Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Getting It Together With the Bass Player

by Rusty Jones

Drummer Rusty Jones has an extensive background working with such names as Judy Roberts, George Shearing, Marion McPartland and Lee Konitz. He has played professionally throughout the U.S. and Europe and has done much in radio, recording and television. MD is pleased to hare Rusty Jones as a guest columnist for this issue.Everybody knows that if the rhythm section is not ‘happening’ neither is the rest of the band. The drums and bass are two different sides of the same musical coin, and when two players are really together it is a beautiful experience for everybody. I would like to discuss what I consider to be the three main relationships between the bass and drums and some of the problems that may arise in each. The three areas are: 1) Time and Feel. 2) Sound. 3) Interaction.
The time must be together and comfortable. The feel must be relaxed, though it may have the intensity of a blazing inferno. When things are right the bass player and drummer set up the time together and immediately create a feeling of energy that is so secure and alive that one feels anything can happen freely in the music.
Drummers attempt to lock in on a tempo immediately, not letting it speed up or slow down, no matter what happens. But it’s not always as simple as that. Usually we get the tempo from the leader, who may count aloud, or snap his fingers, or play a few bars. Sometimes the bass player may hear it slightly faster or slower from the way we do, or may play a bit more on top or behind the beat, even though it may be the same tempo that we both hear. Much depends on how you pick up the beat at the beginning of a tune. A keen awareness and an alert attitude in the beginning can get you off to a good start.
During our years of playing we find ourselves working with many different bass players who all have a slightly different feel for the time. Of course not all of these fellows will immediately recognize the drummer as “the boss of the rhythm section,” and may have their own ideas as to where to place the beat. Too many times the music has been spoiled by the fact that the bass player and drummer were too stubborn and insistent on their own conception of time to cooperate with each other and bring it together.
Usually, if you work with a bass player on a regular basis you can build up an empathy and rapport with him over a period of. time. But how about that night when you go to a gig with an unfamiliar band and the bass player is someone whom you’ve never played with before? After you begin playing you see that there are time problems between the two of you. As you check him out you may discover that you need to nudge him up a little if he plays too far back on the beat, or is actually dragging the tempo down. He may be rushing or playing nervously on top of the beat and you will need to gently bring him back to a more relaxed time feel. The main thing is to keep your composure and not let it get you flustered, which is extremely difficult at times. Then, hopefully being in control of yourself, put a little extra snap and intensity into your playing, without playing louder and without playing busier.
The psychological element is very important. Try to project a positive attitude and bring him into your sphere of influence and energy. The sledgehammer effect, where you pound the beat down his throat and play louder and busier to obliterate him as you cast menacing glances his way, never works. It usually only serves to alienate him from you and blows your chances of ever getting the music together. In addition to this, the rest of the band may also resent your attitude. Your time may be right, but if you offend the other fellow with the way you confront him with it you may win the battle, but lose the war.
Sometimes even a diplomatic word with him in private on a break between the sets will help. You might say, for example, “Doesn’t it seem to you that the tempos are slipping back (or creeping up) a little on some of the tunes? Maybe we could work together a little closer on this and keep things together more.”
Another situation may arise where it is a matter of feel or inflection of the beat rather than the rushing or dragging of the tempo. That is, even though you both may be playing the same tempo, your feeling may be a little more on top or behind where he feels it. Another way of handling a problem like this would be to try it his way for a while, or at least go halfway with him. Maybe getting into his groove is a good idea, especially if you are filling in with a band of which he is a regular member. This may or may not work, but sometimes it’s worth a try.
One tough situation is when you both get caught with a pianist or guitarist whose time is “strange.” Especially here the bass and drums must really lock in with each other if they are going to hold things together.
Another potentially dangerous area is when you go from a two feel into a four feel and the time gets to be a little more on top. There are also problems on tunes which have parts with different rhythmic feels, such as those which go back and forth between a Latin (or rock) and a swing feel.
Another is when the dynamic level shifts dramatically from loud to soft and back again.
A very important thing to be aware of at all times is the blending of the sounds of the bass and drums. A drummer must be very careful with the powerful instrument he has at his disposal. He can very easily overplay and bury the bass player if he is insensitive to this fact except, of course, in rock where the electric bass player can turn up his amplifier and wipe out a drummer.
In the jazz style the acoustic bass is usually used, with its longer sounding notes, so that each quarter-note will sustain into the next. ln that way one beat flows into the next to give the time that wonderful feeling of forward motion. The drummer in this context usually finds that in order to achieve the best sound, play the time with the stick on the ride cymbal or the brushes on the snare drum, along with the steady beats of the bass.
The playing of the bass drum is a very sensitive subject with most bass players, and they often complain that drummers are obliterating their sound by its improper use. It can be very destructive if a drummer plays loud time on a high-pitched, ringing bass drum. Quite often you might want to give the beat a little more punch by playing steady time on the bass drum. But it must be done lightly and with control and sensitivity. Also, the sound of ride cymbals can be devastating if the volume of the overtones builds up too much and blots out the notes of the bass. You can avoid this by listening to the total sound of the music, rather than just your own instrument.
The musical interaction between a bass player and a drummer depends on the context of the musical setting. Sometimes the function of both will be basically to keep time while playing fairly simple. Here the idea would be to keep the rhythm alive without putting in too many figures.
But there are other looser situations where bass and drums are not confined as much, and play more freely, as they set up different figures and ideas, either together or separately. For me, the essence of creative playing lies in reacting to the musical ideas around me, whether they come from myself or anyone else in the group. In the action between the bass and drums it is especially important to maintain an attitude of cooperation and give and take. For example, sometimes the bassist can act as an anchor man for you; he will play more simply and hold the foundation together while you play more freely. At other times you can lay back and give him room to stretch out. Sometimes everybody is stretching out together. It is very important to listen to the total sound, so that everybody can react to it in his own creative way.
You might ask, “What is the best way to play for bass solos?” Here again, there are no hard and fast rules to follow. Sometimes the bass player prefers that the drummer lay out completely, but most of the time he will want some kind of rhythmic support. Almost always the volume (but not the intensity) should be brought way down, and usually it’s a good idea to play a little simpler, either with brushes or softly with sticks. Time played lightly with the brushes on a cymbal, with accents from the rest of the set, works well. Here again, keep the bass drum light, and if you’re using sticks, watch the overtones on the ride cymbal.
One last suggestion I would make is to listen to as many good players as you can, both live and on records.
I have always thought it would be interesting to take a poll of bass players on who their favorite drummers are, and why. The results might be quite different from a survey of who the favorite drummers of other drummers are.
Reprinted permission of Selmer/Premier ‘Sticktips’ education series.