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Ron Carter's "A Quick Sketch" and Cecil McBee's "D Bass-ic Blues"

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

In what seems to be a case of convergent evolution, two bassists wrote a pair of tunes that started with a nearly identical premise. Very simple - a single note on the bass repeated three times. And then something less simple - starting with that repeated-note bassline, spin out an engaging tune. This column will look at a few different versions of Ron Carter's "A Quick Sketch" and Cecil McBee's "D-Bass-ic Blues".

"A Quick Sketch" first appeared on Herbie Hancock's 1982 album Quartet, with Hancock on piano, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. To set this off, the bass and piano play a single bass note, repeated with a semi-ominous tone, over simple hi-hats from Williams and a nice sustain on that third note from Carter. There's a great slow build with Hancock playing some piano with muted strings and Williams adding some snare drum. At 0:45 or so, the tune's melody begins, with Hancock improvising underneath and around the phrases (a nice ascending line at about 1:10, for example) while Carter hardly plays anything outside of the repeated note (though his subtle additions do change the buildup here). The trumpet and piano mostly play phrases in unison as the quartet stays on a low simmer, waiting to boil. Just after 2:00, the repeated-note bassline drops out for some ascending lines… then they return to this low simmer. At about 2:30, Hancock returns to the muted-string piano as it sounds like the band is deciding how to proceed. Shortly afterward, Marsalis starts up a trumpet solo, getting in some nice pseudo-delay effects on certain phrases. Carter's bassline is still clearly focused on those repeated notes, but at around 3:30 or so, he starts to add some of his characteristic bent notes. The interaction between Hancock's piano and Marsalis' trumpet is excellent during this solo - if only this band had stuck together, just imagine! But ah, well… around 4:30, Carter's bass seems to be toying with the idea of moving into a walking bassline, but always returns to the ominous-sounding repeated notes. At 5:15, the band backs off after a buildup to the higher intensity they've been threatening throughout this tune. At about 5:45, Carter has moved up an octave on his bass for the start of Hancock's piano solo. Then at 6:00 or so, he slides back down to where he had been on the bass for the start of this patiently-built piano solo, adding a fourth lower note to that repeated-note bassline. No pyrotechnics from anyone, just some great group interaction among Carter, Hancock, and Williams here. Some subtle bent notes around 8:00 from Carter and then Williams moves into a nice groove on the drums. Between 8:00 and 9:00 or so, this trio is really in a great place. At about 9:10 or so, Hancock moves into a pattern on the piano that he likes (compare this with some of the stuff he plays on "Speak Like a Child" on his Trio ‘77 album). Then just before 10:00, they return to the ascending phrases that mark the beginnings and ends of solos on the tune, moving into a bass feature for Carter. During this part, Hancock keeps the repeated bass note going on the piano. Williams' drums are down to just quarter-note ride cymbals for the most part before he returns to his snare at about 11:15. Carter's really digging into this space, getting some nice melodic phrases in on the bass. At 12:15, Hancock comes back to the muted-string piano that he's been playing with periodically throughout. At 12:50, the ascending phrases that mark the end of Carter's bass solo are back. Some magical stuff on the piano at about 13:10 that this listener could happily play on loop for quite some time. They've returned to the head by about 13:45, playing through this loosely again, with plenty of improvisation from the piano between phrases. Marsalis hits on an insistent phrase on his trumpet at about 14:20 and they play that out, calming back down around 15:00. Marsalis keeps this going through the end of the tune, though, interacting nicely with Hancock's piano in a relaxed mood. Williams drops out by about 16:00, leaving Carter, Hancock, and Marsalis to finish the tune. Whew! The quartet keeps you on edge throughout, always threatening to move into a cymbal-crashing explosion, but instead staying in this great space where they're all improvising off of each others' phrases. The beauty of this version of the tune is that, despite the 16+ minute length, it really does feel like this was just a quick sketch that Carter brought to the session and fleshed out on the spot. Even during the composed parts of the tune, the playing is loose and has a very spontaneous feel. Great stuff.

A Quick Sketch by Herbie Hancock on Grooveshark

Carter kept "A Quick Sketch" in rotation for at least one live show around the time that Quartet came out, a 1982 show in Austria with Joe Henderson on sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Kenny Barron on piano, and Tony Williams on drums. The tempo is a bit faster than on Quartet, but the overall mood of the piece is similar in the introduction, if a bit busier on the drums this time around. Barron improvises around the bassline before the head comes in at about 0:45, played in unison by the sax, trumpet, and piano. Having two horns here gives this a breezier sound than on Quartet. I miss that little delay-like effect that Wynton Marsalis gave his trumpet after the part around 2:00, but away we go here, into a sax solo from Joe Henderson. Barron's piano is busier than Hancock's on Quartet, emphasizing the rhythm that's being held by Carter's bass until Carter breaks into a walking bassline at about 3:15. This is fantastic playing from everyone, though personally I prefer that ominous repeated note bassline - this threatens to move into a sort of generic ‘straight-ahead' jazz territory rather than really sticking with this tune (not that straight-ahead jazz from this group of musicians is a bad thing, of course)... Anyway, around 4:30, Carter has returned to the one-note bassline and by about 5:00, Henderson brings his sax solo to a close and hands the reins to Hubbard. Hubbard's big tone sounds great here, still accompanied by the piano that is emphasizing the rhythm put down by Carter's bass. Then at about 6:00, Carter again breaks into a walking line for Hubbard to improvise over. He plays a number of fairly standard Hubbard licks here (again, not to complain…) and then they move into double-time at about 7:00, calming back down around 7:30 while Hubbard's solo continues. At about 8:40, some ascending notes signal the end of Hubbard's solo, though he continues a bit beyond that as they move into a bass solo from Carter. It's a great melodic thing, with Barron's stabbing piano chords now playing a vital role in holding that rhythm. Ah, that phrase just after 10:00 and the descending figure at about 10:25, then the big notes at about 10:40… Ron Carter killing it in here. He continues this great bass solo until about 12:15, and then they return to the head at about 12:30, with Henderson and Hubbard playing in unison, often with Barron also joining in. Starting at about 13:20, there's room for some nice, loose interaction among these five musicians, with Hubbard and Henderson in the front line, punctuated by Barron's piano. They close this over some flourishes from the cymbals at about 14:30 or so. Great playing from everyone here, with the highlight being Ron Carter's bass solo. As good as this version is, I can't help feeling that maybe the group on Quartet was maybe more focused on "A Quick Sketch" and fleshing out that tune, whereas this group was playing over the basic rhythm that Carter put together. Not to complain too much of course! Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard put in some great performances, and Carter's bass solo is a highlight.

McCoy Tyner's 1991 album New York Reunion, with Joe Henderson on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Al Foster on drums, also included "A Quick Sketch". Here, the tune starts with a couple of cymbals, and the three bass notes in the introduction are less ominous (they're also not just one note repeated for much of this, but two higher notes followed by a lower note). Unlike the version above on Quartet, they jump more-or-less directly into the tune's head rather than a long introductory vamp before the head. The overall sound on this version is brighter than the version on Quartet, as well. Lots of subtle changes over the decade or so since the tune's first appearance, adding up to a different feel here. Tyner's piano and Henderson's sax play the descending lines in the head in unison, and then starting around 1:30 or so, Tyner takes a piano solo. Tyner keeps the bright sound going and gets in some nice interactions with Carter's bass and Foster's drums (check Carter's bass fill around 2:40!). At about 3:45, Tyner's piano solo comes to a close and he hands the reins to Henderson for a sax solo. Tyner's piano drops out at the beginning of the sax solo here. Henderson and Carter push this forward nicely, with the fluid sax lines against Carter's surprising alterations to the basic bassline. From 4:00 or so until about 4:30, Carter is really playing with the space that he's left himself in this tune. Henderson's sax solo builds into the upper register of the instrument around 5:30, then sets up some arpeggios at about 6:00. Henderson's solo comes to an end around 7:10 and is followed by a return to the tune's head. In both the introduction and here at the end, the head feels more composed than on the version on Quartet, though obviously it was composed on both versions - the tune has become more fully realized here. After playing through the head, there is some space for Carter and Foster to interact, with Carter taking a bass solo starting just after 8:00. Really cool, woozy line at about 9:30. Then they bring this down to a low volume and end with some bass harmonics. "A Quick Sketch" feels like more of a fully-realized tune here on this McCoy Tyner-led date than in its first incarnation a decade ago, but still has plenty of room for exploration from all the musicians here. It's a strange structure, with the head closing the tune, but followed by an improvisation from Carter and Foster. There's also a vamp at the end of the version on Quartet, but Carter left himself room for a bass solo on that version and the end of the tune had all four musicians interacting - just the drums and bass this time around. The tune is very recognizably "A Quick Sketch," but there are many changes since its first appearance on Hancock's album.

A Quick Sketch by McCoy Tyner on Grooveshark

Ron Carter led a trio on his 2003 album The Golden Striker, with Carter on bass, Mulgrew Miller on piano, and Russell Malone on guitar, and included his tune "A Quick Sketch" with those sessions, over twenty years after the tune first showed up on Herbie Hancock's Quartet and ten years after New York Reunion. The repeated single-note bassline is played in unison by the bass and piano just a couple of times before the piano and guitar come in with the head this time around - no ominous, slow-building introduction here. Though the responsibility of the bass is still to hold down that rhythm here, there is a bit more interaction among the three instruments in this arrangement for a drumless trio. At about 1:40, they move into a relaxed guitar solo by Malone, and then the lead is passed to Miller at about 2:15. Here, the interaction among the three musicians is more notable as Miller and Malone continue to pass the lead back and forth, punctuated by Carter's bass. Check out how Miller comes in with his piano at about 3:10, building on the bass phrase that came just before it, and then again at 3:40 how Carter's bass influences the beginning of Malone's guitar solo. At about 4:10, Carter moves into a walking bassline and then they transition into a bass solo from this. At 5:05, the piano and guitar drop out and Carter returns to that repeated single note bassline. The piano and guitar re-join to play through the head at the end of the tune here. This version of "A Quick Sketch" feels like a relaxed conversation among friends - where the three versions above are built on tension, this version never threatens to explode into a virtuosic solo-fest and instead is just really pleasant listening, if not overly memorable.

A Quick Sketch by Ron Carter on Grooveshark

As I mentioned at the top, Cecil McBee and Ron Carter independently came up with a nearly identical concept to start these two separate tunes - Carter's "A Quick Sketch" and McBee's "D Bass-ic Blues". A few versions of McBee's tune:

Pianist John Hicks' 1990 Power Trio album, with Cecil McBee on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, is the first version of McBee's "D Bass-ic Blues" to appear on record. Over some light percussion from Jones, McBee and Hicks play the now-familiar repeated-note bassline to start the tune here. At about 0:15, McBee's bass moves into the melodic lead as they get into the tune's head, while Hicks mostly sticks to the low-end, adding just a few chords here and there. At about 1:00, they come out of the head and move into a piano solo over a walking bass and brushed snare. It's a nice piano solo, really coming into its own by about 3:00. At about 3:35, Hicks brings his solo to a close and McBee takes a bass solo. McBee's solo has him touching base with the melody periodically and getting a very nice sound out of his instrument. He ends the solo just before 5:00 and then the bass and piano both return to that repeated note while Jones takes a drum solo. Jones' solo is understated and effective, and then the trio returns to the head at about 6:00. Jones also adds a really nice drum fill as the trio plays through the head here at the end. Other than the repeated-note bassline, McBee's tune is very different from Carter's - here, as a piano trio vehicle, it has effective solos from both Hicks and McBee and a nice setup for Jones' drum solo over the repeated note. Although the bass has that repeated-note bassline, it also takes a melodic lead on McBee's tune.

''d'' Bass-Ic Blues by John Hicks Trio on Grooveshark

A year after the release of Power Trio, Stanley Cowell's Close to You Alone, with Cowell on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Ronnie Burrage on drums, featured "D Bass-ic Blues". This opens the album with McBee's unaccompanied bass playing the repeating bass note that is the subject of this column. Cowell's piano then joins the bass, followed by the drums. At about 0:35, McBee's bass takes the melody. At just after 1:00, the piano and bass then play this melody in unison (a little difference from the arrangement on Power Trio) and at 1:15, the tune opens up into a piano solo over a walking bassline and swinging drums. Cowell takes a truly excellent solo here - nice riff just after 2:00 or so - and the trio sounds great together. At about 2:45, Cowell is really digging in, pushing the group forward. He brings the solo to a close at about 3:15 after touching again on the melody from the tune's head, and then Cowell's piano goes back down to the low-end, playing that repeated note a few times through as McBee takes a bass solo. He's great here, playing a melodic solo that touches on the written melody regularly while staying fluid. At 4:25, the piano and bass return to the repeated note and Burrage patiently builds a drum solo that starts with just his hi-hat and then gradually gets busier. It's a nice exercise in restraint - just as it seems that Burrage is going to take off into a long drum solo, the head returns at about 5:15. They play through this again, with the piano and bass playing the melody in unison, and then bring it to a close. Excellent playing from everyone, with a bit more momentum than the version on Power Trio and ear-grabbing solos from Cowell and McBee. The little change in the head of the bass and piano doubling the melody is nice, too.

Also in 1992, McBee brought "D Bass-ic Blues" to pianist Larry Willis' Steal Away album. Willis' piano is joined by McBee on bass and Gary Bartz on sax. This version starts with just McBee's bass before Willis joins. As on the versions above, McBee takes the melodic lead on his bass. At about 0:30, Willis adds a bit of new harmony to the repeated note and Bartz's sax takes the melody here before they move into a piano solo starting at about 0:55. Given the lack of a drummer here, it's noteworthy how much momentum that McBee and Willis can create and sustain using McBee's walking bass as a bit of percussion as well. Willis takes a strong, energetic piano solo here, and then Bartz re-joins at just after 3:30. The trio doesn't miss a step as the lead moves from piano to sax. McBee's walking bass is extremely effective here, a perfect foundation for Willis and Bartz, and the rhythmic chords from Willis are great as well. A nice sax lick from Bartz at about 4:30 or so as he continues his solo. At about 6:15, Bartz drops out and McBee takes a bass solo over Willis' piano chords. As on the versions of this tune above, McBee's shows that he can comfortably take over the melody on his bass, and he takes another excellent solo here. At 7:40, McBee and Willis both return to the repeated note and then McBee plays the melody as they return to the head. At 8:10, Willis again adds to the harmony and Bartz's sax plays the melody at the ending of the tune here. A great version of this tune - the lack of a drummer was no problem at all for this trio, and all three musicians turn in some fantastic solos on this tune. The lack of drums really isn't a problem at all here - Willis and McBee hold down the rhythm, and Willis' subtle harmonies in the head are great.

"A Quick Sketch" and "D Bass-ic Blues" share a foundation that is, as far as I'm aware, coincidental. It's interesting that both of these tunes have also been adapted for drumless trios, with "D Bass-ic Blues" working particularly well in that context. I'll also mention that although these are the only three officially released versions of "D Bass-ic Blues" out there, it seems that McBee has kept the tune in rotation, according to this discography, which lists a couple of radio broadcasts from 1997 that included the tune.

Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.