For those of us who grew up on rock and pop, and then graduated to jazz, one of the major transitions is in the approach to the bass. Rock and pop basslines are often riff-oriented; jazz tries to find a way to keep the same groove and feel but does so while staying constantly in motion with the details. When we started playing together, both of us started listening to bass more aggressively—Penn, who was initially a rock bassist, to learn how to make that transition, and Mike, a jazz pianist, to give Penn guidance. In the process we came to identify certain songs, both jazz and non, as “bass songs.”—PENN JILLETTE AND MIKE JONES
Ray Brown with John Clayton and Christian McBride
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
SuperBass 2 (Telarc, 2001)
Jillette: The person that Jonesy wanted me to listen to the most, and that I had the pleasure of seeing live, was Ray Brown. (He called me “a very heavy cat,” and I’ve never forgotten it.) And to hear Ray Brown and all these jazz guys doing a pop song was a revelation to me: The way Ray Brown hears soul after being the jazz bass player, the wink and the exuberance, destroys me.
“Step Right Up”
Tom Waits, Small Change (Asylum, 1976)
Jillette: “Step Right Up” is the closest I came to jazz before I started working with Jonesy. Tom Waits really allows for that pure beat poetry over the repetitious jazz bass, rather than the detail-oriented bass.
Jones: It sounds wonderful. It’s one of the best-sounding recorded bassists, especially at that time—pre-fancy equipment.
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
Jones: Is there any more identifiable riff in jazz? But for me, the riff means nothing except as an identifier; it’s Paul Chambers walking when Miles comes in with the first chorus, the way that the tension releases in that moment when Paul digs in, that’s just incredible.
Peggy Lee, Things Are Swingin’ (Capitol, 1958)
Jones: I don’t know if Joe Mondragon came up with that line on the spot, or if someone else wrote it out, but it makes the song exactly what it should have been all along. When you think of “Fever,” you think of the bass line.
Jillette: “Fever” has that wonderful combination, probably wonderful because it’s so rare, of the single human voice with the upright bass. That kind of duet is very hard to pull off, but when you do, as they do here, it’s a beautiful thing.
“Song for My Father”
Horace Silver, Song for My Father (Blue Note, 1964)
Jones: I mean, come on! It’s the root and the fifth! The drummer, the percussive element of the tune, is actually doing a lot of the work. But it’s one of the first tunes that I heard, when I was a little kid, that had that unison bass and piano together. Penn and I should start doing some of those bass-piano unison lines.
Jillette: We should!
“Walk on the Wild Side”
Lou Reed, Transformer (RCA, 1972)
Jillette: If you want to know what I love about bass, “Wild Side” has the electric doing the repetitive riff, almost a multitone drone in the simplest chord progression possible, and then you have the acoustic bass playing over that as if doing the work of the lead guitar. It came out when I was 18 and I had never heard that sound before.
The Beatles, Abbey Road (Apple, 1969)
Jillette: George Harrison is not really the lead guitarist of the Beatles; Paul McCartney is. Much of the interesting melodic stuff is happening on his bass, while George’s guitar is less melodic and more repetitive. They say that “Come Together” is a John Lennon song—a classic John Lennon song—but I was horrified to learn that what John brought to the band was “Come Together” without the bass line. Take out the bass line, and what John ripped off from Chuck Berry, and that song is absolutely and precisely nothing.
“King of the Road”
Roger Miller, The Return of Roger Miller (Smash, 1965)
Jones: To an extent, it’s that same bass-and-voice duet that Penn was talking about on “Fever.”
Jillette: But really, the only reason we chose “King of the Road” was just to get the name Roger Miller to appear in JazzTimes. I think it’s really, really important for all of us to celebrate Roger Miller’s influence on jazz.
Cream, Goodbye (Atco, 1969)
Jones: The melodic figure on the bass is one that I love. It almost makes you forget that Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker for that matter, thought of themselves as jazz musicians who were slumming it.
Jillette: Both Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker claim that Jack played so loud, and had the monitor on his vocal up so loud, that one night during “Badge,” neither Ginger Baker nor Eric Clapton played, and Jack didn’t notice. I so hope that story is true. The pretension of rock and roll is so beautiful.
[As told to Michael J. West]
Listen to this Artist’s Choice playlist by Penn Jillette and Mike Jones in Spotify:
Penn Jillette is a bassist, as well as (the speaking) half of the magician duo Penn and Teller. Mike Jones is a veteran jazz pianist. They perform together as the opening act of Penn and Teller’s nightly show at the Rio Las Vegas. In 2018 they released a duet CD, The Show Before the Show, available now from Capri Records.