Here’s a transcription I did a while back of Israel Crosby’s bassline on Cheek to Cheek, from Ahmad Jamal’s Ahmad’s Blues album. This trio is famous for playing tight arrangements, and many of them feature a balance of busy rhythmic figures and moments of sparse piano accompaniment that leave space for the bass to shine through. Although Crosby is more than capable of improvising basslines that sound like written melodies, he probably honed this line into a finished product over dozens of live performances to a point where there may be no improvisation at all here.
Back in March I posted the Branford Marsalis solo on “When Will the Blues Leave” from Kenny Kirkland’s eponymous album. I also transcribed Charnett Moffett’s bass accompaniment, but never got around to putting it up on the blog. Kenny leaves a lot of space in his comping for sax and bass to take the song to harmonically new places, and Branford takes advantage by spending a good amount of time in ambiguous diminished territory, but Charnett plays a pretty straight blues in F, offering occasional chromatic digressions to heighten tension.
Here are both solo and bassline together, for reference:
This transcription comes from the same album I wrote about last week, Bill Evans’ Interplay. Percy Heath gives us a lesson here on how to create a bass line that flows smoothly and logically through a set of chord changes. His melodious thud keeps great time, and he outlines the harmonic sequence using variations on a simple theme.
When written out with 8 measures per line, we can see how similar each 8-bar section is. Most sections start with the same three-note ascending line, and this pattern keeps reappearing throughout. See how often Percy starts a measure by walking from the root up to the third or from the fifth down to third. It’s about half the time! Beats 2 and 4 usually step up or down into a strong chord tone on a strong beat, and many chords are approached from a half step below. Upward chromatic motion gives a strong sense of resolution, as we can hear in bar 170, where the target note of Ab justifies Percy playing an E natural and F# on the strong beats while his bandmates comp a G altered chord.
This doesn’t mean he’s not listening to the band. In bar 130 he plays an A natural on beat 4 but cuts it short when he hears Bill Evans play an Ab, and the same happens in bar 180 when Freddie Hubbard plays a C over his B natural.
I wrote out the first six choruses, enough to get the idea of how this works.
I only wrote in the most basic version of the chord changes for reference here – of course Percy adds more nuance and motion to keep it interesting. For example, he treats almost every bar of G7 as a minor ii-V, playing a D on beat 1 and a G or B on beat 3.
I transcribed this from an old Coleman Hawkins record featuring Oscar Pettiford on bass. I sometimes show it to students of mine because it’s a nice example of how to compose an effective walking bassline. Oscar uses a few simple ideas to give motion and color to the harmony, and his timing is impeccable. The bass solo shows off Oscar’s dexterity and motivic development, as well as presaging the solo style of the next generation of greats like Paul Chambers.
Ahmad Jamal’s trio with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Vernel Fournier was one of the tightest in jazz history. Using a system of hand signals, Jamal would cue new sections, tempos and feels without saying a word, leading to recordings that make the band sound almost telepathic.
Stompin’ at the Savoy comes from Ahmad’s Blues, recorded live at the Spotlite Club in Washington, D.C. It highlights Israel Crosby’s great melodic bass playing: Ahmad leaves so much open space, the tune is almost a bass solo. I’ve written out the head they play and also Crosby’s bassline on two choruses of piano solo.