This month’s column is a bit of a departure from past entries. I’m going to describe a method I’ve successfully used to add tunes to my repertoire. As bass players, our primary functions are to supply rhythmic forward motion and to clearly define the root motion from chord to chord. So learning new songs poses a couple of challenges that other instrumentalists don’t have to reckon with:
1) Most of us play an accompaniment role most of the time, so we rarely get the opportunity to play melodies (after all, the saxophone player doesn’t want to stand idly by as we play the majority of the in- heads).
2) The bass is primarily a single line instrument, so it is not ideal for providing chordal accompaniment.
Here’s a method for learning tunes that addresses these difficulties, and won’t take you ten years to master. It’s not fast but it is thorough.
Pick a tune with a melody that you’re already familiar with or that moves slowly enough for you to be able to learn by ear. (All The Things You Are would be a much better choice than Donna Lee). DO NOT use sheet music or a fake book to begin with. Music is an aural art; you want to involve your ears as much as possible in this process. While reading is an excellent skill, it is not the best way to internalize material that you want to master as an accompanist and improvisor.
1) Learn the melody and form by playing along with a recording. Sing it, play it, whistle it in the shower, rinse and repeat until you’ve really committed it to memory. (It helps to pick a tune you like to begin with). Notice what sections repeat and where the bridge (if any) occurs. When you start getting sick of it, that’s how you know you’ve got it.
2) Go back to the recording and learn the roots of the chords, again by playing along with the track until you to get it. I suggest doing this in 4 or 8 bar chunks. Much of this may have sunk in subconsciously while you were learning the melody; now make it conscious.
3) SING the melody and play the roots of the chords simultaneously. This will help you cement the relationship between the top line (melody) and the root motion that it’s connected to. You don’t have to sound like Sinatra to do this – just sing as best you can.
4) If you are able to transcribe the harmonies, do it. The melody notes will point you in the right direction a lot of the time but you will have to go back to the recording to listen to what the pianist or guitarist is playing. If you can’t hear the chord qualities, now’s the time to break out an accurate fake book (Chuck Sher’s books are excellent).
5) Use a play-along track without the bass part and play everything you know: the melody, the roots, arpeggios, walking lines, solo lines. SING the melody to yourself whenever and however you play the tune – that’s the best way to keep your place in the form.
The idea is to depend on your ears, not your eyes, for as much of the process as possible. I guarantee that you will never forget a tune you learn with this technique.
To help you get started with this process I’m including a PlayJazzNow play-along track for Sonny Rollins’ classic tune Doxy.