Scott LaFaro’s Lick Vocabulary — In Bite-Size Practice Exercises
You’ve heard the advice before: “Steal from the best, leave the rest!” In a similar vein, an internet meme attributed to either Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and any number of other famous folks claims that “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” So many people have stolen the quote that no one really knows who said it first!
In the jazz world, musicians emulate their heroes, and then they add their personal interpretations to techniques that they’ve learned from the elders. Ray Brown copped from Jimmie Blanton, Ron Carter learned from Oscar Pettiford, Eddie Gomez listened to Scott LaFaro — that’s how the jazz tradition developed. The lineage of jazz bass players can be divided into the bassists who came before LaFaro and those who followed. By developing his interactive, conversational style of playing alongside drummer Paul Motian in the Bill Evans Trio, LaFaro pioneered a new style of playing that would be further developed by countless bassists: Miroslav Vitous, Marc Johnson, Gary Peacock, Drew Gress, and Larry Grenadier, to name a few.
When I was first learning to play jazz, one of my mentors, the saxophonist and educator Jamey Aebersold, told me, “The answers to all of your questions are on the records.” That struck me as a life-changing piece of brilliant pedagogy. I had been bugging Jamey to “show me” some workarounds and tricks to become a better bass player. He was basically telling me to listen to records — steal the feels, rhythms, harmonic language, and melodic vocabulary — and that would bring me forward as a bass player. Jamey had a huge collection of jazz sides, and he generously loaned me as many albums as I could absorb.
Let’s take a listen and look at a solo from Scott LaFaro, the bassist with the legendary Bill Evans Trio from 1959 until his death in 1961 at age 25. We’ll take a few of his melodic patterns from the “Waltz for Debby, Take 1” solo and break them into practice exercises so that we can borrow (or steal) from the master. It’s almost as if LaFaro shows us a few of the scale and arpeggio patterns he had worked on, which then appear in his solo in a moment of inspired beauty. I’ve taken some of his melodies from the solo, then created longer exercises to practice the vocabulary up and down the bass.
First, listen to the Bill Evans Trio perform “Waltz for Debby, Take 1” from the 1961 album of the same name. When the album was released, “Waltz for Debby, Take 2” was the official take for the record. “Waltz for Debby, Take 1” — just as killin’ as Take 2 — was later issued on the CD version. Mostly in F major, “Waltz for Debby” is a 40-bar song form with five distinct eight-bar sections. It sounds deceivingly simple upon first listen, but the harmony keeps moving. To add a beautiful twist to the performance, the trio plays the melody in a gentle 3/4 groove, then changes to a swinging 4/4 for the solo sections.
A world of knowledge can be gained from listening to a track and picking out sections that catch the ear. Some teachers and schools insist on transcribing entire solos and bass lines. I agree that transcribing an entire solo is extremely valuable when one is learning style, feel, and vocabulary. But it’s just as valuable to pick out small sections of the music and think about exactly what the player practiced in order to play a particular musical passage. The melodies and rhythms that speak to us are often phrases that we will incorporate into our own playing.
Example 1 shows a two-bar phrase that LaFaro plays over an Fmaj7 and Gm7 to C7 (3:54 into the track). Example 2 is the same melodic phrase fleshed out over an eight-measure diatonic chord sequence in the key of F.
The pattern (Ex. 2) is not transcribed from the track; rather, it is something that LaFaro might have practiced, which sounds like the lick in Ex. 1.
Example 3 finds LaFaro deep in diminished territory. This is a lick he obviously practiced a lot. To paraphrase Ray Brown, a pattern like this is not just something that you “luck up on”! The melodic pattern does not really fit the changes underneath, but because Bill Evans was giving LaFaro a lot of space, and since a strong melody trumps harmony, the solo line leads the listener through a cascade of descending diminished triads.
LaFaro’s pattern can be extended in Ex. 4 (diminished triads, descending) or played backwards as in Ex. 5 (diminished triads ascending). If we want to get slick with our co-opting of the lick, we can use it with a slight variation as a pattern over a C7b9 chord, shown in Ex. 6. Note the two ascending diminished triads separated by a half-step, followed by a whole-step interval, and then two ascending diminished triads. This pattern includes all the notes in a half-step/whole-step diminished scale. A tip for the advanced bass players: You can go down the diminished rabbit hole with this exercise! It sounds good over C7b9, Eb7b9, Gb7b9, and A7b9, in addition to working over Dbdim7, Edim7, Gdim7, and Adim7.
At 5:14 into the track, towards the end of Scotty’s second solo chorus, he plays a fetching melodic line that snakes around the major scale, shown in Ex. 7. He’s hitting chord tones, plus adding a chromatic note underneath. In addition, he’s playing patterns rhythmically in groups of threes. Look at the slur markings and check out the feeling of three quarter-notes in 4/4 time.
To make our version of the exercise more accessible, Ex. 8 is written out in 3/4 time in the key of Cmajor.
This method of transcription — analysis, exercise, practice — can be used by any bassist or instrumentalist and with any type of music that catches your ear. Find what you love, borrow it, steal it, and make it your own! –BM
1. Listen to this classic version of the Bill Evans composition “Waltz for Debby, Take 1,” one of two takes the trio (with Scott LaFaro) recorded on their legendary session in 1961. The examples in this column are from “Waltz for Debby, Take 1.”
2. Watch Bill Evans and Chuck Israels — the stellar bassist who followed Scott LaFaro in the Bill Evans Trio — playing “Waltz for Debby” in 1964.
3. Nick Dedina writes about why Waltz for Debby holds a place in the jazz canon as one of the greatest albums of all time. Check out his blog, Nick’s Vinyl Picks!
4. Hold onto your seat as you listen to Scott LaFaro’s amazing playing on “Waltz for Debby, Take 2” (the official album take), here transcribed by Rickson Fleabs.
John Goldsby loves great bass playing, and will borrow any good lick, pattern quote, or groove that he hears. Check out his new video lesson series on bass soloing, Tell Your Story, at DiscoverDoubleBass.com [https://discoverdoublebass.com/john-goldsby] and johngoldsby.com [https://john.goldsby.de].