BassicFunk: Gerald Veasley's Personal History of Jazz-Funk Bass
There was a time when you had to be careful about the word “funk.” In that respect, funk shares humble roots with the word “jazz.” Both terms suggest a barefaced comfort with the bodily functions. Today, neither jazz nor funk is a bad word. That’s progress.
Jazz and funk reflect freedom in all facets of culture, and if there’s one instrument that contributed mightily to the freeing of funky minds, it’s the electric bass. In many ways, the role of the bass in jazz and jazz-funk is similar: Providing a low-end sonic counterweight, establishing the harmony and moving the music along rhythmically. The obvious difference is in the rhythmic setting for jazz-funk bass. While the straight-ahead bass line dances around the ride cymbal and grounds the airy groove of the jazz drummer, the jazz-funk bass groove is typically locked in with a drummer who is firmly earthbound. But these are guidelines, not rules. Straight-ahead walking bass can be downright funky and funk bass can have a jazzy elegance.
Please note that this is not a historical piece about jazz-funk bass players. I am much too biased to write anything objective about this topic and am prone to making bloated (but true) assertions like: “Without Jaco Pastorius, bass-guitar playing would have been an arid wasteland of one-chord vamps.”
Of course, I’m half-joking, and Jaco figures prominently into the jazz-funk bass continuum (pun intended). However, he’s not the only player to have had a major impact.
There’s also Stanley Clarke. Clarke is the quintessential jazz-funk bassist. Stanley is a real jazz musician who is always funky. Moreover, he is the most influential bassist to blend the two genres. I remember seeing him with Return to Forever back in the heady days of jazz-rock fusion.
If you don’t remember this era, let me tell you, it was a grand time. Musicians were inspired to loosen up some of the confines of straight-ahead jazz. It was like Casual Friday for jazz musicians; it didn’t last long. During that brief but fertile period, however, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever was a force to be reckoned with. RTF was unapologetically electric and played melodies that were fast and furious.
Some of these melodies were played by Stanley—a tall, lanky kid who hailed from Philly. He sported a large Afro and appeared to have ridiculously oversized hands. I never asked him, but I’m sure Stanley could palm a basketball. I’m not suggesting this is what makes him one of the world’s greatest bassists; I’m just saying he could probably pick up a basketball with one hand. (Not that that’s a requirement for playing bass. Size doesn’t matter.)
Anyway, the Stanley I saw employed his huge mitts to play the most devilishly tricky melodies and blistering solos you’d ever want to hear. The truly revelatory thing about watching Stanley, though, was his position on the bandstand. He wasn’t in the back next to drummer Lenny White, where you expected the bass player to be. He was out front.
That is, perhaps, Stanley’s chief contribution: putting the bass out front. With RTF he was not only physically out front; it was a conceptual positioning, too. Stanley’s bass virtuosity was equal to Chick’s keyboard gymnastics. When Stanley, Chick and Al Di Meola (as well as original guitarist Bill Connors) went toe to toe, Stanley more than held his own.
Eventually Stanley went out front with a successful solo career. When he released his School Days album, the title track became the first bass anthem. If a standard is a song that’s part of an essential must-know repertoire, an anthem is the song that sums up the entire repertoire. A standard achieves its elite status gradually. An anthem can be universally accepted as such immediately. “School Days” is the signature song of rock star Stanley. Not many bass players’ works are as recognizable as “School Days.” It’s a big song with big melodic themes. Rock star music without the telegenic singer. In other words, it’s the song the drunk in the bar requests from the bass player.
But make no mistake: Stanley is a jazz musician with a pedigree that included a stint with Horace Silver. Even still, some of his most recognizable tunes feature a style that is most closely associated with a non-jazz musician, Larry Graham of Sly & the Family Stone. Graham pioneered the “slap” technique on bass, a style of playing that Clarke employs on tunes like “Lopsy Lu.” Basically, slapping involves striking the string against the fretboard with the thumb and plucking with the index. The result is an impressive percussive effect.
In some ways slapping is a simple technique, more physical than mental. Anyone can do it! It’s an accessible technique that in the hands of some brings out the bass’ percussive and contrapuntal potential. In the hands of others, it is mindless and the musical equivalent of being able to wiggle your ears. If you need any evidence, stop in your nearby music store on any given Saturday afternoon. You will undoubtedly hear a slap-happy guy trying out a bass while the staff tries to tune him out.
Again, Graham is the one to blame for the thumpety thump that has been exported around the world. Because of Graham, today no self-respecting thumbslinger will pick up a bass guitar without slapping on it, for better or worse. Of course, Larry was as innocent in his invention as Oppenheimer. And nobody ever died from a misplaced bass note. Can’t say the same thing about nuclear fission. Larry’s invention was born out of necessity. As a young player who accompanied his church organist mother, he added the thumping and plucking to make up for the missing drummer. Larry’s newfangled technique worked very well for Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk. “Thank You [Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin],” without Graham’s thumping bass line, might be just another indecipherable ’60s flower-power tune. With Graham grooving it becomes deadly serious.
A few players have made slapping into high art. One is Marcus Miller, who combines a textural and harmonic inventiveness with sheer brawn. His playing is assertive yet he never takes his eye off the main objective: making music. Another superlative slapper is Victor Wooten, who probably can’t palm a basketball. Life isn’t fair. He can, however, do just about anything you can imagine with a bass guitar. Victor’s technique, whether slapping or tapping (which involves playing two independent parts simultaneously), is astounding. To his credit, Victor never brandishes chops for chops’ sake. His technique serves the higher purpose of grooving—it’s just that he can play a groove inside the groove. Wooten can place a plucked piece of funk where you think nothing else will fit—a different kind of atom splitting.
There are so many ways to play jazz-funk bass. Let’s not forget the percolating purveyors of pizzicato funk. Behold! These bassists forgo the use of the thumb for the syncopated staccato of the index and middle fingers. The most legendary of these players is Jaco Pastorius.
Of course, Jaco’s prowess as a soloist is by now well recognized. With the frets pulled out of his Fender Jazz bass, he introduced a previously unheard singing quality to bass playing. His solos were lyrical and daring. Jaco’s compositions are just as fresh today as they were almost three decades ago, and just as tough to re-create. Oh, and when it comes to being out front, Jaco rewrote that book, too.
With all his virtuosity, it’s important not to overlook Jaco’s contribution to the groove. Jaco’s “Teen Town,” a song he composed for Weather Report’s Heavy Weather album, is a prime example of pizzicato funk with a little jazz harmony thrown in for good measure. “Teen Town” isn’t quite an anthem (because it’s too tough to play), but to jazz-funk bass players, it’s definitely a standard. It’s also a wickedly funky bass line thinly disguised as a melody.
Some of Jaco’s other bass lines are more in a supportive role. Here the word “supportive” is misleading. Jaco’s funky bass lines bristle with a front-of-the-train kind of energy. Songs like “The Chicken” and “Havona” show off Jaco’s ability to drive the band.
Where did all this percolating start? For my money, the first percolator was James Jamerson, the bass player whose lines made Motown’s music meatier. Jamerson’s lines on songs like Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” relentlessly propel the groove. I think of Jamerson’s playing as a sort of magic trick. The bass is busy. Extremely busy. Yet in spite of all that activity, the bass is never in the way of Stevie’s vocals (or the Temps or the Tops, for that matter).
From a jazz perspective, Jamerson’s playing is also compelling because of the improvisation in it. While his counterparts were recording repetitive one- and two-bar phrases, Jamerson was creating performances in which no two measures were alike. More than that, he accomplished this while working on conventional R&B songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Another busy bee on four strings is Francis “Rocco” Prestia. His work with Tower of Power took pizzicato funk to a major-league level. It’s the kind of playing that makes you sympathetic to the use of steroids in athletics. Sometimes you’d like to have something to help you keep up. There is some serious percolating going on in songs like “What Is Hip?” Percolating requires a highly refined technical ability, an unwavering sense of rhythm, and most of all, “feel.” The feel is the elusive part. Rocco’s 16th-note approach can’t be imitated. It has a swing to it that works because it’s Rocco, and that’s that.
A forgotten worker from the jazz-rock fusion epoch is Paul Jackson. He had a way of playing pizzicato funk that was very loose and unpredictable. Jackson’s work on Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters and Thrust albums is percolating bass at its funkiest. His standout cuts are “Sly” and “Actual Proof.” It’s not fair that Jackson didn’t get the kind of attention he deserved after the end of the fusion era, but he played on some great albums with great musicians.
Back in the era of Casual Friday, jazz bands like Return to Forever, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra played stadiums instead of clubs. They stopped enduring out-of-tune pianos and shady club owners. It was temporary, but it was nice. I wasn’t there but I heard about it. Bad timing. I did play with Joe Zawinul in his Zawinul Syndicate for seven years, but there weren’t any stadiums. I’m OK with that.
Joe, of course, along with Wayne Shorter, was a cofounder of the seminal fusion band Weather Report. Weather Report also happened to be my favorite band of all time. Sometimes life is fair after all. Even though there were no stadiums, I got to do some percolating onstage with Joe. He really liked that stuff. I also got to do some thumping with Grover Washington, Jr., for quite a few years. How much good fortune can one expect?
I’d like to end this spiel with a bit of parting advice for jazz-funk bassists:
You are free to be jazzy as well as funky; the dues have been paid. Pay no attention to the division between genres designed to make you lose sight of your birthright. It was all a setup. A conspiracy.
Also, remember that Casual Friday is over, so dress up again. Wear a very wide strap, and play with someone famous. And that’s that.
Originally published in April 2007