Getting Down with the Bass

Christian McBride is relegated to a supporting role in music. But that's only because of the instrument he plays. As a series on music in the lower frequencies continues, the spotlight is on the bass.

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(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The sound of the acoustic bass is probably one of the more under-appreciated instruments on a bandstand. But…

Mr. CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE (Musician): …chances are, the music will not sound as good if the bass player drops out.

CHIDEYA: That's Christian McBride. He's one of America's premiere bassists, a bandleader who relishes his supporting role.

Mr. MCBRIDE: It's really hard playing the bass because you have to focus on knowing what it takes to make the rest of the band sound good, what it takes to make the rest of the band work. You're always thinking.

CHIDEYA: McBride says among the most important things a bass player thinks about is intonation, harmony, and especially time.

Mr. MCBRIDE: The bass player is usually the only one that's really playing every single beat of the entire song.

CHIDEYA: Today, we continue our series focusing on music played in the lower frequencies. Here's Christian McBride making the case for bass.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Bass players that have good time are ones that work all the time. You know, somebody says, one, two - a one, two, three…

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

Mr. MCBRIDE: You don't really need a drummer to tell you where the time is. You should just be able to feel it. You always have to have that silent clock going on in your body.

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Take a house, for example. I think people sometimes don't think about how important the foundation is. You know, it's needed to hold up the walls, the ceiling - everything rests on something. And in music, everything rests on top of the bass. It's the thing that makes your toe tap and you're not really aware of it.

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Of course in jazz, the acoustic bass really didn't come into play until the turn of the century. Before that, the bass that had been used of course had been the tuba. But relatively speaking, that actually wasn't that long ago.

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Because my father also plays bass, and my great uncle also plays bass, it was probably predetermined that I was going to be a bass player because it runs in the family.

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

Mr. MCBRIDE: I don't think anybody would or should pick up the acoustic bass and think that they're going to become the leader of the band or they're going to be the brightest star in the orbit, you know what I mean? I mean the function of this instrument is to be a supporting instrument. And not just in jazz. It's also in rock and in funk and reggae - whatever it is, this is a supporting instrument first and foremost.

So if you play this instrument, you have to want to be in the background. You want to be able - you want to have passion in holding the band together and making everyone else sound good, laying down that red carpet. Because it's a very, you know, workman-like instrument. And if you don't really want that for yourself, then you probably shouldn't be playing bass.

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Nowadays, it's really just - it's a disaster traveling with an acoustic bass because every ticket agent doesn't know what it is. You know, music appreciation has just gone down the tube so bad. You know, I'm in the airport with my instrument and they're, like, wow. That's a nice cello you got. I was like, no, this is not a cello. This is a bass.

You know, another ticket agent was, like, yeah, that's one of those - that, what do you call that - that's a viola, right? I was like, no, it's not a viola. It's a bass. They're like, wow, yeah, we've never seen one of those before. And they always want to charge you extra and all kinds of overweight. And they hassle you all the time, so traveling with a three-quarter-sized bass makes things just a little bit easier. Not much, but a little bit easier. It's easier to con them into thinking that it's a cello.

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

I heard this great saying. I believe I heard Joe Zawinul say, he said, you know, the bass is the mother of all music - all music is born out of the bass. And the drum is the father, you know. We are the parents of all music, no matter what genre it is. And of course the mother, she creates our universe. So I think when you hear the - particularly the acoustic bass, I mean you're hearing Earth, you're hearing Mother Earth. You know what I mean?

(Soundbite of acoustic bass)

That's the Earth's gravitational force pulling you, as opposed I think to, you know, like the horns - that's the sky, you know. Those are the stars. You need that to balance it. But the bass, those low frequency instruments, that's Mother Earth right there.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Sexy and yummy - the lower frequencies of bassist Christian McBride. McBride's latest CD is called “Christian McBride: Live at Tonic”. Next week, we'll bring you the final installment of our series on music set in the lower frequencies, produced by Roy Hurst. We'll spotlight the drum.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We will be back on Monday. Have a fabulous weekend.

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