Run that by me again

So while I as putzing around the house a while ago, I decided to pop the Perrys’ Life of Love back in, and I caught the most amazing bass-guitar lick that somehow I had managed to miss before. It’s on “I Met a Nazarene,” second verse … (and let me just restate here in passing that Loren Harris can SING; he out trammels Trammel with that piercingly beautiful edge to his voice when he wants to punch out a lyric or a note). Anyway, by the second verse, the song is in G (at least that’s what the closest chord I could find on my rather out of tune piano) and at one point the bass breaks time and goes into a little syncopated run up to the IV of the chord (C, if you’re keeping score). Normally, the bass lands on a C fair and square, right? Not so here. This bass player (Craig Nelson to be exact), he plays a Imajor7 over a I, to a III and then comes late to the IV. You don’t have to know anything about music theory to appreciate how smart this lick is. Typically, when a song goes from I to IV (hum the first lines of “Amazing Grace;” the chord change from “how” to “sweet” is a I-IV progression), the flat-seven note or chord is likely to get a hit from the bass as part of the run. But here it’s the center of a tonal suspension so clever and so neat that all twelve disciples woulda got saved at once if they’d heard this at the same time. The progression retains the tonal center of a familiar run, but reorients the tonal endpoints and breaks time just enough to make you cock your head to one side and replay the line over and over and over … or maybe that’s just me. But forget music theory … this little riff illustrates an important facet of bass playing that too few players, producers and arrangers understand. Bass players often mistake themselves for glorified time keepers - as, that is, updated, sexier, electric versions of their folk and bluegrass counterparts on the old upright. With a trapset in the mix, though (as there almost always is in sg, and as there is in “I Met the Nazarene”) and with a piano blocking and filling color chords around the vocals, the bass is freed up to be more rhythmically and tonally creative. Problem is, few players take advantage of that freedom, and instead plod along like dutiful work horses reinforcing the time signature being laid down by the drums and/or piano. Rather than seeing himself as a supplement to the rhythm during Harris’ verse, Nelson here takes advantage of the instrumental freedom of working in tandem with a drummer and piano to play off against and complement the vocals with what essentially amounts to a harmony line alongside the lead. Brilliant. I just laughed and laughed when I heard that. Great stuff. (Many, many thanks to MWH for the help.)

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