Bill Evans: Sunday At The Village Vanguard
Bassist: Scott LaFaro
My list starts here with one of the greatest recorded live bass performances ever. Scott LaFaro absorbs the groundbreaking innovations of jazz bass pioneers Jimmy Blanton and Paul Chambers and then proceeds to raise the bar so high that this level of playing and musical exchange has rarely, if ever, been captured on record by any bassist since.
Bill Evans, along with LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, recorded this concert in June of 1961. The interplay between Evans' piano and LaFaro's bass is almost telepathic, and together they explore and challenge each other with amazing finesse and technical mastery. At times, such as on "Solar", Evans drops out completely and allows LaFaro to take an extended solo on his own, where his uncanny sense of harmony and rhythmic swing take center stage. Perhaps it was divine intervention that this performance was recorded; Scott died tragically in a car accident only 10 days later at the young age of 25.
The remastered CD contains four alternate tracks, each one a gem and fascinatingly different from the original versions (the follow up Bill Evans release "Waltz For Debby" is an album full of additional tunes from the Vanguard performance). Sunday At The Village Vanguard is an absolute must-have.
Marvin Gaye: What's Goin' On
Bassists: James Jamerson, Bob Babbitt
Incredibly enough, Motown initially didn't want to release this back in 1971, perhaps because of the strong political statement in Marvin's lyrics and the fear of a backlash from his fan base. Fortunately they did put it out, for not only did What's Goin' On become one of their most successful records ever, but also served as the vehicle for bassist James Jamerson's most innovative and artistic recorded performance -- no small task, considering how many of Motown's releases feature this legendary bassist holding down the bottom. Marvin does away with the 3-minute hit single approach in this social commentary 'concept' album, and gives James free reign to paint his canvas under the many layers of multitracked vocals and orchestration. Jamerson's work on the title track itself is a masterpiece, as is his contribution to the rest of the album. Motown bassist Bob Babbitt adds his own brand of bass magic on two songs as well, the hits "Inner City Blues" and "Mercy Mercy Me".
The Quintet: V.S.O.P.
Bassist: Ron Carter
In 1977 Miles Davis Quintet alumni Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams reunited for a one month tour, with Freddie Hubbard taking over the trumpet chair. The mood was loose and playful , like buddies coming together for their 10 year high school reunion, and was documented from two nights of the tour. Jazz writer Conrad Silvert described this recording best in his liner notes: "What the audience applauds on this album transcends mere form, technique and instrumentation. They were thrilled by the charisma generated by five masters who listened to one another's inner ears, spoke to each other at multiple levels, and no matter how dense the musical content, conveyed their messages to the audience with amazing clarity".
At the center of it all is Ron Carter. While Shorter and Hancock explore uncharted melodic terrain, and Williams rockets off in every rhythmic direction, Carter's driving bass holds it all together with his unmistakable big tone and adventurous walking lines. While he does solo a bit, most notably on Tony Williams' "Lawra" and his own beautifully poignant "Little Waltz", it's Carter's commanding presence as timekeeper inside this mind-blowing assemblage of talent that makes "VSOP" essential listening.
Earth, Wind & Fire: Gratitude
Bassist: Verdine White
There are several reasons why Earth, Wind & Fire became the most successful funk group of all time. Sure, you've got the tighter-than-tight horn arrangements, the instantly recognizable vocals of Maurice White and Phillip Bailey, the superb songwriting, and the spectacular stage show. But there's also the deep pocket of Verdine White's bass, who blazed his own trail through funk's heyday back in the seventies and eighties. Verdine's work is perhaps best exemplified on Gratitude, the band's 1975 double album set that featured mostly live concert performances and several studio cuts.
From the pulsating, uptempo opener "Africano", to the fat groove of "Shining Star", to classic studio cuts like "Can't Hide Love" and "Sing A Song", this album is funk school for any serious bassist -- pretty much everything you need to know about it is right here.
Chaka Khan: Naughty
Bassist: Anthony Jackson
As Anthony tells it, "I was given absolute artistic license and an unheard-of amount of time -- three months -- to recompose the bass parts, then given all the studio time that I required. The performances represent the peak of my creative abilities at the time and in that genre."
In a perfect storm of brilliance between producer (Arif Mardin), artist (Chaka Khan) and bassist, 1980's Naughty is a tour de force by one of the most respected bassists of his generation. Although he went on to pioneer the 6-string bass, Anthony Jackson was still detuning his Fender hybrid 4-string (Jazz Bass body with Precision neck) for the recording of this album, and from the thunderous opening bass line on the Ashford and Simpson penned "Clouds" through the rest of the album's 10 cuts, AJ lays down line after line with thoughtful precision, pushing the harmonic envelope, dripping with soul. Like a boxer ready to land a quick combination, Anthony displays a keen sense of finding the perfect groove, yet knowing just when to uncoil a killer riff to shake things up.
Of course there have since been numerous classic recordings that have featured his unmistakable delivery, but for bassists interested in exploring the work of Anthony Jackson this is a great place to start.
Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue
Bassist: Paul Chambers
It's a bit difficult to pick one definitive Paul Chambers recording, since there are so many great ones. Although John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Chambers' solo outings Whims Of Chambers and Bass On Top easily come to mind, I would say that it's Miles' landmark Kind Of Blue that is really required listening for any bassist.
The album itself was revolutionary at the time of its release in 1959, and ushered in the era of modal jazz -- in stark contrast to the popular hard bop idiom of the day. Miles' new material was now stripped down to a mere one or two scales per tune, or simple blues forms, thereby freeing his bassist from the "constraints" of the rapid chord movement that typified bop.
It's important to hear Paul Chambers' approach to this new modal jazz and his creativity at work throughout the album, from the signature bass-played head on the opener "So What" through tunes like ""All Blues" and "Freddie The Freeloader", all of which have become jazz standards. Chambers' contribution to "Kind Of Blue" is every bit as groundbreaking as those of his heavyweight bandmates on these sessions, which included Miles, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans. Kind Of Blue is required listening not just for bassists, but for any musician period.
Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius
Bassist: Jaco Pastorius
Pat Metheny wrote these words in the 2000 reissue of Jaco's debut recording: "...the fact that this was his first record is simply astonishing, there is no other way to put it. That this is without question the most auspicious debut album of the past quarter century is inarguable. As with all great recordings, the force of its value becomes more evident as time passes."
Every aspect of Jaco's revolutionary approach to the bass is fully realized and presented on his debut recording, released by Epic Records in 1976. The fretless bass, the horn-like phrasing ("Donna Lee"), the haunting chorus effect ("Continuum"), the tireless ostinatos ("Kuru/Speak Like A Child"), the use of harmonics ("Portrait Of Tracy", "Okonkole Y Trompa"), the head-turning solos ("Used To Be A Cha Cha")... all components of the reason why Jaco Pastorius became the most influential (and copied) bass guitarist of his time.
Ray Brown Trio: Bassics 1977-2000
Bassist: Ray Brown
Although only recently released in 2006, this already makes my essential list for two reasons: one, it's Ray Brown, and two, it spans 23 years of his career.
Various musicians made up Ray's trio over the years, and several are featured on this 2 CD set. In particular, pianists Gene Harris and Benny Green stand out, but of course it's Ray's party and you'll be treated to nearly a quarter century of mostly live performances by one of the true masters of upright bass (Ray appeared on nearly 2000 recordings in his career).
Highlights: the rollicking "Have You Met Miss Jones", "Blue Bossa" samba style, "Phineas Can Be" and Dee Dee Bridgewater guesting on a slowed-down "Cherokee". Ray's ebullient personality pops with every note he plays, and from his impeccable time to his signature sound, Ray Brown demonstrates why he is truly a bass legend.
Joe Pass & Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Chops
Bassist: Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen
Don't let the title deceive you, this album is far more than a show of technique -- although there is that in abundance. It's rather the work of two jazz masters, perhaps the finest of their generations on their respective instruments, speaking to each other on a musical level few others have reached.
Danish bassist Neils-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, or NHØP as he was most commonly referred to, was relatively low on the household-name meter in the United States despite an extensive recording career backing the very best in jazz -- and that's a shame because he was the premier bass soloist until his untimely death in 2005. NHØP breaks right out of the gate playing the head on the opener "Miss Jones" and continues into his first of a dozen or more outstanding solos over the course of this album. And far more than just a soloist, NHØP's great time and phrasing carried the torch of the great Scott LaFaro. For bassists, the only thing that will distract you from hanging on his every note is the genius of Joe Pass' guitar work.
Also for bassists, this recording is a real study on how to play duets without a drummer. Although we can only dream of approaching the level of Pedersen's bass playing, it's the one to strive for.
Marcus Miller: The Sun Don't Lie
Bassist: Marcus Miller
What do all great bass players posess? Their own sound, for one, and when Marcus Miller is in the neighborhood you can hear this master of electric bass coming from miles away.
The Sun Don't Lie, released in 1993, scores on every level and is one of the finest displays of electric bass playing on any record in its decade. From his signature 'slaphammer' on tunes like "Panther"and "Steveland" to his fretless work on "The Sun Don't Lie" and "Moons", not to mention the stunning solo piece "Mr. Pastorius", Marcus never ceases to amaze. Furthermore, though he can match any bassist in technique, Marcus never resorts to flash or those "see what I can do" moments, it's always about the music. Throw in great writing (all are Marcus Miller compositions except for the slapped up "Teen Town") and studio help from friends like Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, Joe Sample and Hiram Bullock, and you've got yourself a bass masterpiece.
- all reviews by Rick Suchow, 2006