Great bass playing never ended. In fact, great bass playing never stopped. It’s still all around us. My belief is that we’ve become so enamored with the people who helped to shape the instrument, Geddy Lee, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Jaco and so on that we haven’t take time to look forward and admire all the new, flourishing bass guitar talent out there right in front of us.
I touched upon this idea some months ago where I examined a handful of ‘modern’ bass players, roughly from 2000 forward, that were making a big musical splash. These players were part of bands and their bass playing was standout to say the least and something worth taking notice of.
For this post, here are 6 more modern bass players that you should know.
Bassist, composer, and space man Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, is one bass player who has come barreling into the beat music/’new jazz’ scene the past few years – and in a big way.
Alongside West Coast beatmaker and Brainfeeder founder, Flying Lotus, Thundercat is helping to introduce a new generation to jazz bass playing much the way Flea and Les Claypool did through the 90s.
Born to a musical family, his father and brother were musicians themselves. Bruner’s father, Ronald Bruner Sr., is a respected session drummer who has laid down beats for the likes of The Temptations and Diana Ross and brother,Ronald Bruner Jr., has played alongside Thundercat.
Before Thundercat was the 6-string slinging free jazz bass player we’ve come to know him as, Bruner began as a session bass player. He briefly filled the bass chair for the West Coast hardcore crew Suicidal Tendencies and shortly after pursued additional session work, providing bass guitar to along list of acts ranging from Erykah Badu to Snoop Dogg, and Leon Ware and beyond.
It wasn’t until 2011 when Thundercat put out his first solo album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse. The album was a throwback to the golden age of disco-psychedlic funk music. Everything from falsetto singing, Moog synths and lots and lots of Fender Rhodes stacked into a groovy collection of songs from start to finish with a modern polish put to them courtesy of Flying Lotus made this album, what I think, to be one of the new bass guitar-centric classics. Thundercat released a follow up to the album in 2013 called, Apocalypse. Again – more for the beat-loving listener to enjoy as well as the bass player and jazz musician. Bass centric songs like ‘Tron Song’, ‘Lotus and the Jondy’ amd ‘Tenfold’ shine through as well as less bass-centric songs like ‘We’ll Die and ‘Oh Sheit It’s X’ without the listener ever getting the impression that this album is going to be squeaky-clean, high brow jazz music.
Take Matt Garrison, Hadrien Feraud and Ableton Live decked out with sweeping synths and you’ve got Thundercat.
I had the chance to see Thundercat live as an opener for Flying Lotus this past October in Vermont and never had I seen a room so excited for, what was essentially, a jazz performance. Thundercat, donning a Native American headdress and fur coat complete with the head of the animal making up the headpiece, was joined on stage by drummer Justin Brown and keyboard player Dennis Hamm. The trio played the hits from their two albums, but each song quickly morphed into a live free jazz improvisation session, weaving in and out of different musical themes with masterful precision.
If you like Thundercat, you’ll probably also like:
Robert Glasper Experiment
Whatever comes up in Google for ‘neo soul’
2. Michael League (Snarky Puppy)
Snarky Puppy is the band that 70s jazz fusion enthusiasts always wanted.
With winding, intricately prepared musical themes ala Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever coupled with tasteful, technical improvisation the Grammy-winning Snarky Puppy a very satisfying listen for the seasoned musician and very accessible to the first time jazz listener. The band has released 8 albums since the band’s creation 2004 at the University of North Texas: The Only Constant (2006), The World is Getting Smaller (2007), Bring Us the Bright (2008), Tell Your Friends (2010), groundUP (2012), Amkeni (2013), Family Dinner – Vol. 1 (2013) and We Like It Here (2014), the band’s latest release. Each album showcases the best of jazz fusion and funky instrumental jazz ala Lettuce, Deep Banana Blackout or Soulive in an ensemble makeup and leaves you feeling refreshed.
This isn’t your dad’s old bebop vinyl album – this is NEW jazz, baby.
Speaking of an ensemble makeup, I can’t talk about Snarky Puppy without mentioning how Snarky disciplined this group is. Look at the number of musicians involved with group:
And this is only a chunk of the active musicians. Snarky Puppy is a collective of nearly 40 musicians called the Family.
Now listen to the band:
Pretty astounding to think that that many musicians were brought together, trained and coordinated to play that kind of music. Well, as it turns out it can be done under the leadership of the band’s bassist, principal composer and bandleader, Michael League.
After listening to enough Snarky Puppy, it becomes clear how compositionally focused League is. League sees the music first and the role of the bass player second. His playing is functional, complimentary and doesn’t overstep boundaries – and there are a lot of musical boundaries established in a Snarky Puppy song. With so many parts intricately woven together, flashy Jaco-esque bass playing wouldn’t seem to fit. A band like this needs a bass player’s bass player. Someone who holds it down and seems musically comfortable supporting the band as a whole and the soloist when he solos.
Aside from Snarky Puppy, League is an active session bassist. Like Thundercat, League has amassed an extensive list of collaborations and performance credits including providing bass work to:
Jesse Keeler, the bass playing half of the bass-and-drummer duo, Death From Above 1979, is someone all bassists need to check out.
Catchy hooks, danceable beats merged with the fat fuzzed out tone of a Rickenbacker 4001
I’ve mentioned Jesse Keeler and Death From Above 1979 before when I reviewed their latest release, The Phyiscal World. In the review, I made a point to draw attention to one half of the duo bassist Jesse Keeler and how important he is to modern bass playing.
DFA 1979’s music hinges on the same formula: a song built off a bass groove, a drum beat to compliment it and lyrics from Sebastien Grainger. Keeler is not just a role bass player but also the active ‘riff maker’ to the band. The principle composer to how each of DFA 1979’s songs are going to sound compositionally and whether or not they’re going to be hits or not.
Hooks abound and catchy, energetic songs with the DFA 1979 duo.
If you like Death From Above 1979, you’ll also like:
4. Chris Wolstenholme (Muse)
Wolstenholme does it all. And damn well, too.
When Muse came into the public’s eye with their 1999 release, Showbiz, the band had something different from their contemporaries: the ability to capture arena-rocking rock and tie it together with a progressive edge, scripted edge.
Pop music, at least in the United States, was saddled somewhere between exiting the awkward maturation phase of alternative rock and funk metal and beginning to enter the ‘commercial’ rap rock period. Moreover, boy bands and pop groups (see NSYNC and Spice Girls) were taking over both ends of the pond with meticulously produced music and songs and boatloads of sequent clothing.
Then out comes Showbiz, an album that felt like the spirit of Queen injected into a hybrid mash of progressive rock and arena rock. The album was a breath of fresh air: a musically challenging album to listen to but at the same time rich with texture, dynamics and meticulously constructed songs ala the progressive rock acts of the late 70s and 80s.
While Showbiz showed promise for the band’s future, it wouldn’t be until the albums following, Origin of Symmetry (2001), Absolution (2003) and Black Holes and Revelations (2006) did the band seem to transform in leaps and bounds from a United Kingdom progressive rock-playing treasure to an international arena rock spectacle.
One other detail worth noting: the band never changed lineups since 1994. Guitarist Matthew Bellamy, drummer Dominic Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme have been the primary makeup of the band since its incarnation.
A remarkable feat in two regards the staying power and tremendous growth of the band’s presence over the years and the fact that the band has never seemed to suffer from changing members and conflicting egos (much like another progressive rock power trio).
In the three piece that is Muse, Chris Wolstenholme’s role in Muse is often closer to a second guitar player. When Wolstenholme kicks on his effects (and there are a lot of them), Wolstenholme’s sound takes on that of Bellamy’ – only an octave lower (see ‘Supermassive Black Hole’). Wolstenholme can strum chords on his bass or even pluck out single notes and still create a sound that sounds full and complimentary to Bellamy’s higher end playing like on ‘The Small Print’, ‘New Born’ and pretty much all of Origin of Symmetry.
As a lead Wolstenholme is no slouch either. ‘Hysteria’ is the best example (and most recognizable instance) of Wolstenholme playing lead. The opening to ‘Starlight’, the grinding fuzz bass on ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and the galloping line underneath ‘Knights of Cydonia’ are other great examples of Wolstenholme’s lead abilities. It’s also worth noting that Wolstenholme’s lead lines can get quite busy and intricate. Using ‘Hysteria’ as an example again, it seems like a straightforward lead line until you actually try to play it. Only then do you see that there’s a lot more going on than what meets the ear – kind of like another bass line that’s stumped bass players for years.
If you’re into Muse, you’ll also like:
System of a Down
Rock power trios
Queen and arena rock
and probably classical music as well.
5. Steve Terebecki (White Denim)
If the Black Keys are too mainstream for your taste and feel there isn’t enough bass, consider checking out White Denim.
Hailing from Austin, Texas, White Denim is a 4 piece garage rock/jam band/psychedelic/[insert other genre here] band that came to the surface around 2006 brining another perspective to the kind of music the White Stripes and Black Keys made popular throughout the mid-2000s. Take the same heavy, fuzzy guitar work but now add some boogie woogie feeling songs ala Little Feat and some extended jams (imagine ‘Deal’ by the Grateful Dead turned up to 11) and you’ve got White Denim in a nutshell.
Holding the band down is bass player Steve Terebecki. First off, the kind of music played never really warranted intricate jazz fusion level bass playing. Most blues rock/hard rock bass playing is role playing: holding it down, moving with the chord changes religiously but additing some extra flare where applicable. A neat fill here and there, add a little counterpoint to the intro and bridges of the song – things like that. Overall, that’s been the trend of bass players in this kind of music and, depending on your vantage point, is what Terebecki brings to the table as well.
What got Terebecki onto this list was the context of the music he’s playing in with White Denim. The band does genre cross and go into some interesting musical spaces. The song ‘Tony Fatti’ features some very heady early 90s REM-sounding grooves with some popping bass playing from Terebecki. ‘Shy Billy’ touches that Americana feeling that the Dead captured and played for so many years and ‘All Consolidation’ is an all-out garage rock blitzkrieg. Noise and cymbals galore!
Through the changes, Terebecki thrives and that’s what makes him a noteworthy player for this list.
Vulfpeck is an instrumental funk rock group from Michigan and they are brining you back to the time of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Ripe with funky goodness and throwback sounds to the golden age of Motown and instrumental funk, Vulfpeck puts a modern sound to a favorite sound – without ever sounding like they’re repeating themselves.
At the heart of this band is bassist Joe Dart. Let me tell you – I can’t think of many other bassists that conjure images of Paul Jackson with his work on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust and Headhunters. Dart’s bass is punchy, articulate and very, very funky without ever being too overreaching and muddying the musical waters. Like a James Jamerson with the rumbling, cutting mids of a Jazz bass and not the round sound of a 60s Precision bass.
Normally, I’d point out specific songs where certain themes or ideas are exemplified. Unfortunately I can’t really do that with Dart and Vulfpeck because every song and album is just so damn funky. Each song works beyond, what I believe is funk’s Achilles Heel: becoming stale through repetition. Too often, funk songs or funk bands will vamp on a handful of themes back and forth for 3-6 minutes and then end the song. With Vulfpeck, the songs move. Each song has dimension and a whole host of themes, dynamic changes, and textural changes to keep the listener involved in their music. Aside from flat out sounding great, it’s great music to study and become invested in.
Treat yourself to one of their albums. You really can’t go wrong with any of them: Mit Peck (2011), Volmillch (2012), My First Car (2013) Fugue State (2014) and the album,Sleepify (only if you can get find it, however).