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The Sorcerer – A Bass Transcription by Alex Wilkerson

The Sorcerer – A Bass Transcription by Alex Wilkerson… This transcription comes from a Herbie Hancock composition entitled “The Sorcerer”.  It can be found on Herbie’s album: This Is Jazz, but is a recording from the 1981 V.S.O.P. performance in Tokyo.  On the track are Herbie Hancock on keys, Ron Carter on Bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.  “The Sorcerer” is a 16 bar, A B form.  During this analysis, I will be using spelled out numbers for beats in a measure (beat one, two, three) and actual numbers for chord tones (3rd, 5th) for added clarity when discussing analysis.

Download The Sorcerer Bass Transcription Here

This transcription is a great lesson about the importance of learning tunes by ear.  If one were to try to learn this song from the chart without first analyzing the recording, the actual changes would be lost and the song’s intention missed.

Before reading this transcription, it’s important to note that the chord symbols used on the transcription are from the Real Book and are clearly NOT the changes Ron was thinking of while walking.  This is the real lesson for this transcription.

Take a minute to play through the transcription, ignoring the chord symbols, and determine what chords you might have guessed comprise this composition.  I suggest writing down your changes based on the walking line, then listening to the recording to compare to your findings.  Now find out how these changes compare with the Real Book changes.  They should NOT be the same.

Let’s take a look at what’s happening.  At first glance, the changes might be a little overwhelming, but there are a couple clues that can direct you to more accurate understanding.

The first clue, using the bass line for comparison, are the slash chords.  The more frequent appearance of slash chords in many cases is an indication that you are looking at piano or guitar voicings, and may not be looking at the structural harmony.  The slash chords here are not indication of a pedal (static bass motion under changing harmony).  This is clear because Ron does not play any type of pedal.  This is further supported by the fact that this song was written by a keyboard player.  Keyboard players can tend to use a lot of slash chords to specify the exact voicings they intended.  Keyboardists tend to think more in terms of slash chords than other instruments.

Let’s analyze the third and fourth bars.  According to the chord symbols, there is a change in harmony that keeps the same bass note.  Now look at the walking line.  The first measure emphasizes the root and 5th note of E, with the A#’s acting as chromatic lead-in tones to the 5th tone of E.  This happens again on beat four leading into the 5 on the next down beat.  Ignore the chord symbols momentarily.  Beat two of measure four returns to the root, followed by b3, and b7.  Does it look like the chord changed?  Obviously, Ron Carter knew this song well, and was not confused about the harmony.  Furthermore, experience jazz players of all instruments know that the bass player is the last word in what harmony is happening.  Other instruments can imply harmony all they want, but in general, if it isn’t supported by the bass player, then those implications can’t be taken as the structure/foundation of the tune.

Let’s look again at measure four.  What are the chord tones for Fmaj7(b5)?  F, A, Cb (aka B), and E.  What notes are present in measure four?  B, E, G, and D.  Now it will take a little experience to tell which points are the strong beats.  As mentioned in other transcriptions, beats one and three hold more weight, or emphasis with the ear than beats two or four.  This means that the notes on beats one and three typically define the harmony much stronger than on two and four.  There are exceptions, but none are the case here.  The strong beats from measure four not only emphasize E minor, but all the other beats do as well.  The “new” root according to the chord symbol (F) doesn’t even appear in the measure.  The ear has been temporarily conditioned to E minor from bar three, and would need considerable more help to hear a new chord with the same bass note (E).  Looking at the bass line from bars three and four makes it clear that harmony has NOT changed.  It’s an E minor chord, two bars long.  Keep in mind that Ron Carter has been playing jazz a long time, this is Herbie’s tune, and Ron could easily outline more of an Fmaj7(b5) if he or Herbie had wanted.  Obviously Ron thinks it’s important not to, with no objection from Herbie (the composer).  Which leads to the final conclusion that the chord symbols listed in the real book are either piano voicings, or are from a completely different version of the tune.  In either case, they should NOT be considered the foundational harmony for this tune.

Now here’s the huge lesson.  Real Book, and iRealB changes are written by average people, NOT by the song’s composer.  What does this mean?  It means there are a ton of errors.  In this case, maybe the person writing the chart was a piano player and wanted to notate the piano voicings instead of making a lead sheet for a band.  Maybe the person doesn’t know the difference.  Or maybe this person transcribed one special performance of this tune and took it as the foundation for the harmony.  In any case, the chart has become misleading, and clearly does NOT indicate the foundational harmony of the tune.  Remember, Ron Carter is playing this tune with Herbie just a few feet away from him.  It’s Herbie’s tune, so obviously, the changes Ron is playing are true to what Herbie had in mind for the foundational harmony of the song.  A good guitar or piano player should embellish the harmony with ornamentation and color, but those embellishments should not be taken as a literal change in the song’s foundational harmony.

So, with a little experience, one could look over this chart before playing or hearing it and upon seeing the F major over E, would raise some internal question marks.  Again, the huge lesson here is that the chart is not the standard.  It’s a guess written by a imperfect human being.  The standard is the recording done by the song’s composer.  This HAS to be made priority over the chart or you will learn mistakes and stand the risk of looking foolish.  If I may be so bold, neglecting this priority proves that one either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about jazz.  It doesn’t take long in studying jazz to find what the “jazz giants” think of chord charts.  Not to mention that the history and tradition of jazz is to get away from lead sheets and learn tunes by ear.  But this is a subject for a whole other article.  For now, just take this writer’s advice that memorizing a tune by ear from the original recording, then comparing what you’ve learned to other recordings is always better for you than learning from ink.  Ask any good jazz player.

Now that we know the chord symbols from the Real Book (which I used in this transcription to prove a point) are suspect, let’s look at measures one and two.  Ignoring the chord symbols, what does the bass line suggest?  I’m seeing a Db7sus.  Is this a one time thing, or does this continue every instance at this part of the song.  Look at measures 17-18, 33-34, and 49-50.  The same occurs at every instance.

Keep in mind that this is the first four choruses of the song.  Here, harmony is outlined the clearest since the chords are being presented for the first time.  After the harmony is clearly provided and allowed to “soak” into the ears of the audience, changes, implications, and substitutions can later be added and will be heard in the context already provided.  This isn’t Autumn Leaves, and isn’t a widely known tune in terms of changes.  The average audience won’t already know the changes by ear, and will therefore need to be clearly “told” the harmony when the song starts.

The exact same situation from bars 1-2 happens in bars 5-6.  The chord symbols say one thing, but the bass spells out two measures on Db7sus.  This continues throughout the transcription for this part of the song.  Take a look at measures 7-8.  What’s happening here?  I’ll let you decide.  Remember to double check your findings with later instances where this section of the form reappears.  You can probably guess the answer.

The last thing I want to mention is how many times Ron Carter plays the exact same walking idea each time a certain chord appears.  This repetition happens frequently and continues if you listen to the rest of the recording.  What does this teach us?  That the most important part of playing bass in jazz is keeping good time feel, then defining the harmony.  Everything else is secondary.  If a tune has unusual changes, or is a bit too fast for you, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple.  Do whatever it takes to make sure your time feel is good, and the harmony clear.  This is always the priority.  This particular recording happens later in Ron Carter’s career.  It isn’t a recording of when he first started playing bass.  At times, he still uses simple repetitive lines, and is obviously doing Okay for himself.  Hopefully, this will relieve some pressure/shame in situations where you find you need to keep it simple.  There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple, especially over unusual harmony.  You may find that some players actually prefer this from a bass player because it provides room to embellish and/or stretch out, just like Herbie can be heard doing in this recording.

To recap the lessons for this transcription: 1,expect written chords to be wrong, no matter which book they came from, 2, harmony learned from recordings is the best and most accurate way to learn tunes, and 3, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple while walking.  Solid time feel and harmony come first.

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