Sonny Rollins: I'm an Old Cowhand

Even before I got a chance to really thoroughly understand what Ray Brown was doing, if there was one record everybody knew, and knew well, it was Way Out West. That was kind of the gold standard for pianoless saxophone trios. I remember Wynton Marsalis was the first one who told me about that record. He pointed out, which rings very true to this day, that if you listen to Ray Brown’s basslines, he outlines the chords so well, you don’t miss the piano. Most of the time, when bass players are playing without a piano, it exposes the weaknesses or shortcomings of their harmonic vocabulary. In four notes, you have a chord for one measure and you have four beats. Sometimes, two out of those four notes make perfect sense. Sometimes, three of those four notes make perfect sense. But rarely do we hear all four notes, every bar throughout the song make perfect harmonic sense, almost like a baroque piano piece, like a Bach piece, a two-part invention, where these bass lines not only are outlining the chord that you’re playing at that particular bar, but also setting up and anticipating the next chord. I think “I’m An Old Cowhand” is a case study of the way Ray Brown is using these passing tones, these leading tones, and I think Ron Carter---who in terms of harmonic evolution is the next step after Ray Brown---picked up on the way he perfectly constructed these basslines. I can just imagine Ron Carter listening to that recording, going, “Ok, there’s something in there I’m going to really focus my style on,” and that was building these perfect basslines that kind of go through the chords. They are not so much in the chord, but they’re through the chord. You can hear the chord that you’re playing, but it also sets up the next chord very, very well.

December 16, 2009 · 0 comments

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