What People Want In Their Bass Player - Episode 2: Saxophonist Bob Reynolds

(Edit: You can read Episode 1 in this series, by Jake Hertzog, here)

First of all, the answer to what people want in their bass player is not "a nice rack" (either kind) or "fresh bullet holes". We are talking musically here, people, not anatomically. So enough with the jokes. Thats my department.

In Episode 2, we get the lowdown on bass players from saxophonist Bob Reynolds, fresh off touring with John Mayer. (Yea, that John Mayer) and doing some gigs in NYC with someone all us bass players should know, Janek Gwizdala.


Bob not only plays sax in Mayer's band, he also was part of the house band for the Bonnie Hunt talk show, is a Rico Reed endorsee, and has several of his own projects that play his award winning compositions. His 2006 album "Can't Wait For Perfect" was voted Best Debut in the Village Voice's jazz poll and he has won 4 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer awards. He does all kinds of side work/featured soloist stuff across all genres - Nellie McKay, Guy Sebastian, Jonah Smith Brian Blade, and Tom Harrell - as just a small sample of the range of situations he plays in. You can also hear him on Janek's latest album. He even has his own set of samples of well, himself, so you can have Bob at home if you use Reason or other electronic music tools. And then, in the massive amount of free time he has left over, he runs one of the best video lesson sites going on the net, not just for sax players but for anyone that wants to get their improv on from anywhere on earth with an internet connection. So he is a busy guy.

As you can imagine, a soloist like Bob gets to play with a lot of different people and in a lot of different styles of music, from jazz, to pop, to rock, to stuff that is impossible to put a label on like his electronica project. I can only imagine how many different bass players he has played with over the years...100? 500, 1000? A metric arse-load, for sure. I do know he has played with a very broad selection of bass players that are known experts in a lot of genres - Janek Gwizdala, Sean Hurley, Pino Palladino, Richard Bona - some seriously heavy cats I believe they are referred to. And so obviously when traveling in those musical circles, he is going to meet a lot of people that play at a very high level. My point is that I am willing to bet Bob's thoughts about "good bass playing" are shared by many others involved in music at the same level. So this is very likely what a lot of players, and especially soloists and singers think are the qualities that a bass player they want to play with should have.

Here is a gig Bob did with Mayer at a small, intimate, little out-of-the-way venue called THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL, you know for just for a couple of folks....

And when I say "a couple" I mean 20. THOUSAND.

And here is Bob grooving with a looper at the infamous 55 Bar in NYC.

And getting a solo on "Austin City Limits":

Whatever your thoughts are about Mayer (he tends to be polarizing and says some, uh, interesting things) that is a seriously sick band. Forget about it. Those guys can play. Get out of here.

And whatever you think about the music business, playing in a group at that level, the stadium show/national TV level, means you have your act together. There is no "hey man, I am just not feeling it tonight", or "Oh yea, I didn't get around to learning that tune, sorry, I was in the zone playing Call of Duty last night man!" allowed. You are on or gone.

So Bob has real experience at the very top of the music pyramid, on both the creative side with playing and composing and on the business of performing side. He is not talking to you as a guy imagining what you MIGHT need to be able to do in order to play on a TV show and do stadium shows for an entire tour. He does it.

If one were to have any aspirations to pursue music full-time as a bass playing human being, it would behoove one to read Bob's thoughts and really embrace them, because it is not very often you get the direct line to hear an honest and unfiltered opinion from someone who travels in the kind of musical circles Bob does. It is also a testament to Bob's character that he donated his time to answer this question (while he was traveling no less!!) when some random shmoe with a free blog who he doesn't even know emails him and asks for a freebie. That's class, right there.

So... what does Bob think a "good" bass player is?

I will let him tell you electronically below, I emphasized a few places that I thought were particularly interesting.

Print this one out and put it somewhere you can read it. Often. It's specific, its detailed and it is very honest.

Mr. Reynolds, your thoughts?
Q: What do I look for in a bass player?

A: A warm tone, solid time, a great hook-up with the drummer, and, if they are
to be a soloist, a sense of form and "the big picture" when soloing.

Truthfully, however, my impression of any bass player (or any rhythm section player) will be a direct result of how I feel about myself when playing with them. I will reflect on my level of comfort and quality of my performance to judge whether I choose to play with that person again.

We are all selfish. We all want to sound good. A great bass player makes it
easy to sound my best.
What do I mean by level of comfort? Was the bassist prepared? Did he know the music cold or was I constantly anxious he would forget to skip the 2nd ending on the repeat? Was his time solid? Was his sound good or was it bugging me all night? What do I mean by quality of my performance? Was the bassist over-playing during my solos, causing me to fight for my own space, or was he supportive? Did his playing/sound inspire fresh ideas on my part or was I playing on autopilot because I was mentally battling for ground?

With my students I stress the 5 T's. I believe if you focus on these 5
elements the rest largely takes care of itself:
  1. Tone - it's the first thing a listener hears
  2. Time - it determines a listener's comfort level
  3. Technique - not how fast or how many notes but quality of execution
  4. Triads - the bread and butter of harmony
  5. Tunes - play songs, not licks (*same for solos: should be mini songs)
TONE ­ If I am turned off by your tone you've lost me for good. This goes for instrumentalists and vocalists. If your tone is not inviting I hope you have something amazing up your sleeve to keep me listening. (And it better not be slapping!) Your tone should be like a warm blanket that I want to be wrapped up in.
TIME ­ Are you rushing? (I hope not) Is your pocket solid? If you've got great time and a solid hook-up with the drummer then everything should just "pop" and it will feel comfortable to play over. If you're confident I'll be comfortable.
TECHNIQUE ­ Don't misinterpret this. It's not about quantity of notes it's about quality of note choice and note placement. I measure technique as the quality of execution, the distance between notes, and the placement of phrases. This is not what you do but how well you do what you do.
TRIADS ­ As my good friend Sean Hurley (bassist with John Mayer and in-demand studio player) likes to say, "I play the roots". After that, triads should come before substitutions and hot-licks. You'd be surprised how amazing it can sound when the bass player just plays roots, long round notes, and holds it down.
TUNES ­ Know lots of them and know them really well. If you are in a situation where you don't know one, know it next time and I don't mean having a fake-book app.
*As an extension, I think "tunes" applies to soloing. Your solos should be mini-songs rather than pyrotechnic adventures. Did I mention the no-slapping policy? ;)
Certainly there are different styles of bass players and what might be appropriate in one setting may be undesirable in another. Are you playing a 5-string and trying out your Jaco licks on a straight-up pop gig? Chances are you won't be on that gig very long.
Take Janek Gwizdala and Sean Hurley, two electric bassists with styles different as night and day, for instance. They both are incredible at what they do and I therefore love playing with both of them. I know the music will have a different slant depending on which guy is holding it down. I don't expect one to sound like the other.
Listen to the harmonic palette Janek creates behind my solo on "What She Didn't Say" from my Live in New York album. It's incredibly creative and inspiring for me as a soloist.
Conversely, listen to Sean hold it down on this solo I take with David Ryan Harris's band. As I get busier, he gets simpler, he's not competing with me or matching me note for note. He's locking it in with JJ (the drummer), leaving me an incredible launch pad to solo from.
And speaking of holding it down: both Janek and Sean are great unofficial M.D.'s (musical directors). I can always trust they will guide the rest of the rhythm section behind me and offer great arrangement suggestions in rehearsals.
For acoustic players, I like someone who has what I once heard referred to as "hump". It's a bounce, or a lilt to your playing that makes the music dance. I like the Ray Brown, Christian McBride, Reuben Rogers style. A guy like Reuben is a vibe-generator: he emits good vibes both personally and musically and makes everyone feel and sound better.
Reuben, he once told a friend of mine, who wanted advice on how to land more gigs, that his secret is "Not that I'm the greatest bass player out there, but I know how to make other people sound good." Take note.
I think what you'll find about most A-list bass players is that they make the bands/projects they're a part of sound great. We all should strive for this quality no matter what instrument we play.
One last thing (and perhaps the most important): be a good person. All the outstanding playing abilities in the world are worthless if I'm uncomfortable when you're in the room.
Oh yea.

Thats some very salient and honest advice right there. Like I said, print this one out, and the next time you wonder what other people in the band are thinking about your playing while they solo - read this.

And, I have to say, if you are a doubler and play another instrument like any kind of sax or even keyboards, you should take advantage of the times we live in by signing up for some improv lessons on Bob's site. Because even though Bob does play a saxophone, the stuff on his site is about music, no matter what instrument you play. Even if you are a bassist that just wants to get a non-bass players perspective on playing and learn some things that sax players have been using for decades, sign up. We have some unique opportunities living when we do, as far as communication and exchange of information goes, and so being able to get access to people actually out there doing it in a one-on-one situation is pretty incredible.

http://bobreynoldsmusic.com - Bob's main site.
http://lessons.bobreynoldsmusic.com - Online Video Lessons.
http://www.youtube.com/user/bobreynolds - Bob on You Tube.
http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/bob-reynolds/id159603110 - Bob on ITunes.


Anonymous said...

It's all 'me, me, me' with horn players isn't it. It's all about interpretation, a bass player may think they are making the horn player sound good, may be supporting the horn player's solo, and in reality pleasing much of the crowd with easy listening but piss off the horn player who is stuck with cheese. Or you can go the other way and do some weird shit that will please the well-listened connoisseur but piss off the horn player who doesn't share the vision. Look at the pissed off horn wizards who played with Zappa and hated Scott Thunes. Bitch bitch bitch, Scott didn't support me in my solo, whine, whine, whine. They later changed their mind and told Zappa it actually sounded great, which it does. Anyway, what Bob Reynolds says is fairly obvious, well it is to me.

Bassist Ridiculoso said...

Okay, Scott. :)

Well, then, if you already know this stuff, you should be a pretty busy bass player then. Some of it comes with age, and since you know who Frank Zappa even *is* it probably means you have seen more winters than some of our more excitable younger bass players who might just need a little, uh, reminder, of how important these things are.

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