Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Electric Bass in Jazz

What are your thoughts on electric bass in jazz, particularly in smaller traditional settings? By that, I mean small jazz combos of 6 or less playing jazz standards; where you would typically find an upright bass.

In the last 15 years or so of attending local performances, only once have I ever seen an electric bass in this type of setting, and that was due to space constraints. It was at a local steak house, where Mark Flugge was playing in a piano/bass duo setting. The bassist, who I'd seen not a week before playing upright with Mark in another locale, was playing an acoustic-electric bass guitar (so not even an electric bass in the common sense of the term). The spacing was tight, and there was no way he was getting an upright bass in there.

When listening to the radio (Real Jazz on SiriusXM because local jazz radio doesn't exist in Columbus, Ohio), I almost never hear electric bass outside of the jazz fusion genre. In fact, you're much more likely to hear the left hand or feet of a Hammond B3 organ player keeping the bottom end than an electric bass. We're fortunate to have some fantastic local B3 players as well.

I do have a few albums featuring electric bass in smaller combo settings (Bob Cranshaw with Sonny Rollins, Jaco with Brian Melvin, Anthony Jackson with Buddy Rich), but that's really about it. Everything else is focused on fusion.

One thing I have seen on more than one occasion is local big bands with electric bass. I think it's more acceptable in that situation because it's easier to hear across the stage and isn't susceptible to feedback like an upright bass.

I ask this question because I've been struggling over the last several years with playing both jazz and upright bass. Once I decided I wanted to learn to play jazz, I got an upright bass because that's what jazz is played on. However, trying to learn a difficult genre of music on what is essentially a new instrument has provided me with more anguish and frustration than one should be expected to bare at my age. As a result, I haven't made nearly the progress I should have made in either area.

At this point, I'm thinking it may be time to cut my losses and just focus on electric bass. I've been playing bass since my early teens, so I don't have the difficulties getting around the instrument like I do with the upright. This way, I can focus on just the music itself without having to worry about the instrument.

Of course, this would be foolish if there's no call for it, which is what I suspect given the last several paragraphs I've written on the subject. Who gets more gigs? The electric player who can hold their own but sounds out of place, or the upright player who struggles to keep up and can't solo to save their life?

*EDIT: I forgot to mention that the two times I went to Jamey Aebersold's Summer Jazz Camp, only one of the 6 or so bass instructors played electric, with the rest playing upright. In fact, my first time there, when I expressed dismay over the difficulty I was having on upright and suggested going home to get my electric, one instructor told me to stay on upright because "that's where it's at."