5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Jazz Bass

There’s a clip circulating on social media where Charles Mingus, arguably the most famous jazz bassist of all time, is asked what he’s saying through his instrument on the bandstand. His answer, profane and hilarious, isn’t fit to print here, but it’s fitting for the so-called “Angry Man of Jazz.” I’ve often wondered if Mingus’s attitude was just his way, or if he felt somewhat underrated compared with others from his era. By and large back then, bassists weren’t bandleaders; Mingus was an anomaly. And that had me thinking about jazz bass overall: While it might be the most unheralded of all the instruments, no composition resonates without it.

This month’s feature is all about jazz bass, and cornerstone musicians like Mingus, the “Maestro” Ron Carter and Israel Crosby, whose performance is highlighted twice below. They all made significant contributions to the evolution of jazz. Their work paved the way for newer voices to shine through, including some artists who have chosen a song this month. And because we’re talking about an instrument like the bass, whose trajectory through jazz has been a complicated one, it seemed best to have plenty of the experts — jazz bassists — talking about their favorites.

Enjoy listening to these songs highlighting the bass. You can find a playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own picks in the comments.

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Luke Stewart, bassist, bandleader and composer

“El Haris (Anxious)” by Ahmed Abdul-Malik

Coming in hard like a Just Blaze track, then settling into a simple but effective melody that takes you on an unexpected journey in itself. Abdul-Malik explored the “East Meets West” concept of fusing jazz and the music of the Middle East over the course of a couple of albums. This one, however, “Jazz Sahara,” is his most successful in my view, and the most potent musically. Johnny Griffin is a standout on this record, letting us know once again that he is the Little Giant, with his saxophone sound towering above the band as he creeps in with his own sample of a previous tune. Jamal Muhammad of WPFW 89.3FM in D.C. first introduced me to both the Johnny Griffin album “Change of Pace” and the Abdul-Malik album in question, blessing me with some insight into the musicians and to the not-so-subtle signifying on the song titles.

Ahmed Abdul-Malik, himself a sonic giant, commands the bass and the band with the imagination and the vision to create a truly fused collaboration of a typical U.S. jazz ensemble with an Egyptian one. This configuration, and this track in particular, does the best in my view. One of my favorite bass solos is his here on this track. Recorded a year after the classic “Night at the Village Vanguard” from Sonny Rollins, featuring Wilbur Ware’s bass solo on “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” Abdul-Malik’s solo to me has felt like a response. This is where he was able to bring the Vanguard to the Pyramids.

Listen on YouTube

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Ron Carter, bassist and bandleader

“But Not for Me” by the Ahmad Jamal Trio

Israel Crosby’s bass lines on “At the Pershing,” in Chicago, are important not just because he’s on it, but because he made Ahmad play that way. He made the piano player not play. From then on, every bass player had to learn that bass line for the entire song — every Motel 6 player, every Birdland player, had to know it because it was so popular — including yours truly. And he made Ahmad Jamal even more important to the music community.

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