Bass In The Duo Universe
My current recording project features several EPs of piano and bass duo music with pianist Billy Test. In preparing for the recording sessions, I considered and analyzed the long tradition of bassists playing in duo with other instrumentalists. I searched for the optimal repertoire, best recording situation, and ideal sound. The duo format lays everything bare — a chance for musicians and listeners to make a direct and deep connection to the essence of making music. Here are my thoughts about the history of duo playing in the jazz scene.
When I relocated from Louisville to New York City during the sweltering summer of 1980, the move was accompanied by vivid colors and mind-blowing sounds. One of my first stops on the jazz-club circuit was Bradley’s, a modest watering hole in the Village that presented some of the greatest bass–piano duos on the planet. The club, run by saloon keeper Bradley Cunningham, booked a who’s who of bass players seven nights a week: Ron Carter, George Mraz, Ray Drummond, Eddie Gomez, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, Rufus Reid, Peter Washington, Christian McBride, Michael Moore, Bob Cranshaw, and Red Mitchell. Writer Ted Pankin offers an insightful look into this microcosm of the New York jazz scene during the period in his article “The Bradley’s Hang.”
There were many duo gigs in New York City at the time due to a change and subsequent 1971 crackdown of an antiquated 1926 city law requiring venues that featured live music with large bands to obtain an expensive and hard-to-get cabaret license. The jazz scene responded to the restrictive regulation with music policies featuring small groups of musicians — at first only duos, and then later, up to three musicians. These clubs could present a duo, or even a duo plus a singer, and not trigger the cabaret-license requirement. This was a boon for jazz bass players on the scene.
Clubs like Bradley’s, One Fifth Avenue, Gregory’s, Star And Garter, and the Knickerbocker all presented jazz duos. Upscale hotels and restaurants, as well as jazz dives like Arturo’s and the Surf Maid, were on the duo circuit. If you were a jazz double bassist in New York from the ’70s onward, you probably had a full schedule of duo gigs. Read the New York Times account of the repealing of the cabaret law in 2017 here.
The plethora of duo gigs led to a quantum jump in the abilities of bass players. A bassist does a lot of heavy lifting on a duo gig — playing a wide repertoire of standards, establishing the groove and feel, soloing on every tune, and sometimes playing the melody.
Throughout the history of jazz, bassists weren’t often featured in duo settings. The enforcement of New York City’s cabaret laws in the ’70s encouraged a new direction in bass playing, supported in large part by the burgeoning duo scene. Since then, we have all been expected to be able to play in duo with any type of instrument — commonly piano or guitar, but often with saxophone, drums, trumpet, or even voice. Endless options are available for a bassist to make music with a duo partner. Let’s look and listen to the development of duo playing in the jazz scene, and I’ll share some of my favorite performances.
The classic bass-and-piano duo performances that most in-the-know bassists name are the 1940 recordings from pianist Duke Ellington and his young bass star, Jimmie Blanton. The duo recorded multiple takes of four tracks: “Pitter Panther Patter,” “Body and Soul,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Mr. J.B. Blues.” Blanton’s playing on these recordings raised the level of jazz bass playing exponentially. Bass players who followed Blanton had to deal with his legacy. His technical prowess and creative spark impacted every bassist: Every post-Blanton bass player has been expected to establish a nice, fat groove with a big band or a quintet, plus be able play melodies, solos, and groove — in duo with no drums!
In 1945, a special duo performance with saxophonist Don Byas and the bowing–singing bass star Slam Stewart took place at Town Hall in New York. Captured on record, the duo performs burning versions of “Indiana” and “I Got Rhythm.” Slam’s version of “Rhythm” is, well, slammin’! He plays a driving two-feel behind Byas, and then delivers a devilish arco solo. If any bassist was shredding in the ’40s, it was Slam on this track.
Oscar Pettiford, the definitive bebop bassist, established himself on the music scene in the ’40s, playing with seminal bebop players on 52nd Street — Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, and others. Pettiford recorded two duo sides with pianist Clyde Hart in 1944: “Don’t Blame Me” and “Dedicated to J.B.,” a tribute to Jimmie Blanton who had passed away in 1942 at age 23.
Throughout his productive career, Pettiford occasionally returned to the duo format. His recording of “Stardust” from the 1955 album Another One is a cornerstone in the history of jazz bass playing. Pianist Don Abney plays the role of accompanist in this setting, while Pettiford’s performance grows wings and takes flight. His rubato rendering of the melody and fleet improvising on the intricate harmonic structure is a master class in phrasing on the bass. The track is three minutes and 33 seconds of Stardust heaven.
Fortunately, a video clip exists of Oscar Pettiford playing in duo with guitarist Attila Zoller from Austria in 1959. Oscar demonstrates his lyrical style on his own ballad, “The Gentle Art of Love.”
When I was first hearing jazz in the ’70s, I had access to certain records from the Pablo, Steeplechase, Concord, and Enja labels. The albums featuring bassists Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Ron Carter, Ray Brown, Dave Holland, George Mraz, Red Mitchell, and others blew me away. The following are some of my favorite duo albums from the ’70s — the decade of the duo — with bass and various instruments:
How do you hone your technique and concept to improve your duo playing? Here’s a list of several practice ideas to prepare yourself for duo playing.
1. Listen, listen, listen! Check out the examples listed here and find duo performances that speak to you. Think about what the bassist is offering in their playing: good time (sometimes laying down time, sometimes playing interactively); accurate harmonic information; melodic soloing in time and in tune. Use the Piano–Bass Duo Playlist below for more tracks to expand your ears.
2. In your daily practice sessions, find standards and learn them inside out. In a duo situation, it’s imperative to know the changes — the precise harmony. Practice laying down a bass line with a two-feeling, broken-two feeling, and 4/4 walking. Play along with duo recordings to see if you can match the feel and hear the changes.
3. Learn the melody to the songs you are practicing! In duo playing, you will often have the opportunity to play the melody to a song, accompanied by your duo partner. Practice with recordings and use fake books as a reference to compare the original and common-practice versions of standard jazz melodies. Make sure you still play in time while focusing on breathing and phrasing like a horn player.
4. Find duo partners and start playing duo! You can’t improve until you get together with other living, breathing musicians and play. Piano–bass duo or guitar–bass duo might seem like obvious choices, but you could pair up with any instrument and play standards: voice and bass, sax and bass, drums and bass, trumpet and bass.
5. Play duo with another bassist! You could (and should) get together with other bass playersfor low-down duo sessions. Think The Intimacy of the Bass from Rufus Reid and Michael Moore, or Music From Two Basses by Dave Holland and Barre Phillips. Find a bass buddy and go for it!
Piano–Bass Duo Playlist
Over the next year, John Goldsby will release a series of duo EPs with Billy Test. Listen to I’ll Be Around here. Check out John’s new video lesson series on bass soloing, Tell Your Story, at DiscoverDoubleBass.com and johngoldsby.com.