Thursday, 1 October 2009

'The Magic That's Between The Lines/Behind the Scenes' or 'The Bassplayer'

This is a post about appreciating music.

And to appreciate this post fully, you need to watch the video above. All of it. You need to watch it in a way that is perhaps dying out in our age of You Tube haste and attention deficit disorders; you need to watch with care and sympathy for the subject. Open your mind and put aside your issues of taste or preference - attitudes that seem to me to be routed in self regard and narcissism anyway. It may not be your cup of tea. You may be a jazzer that distrusts anything too loud and simple, or an aficionado of way out electro art ensembles, but I want you to empty your mind, as much as it is ever possible to forget the part of you that is nurtured, of your preconceptions, tastes and learned habits and just listen and appreciate. Trust me: you can do it.

Oh, and to really get the gist, you need to be listening on something other than a laptop with silly little speakers that can't reproduce the floor vibrating, stomach churning, bowel loosening glory of an electric bass. Headphones or proper speakers please.

Ok. Now you've done that, I want you to think about what was striking about it. What was different about this extract?

That's right! 80% of the camera's time is spent looking directly at the bass player. His name is Pino Palladino, and there are many things you might like to know about him:

# he is Welsh Italian and there are quite a few of them you know (ever had a Sidoli's ice cream?);
# he has played on countless records that you will have heard, but is most famous for his lyrical, melodious and groundbreaking fretless bass lines with Paul Young in the 80s;
# he looks a bit like Jasper Carrott.

There are many reasons why I might be feeling called to sharing the above clip. I'll do my best to be brief, but please be warned that this is a subject very close to my heart and I do tend to go on so.

Palladino is, to put it in the strangely crass vernacular of jazz musicians, a motherfucker. That is, he is a really, really good player. If you listened to this track and you were not particularly drawn to or knowledgeable about the role of the electric bass in music, you may not even particularly notice what the man is doing. Indeed, most people, when they listen to modern rock or pop, are only really aware of a bass line as a low frequency rumble in the pit of their stomachs and only become consciously aware of it if it is promoted to being a hook at the fore of the mix (I'm thinking of Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal as an example of this, or The Chain by Fleetwood Mac: a tune has been immortalised by Formula 1 over the years). Bass players actually like this phenomenon; we like the fact that there is an arcane and secretive side to what we do. You can only truly understand the dark art of bass playing if you have spent your life listening to only bass lines; if you don't know the words to even the most famous of pop songs but can beat every syncopation and hum every fill of the bass line.

And so, from a technical playing perspective, here are the highlights of Palladino's playing on this track. May I suggest that, after you have listened to the track as a whole, you have a closer look at these highlights.

0:26 - notice the clarity he gets in this bluesy run. Most players, even good ones, would slur this because it is a moderately quick run of notes, but Palladino gets every note in with a punch and lets it exist in its entirety before he moves to the next one.

0:33 - the first 'fill'. A 'fill' is a freestyling piece of improvisation that players insert within a predefined and written line, usually at the end of a section of a song. This is a fairly straightforward and typical example of a blues rock bass fill, but it is merely laying a good, sensible foundation for what is to come.

0:41 - now Palladino is firmly in 'the groove' and is beginning to push the boundaries of convention. There are very few players that would attempt this kind of phrase at this point in the music. It's a kind of Motown bluesy chromatic run from one chord to another that leads into a more avant guard fill back to the safe ground of the run that we've seen at 0:26.

0:55 - another sign of a highly individual approach to the instrument here as Palladino plays a nice, tight little fill and then hits two harmonic notes simultaneously. Harmonics are notes that are achieved when you play a string or strings and do not fret a note but merely hold your fretting hand on the string and release immediately after the string is struck. The physics of harmonics is quite interesting, if you like that kind of thing, and you can explore them here.

1:02 - another piece of left-field playing here. It's actually quite typical for Palladino to play this kind of higher register, melodic fill. But, trust me, you won't hear many other examples of it in popular music generally.

1:06 - this the one that makes me weak at the knees. It's a really simple phrase, but quite, quite brilliant. A bass player shouldn't really be doing anything here other than sticking to the bass line and holding things together, but Palladino slings in a nonchalant ad lib that is unexpected, melodic and devastatingly brief.

, ok. I'm starting to bore myself now and I'm sure you've got the point: Pino Palladino is a brilliant player. We've only got a minute into the track and I could yet probably write a PhD on his playing underneath the guitar solo that follows shortly after.

What I'm really hoping, though, is that you might realise that - if the director hadn't decided to fix the bass player in our sights for a uniquely long section of the film and if I hadn't decided to point all of it out - you'd probably never have noticed any of this. It would have merely been a pleasant rumble behind the guitar and voice that fits in with the drums and makes you nod your head rhythmically without you really realising that you're doing it. A closer look, however, reveals a beautiful web of subtle detail and nuance that normally goes unnoticed.

So, try exploring the dark, subtle shades of the musical world that holds up what you normally listen to. If you understand what's going on down there, you'll understand more about music. If you understand more of music, you'll understand more of what makes life so worth living.


  1. When I think about bass I think of Robert Shakespeare (of Sly and Robbie). We are talking 'riddim'. I listened to Black Uhuru 'the Dub Factor' back in 1995 - it's one of those albums that never loses it's appeal. The album is just bass, with some drums, more bass, drums, a few other bits and bobs, bass, a couple of vocals thrown and some drums and some BASS.

    They have been involved with everything reggae and collaborated with all and sundry - Madonna, Mick Jagger, Suggs, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock (even Britney Spears).

    Yes I can appreciate (love) the bass... it has the power, charm, appeal, etc...and Robbie Shakespeare is a fine example of how to make that mother come to life.


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