The Aesthetic of Electric Bass

The Aesthetic of Electric Bass

Bass Guitar: the influence of design, industry, genre and

technique on performance practice.




In this paper I wish to examine the evolution of bass guitar, the different influences on the design of the instrument and the effect of electronic development on the range of capabilities; also the perception of electric bass in the music industry and how this has determined two divergent styles of bass playing.

The merging of electricity and string bass design has affected the performance practice of the instrument. When he created the Precision Bass in 1951, Leo Fender transferred the burden of generating volume from the input phase (the performer) to the output phase (amplifier) and redefined the relationship between performer and sound. In doing so Fender liberated the bassist technically: it suddenly became possible to comfortably play rapidly occurring notes of a loud or soft dynamic, which has in turn introduced unique challenges to performance. The role of the instrument, once congruent with its physical/acoustic limitations has remained static in most genres of music and no longer delineates its expressive potential. From the performers perspective the kinaesthetic relationship to audible output has become malleable giving rise to new issues in practise and performance. Most notably this plastic relationship with volume has created an inconsistency in ‘touch’ (how hard a bass guitarist plucks the strings) amongst bassists. This is an extremely important subject in the world of pedagogy yet no literature on the subject could be found. If one considers the recent discovery of mirror neurons (Gallese 1996) and their hypothesised existence in humans, the function of perceived outcomes in performing motor actions (ideo-motor response) and common coding theory which proposes a parity between perception and action (whereby the same code is used by the brain to perceive events and trigger motor actions) the importance of a deeper understanding between the physical and sonic relationship in electric bass playing becomes clear. For example if two young bass players, early in their study of the instrument are encouraged to either turn their instrument up very loud and develop a light/soft touch or have the instrument amplified with less volume and develop are heavy/hard touch their overall kinaesthetic image of playing the instrument would eventually differ greatly. Even the act of listening to other bass players would reinforce their own perception of how to generate tone (Kohler 2002). Initially the first approach would seem logical and even more musical (Willis 2001), however the timbre of strings set in violent motion from a heavy touch is preferred in many genres of music in which professional bass guitarists perform. Due to the psychological phenomena cited previously, the more extreme a performer’s adoption of either approach, the more ‘unnatural’ switching between them can seem. Finally, this new relationship between performer and volume can obscure the message being presented (or rather the signal being transmitted) by the performer to the audience. From the audience perspective, the visual signals (physical effort and gestural affects displayed by the performer) received can seem to contradict with the aural signals. The most common example is that of the music sounding strenuous (loud and complex) yet appearing effortless. While effortless playing is advisable for safe, efficient and accurate technique, perhaps consideration should be given to developing gestural affects in performance which support the music being played.

The Science and Philosophy of Electric Bass Sound.

When a double bass string is set in motion it generates sound waves which are heard by the performer and audience. This means there is a direct connection between the energy heard and the energy exerted by the performer. On a bass guitar an electro magnet is affixed to the body beneath steel strings. When these strings are set in motion they generate a disturbance in the magnetic field of the electro magnet which runs in reverse and generates an electric current. This current then runs through two or more amplifiers which boost that current and finally power an electro magnet affixed to a large plate like surface. This last device is the speaker and converts the electric energy into mechanical energy and creates sound waves. In this case the connection between performer and sound is plastic and can be manipulated in a variety of ways. The most dramatic consequence of this electronic signal chain is that the audible dynamic range is not indicative of the mechanical dynamic range of the musician’s hands. For many modern bass guitarists (particularly in the jazz/fusion tradition) the ff range of their playing actually exists at about the 60-70% mark of the physical force with which they are capable of attacking the string. By necessity their pp dynamic range would be inaudible if they were to perform on acoustic instruments. This approach is known as the ‘light touch’ approach and can be seen as the antithesis of ‘digging in’, where the player’s ff range is closer to their actual physical limit. Gary Willis has established himself as the leading proponent of the light touch approach in a career which has spanned over 30 years working as a sideman and solo artist. His playing exhibits a pin point accuracy in rhythm and intonation on fretless bass guitar and a quality of tone which is strikingly ‘thick’ or ‘strong’ on studio recordings. This thick tone is essentially a trick of volume. By playing softly Willis matches the attack (or front) of each note with the volume that the string will naturally sustain at afterwards, essentially removing the attack-decay quality of note that most stringed instruments produce when plucked with a more synthesiser-like attack-sustain note. This means that not only does the dynamic of the attack last until the next note or rest is played, but the full spectrum of frequencies generated when plucking the string also sustains giving rise to the thick quality of tone. On the subject of sustain Willis states:


“Turning your amp up and playing softer will make the speaker act as if there was a big attack, but the note that follows immediately afterwards will be much louder, have more fundamental, and sound bigger for a much longer duration.” (Willis 2001)




Heavy attack.




Soft attack.

New Instrument, New Aesthetic.

Initially most bass guitarists did not conceive of using volume in this way. With the invention of the instrument in 1951 volume was instantly increased and music literally got louder from the bottom up, however the idea of developing a light finger-style technique which utilized the technology of amplification to afford a more dexterous and nuanced playing style was not in the minds of the first generation of players. These musicians were converted double bassists or guitarists and as such transferred their existing techniques to the new instrument. No two bass players define each of these strands more than Carol Kaye and James Jamerson. While not the earliest musicians to embrace the instrument (each began their career around 1960) they both converted from guitar and double bass respectively and recorded on enough mainstream sessions to be accurately documented both musically and biographically. They can both be heard on mainstream radio to this day, Carol Kaye (who appeared on over 10,000 recording sessions) provided the bass part on ‘Good Vibrations’ and many other Beach Boys hits and James Jamerson performed on almost all the Motown hits including ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye.

The case of Carol Kaye is important because she was one of the first bass guitarists to be hired on mainstream west coast recording sessions without tracking in unison with a double bassist. In fact before Carol Kaye many producers didn’t use the standard bass guitar at all but preferred to pair the sound of double bass with that of a Danelectro 6 string bass guitar. This instrument was invented a few years after the Precision Bass and was essentially a guitar tuned down an octave. It was not deep enough in pitch or tone to replace the double bass but was often paired with it (performing in unison) on sessions to add a crisp, bright attack to the bass track. Kaye was able to blend the bright Danelectro sound and the warmth of the double bass sound by using various picks and picking techniques with such skill those producers eventually realised that they could save money and achieve a greater result by hiring her alone (Roberts 2001).

James Jamerson is of even greater significance than Kaye in that he pioneered the sound and technique of a truly ‘bass-guitaristic’ approach. He was a converted double bassist who played with a heavy touch on a bass guitar considered unplayable by many of his contemporaries; his strings were never changed and the action set extremely high. Jamerson possessed in his double bass style a syncopated approach to bass lines that when performed on bass guitar became even more distinctive because the nuances were easier to hear (Licks 1989). Through the 60s this highly rhythmic style, coupled with his creative use of chromaticism went from a focus on 8th notes and 8th note triplets into 16th note territory, inspiring many other bassists to do the same. By the mid to late sixties his double bass playing and bass guitar playing display unique qualities and a respect for the character of each instrument. The bass part on ‘For Once in My Life’ (Stevie Wonder, released in 1968) could only work on the bass guitar just as his part on ‘My Guy’ (Mary Wells, released in 1964) is perfect for the double bass. Despite the complexities of some of Jamerson’s bass lines, he preferred to pluck the strings with only his index finger in a manner similar to that employed by many double bass players. The sound of the bass guitar was emerging as a unique character yet the technique at this stage still largely represented borrowed approaches from guitar and double bass.

Influence of Design on Performance Practise.

The great fork in the road for bass guitar design philosophy occurred around this time. In 1969 while working as an ‘electronic consultant’ for ‘The Grateful Dead’ (a highly influential psychedelic jam-band from San Fransisco) Ron Wickersham developed a new type of amplifier which could be installed into the body of a bass guitar in order to give the performer more control over the sound of the instrument (Roberts 2001). While external amplifiers are capable of manipulating various frequencies and overall volume, the internal system, called ‘active electronics’ altered sound at the source. This gave the performer more control on stage and introduced new factors which I believe encouraged more bass players to adopt the light touch approach which became popular years later. These factors include the ability to hide unwanted neck noise by boosting mid range frequencies (allowing players to set their string height close to the fretboard) and to increase instrument responsiveness (by boosting frequencies and/or volume).

The most distinctive characteristic of active electronics is that they sound bad when played too hard because the onboard pre-amp becomes over powered and distorts. When this is compared to the old style of electronics (passive electronics) which many musicians believe sound more colourful when played hard, it becomes clear that the invention of active electronics played an important role in the emergence of light touch and heavy touch approaches to bass guitar playing. Ron Wickersham’s company Alembic began building basses with active electronics and to this day bass players can choose between active basses or passive basses. The active instruments were particularly popular in the 1980s and early 90s when the attitudes of progressive rock and jazz/fusion promoted clarity on the instrument. Pop music was also recorded mostly on active instruments giving rise to the ‘thick’ bass lines heard in that era. The sound of active instruments dominates the bass tracks of artists such as Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel and can be contrasted with the more ‘open’ sound of passive bass used on today’s recordings by the likes of John Mayer and Powderfinger.

The Rise of Bass Guitar-istic Technique: Finger Style and Slap

The link between light touch and active basses is strong but not comprehensive. Some of the most influential bassists of all time contradict this hypothesis, however the extremely light touch preached by the likes of Gary Willis is problematic on passive instruments. The two most notable exceptions to the light touch/active electronics rule are Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius. A legitimate jazz double bassist, Clarke was one of the earliest Alembic devotees and has continued to record and perform on these instruments throughout his career. Unlike many double bassists who also play electric, Clarke fully embraced the metallic ‘twang’ of the steel string and frets combination and developed a plucking technique which emphasised this quality. Playing towards the neck end of the plucking area with a traditional upright bass style two finger technique Clarke was able to tease out a sound all his own. Using the active electronics to emphasise the treble frequencies his sound ‘cut through’ the band and heralded a new era of bass guitar.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Clarke’s playing was not his plucking technique but rather his adoption of the slapping/popping techniques which Larry Graham had developed through the 60s. Graham who came to prominence performing in ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ developed the technique through circumstance. He had been performing on organ, guitar and vocals with his mother and a drummer at a local club. Graham would play a bass line with the organ pedals, strum guitar and sing all at the same time. Fortunately, for the future of bass that organ broke down and Graham rented a bass guitar the next day. Expecting the organ to be repaired in the near future Graham never received formal training on the new instrument and developed his own technique. When the drummer failed to show up for gigs Graham attempted to emulate the propulsion of a kick drum and snare drum on bass by slapping the low strings with his thumb and plucking the high strings with his index finger (Roberts 2001). This new sound would eventually enter the lexicon of electric bass playing in most genres but it was Stanley Clarke who presented slap in the ‘serious’ world of jazz music. He was one of the first bassists to blend finger style and slap techniques into the one voice and his use of active electronics allowed him to present his ideas in the greatest of detail.

As the bass guitar community was adjusting to this new standard the bar was raised even higher with the seemingly overnight sensation that was Jaco Pastorius. Often cited as rivals due to their close proximity in age and genre Pastorius and Clarke were in many ways opposites. Pastorius developed his medium to light touch on passive Fender instruments (the Fender Jazz Bass), never slapped (though he did occasionally ‘pat’ the strings with an open palm), plucked as close to the bridge as possible and disliked the sound of frets so much that, using a butter knife, he tore them out of his instrument. He did not invent the fretless bass but he was the first distinctly recognisable voice on the instrument. His debut album released in 1976 was “the single most important and influential solo recording ever made by an electric bassist” (Roberts 2001). Bobby Colomby who signed Jaco to Epic Records tells of his earliest impression of Jaco’s playing:

“I had heard hundreds of bassists in my time, but none of them even approached the facility that Jaco showed that afternoon. I was absolutely stunned by what he was doing on the bass. He was definitely coming out of the James Jamerson and Jerry Jemmott style of playing, but he went well beyond their scope. He was doing things on the bass that I had never heard anybody do before– harmonics, chording, impossibly fast lines… He was truly a phenomenon.” (Roberts 2001)

The most distinctive quality of Jaco Pastorius’ playing is that he understood how to support the music as a bass instrument and how to function melodically and even ‘chordally’. His scope is so broad that most musicians cannot grasp all of it; his understanding of time-feel alone can become a lifelong study for most bass players. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida he was surrounded by Calypso rhythms and his father’s influence as a professional drummer instilled in him a respect for time keeping which permeated even his most complex solos. In fact Jaco was first and foremost a drummer, only picking up the bass after a football injury prevented him from developing a strong drumming technique. Many bass players who followed Jaco embraced his techniques, tone and soloing facility without his grasp of time and consequently much of what they were trying to say on the instrument lacked purpose.



Music Business Shapes Musician and Luthier Aesthetic

It was five years after Jaco’s debut that the sound of active electronics came to dominate the world of bass guitar. Again the driving force was a bassist who blended finger style and slap techniques. By the ripe old age of 20 Marcus Miller was active as a session musician in New York City. In 1981 he made two incredibly bold statements. By successfully auditioning for Miles Davis jazz/funk band he announced to the world that he was a bassist to be reckoned with, and by doing so on a Fender Jazz bass which had been retro-fitted with active electronics, he ushered in a new age of bass tinkering. The pre-amp installed in Miller’s ’77 Jazz bass gave him ‘sparkling highs’ that were truly a revelation. The clarity of his tone sent shockwaves around the music industry and by the mid 80s bass players were winding more and more treble into their bass sounds. Groups like Level 42 placed bass on centre stage and the active bass played by Mark King (of Level 42) was equalized to highlight every detail of his complex bass parts and solos. When compared with James Jamerson’s sound, created by mounting a piece of foam against the strings (strings which were never changed) on a bass equipped with passive electronics run through an amplifier with the treble rolled off, it would seem that bass sound was evolving. In fact when one considers the dull thud of early swing era bass, the muffled punch of Motown bass, and the sparkling tone of Miller, bass sound could be described as a path toward clarity.

However, as the ‘back to basics’ sound of grunge exploded onto the popular music world in the mid 90s the passive Fender instruments came back into vogue to such an extent that musicians began to lose work if they didn’t play these instruments (Roberts 2001). One of the most important of all electric bass players, Anthony Jackson, had already established himself as a high profile session musician when he began developing his ‘6 string contra bass guitar’, an instrument upon which he developed many techniques which have expanded bass playing. When asked how producers responded to his new bass Jackson writes:

“One of the most negative comments got back to me second-hand: ‘You tell Anthony Jackson if he wants to bring his ‘science experiment’, then let him book his own sessions. I want to see the Fender!’” (Jisi 2008)

Anthony Jackson is a Grammy-nominated musician whose reputation precedes him. With such criticism concerning his choice of instrument, it is understandable that less prolific musicians are not willing to go against the grain in terms of instrument choice. As the link between instrument choice, playing style, and tone has already been established it would seem the working bassist is left with little room for personal preference. In the Melbourne music scene it is extremely hard to find a working bassist who does not perform on a Fender bass. Yet the preferred instrument of Jeremy Alsop, perhaps Melbourne’s greatest studio bassist of the 1980s and 1990s was the Steinberger bass, an extremely modern sounding instrument with active electronics and a body made of composite materials. In Jeremy’s words “the thing with Fender basses is they are less of a ‘characterful’ [colourful] sound” (than other brands of bass available). Jeremy believes the proliferation of Fender instruments says more about the state of the art than the instrument. In his opinion the use of instrumentalists in popular music has become a symbolic gesture more than a musical one, representing the ideal of authenticity as deemed by the music business (i.e. Fender instruments are the look of rock music). He also believes that in today’s popular music the only musicians allowed to create new music are the anonymous keyboard/programmers creating music unseen.

Clearly this resistance to new instruments has dramatic consequences for those designing instruments. Convincing the public to embrace exotic body shapes and timbres is an unenviable task, just as convincing pop music to embrace exotic playing is next to impossible. There is however, in both circles, another way. When Jamerson’s Precision bass was made, a strip of foam mounted inside the chrome pickup cover was standard issue. This was intended to dampen the strings and create a double bass like sound, as Leo Fender’s earliest motivation in creating the instrument was to provide an alternative to the cumbersome double bass. By the time of Marcus Miller this cover remained but the foam was no longer installed, the first indication that Fender designers were conscious of the cosmetic legacy they had created. This fixation on cosmetics has been seized by some designers as an opportunity to create new instruments which merely look like Fenders. Roger Sadowsky, the luthier who installed and modified the pre-amp in Marcus Miller’s bass is one such an individual. When formulating the design principles for his own company Sadowsky realised that appearances mean a great deal in the music business. He realised that the studio bassists in New York (where he was based) did not want instruments that didn’t look like a Fender “because they knew what the producers would say”. Rather than create a new body shape and pickup placement, Sadowsky built guitars which looked almost identical to the Fender instruments but featured improvements in design, wood choice and electronics.

I saw what my market was and who my clients were, and I wasn’t willing to spend ten years beating my head against the wall, trying to give them something they were going to resist. I made a commitment to make the best [Fender] Jazz-style bass I could and to offer any refinements I could to the design. I’m comfortable with that…Creatively, it’s frustrating because it limits what I can do – but looking at it from the business perspective of giving people what they want, it’s worth it to me.” (Roberts 1996)

His observations are confirmed by Janek Gwizdala, a phenomenal young jazz/fusion bassist who is active in New York’s session scene:

“As far as the instrument goes…. a bass player must have a P-bass and a Jazz bass in their bag if they’re in a serious session scene. If you’re being hired for the first time by someone, a Fodera Monarch or any kind of high end custom bass will turn a producer off for sure. We’re talking about basses that have been around for a very short amount of time (Fodera, Tobias, Ken Smith, etc…) compared to a Fender bass that’s been on 30,000 hit songs. You may well be able to get any sound out of your Fodera (as I have learnt to over the last 18 months) but it’s the Fender that’s going to keep you the gig and get you re-hired again down the line. “ (Gwizdala 2006)


Attitudes towards bass guitar in jazz and popular music

It is interesting that jazz music, one of the few modern genres in which the electric bass has not usurped the double bass, remains a bastion of progressive bass guitar design and playing concepts. It is in the wake of Miles Davis’ jazz/fusion explorations that electric bass playing matured and assumed a dynamic role. As the instrument came to realise its full potential a new vanguard of jazz/fusion bassists emerged who considered themselves disciples of melody, harmony and time-feel in equal measure. It is in this wave of post fusion bassists that a distinct aesthetic came to develop which was not wholly compatible with trends in popular music. While the jazz trained James Jamerson was able to bring his advanced harmonic concepts to the Motown sound, the technical virtuosity of modern day jazz/fusion bass playing and the regressive simplicity of the bass lines in modern pop music have partitioned each role more than ever before. Many students of modern bass find themselves in this unfortunate position: the exciting legacy of jazz/fusion bass playing, the music which they care about so deeply, demands a mastery of techniques and concepts which are unwelcome in pop music. If this seems dramatic compare drumming with bass playing. The aesthetic of pop music drumming and jazz/fusion drumming is quite similar. Detail, accuracy, speed, tone, flair, all these qualities are embraced in pop music drumming and jazz/fusion. Likewise the list of high profile jazz/fusion drummers who have toured or recorded with major pop acts is extensive: Dennis Chambers (Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, Parliament Funkadelic, Carlos Santana etc.), Vinnie Colaiuta (Chick Corea, Frank Zappa, Barbra Streisand, Steely Dan, Sting etc.), Dave Weckl (Chick Corea, George Benson, Madonna, Paul Simon etc.), Keith Carlock (Wayne Krantz, Sting, Steely Dan etc.) and the list goes on. Meanwhile there are very few examples of ‘superstar’ fusion players touring with ‘superstar’ pop acts. To my knowledge there is only one example of a technically exceptional bass guitarist famous among jazz/fusion circles for his mastery of the instrument who has also toured with a major pop act. That was Victor Bailey who replaced Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report and went on tour with Madonna. There are other bassists who have recorded on important recordings in both genres but very few who have explored the ‘soloistic‘limits of the instrument. An obvious example is Darryl Jones, who toured with Miles Davis and currently plays bass with the Rolling Stones. He is an exceptional bassist with incredible time-feel but not in the same league technically as many of the fusion players.

Luthiers and bassists alike have more freedom in the jazz world than they do in the more financially rewarding world of pop music. Bassists working in jazz use all brands of instruments and all methods of playing them, then routinely switch to Fender instruments and adopt a more traditional approach to bass playing for pop gigs. In the final analysis it would seem that the reason why bassists with high profile jazz/fusion careers seldom appear on high profile pop gigs is that the two worlds are just that, two separate worlds or networks of musicians. In a context which has no need for any skills except perfect time-feel, tone, presentation and social graces, there is no room for new faces who have spent hours practising ‘needless’ techniques rather than working their way up the music business ladder. Most high profile pop bassists have spent their careers developing musical and even (perhaps especially) social sensibilities to get their gig. The situation is comparable to the limited positions available in professional orchestras where regardless of the exceptional skills required, who you know is almost as important as what you know. In this light it would seem that the modern bass disciple of the jazz/fusion school must be mindful of networking if they intend on developing their career beyond the small sphere of jazz. The ‘blow them off the band-stand’ bravado which permeates jazz is not appreciated in the music business because in the world of contemporary pop music the spotlight is well and truly off the bass player.

This is not to suggest there are not incredible musicians working in pop music. Some of the most musical bass players, with the deepest understanding of their instruments are session musicians working in pop music. In fact unlike most fusion bassists many of the pop/session musicians have mastered both heavy playing and light playing as they are less concerned with developing an effortless technique in favour of serving whatever musical context they are functioning in. Welsh bassist Pino Palladino is a fantastic example. In the 1980s Pino was one of the most distinctive session bassists in pop music, appearing on albums by Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Gary Numan and Chaka Khan, just to name a few. His instrument of choice was a fretless Musicman Stingray, an active bass with a large, warm, almost synth-like sound. Then in the 90s, Pino suddenly began using fretted Fender Jazz and Precision basses. At around this stage his career blossomed again, long after the acts mentioned above had waned. Performing with RnB star D’Angelo he used a smooth light touch to get the warm sound heard on ‘Chicken Grease’, and playing with John Mayer (in the John Mayer Trio) he uses a much harder technique to suit the music he’s playing. Palladino is an incredible musician not because he can adapt to so many situations, but because despite these adaptations his own voice permeates. Regardless of instrument or attack used there is a quality in Pino’s playing that remains constant.

Mixed Signals in Performance.

The focus on efficiency of technique has not only affected the ability of some jazz/fusion bassists to adapt to different musical settings, it has also influenced the entire performance aspect of the art. Performers on electric instruments are susceptible to sending mixed visual and aural signals because they are capable of performing complex, loud music without the visual display of effort one would expect to see. When a conga player performs fast passages the whole body is involved and in ‘tune’ with the sound being generated. When a singer ‘belts’ the effect is over whelming, not solely due to the notes, but because the audience can see that every fibre of the performer is engaged in the act of creating that note. Understanding the unique interference created by electricity between visual affect displays and aural affect will better equip bass guitarists in performance. Highly trained bass guitarists should be particularly mindful of this interference as their training often highlights the need for economy of movement in technique, an approach which often influences their body language. As a case study Hadrien Feraud’s performance at ‘Bass Day Uk 2008’ is ideal. Feraud is a prodigious talent who at only 25 years of age has already worked with Chick Corea and John McLaughlin and released a critically acclaimed album. It is safe to say his virtuosity on the instrument is relatively unparalleled. When viewing the footage of this performance the contradiction between the music being heard and the visual presentation of that music is almost jarring. Viewing the performance with the sound off quickly becomes tedious as the distracted, bored manner of performer stimulates a similar response in the viewer. The lack of eye contact with the audience (characteristic of most jazz performances), the understated body language and plain facial expressions convey an indifference which defies his music. As soon as the sound is turned back on the sheer musicality of the aural affect does much to restore interest for most viewers. However many concert goers expect more than pure aural stimulation and it is those audience members who Feraud and most jazz musicians fail to entertain. This is not a study in the nature of art verses business but rather a study in what happens when stage presence is inconsistent with the music coming from that stage. The antithesis of Hadrien’s performance is a video of Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo performing at ‘The Big Day Out 2004’. In my opinion this footage is considerably more enjoyable with the sound off. Trujillo engages the audience and uses his facial and bodily affect channels to much effect, framing his musical content in a coherent context. The most significant difference between these bass players on a technical level is that Feraud is coming from a tradition which emphasises efficiency of technique and Trujillo is not. Feraud has mastered his instrument and Trujillo has not, and yet Trujillo is one of the most financially successful freelance musicians of all time. He has toured and recorded with Suicidal Tendancies, Ozzy Osbourne and Infectious Grooves but it was his one million dollar signing bonus upon joining Metallica which catapulted him into a financial league few musicians experience. Key to Trujillo’s success is that in the genres in which he performs, sound is only part of the criteria. In the world of rock music there is no separation between playing and stage presence: a good rock player ‘rocks out’ or they are not a good rock player. In reality ‘rocking out’ is an attempt to transmit visual signals congruent with the aural signals of the performance. One final video can be used to illustrate the unique challenge of stage presence which bassists face. In this footage from Tribal Tech performing in Israel one can instantly see the animated Kurt Covington behind the drum-kit. Covington is a naturally animated performer who often augments his colourful facial expressions with ‘extra-musical’ vocalisations such as yelling or screaming. His animated stage presence serves his animated drumming style and he ultimately becomes the highlight for many concert goers despite the fact that he is sideman to one of the most important fretless bassists since Jaco Pastorius: Gary Willis. In this same video the incongruence of visual and aural affect becomes more apparent as one observes guitarist Scott Henderson, bassist Willis and finally keyboard player Scott Kinsey who despite being one of the most exciting musicians to play the instrument musically speaking, is among the most boring to watch.


The observations above may seem to meander between aspects of design, technique, performance and the state of the music business, however they converge in a very real sense in my own experience of music. At a formative stage I was introduced to jazz/fusion and immediately fell in love with improvising. To facilitate a more accurate connection between my musical ideas, ears and hands I studied the bassists who excelled in this area. Bassists such as Victor Bailey, Gary Willis, Kai Eckhardt and Jaco Pastorius encouraged me to explore light touch approaches to bass playing. Willis was particularly influential in my adopting a low string height and minimal pressure with the fretting hand. As I studied these bassists on a technical/soloistic level I remained very much enamored with genres of music outside the jazz/fusion school of bass playing, and as my professional music life began I found myself working in these genres, attempting to fuse a ‘fusion-centric’ conception of bass guitar with these genres. The consequences of this ‘fusion-centric’ conception extended far beyond technique; instrument choice, wearing of the instrument, stage presence, tone, all these elements were affected. In the past two years these elements have been scrutinised using a broader conception of bass guitar. Relocating to Melbourne, seeking greater performance opportunities as a bassist and exploring new timbres on the instrument are all factors inspiring this scrutiny. It has become my opinion that technique should ultimately facilitate musical flexibility and not become an end unto itself. There are however concessions, which as an artist I am not willing to make. Rather than redefine my conception of bass guitar I am merely broadening this conception to facilitate musical growth. 

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Jaco Pastorius: Continuum

Jaco Pastorius: Continuum

On the 1st of December, 1951, John Anthony Pastorius came into the world. During his short life he would influence the history of music, redefine the concept of electric bass, garner world acclaim and descend into madness. Known to the world as Jaco, he reinvented the electric bass with his self-titled debut album. The opening track Donna Lee was an arrangement of Charlie Parker’s bebop classic. Up to that point no bass player had imagined the instrument was capable of rendering a saxophone melody with such accuracy and passion. This was followed by Come On, Come Over, an essay in Rhythm and Blues, this piece captures the true genius of Jaco Pastorius. It reveals the secret to his mastery; unlike the thousands of clones that would follow him, attempting to capture his technical prowess, Jaco himself grew up playing groove music. Because of this all his lines, from the most complex to the simplest, are firmly rooted in an awareness of time-feel. The third track, Continuum, is widely considered one of the greatest performances ever captured on the instrument. The opening bar hints at Jaco’s command of chordal harmonics, something which was not standard practice on the instrument until Jaco’s influence. All of Jaco’s musical devices are in this piece. However unlike some of his later work, his phrases flow so effortlessly through the form that one could be forgiven for thinking the piece more complex than it really is.

While the form is unusual (A – 8 bars A2 – 10 bars – B – 4 bars) the sheer gravity of Jaco’s ideas blur and bend through this harmonic space so that ‘home’ relocates itself and one is left wandering in the musical wilderness until Jaco chooses to bring you home (in the form of an explosive tonic chord – pp 45). Some of his ideas presented here have entered the lexicon of the genre. On page 44 we have a 5 note melodic shape imposed on a 16th note rhythm. This rhythmic/harmonic juxtaposition was to become a feature in his playing. In addition, by choosing not to conceal his RnB roots (pp 45) Jaco heralded the way for generations of electric bass players who have grown up listening to mainstream radio, yet seek something more. This album features such jazz heavy weights as Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, whom Jaco would later work with in Weather Report. Perhaps his beautiful use of fourths throughout this solo are a homage to that ‘Wayne Shorter sound’. His explosive burst of fourths on page 45 do resemble (albeit sped up and augmented) Wayne’s classic, Witch Hunt.

The remainder of the album delivers revelation after revelation. Portrait of Tracy is possibly the most influential piece of the suite in that it has entered the repertoire of every bass player exploring the unaccompanied format. The command of harmonics displayed, both as cluster chords and melody was earth shattering in the context of it’s release. One must appreciate that the electric bass wasn’t invented until 1951, the year of Jaco’s birth. There had been prototypes earlier, most notably the awkwardly titled “Electronic Bass Fiddle”. This was featured in an Audiovox catalogue in 1935 and featured a 30 ½-inch scale neck. However the instrument failed to catch on and it would be Leo Fender’s Precision Bass with it’s 34-inch scale neck that would become the template for electric bass design.

The release of ‘Jaco Pastorius’ in 1976 truly was ‘the shot heard throughout the world’ of music. In one fell swoop Jaco redefined the electric bass, broadening the scope of the instrument and setting the benchmark for all who would follow him. It is impossible to hear this album as it was heard in the 1970’s. It’s influence was so profound that even uninitiated listeners are familiar with the lexicon it created. Sadly, the enduring feature of this album is the bitter sweat juxtaposition one feels listening to it. It’s promise of seemingly limitless potential now coalesces with the tragic reality of Jaco‘s life.

By his early thirties, after receiving the Downbeat Magazine ‘Best Electric Bass’ readers poll four years in a row (1978, ‘79, ‘80, ‘81) Jaco was homeless, living on the streets of New York, and effectively ostracised by the music community.  Through the course of his life Jaco suffered manic depression. This was not diagnosed until his condition had been exacerbated after years of substance abuse and his self destruction was well and truly imminent. Anecdotes from this phase of Jaco’s life range from the bizarre to the truly disturbing. Reports of appearing on stage in ‘black face’ with a shaved head were followed by reports of him throwing his bass into Hiroshima Bay. In the years that followed he collected a throng of fans anticipating the next sensational Jaco story,  which only served to fuel his descent and by 1984 he had lost all his sideman work and was living on the streets. In 1987, Jaco resurfaced in his hometown of Florida. On September the 11th, days after narrowly escaping a jail sentence for multiple robberies, he stumbled toward the Midnight Bottle Club and was denied entry. A fight broke out and the “greatest bass player in the world“1, was beaten into a coma. On the 21st of September he was pronounced brain dead and life support switched off. He was 35.

Personally, this man is the reason I play this instrument. While I dabbled away at piano, drums, clarinet, guitar, harmonica it was not until I was given a Jaco recording that the future seemed clear. It was the world he created that I grew up in. I remember listening to Weather Report until I fell asleep and being whisked away to alternate realities. Ironically that is not an experience I have had with much of the music created by those who followed Jaco. His prowess on the instrument has been well documented. His solos have been transcribed and studied. And yet even the greatest exponents of the Jaco sound (such as Hadrien Feraud) seem to miss something. There’s more to this music than hours of practising. When Jaco was on the streets of New York he would often sit in on blues jams and sing his favourite number Fanny Mae. He grew up on roots music, be it Caribbean, Blues or Soul. Perhaps this is the secret to Jaco – if it is not coming from the soul, then it’s not music.

Why Music Exists: An Exploration of the Lexicon of Sound

Why Music Exists: An Exploration of the Lexicon of Sound

Why Music Exists: An Exploration of the Lexicon of Sound
Patrick W Farrell

“…whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so     simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are     being, evolved.” (Darwin, 1859)

It was with these words that Darwin concluded his treatise on the nature of existence. Human beings, a product of that existence are the beneficiaries of many millennia of biological trial and error. As a species we have an incredibly evolved facility for sensing and sharing data. Yet despite all the options now at our disposal for sharing data we consistently revert to a medium as old as the universe itself. That medium is music. Why? Because after all is said and done, despite our incredibly evolved faculties, we are herd animals. We seek support, we need to belong, we long for understanding. The paradox of humanity is this: the very path which brought us here, evolution, has left us stranded in vivid four dimensional mental realities which cannot be accurately portrayed using any of the communication channels we possess. Yet we long to express ourselves and be understood because of the herd instincts (physical and metaphysical) impressed upon us by our forbears. Music has proliferated through the age of mass communication because being of nature, it is the only true conduit of human thought. It is our greatest communicative tool for sharing our mental realities and uniting the herd. (Bannan, 1999)

The Origin of Species heralded the dawn of a new era. It was the commencement of unprecedented navel gazing by humans seeking to understand humans. As it turned out, we were born of an incredible string of events, made plausible by this simple equation: chaos theory + lots and lots of time. This birthed an environment in which natural selection culled the progeny of that initial equation. Within the vast reality called existence, at some point, for reasons widely debated an unassuming rock or two drifted into being. These rocks related to each other through the medium of gravity. Some of these rocks were notrocks at all, but rather gaseous satellites, the greatest of which would have the most persuasion in this dialogue. This outspoken orator of gravity would burn a light in the darkness of existence and shine the way of things to come. 149,600,000 kilometres away a noxious soup was brewing. A chemical game of chance was taking place, and the victor, by default, was that which responded to the light shining for so long in the distance. On that day, when the game was won, there was no fanfare, just an awkward little ‘plop’ as a single bubble of oxygen struggled through the ancient soup of failed experiments and escaped into the noxious atmosphere. This process of transmuting the Sun’s energy into oxygen is called photosynthesis and supports almost all the life on our little rock called Earth. The organisms which eventually bubbled forth from that liquid of pre-history Earth were a parade of losers in a race to synthesize their needs with the gifts of the universe. Occasionally mutant anomalies were produced by these multiplying hopefuls and it was often these mutants which discovered a new, more efficient way of existing in the universe. This process was later named (by another mutant) ‘Natural Selection‘.

How has the nature of sound influenced us?

The universe is a persistent thing. From the human perspective it is almost eternal. Life on the other hand, is extremely plastic (Darwin, 1859). In this way every living thing has morphed and adapted through the process of Natural Selection. However this influence goes far deeper than ‘survival of the fittest’. It defines the logic of life itself, because the perpetual data being imposed on organisms by the universe must be perceived logically by those organisms in order to prosper. Most of the data in the universe is logarithmic (Frazer, 2008). Sound and life are generated according to (essentially) consistent ratios. In turn the human devices for receiving that data information, having evolved through trial and error since life began, are (mostly) logarithmic in function. Take for example sound. Our perception of sound is shaped by the phenomenon known as the Harmonic Series. When a single sine wave is generated it instantly generates sympathetic sine waves oscillating at perfect proportions to its length. These sympathetic waves are integer factors of the initial wave (Wikipedia contributors, 2009). In other words, wave two is half the length (and twice as fast as wave one), wave three is half the length (and twice as fast) as wave two, and 1/3 the length (three times faster) than wave one. This bundle of waves can be thought of as a mass of partial waves generating one full sounding tone, the pitch of which is the longest/strongest wave (the fundamental). The upper partials fade in intensity as they diminish in length. Depending on the acoustic space and the medium through which sound is being generated, these partials may be clearly audible or barely perceptible. However their influence on the nature of sound, and our use of it, is profound. Because humans hear sound logarithmically and not linearly, our perception of pitch correlates with frequency ratios, not frequencies themselves (Wikipedia contributors, 2009). If for example the table above represents a fundamental tone at 220Hz, then the second partial (1/2) will be 440Hz and the third (1/3) wave will be 660Hz. When hearing these tones the human ear recognises that the second partial (440Hz) is 2:1 the f of the first (A), and thus associates the two tones as being the same input signal doubled in strength. This phenomenon is known to musicians as an octave. The third partial (660Hz) is recognised as being 3:2 the f (frequency) of the second partial (A) and is recognised as a being a fifth away (E).
The beautiful truth behind this correlation is that we perceive sound in exactly the same way in which it behaves. If we had linear pitch perception, the sounds of the universe would be nonsensical to us because the universe is not linear. Of course the correlation between our minds and the universe is a natural progression of evolution. Just as the Golden Ratio would invariably shapes our visual aesthetic, the harmonic series which occurs within every tone has shaped our aural aesthetic. In fact, it is interesting to note that the ratio of the first harmony generated in the harmonic series (excluding the octave) has a ratio of 3:2 which can be expressed as 0.666 which approximates the Golden Ratio (0.618). (Dimond, 2008)

Ratios of harmonies, like that of a fifth mentioned above, are calculated by comparing the wave lengths of the pitches involved (Schmidt-Jones, 2009). For example if the third partial of A is E (3:1 in the harmonic series) and the fourth partial is A (4:1) than the sound of those tones playing simultaneously is 4:3 because there are four waveforms of A in the space of every three waveforms of E. Once again, because our ears work logarithmically, this interval 4:3 sounds the same all the way through the frequency range and is expressed in Western musical notation as a ’perfect fourth‘. As the ratio created between tones becomes more complex, the more ‘dissonant’ is the sound perceived by the human ear. For example a flat nine, often sited as the most dissonant interval in the 12 tone system causes the ratio of 17:16. The depth of complexity in the harmonic system reveals itself when one considers that with every pair of notes, there is a new array of sympathetic wave formations all creating their own ratios, which in turn create their own relationships etc. In theory the process is endless. In addition extremely consonant harmonies support each other in ’real time’ by producing additional harmonics which ’support’ each other. This results in full sounding ‘thick’ harmonies, such as those proliferating the Gregorian Chant tradition. For example the interval of a perfect fifth is a ’warm’ sounding interval, not because it is an extremely simple ratio (3:2), but rather because of the ‘interlaced’ matrix of over tones each fundamental creates:

Fifth:    G    G    D    G

Tonic:    C    C    G    C

The texture (timbre) of the G is ’warmer’ or ‘thicker’ because the note is actually sounding four times across three octaves even though only two notes are being played.

The sound of Language vs. The Sound of Music

“… when a representation of some four-dimensional hunk of life has to be compressed     into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out. In one-    dimensional projections, an elephant is indistinguishable from a woodshed. Speech     perforce is largely arbitrary; if we speakers take pride in that, it is because in 50,000 years     or so of talking we have learned to make a virtue of necessity.” (Hockett, as cited in     Corballis, 2008)

We are all living in the same universe, governed by the same laws of physics – this
logarithmic-pitch-association/harmonic-series relationship provides all human being’s with a common medium through which to convey ideas (Bannan, 1999). Unlike speech, which begins with artificial sounds (phonemes) and applies rules to those sounds (syntax) all of which are entirely arbitrary, the language of music has syntax embedded into its phonology (the physics of sound). (Bernstein, 1976) This musical syntax can be defined as ’tension and release’ or ‘dissonance vs. consonance’. The fact that the harmonic series is an array of simple ratios fading into complex ratios has influenced the evolution of the human ear, which recognises simple ratios as consonant and complex ratios as dissonant.

This concept of an inherent musical syntax should not be confused with the notion that all musical systems developed by humans deal with dissonance in exactly the same way. If soundwaves were phonemes, and their ratios relative to one another were musical syntax, then the rendering of these ratios would be ‘musical grammar’. Cultural influence may dictate that certain complexities of ratios are interpreted differently, however the ratios involved are accurately perceived by the ears of all humanity. For example a trained musician can recognise a flat ninth interval in a Greek zembekiko. And the tension that interval creates affects the ears of an American Country and Western singer in exactly the same way it affects a Greek bouzouki player. The only difference is that the bouzouki player enjoys the tense sound of a flat ninth because of the very tension it creates. More poignantly the Greek musician enjoys the sound of that flat ninth (17:16) resolving to a unison (1:1) after the tension has reached ‘breaking point’. It is interesting that Leonard Bernstein, in his Harvard University Norton Lecture series observed the propensity of young children to draw a common semantic implication from the melodic shape of C, A, D (slightly flatter than equal temperament), C, A – sung with the lyrics of “Nah, nah, nah-nah, nah…..”

Mankind‘s role in this relationship to the harmonic series and the logic (syntax) it presents is two fold;

1)    As witness to a phenomenon of mathematics occurring in ‘real time’.
2)    As student who has learnt over 7 million years which harmonies are right and             make ‘sense’.

The result is the same, manifest in nature there is a syntax which mankind can recognise and employ to convey his ideas via the medium of sound.

The following ‘13 Design Features of the Human Language’ were conceived by linguist Charles Hockett and provide a neat table of comparison between music and language. Hockett’s ‘13 design features of the human language’ are (Wikipedia contributors, 2009):

1    Vocal-auditory channel: Of significance when considered in the context of evolution. As with so many adaptations, the ability to articulate clearly using only our voice box (with no need for bodily communication as is so often found in animal languages) coincided with the upright skeleton which gave humans the ability to freely use their upper limbs for tasks whilecommunicating. Music is also received via the auditory channel, however it does not need to be broadcast via the vocal tract.

2    Broadcast transmission and directional reception: Describes the fact that human speech, being an auditory signal, can be heard by anyone within hearing range, and the location of the speaker (the broadcaster) can be ascertained by way of binaural direction finding. This applies to both music and speech as they are received by the same auditory channel.

3    Rapid Fading (transitoriness): Is the unique property of sound signals to fade quickly from an environment as opposed to other forms of signaling such as pheromones and smoke signals. It is this transitory nature of sound which made it such a useful tool in survival situations (Bannan, 1999). Perforce our oldest instruments, the drum and horn, were conceived as alarm devices.

4    Interchangeability: refers to the ability of humans to both receive and transmit speech. This is because speech is generated by a device common to all peoples, the descended larynx. Music can also be received by all people and all persons have the potential to create music. The complexity of their own broadcasts may vary, but they are nevertheless capable of musical signals.

5    Total Feedback: is common to both music and speech and describes the fact that humans can hear themselves while they are broadcasting. This enables them to perfect the art of speaking and playing music.

6    Specialization: Speech sounds are specialized for communication. Humans invented them to convey information. This differs from musical tones, which also communicate information, but are not artificially created for that task.

7    Semanticity: Specific signals have a specific idea. Both music and language share this property; In music complex ratios always sound more dissonant than simple ratios (although different cultures embrace dissonance differently) and in speech morphemes have specific meanings.

8    Arbitrariness: In speech there is no limitation to what can be communicated about and there is     no specific or necessary connection between the sounds used and the message being sent. Music however is not arbitrary. The frequencies of the phonemes may indeed be irrelevant to some listeners, but once those phonemes are structured into morphemes they are immovable, as the subject to which they refer is themselves. Romantic imagery on the part of the listener may be drawn from the music created, however the music itself can no more depict an unrelated subject, then it can cease to be music. I.e. Inherent in the sound of a fifth is the very fact that it is indeed a 3:2 sound ratio – a fifth.

9    Discreteness: In language, phonemes can be placed in distinct categories which differentiate them from one another, such as the distinct sound of /p/ versus /b/. This is manifest in music somewhat differently. Where as sound properties dictate the grouping of speech phonemes, it is ratio properties (musical/harmonic context) which dictate the grouping of musical phonemes. For example (in Western music) the pitch G can occur in many different categories depending on its function relative to the other phonemes (notes) being played.

10    Displacement: This refers to the ability to refer to things in space and time and communicate about things that are currently not present. More than just a communicative phenomenon, displacement is a mental capacity for abstract reasoning. There has been some controversy over the extent to which this is a uniquely human phenomenon. Much research and debate concerns the propensity (or not) of ‘Dancing Honey Bees’ to communicate food sources absent from site (Munz, 2005) and whether this is comparable to human displacement. Further research has been conducted which tests the visual displacement capabilities of canines (Fiset & LeBlanc, 2006) and lower primates. To this date there is no evidence to suggest any other animals possess a capacity for displacement, visual or other wise, comparable to that of humans. While the acute neural processes may vary,  this ability (to refer to things absent in space and time) is what musicians do every time they recall a piece of music (either in their mind, on an instrument or vocally), a rhythmic figure or even an interval of two notes. In fact ‘perfect pitch’ (the ability to recognise and recall the note names of various frequencies) may not be purely a memory related phenomenon but also an advanced display of displacement.

11    Productivity: The ability to create new and unique meanings of utterances from previously existing utterances and sounds. It is difficult to ascertain whether the musical language is a ‘productive’ one. While perception may enable individuals to draw their own conclusions from musical statements, the physical laws involved in the production of sound which govern it’s syntax/phonology dictate that it can’t be modified.

12    Traditional Transmission: This is the idea that human language is not completely innate and acquisition depends in part on the learning of a language. Conversely music is innate and its reception/broadcasting comes naturally to humans. In Musicophilia Oliver Sacks observes,

“There is certainly a universal and unconscious propensity to impose a rhythm even when one hears a series of identical   sounds at constant intervals… we tend to hear the     sound of a digital clock, for example, as “tick-tock, tick-tock” – even though it is actually     “tick, tick, tick, tick.”

However engaging in codified music (musical grammar) does require an understanding of the grammar involved.

13. Duality of patterning: In speech phonic segments (phonemes) are combined to make words (morphemes), which in turn are combined again to make sentences. In music the patterning is infinite and multi dimensional. Unlike speech, which must be organised linearly, or rather horizontally,  musical phonemes can be combined horizontally (melody) and vertically (harmony, contrapuntal melody) in the plane of time. These phonic textures will either conform to a perceived fundamental (key signature) or imply new fundamentals. The rendering of these structures in the time-space introduces rhythmic phrasing, the strongest device in musical grammar. While the neurological relationship between rhythm and melody is beyond the scope of this paper, the fact that most dance music (examples to the contrary are often extremely fast or slow in tempo, which creates the illusion of simple ratio) is based on octave ratios (1:1, 2:1, 4:1 etc) and the fifth ratio (3:2) would suggest that our sense of rhythm is also influenced by the harmonic series.

Musical language therefore exhibits all the design features of speech except specialization, arbitrariness and productivity. In other words music is not artificially created, is not an unrelated representation of something else and is a consistent, reliable medium. These three properties are of profound importance in any attempt to understand why music has proliferated since the dawn of modern man.

Why did music proliferate despite speech?

To understand why this universal, eternal language of music is so important to humanity, we need to take a brief look at that humanity ‘warts and all’.

The last retrofit in a long line of primates, we jumped off the production line about 4 million years ago, just after Chimpanzees and Gorillas (Diamond, 1998). By this stage the hominid survival guide read something like this; “Hang out with everyone else…maybe then there’s less chance I’ll be eaten!” We spent the next 2.3 million years or so trying to stand up. No mean feat since our skeletons were originally intended for swinging through the jungle and walking on all four limbs. Beginning with the Australopithecus Africanus stage, followed by Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus a new upright skeleton proto-type emerged (Diamond, 1998). Mentally something was happening too. This new ape was trying things out, hitting nuts with rocks and eventually hitting rocks with rocks to fashion stone tools. Homo Erectus’ coup de grace was the use of fire. It was this sub-human super ape (Homo Erectus) which would eventually venture beyond the confines of Africa and evolve into the Homo Sapien proto-type. This is not to say that the modern man had emerged. The earliest skeletal remains of proto Homo Sapiens differ greatly from the skeleton of modern man. In addition the skeletal remains found throughout Africa, Eurasia and East Asia continued to morph in diverging localised sub-sets, the most modern looking of these found in African skeletal remains. The most extensive archaeological finds of this period are in Europe, where the much caricatured Neanderthals lived. As Jared Diamond points out;

“Despite being depicted in innumerable cartoons as apelike brutes living in caves,     Neanderthals had brains slightly larger than our own. They were also the first humans to leave behind strong evidence of burying their dead and caring for their sick.”

Caring as they may have been, the Neanderthals of Europe failed to make one last evolutionary change. In 450, 000 years they produced no art, fashioned no tools and never quite formed entirely modern skeletons. This triad of facts has lead many scientists to believe that Neanderthal man did not posses the primary tool for effective communication, a fully evolved larynx. Unfortunately for the Neanderthals of Europe they weren’t alone. While they went about their business (for 450, 000 years) a people in East Africa were hard at work evolving. Carbon dating has dated items from these East African sites at 50, 000 years old (Diamond, 1998). These items include tools which have dedicated uses and also jewellery. What is incredible is the pace of what was to follow. A new wave of fully modern people swept through Europe and in the space of 10, 000 years dispatched the Neanderthals to the annals of history. These people possessed fully modern skeletons, produced complex tools (harpoon throwers, bow-and-arrows), artwork, statues and musical instruments. Known to us as the Cro-Magnons they demonstrated the kind of sophisticated society only possible with speech (Diamond, 1991). They were still ‘hanging out’ in groups.

It is interesting that with every physiological progression, the intensity of artistic expression has also evolved. It would seem art was of increasing importance to this evolving ape. But why would art proliferate with the dawn of language? If art is expression, is it not counter-intuitive that that birth of speech, which by using arbitrary symbolism can describe almost anything (Hockett, as cited in Corballis, 2008) did not render art in general redundant? In the case of music, most students would describe their art as a form of communication. Again the argument is circular; if music is communication why bother, we have speech for communicating. What was Beethoven communicating in his famous fifth symphony motif? Was he hungry? The key to solving this riddle is to remember that despite all the frills, a human being is still essentially a super ape (Diamond, 1991). We are herd animals and as such crave the support, comfort and protection which only relationship can bring. Phylogenetically, this search for relationship and support evolved into a search for relationship beyond visible nature. In fact the search for supernatural comfort is the most common forum of musical language. However the paradox is this, in becoming ‘super’, this ape has developed faculties which have led to an ever increasing sense of isolation. The very path which brought us here, evolution, has stranded us in mental realities which cannot be truly permeated. In the words of Aldous Huxley, we are each an “island universe.“ (Huxley, 1954)

This is not merely metaphysical jargon. Human memories are defined as either procedural or declarative (Wikipedia contributors, 2009). Procedural memories are those which we store and access unconsciously. For example when performing tasks like playing a musical instrument. Conversely declarative memory comprises those memories which we can recall, such as the lyrics to a song, which we then sing (declare). Within this latter category there are two sub-groups: semantic memories and episodic memories. Episodic memories have not been irrefutably proven to exist in other animals. If they do exist in other animals, it is agreed that they are of little capacity when compared with the human faculty. Just as displacement (visual, aural and conceptual) was crucial in the hominid path to humanity, episodic memory was essential. Without it our forebears would never have out-planned and out-smarted the other species vying for food chain dominance.
Whereas semantic memories represent known facts about the world, episodic memories represent recollections of episodes experienced in the world. For example a semantic memory would be “I went to the beach and swam”, an episodic memory would be the vivid movie in your mind of that beach visit. This is the incredible point of departure between the mental human experience and the tools we possess for communicating that experience. Episodic memory is four dimensional. Using it humans can mentally travel back in time and reference vivid episodes from the past and even create fictional future episodes. This latter ability of humans to mentally travel forward in time is the key to our survival. We are able to extrapolate multiple outcomes of given scenarios and plan ahead. More importantly for our purposes, episodic memory creates within every human a keen awareness of time and with that an awareness of the transitory nature of life itself, mortality (Corballis, 2008).

The Lonely Ape

Music has proliferated despite speech because it is the most effective tool we human beings possess for dissolving the walls of isolation which our own mental faculties project. This isolation is exacerbated, particularly in the developed world, by the manifestation of mental design – social design. In this new social design, the individual has become the conduit of data, channelling the thoughts of a social consciousness at the expense interpersonal connections. It could be argued that the Orwellian nightmare has materialised. Thought is no longer generated by the individual but by the collective. Beyond a sense of isolation, this perpetuates a loss of self. Similarly as ancient man summoned the Gods with song, so does modern man summon the self with song. In a struggle to reclaim a sense of individual purpose modern man has engineered forums for social interaction such as common interest groups (sporting clubs, homing pigeon clubs etc.). A uniquely organic phenomenon is the birth of sub-culture groups – a culture within a culture. Often these subcultures use the application of a common aesthetic to musical grammar, physical appearance and mental disposition or prescribed behavioural patterns. This trend of music oriented subcultures is not a testament to the omnipotent musical syntax, it is however a testament to the deeply personal way in which music enriches the life of the Lonely Ape.

Language of the Soul

The development of Music Therapy (the process of using music to help or maintain a patients’ health) is testament to the depth of musical cognition in all persons. Sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease characteristically suffer from stiff, rigid motor movements and changes in mental activity (Wikipedia contributers, 2009). In extreme cases patients can become completely immobile, ‘transfixed’ even when taken by the hand and guided to another location. In his book, Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes the case of Rosalie B., a post-encephalitic patient who was completely immobile. She would sit for hours at a time with one finger lightly touching her spectacles:

“If one walked her down the hallway she would walk in a passive, wooden way, with her finger still stuck to her spectacles. But she was very musical, and loved to play the piano. As soon as she sat down on the piano bench, her stuck hand came down to the keyboard, and she would play with ease and fluency….Music liberated her from her Parkinsonism for a time – and not only playing music, but imagining it. Rosalie knew all of Chopin by heart, and we had only to say “Opus 49” to see her whole body, posture, and expression change, her Parkinsonism vanishing as the F-minor Fantasie played itself in her mind. Her EEG, too, would become normal at such times.”

Music is the most penetrating medium humans possess. As infants we can hear our mothers’ heart beat (not to mention sound vibrations of our mothers’ environment) from 30 weeks of age. Perhaps this is why music is so important in the treatment of mental disease. Somewhere deep in the recess of their minds, those suffering patients have not forgotten that language of nature, a language as old as the universe, a language which shaped the very minds which study it, and a language, which in the age of the palm sized super computer, remains our most reliable conduit of the human soul.



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Wikipedia contributors 2009, Pitch (music), accessed 02/05/2009 2009, from <>

Jacket Town: Jimmy Haslip's Bass Part

Jacket Town: Jimmy Haslip's Bass Part

Click Here For The Transcription

For over 25 years the Yellowjackets have cultivated a sound and niche all their own. This sound is a synthesis of their beautiful compositions and incredible musicianship. So what IS the Yellowjackets ‘sound’. The first thing that comes to mind for me is their clever use of timbres and attention to detail in both dynamics and production. Many contemporary electric jazz albums lack subtlety in these departments and focus too acutely on chops and complexity. Yellowjackets recordings however, tend to focus on nuance and narrative – the chops and complexity almost happen incidentally.

When the Yellowjackets come to town my man Jimmy Haslip comes to town. Jimmy is THE MOST VERSATILE BASSIST. Period. Have you ever heard Jimmy Barnes version of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’? Well I have it on good authority that that is Jimmy Haslip on the bass track. And it wouldn’t surprise me. Did you know that he was touring with Al Jarreau in his early twenties? This guy is one of the few phenomenal soloists who gets booked because he’s such an incredible groove player. Listen to his work with the Michael Bolton group. I mean there are many session players who form smooth jazz groups and like to think of them selves as jazzers. And many jazz players who form ‘funk-jazz’ projects and explore that world. But Jimmy Haslip is one of the very few people who is the real deal. A pioneer on his instrument, a master of it’s melodic possibilities and a disciple of it’s rhythmic roots.

The Transcription.

I want to take a moment to walk you through this transcription because there are some gems online casino in there. Let’s talk about the groove. The first thing you’ll notice is that this piece is in 5/4. Now check out the bass line at bar 19. This groove essentially follows the common 3 2 grouping of most 5/4 grooves (such as ‘Take 5’ and ‘Mission Impossible’) but by using one simple anticipation on beat ‘3 &’ this groove flows much more than those feels. Ie. instead of 1 2&3 4 5 this groove is built from 1 2& 3& 4 5.

Now let’s examine the melody. Jimmy improvises for 8 bars at the top of the piece before playing the A section melody. Have a look at his phrasing from bar 1 thru 8. His first three phrases begin on three different beats (5, 2 and 1). This is something worth taking notice of. In his solo later in the piece he tends to avoid phrasing from beat 1 and especially 3. In this way he creates beautiful ‘cross bar’ phrases which belie the relatively difficult nature of improvising in 5. The second thing that becomes obvious is his use of pentatonics and diatonic scale shapes. There is no real dissonance in his note choice and no exotic scales. By using such simple lines I believe he leaves more room for developing memorable shapes and motific development. This is part of the Jimmy Haslip ‘sound’. When he steps out side of the key centre it’s usually still using pentatonic shapes but simply moving them outside the key. To hear him do this check out his solo on ‘Sea Folk’ from the ‘25’ live album.

Have a look at bar 42. I love what he does here. In this phrase he is using C Mixolydian as his tonal centre. First he plays a D minor arpeggio then descends the scale but adds one chromatic passing tone (B natural) so that his next diatonic arpeggio (Bb major # 11) begins on a strong beat. Now look at bars 47 and 48. On beat 5 of bar 47 he plays an 8 note phrase that crosses into bar 48 – he then repeats that same shape a 4th down on beats 2 and 3 of bar 48. The next cool thing to check out is a device which Jaco used on ‘Port of Entry’ about 30 years ago. Look at the phrase in bar 52. This is a common device where by you take an odd group of notes (eg 5 or 7) and play melodic phrases in sixteenth notes. What you end up with is a pattern which oscillates across the pulse. What Jimmy has done here is change the pace a bit by using an 8th note in the first group but the idea is the same.

Take the time to explore the harmony yourself. Peace.