Narendra Kusnur's music musings …



LIKE many people from my generation, I first got attracted to jazz bass guitar through the magical fingers of Jaco Pastorius of the band Weather Report. Very soon, I started appreciating Stanley Clarke of Return to Forever, and most of my early listening focused around the electric bass.

As I got deeper into jazz and began attending concerts regularly, I started getting exposed to some really talented musicians who played the upright bass or double bass. The whole image of them standing with an instrument larger than them and yet playing with such control was fascinating.

Charlie Haden, who passed away last week, was one of the double bassists who had a major impact on my jazz listening. It began with his works with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, especially on the landmark 1959 album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. Then, I heard his collaborations with pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny – with the latter, ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ remains a classic. Another favourite was Haden’s ‘Nocturne’, which won the 2002 Grammy for best Latin jazz album.

Haden’s death marks a huge loss to the world of bass-playing. Clearly, he was one of the most prolific and versatile practitioners of the instrument, literally making it sing.

Over the years, the world has heard numerous bass greats. It was because of these masters that bass playing earned a respect of its own, especially in a world where audiences are largely more attracted to the saxophone, trumpet, piano or guitar. While it would be difficult to draw a list of greatest bassists, I am listing 20 whom I have personally admired. While the first eight were masters of the double bass, the other 12 have specialised in the electric bass. Either way, they have been true champions.

1. Ray Brown – Known for his extensive work with pianist Oscar Peterson and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Brown was a huge name from the late 1940s to the 1960s. He also played the cello

2. Charles Mingus – A highly influential composer, bandleader and double bassist, Mingus had a style that blended jazz with gospel and classical music. His album ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ remains a jazz classic

3. Charlie Haden – Besides his collaborations with Coleman, Jarrett and Metheny, mentioned above, Haden was known for his work with the Liberation Music Orchestra, a group he co-led with pianist Carla Bley

4. Scott LaFaro – Best known for his seminal work with pianist Bill Evans and his trio, LaFaro died tragically in a road accident at the age of 25. His professional career lasted only six years, but he redefined jazz bass-playing

5. Paul Chambers – Another genius who died young, of tuberculosis at 33, Chambers played with many greats including trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, guitarist Wes Montgomery and pianist Wynton Kelly

6. Ron Carter – One of the most recorded bassists ever, Carter has appeared in 2,500 albums. His work with Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard have been hugely admired. He is an acclaimed cellist too

7. Dave Holland – A Britisher, Holland first earned a name playing at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, before he moved to the US. Besides many albums with Miles Davis, he has recorded with keyboardist Chick Corea and saxophonist Joe Henderson, among others

8. Christian McBride – One of those musicians who’s adept at both upright bass and electric bass, McBride has played with many artistes including guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist McCoy Tyner and singer Diana Krall

9. Marcus Miller – One of the foremost electric bass players, Miller has accompanied Miles Davis, Hancock, singer Luther Vandross, saxophonist David Sanborn and others. He also plays clarinet, keyboards, saxophone and guitar

10. Jaco Pastorius – The king of the electric bass, Pastorius was best known for his work with Weather Report, besides numerous solo projects. He died at the age of 35 after slipping into a coma following an altercation with a club bouncer

11. Stanley Clarke – Though adept at upright bass too, Clarke made his mark on the electric bass as part of the group Return to Forever with Chick Corea. A highlight of his career was the album ‘The Rite of Strings’, where he plays acoustic bass, with Al DiMeola on acoustic guitar and Jean Luc Ponty on acoustic violin

12. John Patitucci – Another musician who’s proficient at both double and electric bass. His best known stint was with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and Akoustic Band, and he’s also played with blues legend BB King, rock group Bon Jovi and popular artiste Sting

13. Victor Wooten – A hugely talented bassist, Wooten has played extensively with banjo maestro Bela Fleck and his group the Flecktones. He was also part of a bass supergroup with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller

14. Jonas Hellborg – The Swedish bassist was part of the reunited Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1980s. He has collaborated with Indian musicians like sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan, tabla player Fazal Qureshi and kanjira exponent V Selvaganesh

15. Steve Swallow – One of the first double bassists to shift entirely to the electric bass, Swallow has had some outstanding recordings with saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist Carla Bley and guitarist John Scofield

16. Kai Eckhardt – The German-born bassist is best known for his work with McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham. His style blends jazz, funk and world music, and he’s been hugely influenced by Marcus Miller

17. Dominique di Piazza – A master of the electric bass, this French-born musician was part of the John McLaughlin Trio, which also featured percussionist Trilok Gurtu in the early 1990s. He’s a huge influence on many younger players

18. Nathan East – A very versatile bass player, who has played jazz, rhythm n’ blues, and even rock. He was part of the smooth jazz quartet Fourplay, and has accompanied renowned musicians like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins and Joe Satriani

19. Etienne M’bappe – From Cameroon, M’bappe is one of the most popular bassists on the scene today, with a style that blends jazz, classical and world music. He has played with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate and Carlos Santana, and is currently part of McLaughlin’s band The 4th Dimension

20. Richard Bona – Also from Cameroon, Bona stayed in Germany and France before settling in the US. He has played with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarists Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and George Benson, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis

Others: Besides these 20, the other names that immediately come to mind are Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Phil Upchurch, Oscar Pettiford, Wilbur Ware, Victor Bailey of Weather Report, Rick Laird and Ralphe Armstrong of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Reuben Rogers. One must also mention Bootsy Collins, who revolutionised bass-playing in the funk field as part of singer James Brown’s band and later the group Parliament-Funkadelic.

There are many others who’ve contributed to the glorious world of bass-playing. Like the drums, the bass strengthens the rhythm section and acts as a backbone to most songs. Without a good bass line, a song is often empty.


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