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James Jamerson: What’s Happening Brother by Alex Wilkerson

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Meet Alex Wilkerson

Click on link at the bottom of this page to download the transcription

This transcription is an amazing piece from one of the world’s greatest bass players: James Jamerson. “What’s Happening Brother” comes from Marvin Gaye’s epic album: What’s Going On. This album is an absolute must for musicians. There are so many great songs, performances and arrangements…but I digress. Let’s take some time to talk about Jamerson’s style, his licks, and some of his arranging techniques.

One thing you might notice on first glance of this transcription (besides having a lot of black on the page) is that there aren’t many measures throughout the song that are identical. Even when a theme is repeated, the rhythm is often slightly altered in some way. This is a great way to keep interest in the song. You’ll also notice that instead of playing completely different lines for every measure, he uses a lot of themes throughout the song. This is one reason why he was able to apply so much motion and variation without stepping all over the singer (as if that was possible with Marvin Gaye). Check out the first 12 measures. The theme here is quite clear despite the variations applied. Another theme appears at measure 17-18, and reappears in measures 25-26. Both sections B and B2 are very similar in theme, as are sections C and D. You’ll notice that the first four measures of the B sections contain almost identically repeating measures. The theme of section C however is not as exactly duplicated. Take a moment to look at the rhythms of the first two beats of every measure in section C. Even though the notes change, the rhythmic theme continues through the entire section. Jamerson most likely improvised this bass line but it’s important to note that the themes here are purposeful and not haphazard. His use of themes is not an accident and was a crucial part in helping the audience relate to the song and to keep the song cohesive. Whether you have or haven’t already, pay some attention to your own use of themes in improvised bass lines. It’s also a great idea to take Jamerson’s approach and subtly alter a repetitive bass line.

Another topic worth mentioning about Jamerson comes from the first 12 bars of the song. Play or listen to these measures once. It’s a really amazing line, but one interesting point is that they are comprised of simple chord tones. You’ll find that most of these measures only contain the triad of the chord. Sometimes a seventh sneaks in but the content is 95 percent triadic. This fact is really impressive and demonstrates the importance of rhythms in a bass line. Jamerson didn’t need fancy passing tones, reharms or substitutions to make an impressive bass line. He could take a simple triad and make it more hip than most bass players can to this day. The lesson here for us is that using more notes from the scale is not always better or needed. Jamerson only used essentially three notes but made them sound incredible. Consider this in your bass lines, especially when introducing a song.

Now let’s take a look at some of Jamerson’s licks. Check out the lick that occurs on beat four of measures four, eight, and twelve. This is a great and easy lick to make your own and will work on any minor seventh chord and also on certain dominants. For the next lick, direct your attention to beat four of measures 22, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, and 64. I would analyze this lick as the fifth and third of the chord followed by the leading tone on the “and of four”, which to my ears briefly hints on the dominant sound and points to the resolution on beat one. Whatever way you look at it, this lick will give your lines great motion and keep the energy up when you have to spend time on a stagnant chord. Lastly, check out measure 23. Recognize this lick? It’s really close to the opening bass line of “What’s Going On”, which this song strongly resembles. This is really encouraging to us as bass players because as great as Jamerson was, he used licks. This implies that he didn’t just come straight out of the womb improvising spectacular bass lines, but rather had to work at it over time. We can do the same. We can take licks like the kind he’s given us, incorporate them into our playing and eventually be capable of some of the things we love Jamerson for. Don’t get me wrong Jamerson fans (of which I am top of the list), there will never be another Jamerson, and the fact that he helped invent the electric bass can never be duplicated, but his lines and concepts are so good that one would be a fool not to learn from him.

Now let’s talk about some of his concepts. We already mentioned that one great Jamerson trait is his use of syncopations without getting in the way of the groove or main vocals. This is a lot easier said than done however. Granted, one small reason he got away with being so busy is because of his flat-wound strings, but this reason is far overshadowed by the fact that his phrasing was so masterful. Check out measures 28, 56 and 58. These rhythms are highly sophisticated and are great lines to have in your bag of tricks. In the midst of all this syncopation is an interesting phenomenon. Take a look at the first measure of every section (measures 1, 13, 29, 40, 51 and 61) and tell me what you notice. I’m seeing a whole lot of solid quarter notes on the down beat of one. Now look through the whole song and count how often this happens. The first 12 measures of the song have a lot of quarter notes but they are all tied through beat two. Now the fact that this is such a rare occurrence throughout the song, and the fact that most of these occurrences mark the beginning of a new section are no coincidence. Jamerson used this technique to create a sense of momentary resolution for the start of new sections and to clearly define their beginnings. Remember how many of the first 12 measures started with a really long note? All of them did. If you really took the time to analyze the beginning of each measure, you’ll notice that this trait (quarter notes on one, tied through beat two) ONLY occurs in the first 12 bars. This use of space is a great arrangement technique. We have all heard the loose rule that you should keep the top of the song simple and can later use more variation and fills. This is because the audience is potentially hearing the song for the first time and needs some “space” to get comfortable with the harmony, beat, and instrumentation of the song. Once they acclimate, you can then add more changes or variation to the song to keep your audience from getting bored. Too much “new” information at once can make a song hard to accept. If everyone is playing their busiest parts at the beginning of the song, the most likely result will be that you lose your listeners. On the other hand, if you start simple and build into the peaks of the song, you will keep your audience interested and able to relate to the music. Jamerson clearly had a purposeful intention to give listeners a breath at each of these points of change in the song and so should we with our own work.

The last concept I want to talk about is the use of variations in style. Take a quick look at how many sixteenth notes are in the song and find the places where there aren’t as many. You can clearly see that the lines at measures 33-36, and 44-47 are in contrast with the rest of the song. They contain less movement, less syncopation, and the effect gives the song variation. This is another excellent arranging technique. Jamerson could have played continuously thick sixteenth note syncopations for every measure of the song, but he didn’t. A good story can’t have cloned content reoccurring over and over again, and neither can a good song (which should also be a good story). Look for this concept in some of your favorite songs. Chances are you will see the same technique of making space in the song when new material is presented, applying variation later, and keeping sections of a song different from each other. The difference between sections could be the appearance of a new instrument, a new subtle melody or sound effect, or just more fills and busier lines from the musicians.

“What’s Happening Brother” is an amazing piece of music and has a lot of great tools and lessons for musicians of all experience levels. If this transcription gives you a thirst for more Jamerson material to study, you can check out the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown from Hal Leonard. It contains a lot of good transcriptions and insight. Jamerson really is one of the world’s greatest bass players and I hope you enjoyed what I consider to be one of his all time best performances.

Click on link below to download the transcription
What_s_Happenin_Brother_Jamerson_Line-dec09

Bass Videos

Interview With Bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes

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Interview With Bassist Erick Jesus Coomes

Bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes…

It is always great to meet a super busy bassist who simply exudes a love for music and his instrument. Erick “Jesus” Coomes fits this description exactly. Hailing from Southern California, “Jesus” co-founded and plays bass for Lettuce and has found his groove playing with numerous other musicians.

Join us as we hear of his musical journey, how he gets his sound, his ongoing projects, and his plans for the future.

Photo, Bob Forte

Visit Online

www.lettucefunk.com
IG @jesuscsuperstar
FB@jesuscoomes
FB @lettucefunk

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Working-Class Zeros: Episode #2 – Financial Elements of Working Musicians

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WORKING-CLASS ZEROS With Steve Rosati and Shawn Cav

Working-Class Zeros: Episode #2 – Financial Elements of Working Musicians

These stories from the front are with real-life, day-to-day musicians who deal with work life and gigging and how they make it work out. Each month, topics may include… the kind of gigs you get, the money, dealing with less-than-ideal rooms, as well as the gear you need to get the job done… and the list goes on from there.” – Steve the Bass Guy and Shawn Cav

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This Week’s Top 10 Basses on Instagram

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TOP 10 Basses of the week

Check out our top 10 favorite basses on Instagram this week…

Click to follow Bass Musician on Instagram @bassmusicianmag

FEATURED @foderaguitars @overwaterbasses @mgbassguitars @bqwbassguitar @marleaux_bassguitars @sugi_guitars @mikelullcustomguitars @ramabass.ok @chris_seldon_guitars @gullone.bajos

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Bass CDs

New Album: Jake Leckie, Planter of Seeds

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Planter of Seeds is bassist/composer Jake Leckie’s third release as a bandleader and explores what beauty can come tomorrow from the seeds we plant today. 

Bassist Jake Leckie and The Guide Trio Unveil New Album Planter of Seeds,
to be released on June 7, 2024

Planter of Seeds is bassist/composer Jake Leckie’s third release as a bandleader and explores what beauty can come tomorrow from the seeds we plant today. 

What are we putting in the ground? What are we building? What is the village we want to bring our children up in? At the core of the ensemble is The Guide Trio, his working band with guitarist Nadav Peled and drummer Beth Goodfellow, who played on Leckie’s second album, The Guide, a rootsy funky acoustic analog folk-jazz recording released on Ropeadope records in 2022. For Planter of Seeds, the ensemble is augmented by Cathlene Pineda (piano), Randal Fisher (tenor saxophone), and Darius Christian (trombone), who infuse freedom and soul into the already tightly established ensemble.

Eight original compositions were pristinely recorded live off the floor of Studio 3 at East West Studios in Hollywood CA, and mastered by A.T. Michael MacDonald. The cover art is by internationally acclaimed visual artist Wayne White. Whereas his previous work has been compared to Charles Mingus, and Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet with Charlie Haden, Leckie’s new collection sits comfortably between the funky odd time signatures of the Dave Holland Quintet and the modern folk-jazz of the Brian Blade Fellowship Band with a respectful nod towards the late 1950s classic recordings of Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis.

The title track, “Planter of Seeds,” is dedicated to a close family friend, who was originally from Trinidad, and whenever she visited family or friends at their homes, without anyone knowing, she would plant seeds she kept in her pocket in their gardens, so the next season beautiful flowers would pop up. It was a small altruistic anonymous act of kindness that brought just a little more beauty into the world. The rhythm is a tribute to Ahmad Jamal, who we also lost around the same time, and whose theme song Poinciana is about a tree from the Caribbean.

“Big Sur Jade” was written on a trip Leckie took with his wife to Big Sur, CA, and is a celebration of his family and community. This swinging 5/4 blues opens with an unaccompanied bass solo, and gives an opportunity for each of the musicians to share their improvisational voices. “Clear Skies” is a cathartic up-tempo release of collective creative energies in fiery improvisational freedom. “The Aquatic Uncle” features Randal Fisher’s saxophone and is named after an Italo Calvino short story which contemplates if one can embrace the new ways while being in tune with tradition. In ancient times, before a rudder, the Starboard side of the ship was where it was steered from with a steering oar. In this meditative quartet performance, the bass is like the steering oar of the ensemble: it can control the direction of the music, and when things begin to unravel or become unhinged, a simple pedal note keeps everything grounded.

The two trio tunes on the album are proof that the establishment of his consistent working band The Guide Trio has been a fruitful collaboration. “Santa Teresa”, a bouncy samba-blues in ? time, embodies the winding streets and stairways of the bohemian neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro it is named for. The swampy drum feel on “String Song” pays homage to Levon Helm of The Band, a group where you can’t always tell who wrote the song or who the bandleader is, proving that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Early jazz reflected egalitarianism in collective improvisation, and this group dynamic is an expression of that kind of inclusivity and democracy.

“The Daughters of the Moon” rounds out the album, putting book ends on the naturalist themes. This composition is named after magical surrealist Italo Calvino’s short story about consumerism, in which a mythical modern society that values only buying shiny new things throws away the moon like it is a piece of garbage and the daughters of the moon save it and resurrect it. It’s an eco-feminist take on how women are going to save the world. Pineda’s piano outro is a hauntingly beautiful lunar voyage, blinding us with love. Leckie dedicates this song to his daughter: “My hope is that my daughter becomes a daughter of the moon, helping to make the world a more beautiful and verdant place to live.”

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Bass CDs

Debut Album: Nate Sabat, Bass Fiddler

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Debut Album: Nate Sabat, Bass Fiddler

In a thrilling solo debut, bassist Nate Sabat combines instrumental virtuosity with a songwriter’s heart on Bass Fiddler

The upright bass and the human voice. Two essential musical instruments, one with roots in 15th century Europe, the other as old as humanity itself. 

On Bass Fiddler (Adhyâropa Records ÂR00057), the debut album from Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter and bass virtuoso Nate Sabat, the scope is narrowed down a bit. Drawing from the rich and thriving tradition of American folk music, Sabat delivers expertly crafted original songs and choice covers with the upright bass as his lone tool for accompaniment. 

The concept was born a decade ago when Sabat began studying with the legendary old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky at Berklee College of Music. “One of Bruce’s specialties is singing and playing fiddle at the same time. The second I heard it I was hooked,” recalls Sabat. “I thought, how can I do this on the bass?” From there, he was off to the races, arranging original and traditional material with Molsky as his guide. “Fast forward to 2020, and I — like so many other musicians — was thinking of how to best spend my time. I sat down with the goal of writing some new songs and arranging some new covers, and an entire record came out.” When the time came to make the album, it was evident that Molsky would be the ideal producer. Sabat asked him if he’d be interested, and luckily he was. “What an inspiration to work with an artist like Nate,” says Molsky. “Right at the beginning, he came to this project with a strong, personal and unique vision. Plus he had the guts to try for a complete and compelling cycle of music with nothing but a bass and a voice. You’ll hear right away that it’s engaging, sometimes serious, sometimes fun, and beautifully thought out from top to bottom.” 

While this record is, at its core, a folk music album, Sabat uses the term broadly. Some tracks lean more rock (‘In the Shade’), some more pop (‘White Marble’, ‘Rabid Thoughts’), some more jazz (‘Fade Away’), but the setting ties them all together. “There’s something inherently folksy about a musician singing songs with their instrument, no matter the influences behind the compositions themselves,” Sabat notes. To be sure, there are plenty of folk songs (‘Louise’ ‘Sometimes’, ‘Eli’) and fiddling (‘Year of the Ox’) to be had here — the folk music fan won’t go hungry. There’s a healthy dose of bluegrass too (‘Orphan Annie’, ‘Lonesome Night’), clean and simple, the way Mr. Bill Monroe intended. 

All in all, this album shines a light on an instrument that often goes overlooked in the folk music world, enveloping the listener in its myriad sounds, textures, and colors. “There’s nothing I love more than playing the upright bass,” exclaims Sabat. “My hope is that listeners take the time to sit with this album front to back — I want them to take in the full scope of the work. I have a feeling they’ll hear something they haven’t heard before.”

Available online at natesabat.bandcamp.com/album/walking-away

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