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All About That Bass, But Give The Drummer Some

Aug 28, 2015
Originally published on August 28, 2015 6:31 pm

Here's a duo that's at the foundation of music itself, but which isn't always noticed: the musical interplay between the bass and the drum.

"You know, in any sort of music, the bass and drums should work as one instrument," Christian McBride says. "It determines whether it's funk or jazz or country or rock 'n' roll. It all depends on what rhythms are coming from the bass and the drums that make a particular music what it is."

McBride, a celebrated bassist and host of NPR's Jazz Night In America, knows a little something about how this works. He helped break down the dynamic during his latest chat with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish.

First up: a James Brown tune. Specifically, the hookup between bassist Bootsy Collins and drummer John "Jabo" Starks in "Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothing."

At the time of the recording, Collins was an 18-year-old hotshot with all the latest pedal tricks and effects in his bag. Starks came from a more traditional blues background.

"So it was a really great example of an old-schooler kind of having to confront the new school, and a new-schooler having to blend with the older style," McBride says. "And look what happened."

So what does McBride look for in a drummer? He says he looks for drummers who are good listeners, who respond well to the rest of the band — sort of like a basketball point guard who inadvertently controls a game.

"I love a drummer who is sensitive and lets the person who's soloing navigate where the song is going," he says.

The right drummer, especially in a modern jazz context, can shape the feel of a performance to be more "flexible" or "elastic." McBride is quick to explain that this isn't the same thing as keeping time poorly.

"But I think people can tell," he says. "They may not be able to express it in musicians' terms, but they know something's not right because their toe is not tapping. Instead, their eyebrows are raised. 'Oh, I guess this is that part of jazz that I'm supposed to understand, but don't, so therefore I'm going to say I like it so I'm cool.' "

He pulled out an example of a bass-drums hookup that feels "right in the middle": bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes, in Cannonball Adderley's version of "Straight No Chaser" (from the In San Francisco album).

"Nobody's rushing, nobody's dragging — the time's not particularly flexible," McBride says. "It's just right in the pocket ... Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, every record they made with Cannonball Adderley, they sound like they're having fun. They sound like they're enjoying themselves. They sound like they're literally dancing."

That sense of deep groove is important to McBride. Growing up in Philadelphia around funk, soul and R&B, he says he's "actually a funk bassist that plays jazz."

"So I tend to play — even subconsciously, even when I'm playing jazz, even when I'm playing the most elastic or esoteric sort of music, I can somehow still feel that groove real subtle underneath," he says. "It's just my DNA — I can't help it."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You know how the saying goes. It takes two to tango. Well, today we'll explore another musical duo that often goes unnoticed - the musical interplay between the bass and the drum. And who better to break down this dynamic for us then bassist Christian McBride, host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Welcome back, Christian.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: All right, so before we start dissecting some examples, talk about, like, these two instruments in relation to each other, especially in jazz.

MCBRIDE: Well, you know in any sort of music, the bass and drum should work as one instrument because it determines whether it's funk or jazz or country or rock 'n roll. It all depends on what rhythms are coming from the base and the drums that make a particular music what it is.

CORNISH: Now you brought a song with us to help us understand how this works. And it's not necessarily jazz, but it is amazing (laughter). It's James Brown's "Talking Loud And Saying Nothing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING LOUD AND SAYING NOTHING")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Just saying nothing. Just saying nothing. You can't tell me how to run my life down. You can't tell me how to keep my business sound.

MCBRIDE: If your head is not moving right now, you got a problem

CORNISH: I was going to say, I'm already dancing (laughter).

MCBRIDE: The bass and drums of the musicians on this track are the great Bootsy Collins on bass and John "Jabo" Starks on drums. Jabo Starks was what you would call, like, a traditional blues drummer. And Bootsy Collins, who, at the time, was only 18 years old - he was coming from Jimi Hendrix. You know, he was sort of a new-schooler. And so they had these stylistic rubs, if you will.

So if you listen to Jabo's style of playing, he almost sounds like a jazz drummer because he almost has, like, a swinging high hat feel going, you know, instead of, like (imitating drumming) - like, straight like that like almost every funk drummer in the world plays. He always plays, like, a almost like a jazz blues kind of (imitating drumming), while Bootsy was coming from that new-school sound, you know? He used to like put distortion on his bass. He used to like to play these very virtuosic and busy bass lines. So it was a really great example of an old-schooler kind of having to confront the new-schooler and a new-schooler having to play with an older style. And look what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING LOUD AND SAYING NOTHING")

BROWN: (Singing) I gotta - I want ya. I musta, I gotta...

CORNISH: All right, so you just talked about this special relationship. And of course, you're a jazz bassist, so what do you actually look for in a drummer specifically?

MCBRIDE: Well, I'm actually a funk bassist that plays jazz.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBRIDE: What I look for in a drummer? I mean, I know it sounds way too simplistic, but I like a drummer that listens well. Some instrumentalists - particularly drummers - will kind of take it upon themselves to kind of navigate the situation at all times.

CORNISH: Is it like a team with a point guard?

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: Like, can they inadvertently kind of take over the game?

MCBRIDE: That's right. That's absolutely right. So I love a drummer who is sensitive and let the person who's soloing navigate where the song is going. And that's jazz drumming. You know, I know in rock and pop drumming, it's a completely different mindset. You want a drummer who's going to play very good time. If somebody says one, two - a one, two, three, four - in pop drumming, you have to keep that same tempo going the whole time, where in jazz, if it slows down a little bit, if it speeds up a little bit - at least this is what happened in the '60s with modern jazz; the elastic time, we'll call it - it wasn't so much of a bad thing. The theory was that, well, music breathes.

CORNISH: But then, you know, thinking about what you're saying here, what happens if that dynamic is a no-go, right? It's not elastic. It's just off. Can the average listener like me pick up on that when things go wrong?

MCBRIDE: That's a very good question because I've played with some drummers where the time was just not happening, and you can sort of pull your jazz card and say, oh, well, my time was flexible.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Is that what the jazz card is?

MCBRIDE: It is. You know, there's no such thing as a mistake, you know? But I think people can tell. They might not be able to express it in musicians terms, but they know something's not right because their toe is not tapping. Instead, their eyebrows are raised. Oh, I guess this is that part of jazz that I'm supposed to understand but don't, so therefore I'm going to say I like it so I'm cool.

CORNISH: Oh, that is so true.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I believe that, yeah. That can be really distancing, I would think.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: All right. You did bring us one more example, a successful example. This is the Cannonball Adderley Quintets' "Straight No Chaser," and it's from the "Live In San Francisco" album.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY QUINTETS' SONG, "STRAIGHT NO CHASER")

CORNISH: The artist here we're going to talk about - Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. Tell us more about them.

MCBRIDE: Yes. Well, if you listen to these two, this is a great example of two cats just playing right in the middle.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY QUINTETS' SONG, "STRAIGHT NO CHASER")

MCBRIDE: Nobody's rushing. Nobody's dragging. Time's not particularly flexible. It's just right in the pocket - almost sounds like a compact big-band, if you will. Sam Jones and Louis Hayes - every record they made with Cannonball Adderley, they sound like they're having fun. They sound like they're enjoying themselves. They sound like they're literally dancing

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNONBALL ADDERLEY QUINTETS' SONG, "STRAIGHT NO CHASER")

CORNISH: One thing I noticed earlier is you - when I called you a jazz bassist, you said you were a funk bassist who plays jazz.

MCBRIDE: Yes.

CORNISH: And I feel like all the times we've talked to you, I've never asked you about you and your own style. This seems like the right opportunity (laughter). So why do you think that it is? Why do you consider yourself a funk bassist?

MCBRIDE: Well, growing up in Philly, in my generation, funk and soul music - that's the first music that I heard. Everything that I love comes out of that, and so I tend to play - even subconsciously, even when I'm playing jazz, even when I'm playing the most elastic or esoteric sort of music - I can somehow still feel that groove real subtle underneath. It's just my DNA. I can't help it, you know?

So I think most people I grew up with in Philadelphia - musicians who knew me in high school - I think they're probably surprised that I became a jazz bassist because, I mean, I was playing just as much soul and R&B and funk in high school. But the power and groove of soul music - that's always going to fuel me forever.

CORNISH: Well, in the end, it worked out, so...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: All those folks from high school can settle down.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, right.

CORNISH: The jazz part worked out.

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Christian McBride - he's the host of NPR's Jazz Night in America. Thank you so much for talking with us.

MCBRIDE: It's always a pleasure to talk with you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.