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.