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Low-end melodicism at its most sublime
August 30, 2013 7:08 PM   Subscribe

You're perhaps familiar with the Stevie Wonder classic, For Once in My Life. It's a great little tune, catchy, pleasing, just makes you feel good. What you may never have really thought about, though, is how much James Jamerson's bass line has to do with the tune's infectious brilliance. So, check out James Jamerson’s Bass Line Visualized. I mean, just... damn! Right?
posted by flapjax at midnite (73 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
James Jamerson previously.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:08 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


as someone who has both ridiculed bass players, and played bass in a band in college, that just makes we want to forget I ever did either of those. wonderful
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 7:13 PM on August 30, 2013


Oh! My new visual favourite thing! Thanks for this, my machine with the old windows visual defrag program recently broke.
posted by Kerasia at 7:17 PM on August 30, 2013


The bass playing is fantastic, the visual odd and confusing.
posted by bongo_x at 7:19 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, the term "bass line", which I used in the framing of this post, well, when you consider what kind of musical element we're *usually* referring to when we use the term "bass line"... I dunno, there needs to be another term for this, it would seem. What Jamerson is doing here is playing a counter melody, throughout. He doesn't repeat himself, ever (outside of the little "someone who needs me" repeat riff, which happens twice in the song), and that in itself is something virtually unheard of in bass playing.

An incredible achievement from an incredible musician.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:24 PM on August 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


That's fun and fantastic! Thanks! It took a minute to get my head in sync with the visual and the sounds, then I just smiled!
posted by HuronBob at 7:26 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is simply wonderful! I had no idea the level of improvisation... I'd love to see a multicolored overlay/comparison across the verses.
posted by mochapickle at 7:29 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was not supposed to listen to any "MTV music" in my strict Christian household as a teen, but oldies got a pass, and this song (and other Stevie Wonder/R&B from that period) helped rescue me from the hell that was Amy Grant and "Christian rock." It wasn't till I tried to pick up a bass that I had any real inkling of the artistry involved. Thanks for the post!
posted by emjaybee at 7:36 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


the visual odd and confusing

I felt so too. The distances didn't seem to relate to musical intervals, perceptually, even if they are mathematically accurate. I didn't hang around to check out what's going on exactly, but it didn't gel with my musical brain at all.
posted by Slyfen at 7:37 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


What blows my mind is that he played a lot of his lines with only one finger of his picking hand. Like Django fretting with two fingers for his solos.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:37 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


he played a lot of his lines with only one finger of his picking hand.

That was his standard technique, and yes, that too is simply amazing.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:39 PM on August 30, 2013


Truth be told, I am a little surprised that people are confused by the visual presentation. I have been playing bass for 25 years*, and this is as close as I have ever seen to an external rendition of what a bass part** looks like in my brain.

*And I don't mind telling you, I am about 19% as good a player as Jamerson.

**An awesome bass part. I would love to see someone do this for Bernadette or You Keep Me Hangin' On.

posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:41 PM on August 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is one of those times where that Ira Glass bit about the gulf between taste and creative achievement hits me in the gut - because if I live to be 103, and practice 10 hours a day every day until then, I will never be this fluid. I don't think I would be able to just float around the melody line like a bee dancing 'round a flower, like Jamison does in this song.

Just amazing.
posted by droplet at 7:45 PM on August 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


float around the melody line like a bee dancing 'round a flower

Well put, my friend, well put!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:46 PM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh, neat! And when I Googled his name, I found a video labelled "World's prettiest bassline" that required this cautionary note: "THIS POST IS NOT A FORUM FOR THE VARIOUS MERITS (SMALL AND LARGE) OF CAROL KAYE, BOB BABBITT OR OTHER BASSISTS. I WILL BE FORCED TO DELETE SUCH DIVERSIONARY ENTRIES IN THE FUTURE. THANK YOU."

People who love James Jamerson really LOVE James Jamerson.

Isolated bass track from What's Going On.

This looks like a [previously] worth digging into (when deadlines release me): "[James] Jamerson terrified bassists all over the world. Still does."
posted by maudlin at 7:49 PM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


(Oy. Looks like I favourited that other post back in 2008 and never did dig through it. Damn.)
posted by maudlin at 7:51 PM on August 30, 2013


(And flapjax linked to the previously anyway. I think I'm going back to bed now.)
posted by maudlin at 7:54 PM on August 30, 2013


that other post back in 2008

I posted a link in a comment at that thread, a soloed Jamerson bass line and Temptations vocal line only, and was sad to find the YT clip is now gone. Shoulda downloaded!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:55 PM on August 30, 2013


Watching this, I could feel the bass I've had, but not played for the last couple of years, sitting behind me, taunting me. I basically only ever got good enough to realize I had no way to make the jump from slavishly following tab charts to actually being able to play music.

Awesome video, if just a smidge depressing.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:02 PM on August 30, 2013


Yeah, I'm with Ricocet Biscuit. This is how bass lines already look in my head when I visualize a song as I'm playing it, to an extent. It's like the punched-out holes on a player piano roll. I never learned to sight read musical notation, so this is also kinda what my ideas look like when I itry to write them down.

Aside from the visuals in the post, Jamerson has talked about this style of playing pretty specifically, and while I don't recall any exact quotes, his whole approach was to slowly evolve the baseline throughout the song, so that while he's adhering to the chord structure and making sure that his parts work melodically with the vocal melody, they're never quite the same, one passage to the next. He was very specifically intending to never exactly repeat a phrase. This lends an amazing amount of movement to the songs he played on, even when it was subtle - like on Let's Get It On, where you have to really deconstruct the bass line note for note to even find the differences between the verses, but as the song starts, he's keeping it to whole or half notes on the and-one, and it lopes along, but as it progresses, it gets just a tad busier with each verse to the point that there's little grace notes all over the place, and it really helps the song climax in a way that never would have worked, had the bassist written one line for the verse, and played it tthroughout without changing it up.

As I've grown up and old, and tried to really learn what it means to play the bass, I aspire to emulate Jamerson, and perhaps Family Man Barrett more than anybody because of this loose re-interpretation of the melody, while adhering to the mile-deep trench of groove. I fail mightily, but I do aspire.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:04 PM on August 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


This is a fine visualization, though I kind of wish that the beat itself were depicted, since the really syncopated stretches stand out noticeably from an aural perspective but have no particular visual counterpart.

But fucking James Jamerson, man. The dude is up there with Scott LaFaro as someone who managed to make the bass sing while still fulfilling its ancient harmonic duties. The rest of us get to blow on top without a care in the world as to what chord tones we're anchoring ourselves by, but the bass can't avail itself of such freedoms. We should all be so lucky as to be able to make such beautiful sounds in the face of such constraints.
posted by invitapriore at 8:10 PM on August 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'M SORRY, I SPELT HIS NAME WRONG!

I AM SORRY, MR. JAMERSON!

::hangs head in shame::
posted by droplet at 8:25 PM on August 30, 2013


As I've grown up and old, and tried to really learn what it means to play the bass, I aspire to emulate Jamerson, and perhaps Family Man Barrett more than anybody because of this loose re-interpretation of the melody, while adhering to the mile-deep trench of groove. I fail mightily, but I do aspire.

Couldna said it better myself. What I hear as the bass part emerging in a song I am helping create is what makes me a moderately skilled player. The difficulty of capturing it and getting it to emerge the way I hear it is what keeps me only moderately skilled.

BTW, I have always thought Aston "Family Man" Barrett has one of the finest monikers in music. You might wonder what a guy who backed Bob Marley -- who has eleven acknowledged children with seven different women -- needs to do to get that nickname. I present to you the Family Man, father of... fifty-two. Ironically, I understand the nickname was bestowed when he had no kids.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:33 PM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


I seem to recall an Oliver Sacks article about people who were psychologically incapable of enjoying music, so there must be some people who don't love this song
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:42 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aston "Family Man" Barrett

Along with his brother Carlton on drums, we're talking one of the finest rhythm sections not only in reggae but in any pop genre, period. Those guys were a machine.

the nickname was bestowed when he had no kids.

Somebody could see into the future!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:43 PM on August 30, 2013


I've only recently truly come to appreciate Stevie Wonder and his music. I know I we're talking about Jamerson here, but this is one of just many Wonder songs where the bass line is out of this world. Every time I hear the bass line for I Wish, I just melt into a puddle. Stevie knows who to surround himself with.
posted by dry white toast at 8:44 PM on August 30, 2013


Every time I hear the bass line for I Wish, I just melt into a puddle. Stevie knows who to surround himself with.

In the case of I Wish, Stevie surrounded himself with... himself! The bass line is played on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, almost certainly by Stevie Wonder, Esq. And it is indeed an incredibly compelling bass line, but of course a totally different animal from the Jamerson style being discussed.

But both bass parts do their job splendidly, to joyous musical results.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:52 PM on August 30, 2013


Never liked Stevie in this mode, because it just sounds like slightly cool schmaltz to me, but by golly yes, the bass is fantastic.
posted by Decani at 9:08 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


nth-ing that this visualization is a pretty highly accurate model of what goes on in my head while playing, or even just listening if it happens to be a song where the bass line has my attention particularly. This is super cool, now I want to see a bunch of other bass scores represented this way, it's pretty well suited for this kind of dancing-around-the-melody style.

Anyone have an idea how the video was made? I skimmed the YT comments a bit and it sorta seemed like he made it basically by hand, re-recording it with a different instrument, rather than their being any software that can do something like this, or get you most of the way there. That actually surprises me a bit if so. I don't have much experience with the nuts and bolts of current sound engineering software, just seems like isolating a distinct bass line programmatically would be doable in a general way with some massaging, but perhaps how unpredictable this one is makes that more problematic than I'm giving it credit for.
posted by cj_ at 11:11 PM on August 30, 2013


Beautiful. I just came home from working night shift. We have the local pop music station on all night, and I really, really needed this. mmmmm

When I listen to music I always listen for the "other" parts and this is why.
posted by EnterTheStory at 11:57 PM on August 30, 2013


@flapjax - No kidding, none other than Randy Bachman, on his radio show, just said that Stevie played everything BUT bass on I Wish, claiming that it was his regular bass player. Given Randy's relationship with fact, it's probably worth double checking, but his timing was impeccable.
posted by Old Man Wilson at 11:58 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The booklet with my original vinyl copy of "Songs In The Key Of Life"* lists Nathan Watts as playing bass on "I Wish", along with Raymond Pounds on drums and a bunch of other guys on horns and of course Stevie on everything else. There is a lot going on in that track but there is definitely a bass player playing that b-line.

* pretty much my favorite album of all time, I've been listening to it since I was 12 and I am almost fifty now, probably going to stay that way.
posted by pascal at 12:14 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks Old Man Wilson and pascal for the clarifications re: bass on "I Wish". I stand corrected, and am grateful for your contributions here!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:37 AM on August 31, 2013


When writing a tune I always ask myself WWJJP?
posted by Jode at 2:33 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Hook!

His bassline from "I Was Born to Love Her" is my fav of JJ's.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:33 AM on August 31, 2013


Jamerson terrified bassists all over the world.

...apart from Paul McCartney, who with his customary self-confidence considered Jamerson to be his only rival in the early sixties.

I think Paul does a job a bit like this with 'Nowhere Man'.
posted by colie at 4:07 AM on August 31, 2013


Sometimes I talk to people about music like Motown, and it's a shock to realize that they don't pay attention consciously to anything but the vocals.

An amazing thing about Jamerson is, while that was great, it's not really that notable - ALL his tracks are like this, the guy was just godzilla.
posted by thelonius at 4:58 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


i couldn't watch much of that video - yeah, the notes are there, but the tone and the swing and the feel aren't

i don't "see" this kind of thing when i'm playing bass, either - i'm generally concentrating on the drums

anyway, i grew up listening to motown and so i've been indoctrinated by jamerson on a very deep level, long before i ever picked up a bass - or before i knew who he was

when i did start picking it up, i'd think to myself, well, i need to make a "motown" move here
posted by pyramid termite at 4:59 AM on August 31, 2013


McCartney's finest moments as a bassist, to me, were Hey Bulldog & Something. He was a better bassist on the other guy's songs than on his own because he was just thinking about the bass.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:00 AM on August 31, 2013


Yikes! Out of nowhere yesterday I had the bizarrest "craving"*-for lack of a better word-to play this exact bass line. But I was at work and could do nothing about it. Now this post shows up. Now I know what I must do after work today. Weird.

It will be especially challenging to do note-for-note as this line is constructed as a Jazz player would do it: He had a chart with the changes, each change is addressed primarily as an arpeggio, with step-wise movement connecting them. There are millions of not-quite-the-same-but-almost-the-same variations possible that way. If asked to recreate it JJ likely never could, but he could come close--just as a Jazz bassist's walk is forgotten as its played. The memory required is far too great, easier to remember the broad strokes and make up the details.

*do any other musicians get cravings to play certain things? Not like an earworm, but more if a tactile need?
posted by sourwookie at 5:23 AM on August 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


*do any other musicians get cravings to play certain things? Not like an earworm, but more if a tactile need?

Yes! I think perhaps because of its repetitiveness, I am occasionally overcome with the need to play XTC's Burning With Oprimism's Flames. It's like a meditative zen koan for my hands. That, and the title track to Aja, because the concentration required wipes all other thought from my brain for a solid six minutes. The quick whole-note slides as it climbs out of the verse into the first chorus make my hands happy.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:52 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I sang this song at my father's wedding last summer. The bass line is fascinating-- I hadn't realised that he never repeats a bar. Thank you, flapjax, for the additional illumination to a song I love.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:17 AM on August 31, 2013


Actually there are repeated bars
posted by thelonius at 7:41 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, that was amazing.
posted by not that girl at 8:03 AM on August 31, 2013


Fun! I didn't realize it would be a MIDI approximation but fun nonetheless. In a backhanded way it shows how important swing feel is.

Jamerson's unquestionable, but I also think it was the modulations that let him play blues walks between a syncopated melody, you're all comfy in the groove there and then - what's that? - another half step?? And WOOP he gotcha. Heh heh.

Obligatory Standing in the Shadows of Motown plug.
posted by petebest at 8:15 AM on August 31, 2013


Counterpoint is the term you want.
posted by spitbull at 8:30 AM on August 31, 2013


Actually there are repeated bars

There are, but these are composed by Stevland Hardaway. Just following orders, M'Lud.
posted by Wolof at 8:32 AM on August 31, 2013


It's my July 4th tradition to listen to the entirety of What's Going On, or as I call it, the James Jamerson Show.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:44 AM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh bliss! I listen out for basses like this all the time; they're one of the things that make me happiest. I feel like I've found my people. This video's perfect.

Anyone have an idea how the video was made? I skimmed the YT comments a bit and it sorta seemed like he made it basically by hand, re-recording it with a different instrument, rather than their being any software that can do something like this

not sure about the maker, but if I were doing it I'd just transcribe the bass and vocal lines by ear. It's always easier for me that way than wrangling with technology.

The MIDI synth is really funny - the rhythms are totally accurate, and it's just the vibe of the band that's missing. I just had a good read on Wikipedia as to the difference between "swing" meaning "groove" and "swing" meaning "not playing it straight". It's the first one that the synth track feels yearning for.
posted by lokta at 8:50 AM on August 31, 2013


Diego Dieguerson. The man with the claw. I love his work.
posted by frecklefaerie at 12:25 PM on August 31, 2013


flapjax at midnite, the bass line on "I Wish" is doubled by the Rhodes on the intro, so perhaps that's what led you to hear it as Rhodes-only. (I think it's there in the rest of the track, too, just mixed down to a low level, but you can really hear that characteristic low-end splat when the line is completely exposed at the beginning.)

There are Stevie Wonder songs where he plays the bass lines all by himself, but usually on a synth.

James Jamerson had a nearly unrivaled ability to add lots of decoration to a bass line without losing the basic pulse of the song. So many others try to do the same thing, and it ends up sounding busy and cluttered, hurting the groove or even losing it entirely, but Jamerson always seemed able to find a good balance. Lots of guys can play notes that fast, but he really had a fantastic ear.

Put me in the group that finds the "visualization" kind of interesting as a novelty, but not much else. As it seems to convey less actual information than regular music notation, I'm not sure if there's really a practical use for it.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 5:47 PM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The key to playing bust stuff on the bass is, it has to be completely locked in to the time, all of it. If it's not, it's just a train wreck.
posted by thelonius at 6:18 PM on August 31, 2013


Actually there are repeated bars

Thanks so much for your comment. Here's a transcription (PDF) of the bass part. Would you be so kind as to identify the repeated bars for us? I don't mean bars that are somewhat similar to others, of course, since it's obvious that there are those kinds of variations. I mean *repeated* bars, as you've indicated. Thanking you in advance!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:19 PM on August 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


The key to playing bust stuff on the bass is, it has to be completely locked in to the time, all of it. If it's not, it's just a train wreck.
posted by thelonius


Righty-o!

But... are you saying that Jamerson's part here... um... *isn't*? Isn't "locked in to the time"? And is therefore, a... "train wreck"?

you're not saying that are you?

cause if you are, Monk is spinning in his grave, and wants his name back

posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:29 PM on August 31, 2013


Here's a transcription (PDF) of the bass part. Would you be so kind as to identify the repeated bars for us?

the first 5 bars and the last 2

i'm such a hateful smart-ass for saying that ...
posted by pyramid termite at 7:15 PM on August 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


flapjax, I'll not be doing that. I do not engage with people who speak to me with such a supercilious and insulting tone. If I'm wrong, you can simply say so.
posted by thelonius at 7:17 PM on August 31, 2013


thanks for the transcription though
posted by thelonius at 7:19 PM on August 31, 2013


If I'm wrong, you can simply say so.

you're wrong
posted by pyramid termite at 7:27 PM on August 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thank you. I thought I heard something twice in there, but I was wrong. How wonderful life can be!
posted by thelonius at 8:08 PM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Update: I've been playing the part for half an hour now. I can confirm it's fun.
posted by sourwookie at 8:19 PM on August 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a wonderful world. I say that to myself.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:21 PM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was just playing some Stevie Wonder this afternoon for a friend who didn't know who he was (?!?). Should have thrown this in!
posted by danb at 8:53 PM on August 31, 2013


the first 5 bars and the last 2

Heh!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:00 PM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is important to note that when first suggested as a track on a Stevie Wonder LP, Berry Gordy rejected it, as it was too fast a first track on a side (covering more distance on the edge) and too slow as a closing track (too close to the center). He finally agreed to release the song as a single as the tempo on a 7" disc was "close enough" to be just right.

The more you know, yada, yada.
posted by sourwookie at 11:20 PM on August 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also worth noting is that during the "52nd Street" sessions Billy Joel used Berry Gordy's suggested tempo for Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life" as the template for "My Life".
posted by sourwookie at 11:25 PM on August 31, 2013


...i found a link....World's Prettiest Bassline

"Darling Dear" - this was the one that defeated me, when the Dr. Licks Jamerson book came out. I have lost my cassettes, but I still have the book.
posted by thelonius at 5:05 AM on September 1, 2013


And don't forget, kids, if you learn to play this well, you too can die broke, alcoholic and bitter at 47!*

*Neither an express nor an implied guarantee. Offer void in some states and territories.
posted by Wolof at 5:23 AM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


And don't forget, kids, if you learn to play this well, you too can die broke, alcoholic and bitter at 47!*

Just days after having your signature instrument stolen, never to resurface (for at least the following thirty years).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:24 AM on September 1, 2013


Check out what became of Paul Chambers. There were substance abuse issues, but he basically died of TB and exposure in unheated Northern basement apartments.
posted by thelonius at 4:37 PM on September 1, 2013


Looking back over the thread...Jesus Christ, why would you think I was criticizing Jamerson's time? I'm not that kind of fool!

A few years ago there was a page on the Web with audio recordings of a masterclass that Jaco Pastorius gave in in Martinique, in 1984. Jaco was in pretty good shape for the first 2 days, and for the concert at the end, but the audio of the 3rd day was withheld....the page is still there, but the audio is long gone, because of, I guess, the estate.

Anyway, he has a student playing an R&B groove, and the guy is trying to play a lot of fills, and he stops him. And says, no you are overplaying, that's too much. It's really important to stay simple in small group playing, keep the groove very clear. Now, I thought - that's rich - Jaco criticizing someone for overplaying. And, the guy actually wasn't trying to play that much, but he was dragging his fills and missing the Jamerson-style syncopations, and it sucked. So he WAS overplaying in that he was trying to play stuff that he could not, in fact, play right.

That's the kind of thing I had in mind. Not Jamerson!
posted by thelonius at 4:47 PM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are Stevie Wonder songs where he plays the bass lines all by himself, but usually on a synth.

Boogie On Reggae Woman is a great example of Stevie's synth bass playing.
posted by grog at 8:53 PM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah, I played Boogie On Reggae Woman in a band, and the bass part is practically through-composed. Damned funky man.
posted by Wolof at 1:09 AM on September 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wonder on Jamerson, who told him, "they call you a genius, but you ain't shit" (until you can play "Giant Steps" in all 12 keys).
posted by thelonius at 3:50 PM on September 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


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