(originally printed in Bass Player Magazine 09/2018)
The Art Of Being No One
As a teacher and writer, I’ve always drawn my message from my life experiences, and as a long-time freelancer, my musical life was focused on meeting the requirements of a wide variety of situations. A typical month might find me playing in the pit orchestra for a show, a Texas honky tonk for Chicken-Shit Bingo, a fusion gig at a jazz club, a straight-ahead jazz gig at a lounge, backing singer-songwriters, a classic rock cover gig, a blues band at a dive bar, playing swing jazz for dancers—to name just a few possibilities. This varied musical life inspired me to write about technique, harmony, improvisation, performance protocol, and to design studies of various genres. But three years ago, my career pulled a 180-degree turn, and I found myself touring year-round with the Mavericks, a band with a catalog that spans a successful 30-year career, and musical influences as wide ranging as a typical month of my life as a freelancer. It’s been an amazing experience to play with this talented group of musicians, performing for large, appreciative audiences all around the world. The musical variety kept things fresh for me in the past, but this steady gig has provided musical experiences that would have never happened in my relatively non-committal freelance life.
I came from a place where bass solos are common occurrences. Bassists are considered equals as soloists, and they accompany others adding occasional bits of tasty stuff that makes you go “wow.” You know this world, Bass Player magazine has played a significant role in the development of this bass-centric culture. We lionize our heroes, admire their ever-increasing note-per-second rates, marvel at the complexity of their chromatic/diminished runs, and ooh-and-ahh over the latest Brazilian wunderkind’s YouTube clip of his two-hand tapped cover of Dirty Loops cover of a Justin Beiber tune. The bass has exploded as a vehicle for some of the most technically-inspired, complex expressions of music the world has ever seen—and it’s a beautiful thing. However, there is another realm of bass—the paradigm that existed before bass players became icons, before the instrument became a dominant voice in the music, and people began to play to get noticed. For every envelope-pushing God Of Bass, there are many more invisible, “normal” bass players supporting the music, staying in the pocket, and not sticking out in any way. When I relocated from the bass-centric universe to a planet where the bass never solos, adjustments had to be made—and they’ve helped me appreciate music in a totally new way.
In my new world, the lines I play are determined either by a previous recording, or what the song demands. Essentially, the bulk of my job involves playing major triads in quarter notes over the I and V chord, or playing Root-5-8 Latin patterns. My gig was once described to me by our lead singer as “the place bass player’s dreams come to die.” If you’re attached to the post-Stanley/Jaco paradigm, that’s an accurate description. But when relieved of the need to be clever, technical, or original—what do we have left? When your goal is to be as unobtrusive as possible, what do you strive for musically? My first impulse was to dig deeper into the rhythm to find the sweet spot for the groove. It is a continuously moving object, and you ride it much like you would ride a horse—guiding it, knowing full well that it has a life of its own. Taking the next step, my intention became to fill each note with what I call “life force”. This “stuff” of the universe surrounds us, and playing music is an excellent way to work with it. As a bass player in a song-driven, 9-piece band, my approach is to internalize the various parts being played, and lay down a thick layer of glue to hold them together—like a mosaic. How exactly does one do that you might ask? For me, it’s part physical understanding of the music, mental awareness, and listening deeply. By anchoring all the pieces, I’m able to centralize my position in the feel and more effectively control and react to what’s going on. From this location, I encapsulate everything that is played—every note I play is the entire band. Once merged with the music, I cease thinking about bass. No, I don’t need to invert that triad. No, I don’t need to go up to the higher octave now. No, I don’t need to do anything to make the bass line “interesting.” All I have to do is play what sounds right, and play it perfectly. When you give up the agenda of putting your personal stamp on everything you do, you begin to understand the Art of Being No One.
Like Game Of Throne’s Faceless Men, a bass player that is No One is invisible, yet fully present. Our training allows us to take on whatever form is needed, and we accomplish our task without fanfare. When we embody the music, we as bassists no longer need to be special, to stand out in the mix—we are the mix. Through the dismantling of my bass-centric ego, I have found a much greater connection to the music I play, and to the musicians I play with. Instead of facing the constantly shifting challenges of the freelance world, the repetition of playing with the same band has made space for a more direct connection to the energy source that all music comes from. While I may not be free to play any note I want, giving up my need for individuality has allowed me to become part of something larger—a musical ecosystem that brings joy to a lot of people. And the joy those people experience comes back as love—the best payment of all.
I’m not suggesting players stop pursuing the cutting edge of bassdom. No, don’t stop pushing the limits of the instrument, never quit exploring. Just know that there is a time and a place for all things, and that the bass break in “Car Wash” is not the time or place for that new chromatic riff you learned on YouTube. I’m not suggesting that playing less notes and being invisible is the “best” way, this is just what happened to me after migrating to a different planet. When I was oriented toward being a soloist, I found that I was never completely happy with my playing. We are taught that dissatisfaction motivates you to improve, but it also makes some people habitually depressed about their playing. As an improviser and soloist, I may never be completely satisfied with my playing. But giving up the need to be satisfied, the requirement for autonomy, and the desire to be unique, made it easier for me to make the the people I’m playing with happy—which sets up a chain reaction that dominoes back to me. As a formerly-jaded veteran of the freelance wars, I’ve come to appreciate the luxury of focusing on these simple things when I play: Connect with the band. Connect with the music. Connect with the audience. Some of you may go on to be artists that play bass, or band leader/composers with the instrument—there is more interest in that than ever before. But in the not-so-parallel universe where bass is just bass, you’ll need to learn the Art Of Being No One to thrive.