C minor, i.e. F-6. It still resolves down a fourth (because it’s a negative dominant), but with the distinctively pretty sound of landing on a tonic major: F-6 Cmaj. Coleman notes that this IV-6 sound is often used over a V7 chord, creating a “dominant 7th complex” notated V11b9 (G Ab B C D F). The darkening substitution of D-6 by F-6 can be re-applied to the F-6, changing F-6 to Ab-6. The resulting bVI-6 sound is also used on dominant chords forming an altered V7#5b9 chord.

So, without going any further into symmetry, we have three melodic-tonal centres that can be used as dominant chords to target a tonic chord: II-6, IV-6 and bVI-6, targeting I. Crucially, these negative dominants are present as upper structures in most functional  jazz progressions.

Often, one of these negative dominant chords will be found as an upper structure of a jazz chord, followed by one of the darker versions (e.g. II-6 followed by IV-6) as an upper structure of the next chord. So:

D- F- is present in the following functional chord progressions:
B-7b5 E7alt
B-7b5 Bb7
D-7 G7b9 (probably in the key of C)
D-7 Ealt (probably in A minor)
Fmaj7 Bb7 (probably in F major)

I’m being flexible with chord spellings – to make the point clearest I could say F6 Bb9, because clearly D- and F- are the exact upper structures of those chords. But I’m using Fmaj7 Bb7 as a shorthand for two chord types, not exact voicings. Same deal with the G7b9, it technically should be the 11b9 mentioned above.

There’s another darkening movement, which is shifting up a tritone:

D- Ab- is present in:
D-7 G7alt
D-7 Db7

As well as these darkening movements, there are the actual negative dominant resolutions to a target chord.

D- A- is in:
B-7b5 E7b9 A-
E7b9 A-
G7 Cmaj
D-7 G7 Cmaj
G7 F#-7b5
C#7alt F#-7b5

F- Cmaj is in:
D-7b5 G7b9 Cmaj
G7b9 Cmaj
F-6 Cmaj (back door, same with the next two)
Bb7 Cmaj
F-7 Bb7 Cmaj
Bb7 A-
F-7 Bb7 A-

Ab- Cmaj is in:
G7alt Cmaj
Db7 Cmaj
Ab- A- (not seen as a written chord progression but I’ll be using it later)

Okay, let’s stop with the wall of chord symbols. The take-away is: a small set of negative dominant progressions (and their associated voice-leading and cliches) can be re-used on a huge variety of jazz changes. Today I’ll use the two basic types of movement: darkening and resolving – to navigate inside and outside the harmony on a jazz blues.

2 2 Stave

My alternate pathways in the first video, with the second staff showing example bebop harmony compatible with the alternate pathways.

My alternate pathways here are inspired by the original melody of Blues For Alice (transposed to C). Then I take a somewhat strange turn in bar 9. I work from II- VI7 II-7 V7, a common decoration of a II V progression, e.g. as implied by the melody of Billie’s Bounce…

BB Lick

… but I use a C#- to target the second D-, and then straightforward negative dominants to target the E-7 of the turnaround.

3

Here there are two main ideas: bar 1 has an unexpected B- (equivalent to Bb7alt) targeting Eb-6 in bar 2, which I interpret as a C blues scale shape (because it has the notes Eb, Gb, Bb and C). This is another way to use minor shapes – as blues colours, primarily I-6 and bIII-6 against a I or IV chord. But here the Eb- (bIII-) is also functional, implying a D7alt sound going to G-.

Then I use what could be standard bebop changes to reach the bar 9: interpretable as, say, Cmaj7 F7 E-7 A7b9 (bars 7-8). But I keep up this rate of movement to arrive at a tonic chord (A- which could be Cmaj) in bar 10 rather than bar 11 as expected. I create a cyclical feel by repeating the exact pathway for the next 3 bars. Every pair of chords involves a shift up a minor 3rd, but it’s not a strict pattern because the G- D- resolution breaks it.

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The first pathway in video no. 3.

 

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The second pathway in video no. 3.

If you find it hard to hear how this relates to a blues, here is the same solo with bass notes added (and abominable sound quality!).

I had to slow down even more to get some juice out of these progressions. (I play the first one once and the second twice.) The first uses those blues colours again. The second uses unexpected resolutions of a minor chord to major chord a fourth below (so, the F#- is an Amaj, and the C#- is an Emaj), with that major chord changing to a minor chord. It also strictly uses only the darkening and dominant cadential movements, lending it quite a lot of momentum.

There are so many more possibilities, of course. For example, diverging from the subdominant chords in the blues, i.e. the IV in bar 5 and the II in bar 9. In my examples I stick to the original subdominants. Obviously I’m only barely scratching the surface!

I had fun coming up with and playing through these progressions. To conclude, I think the relationship of these pathways to conventional jazz harmony is crucial. I’m thinking both ways as I play. Also, obviously, the pathways are only a technique. These sequences have a rather severe sound due to the unrelenting drive of the cadences and the minor colouration – that mightn’t always be what you want.

Hope you enjoyed it! Sorry for the late post. Please comment with any related ideas, thoughts, questions or criticisms!

Thanks to Loran Witteveen for correcting my examples!