Architecture of a Single Note

Over the time of playing I’ve fallen in love with manipulating the shape of notes. Aspiring musicians are often impressed with the speed and athleticism of flash playing but that’s never really moved me. Sure, I dig the sheer joy in the playing of Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker and others but it’s shaping notes that fascinates me.

Each note has it’s own architecture. There is the attack, the decay, the placement in relation to the beat, the tone, the timbre, whether there is vibrato – the type/width/rhythmic placement of the vibrato, the relationship of the cut-off of the note to other instruments and sounds etc.

As a bassist I eventually realised that controlling the architecture of each note was what made a bassline come alive. I was wondering, why do the same guys get hired to play often pretty basic lines that anyone could ‘play’. It’s because of the way they play those lines. Anyone could pick up a bass and play a simple root five after an hour or so; but to get it to sound just so is a work of art. That’s why Chuck Rainey, Leland Sklar and others are the greats. Listen to Paul Chambers. The melodic content of his walking lines is often fairly simple but the phrasing and swing of his playing are inimitable.

I suppose I really developed my love for shaping notes when I started playing fretless bass about 20 years ago. There are really so many more options in how to play each note without frets. I found myself slowing down and playing one note where before I might have played five. I eventually came to realise that it is much, much harder to play a simple foot five on the bass and make it sound great than it is to play ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ on the bass.

And the musicians I’d always admired had unique approaches to phrasing and shaping notes: Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, BB King, Bill Frisell, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell. . .

And they didn’t sound like anyone else – but that’s another story.

5 thoughts on “Architecture of a Single Note

  1. I think it all adds up to EXPRESSION. After all, music IS a language and we don’t speak in monotones; changes in tone (inflection), punctuation & volume are HOW we get our point across with the physical tools we have at our disposal.

  2. John Patitucci in Bassplayer:
    “When we play music we have to be in the moment. Even at the highest levels that’s what separates the men from the boys – those who are listening to everyone else in the ensemble and are not just focussing on what they are going to play. That’s where Wayne (Shorter) is king. He strives for group interaction and improvisation, or composing in the moment, as he calls it. We listen and leave space, and try to find new ideas instead of resorting to licks. With Wayne, it goes even beyond notes; ultimately it’s about sound and time feel. You can have all the chops and harmonic knowledge, but if you don’t have great sound and a great time feel, you won’t have the communicative facility to reach people.

    As told to Jonathan Herrera (@jon_herrera) Bassplayer Magazine October 2009 (@bassplayernow)

    John has really matured as a player. When I first heard him in the 80s I heard him as busy and chops fuelled but his current playing in Wayne Shorter’s band is exquisite and listening back to some of his work with Chick Corea there is some great music happening there.

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