Turn up the (upright) bass

Avishai Cohen - photo copyright Petra Cvelbar, Jazz Festival Ljubljana, 2009
Esperanza Spalding - photo copyright Bruno Gianquintieri, 2010 Edgar Meyer

From old jazz classics to modern marvels of musical fusion, the upright bass enriches the sound that reaches your ears. Bass makes up part of the backbone of an ensemble, along with the drums, but it's capable of so much more as a solo instrument. I love music in which the upright bass, with its unique and velvety resonance, pops out and takes center stage.

The story starts with the classics. Charles Mingus (1922-1979), the old school king of walking bass, played upbeat, funky jazz grooves at a pace that could only have been achieved by a master. His music can still make the drive home in heavy traffic somehow enjoyable, as if those busily bustling rhythms somehow match life in the big city and make it better.

Stanley Clarke and Ron Carter are other classic jazz giants on the upright, among the firsts to start bringing bass into the lead. You can't go wrong with Carter, and Clarke's tones (not only in his upright work, but on electric bass, too) are smooth, deep, and rich, often utilizing unique scale modes that lend the music an ancient sound. Christian McBride is also among those considered the best, excelling at upbeat, grooving funk and incorporating elements of rock. Edgar Meyer, the undisputed virtuoso of classical, catapults the instrument into the solo realm. His versatile playing can be heard most recently on the lively and intriguing album The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo Yo Ma, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan.

Some of the most interesting musical acts of today are upright bass players in jazz. Esperanza Spalding, 2011 Grammy award winner for Best New Artist, is making waves with her beautiful compositions and skillful playing. Her pieces run the full gamut from pure fun to hauntingly emotional, and can transport you from smoky jazz lounges to the streets of Brazil. From Israel, the Avishai Cohen Trio is stunning the jazz world by blending traditional Jewish music with the jazz groove of the upright bass, drums, and keys into a wondrous new creation. Musicians will appreciate the group's use of intricate polyrhythms and interesting time signatures, which come across to the lay listener as flavorful twists on classic themes. If you like the styles of these musicians, with a melodic emphasis on the rhythm section, check out the Brad Mehldau Trio, whose offerings also include well-done jazz covers of popular rock songs.

This bunch is just a small selection of the great upright bass music that's out there right now. If you dig it, try music sampling websites like emusic.com, Tuneglue, and Pandora to explore similar artists.  Then ask your librarian if they can get you some albums!

Comments

Kristin, Thanks for posting and for your love of the Double Bass. I am a player, and enjoyed reading your piece. One thing - Edgar Meyer undisputed king of "classical"? Hmmmm... Edgar is a phenomenal bassist - one of my favorites. He is known primarily for his innovations in roots music, not classical (although he plays classical very adeptly). I don't know who the undisputed king of classical is, but two you may want to check out are Gary Karr and Guy Tuneh. Thanks again! Rob (rs4ropebottom@hotmail.com)

Ah, so it's not undisputed! Edgar Meyer certainly plays other great stuff; perhaps a better description than my original one would be that he is one of the most prominent or well known solo bassists who plays classical music. Thanks for your knowledgeable input and recommendations!

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i also just love rasputina, they do rock and roll covers and other odd things with their stand up bass!

I love Rasputina, too! Actually, though, they play cello, a close sibling of the upright bass. It's amazing how similar they are. I also wrote a blog about them a while ago, which can be seen in the DPL music blog. :)

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