Bass – How Low Can You Go?

It has been a while since my last journal entry.  As usual life has been full of change, change and more change.  Some changes were small but there were certainly a few big life altering changes.  I won’t bore everyone with those details but I will provide an update on where I am with my pursuit of music.

The fire is still there.  Even when I was adjusting to fatherhood my mind was on music and what I wanted to accomplish.  The challenge was making the time.  What I came to realize is in many cases I was making excuses for not coming to my instrument.  There were plenty of opportunities to work on my craft and even a few opportunities to get out and play.  For one reason or another I found an excuse not to do it.  My son Henry Michael is coming into his own and definitely gives me moments where I can have a (somewhat) focused practice.  On top of that I have support at home to make time to play pretty consistently.  For some reason however – I didn’t.

Why have I been stuck?  I still don’t know the answer to that one.  Maybe I’m still recovering from the dark period.  Maybe I just needed a moment to catch my breath and look seriously at what I wanted to accomplish and why.  I will say working on anything when you’re in a bad place mentally (aka depressed) can be extremely counter-productive.  Music is no different.  I have always been extremely critical of my playing and when I’m in a bad mood it is much, much worse.  Every missed note, botched change and failed attempt at saying something on my horn was a direct negative hit to who I was as a person.  I wasn’t learning anything – I was simply reinforcing every negative thought that I had about myself.  Instead of approaching practice with a neutral attitude and accepting it as is – I used it as another reason to beat myself up even more.  Real talk.

Maybe that is why I avoided it (I just realized this as I’m writing)… I was tired and needed a break from those negative voices.  I need music to be fun again.  I still loved listening to it but playing was just not fun at all.  My teacher has been great with keeping me focused and working on the right things but he couldn’t stand there in the practice room and fight off the negative voices.  I needed to do something before it was too late.

The Answer (?)

Enter the electric bass.  When I first started playing trumpet everything was new.  Every blatty sound that came out of that bell was pure heaven.  Ok – that may be an exaggeration.  It wasn’t heaven for my ears but certainly for my spirit.  One thing about the trumpet is it was hard work from the beginning.  I know most things are exactly what we make them but my memory of starting out on trumpet was it’s a fun challenge.  I enjoyed the work but it wasn’t easy.  Fast forward to now – with my bad attitude it is hard AND it isn’t fun.  Not a good combination.

After talking to some friends I decided to fool around with the electric bass.  With it I hoped to find enjoyment in music again and maybe even heal my spirit in the process.  From a music theory standpoint I admired how bass players connected the changes in songs.  A well crafted bass line says so much about song form and I wanted my solos to have that type of quality.  I wanted to be able to solo over “There Will Never Be Another You” and have people recognize the tune without any accompaniment.  I hoped that the bass can translate that feel to my horn.

Well, the fun is back again but along with it – I am finding that I spend more time on the electric bass than on the trumpet.  I still go through my technical studies on the horn and have made an effort to keep up my chops but I will admit that a lot more of my time is spent learning the bass.  One of the great things about bass is the ability to practice in silence.  If the house is asleep I can still jam out into the wee hours of the morning before work or late at night before bed without a practice mute that makes things stuffy and completely disrupt my chops.

I have a new found respect for bass players and how important their role is in a band.  They dictate so much more than I ever realized.  I’ve always been a Beatles fan but I had no idea that Paul McCartney was such a killer bassist.  Playing the instrument also connected me to cats like Donald “Duck” Dunn and James Jamerson – and with that a reconnection with the music of my childhood (Motown and Staxx).  I had no idea how beautiful a bass could sound on a solo until I started checking out Jaco Pastorius (genius), Richard Bona, Jimmy Haslip and others.  I am fortunate to have friends who are bass players and they have been great with advice, listening advice and encouragement.  I also have a great teacher in Todd Johnson.

Bass is certainly not without it’s challenges.  My fingers are slow.  Like a snail crawling through peanut butter slow.  My hands are almost always sore every day.  It is incredibly challenging to maintain the groove of a tune while sliding all over the fretboard.  The difference however is my attitude.  Bass is new which in this case means it is fun.  This was the exact same mindset I had when I first put my trumpet to my lips and blasted out an awful 2nd space G.  As the vibrations of my bass rumble through my chest and body I feel it exorcising the evil demons (ego) that tell me I can’t play this music.

Is the bass that “other woman” threatening my main squeeze (trumpet)?  It is far too soon to say.  I have a ton of work to do before I can even think about taking the bass out of the basement.  More than that, I still feel like I have a lot to say on trumpet (or flugelhorn but that is a story for another post).  I will say that I am enjoying my reconnection with the joy to music and to be honest – that was what I wanted to find again.  If it leads to me becoming a better horn player – great.  If it leads to me becoming a bassist… well… that’s cool too.

If you never realized how important a bass line is to a song I offer this as proof.  James Jamerson’s bass line on “What’s Going On” is pure perfection.  Creative.  Grooving.  Dark Brilliance.  Combined with Marvin Gaye and the message of the song and you have magic.  Have you hugged a bass player today?

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