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Chops: High & Low

Nicki Parrott on simultaneous vocal/bass performance

Nicki Parrott, Savannah Music Festival 2015

The balance of melody and harmony is vital to the craft of jazz, especially when it comes to improvisation. That balance can become precarious, however, when one musician is responsible for both of those elements. Players of chordal instruments, like piano and guitar, have to grapple with that tension to a great degree. But there’s a specific subset of musicians who have a far greater challenge with it: bass-playing vocalists.

These are technicians who are working simultaneously on two instruments, and with fully developed missions on each. The bass doesn’t merely play the harmony-it anchors it. The vocal doesn’t merely carry the melody-it adds full layers of meaning and nuance to it. And since jazz is often about tension between harmony and melody, the bassist-vocalist’s two missions are sometimes at cross purposes. “There is some truth to Jay Leonhart’s song ‘It’s Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass,'” says Nicki Parrott, an Australian bassist-vocalist, based in New York, who is perhaps best known for her work with the late Les Paul. Her most recent album is Two Songbirds of a Feather, a collaboration with vocalist-guitarist Becky Kilgore. “[Playing bass while singing] is multitasking, and always a challenge. It’s a fun challenge, though, a good challenge.”

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