The ten best jazz bassists of all time
In jazz discussions, the saxophonists and the trumpeters generally dominate the conversation, and rightly so. Equally as integral to the music, though, is the rest of the band. While we've already listed the top guitarists and pianists, today we focus on those holding down the low-end. Although there are a number of exceptional bassists worthy of consideration, these are the ten best jazz bassists of all time.
10. Ray Brown
While Ray Brown could swing heavy with bebop pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie, he's probably best known for part in pianist Oscar Peterson's trio from 1951-1966. Brown's buoyant playing seemed to match Peterson's relaxed attack on the piano. The bassist, who was briefly married to Ella Fitzgerald, backed up the singer, as well as countless other jazz luminaries until he passed away at the age of 75 in 2002. Brown released dozens of discs under his own name from the mid '40s to the early 2000s.
9. Paul Chambers
John Coltrane once said, "Paul Chambers was one of the greatest bass players in jazz. His playing is beyond what I could say about it." Chambers played a vital role in both the Prestige recordings of Coltrane, as well as a part of Miles Davis's first great quintet, appearing on the 1959 landmark album, Kind of Blue. Chambers, who died at the age of 33, also released some fine recordings as a leader, namely Whims of Chambers and Bass on Top.
8. Dave Holland
Over the last five decades, Dave Holland has established himself as one of the most skilled bassists in jazz. As a leader, the English bassist released some excellent forward-thinking recordings, like his 1972 debut, Conference of the Birds, which also featured Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, and 1982's Jumpin' In, which featured frequent collaborator, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. His later work on his own Dare2 imprint over the past decade or so is also highly recommended.
7. Charlie Haden
An integral part of Ornette Coleman's early groups, Charlie Haden played an important role in the development of free jazz, while also being an extremely competent and intuitive player. While his playing and writing with the large ensemble Liberation Music Orchestra, as well as his output with Keith Jarrett's group is stellar, his duo recordings are great, as well, namely Beyond the Missouri Sky with guitarist Pat Metheny and Nightfall with pianist John Taylor.
6. Scott LaFaro
Just 25 when he died in a car accident in 1961, Scott LaFaro showed an early proficiency on the bass after taking it up at the age of 18, just before starting at Ithaca College. A weeks into his sophomore year, LaFaro hit the road with Buddy Morrow, but left the band in Los Angeles, and then went on to play with Chet Baker, Stan Kenton, Cal Tjader and Ornette Coleman. LaFaro is probably best known for his work with the Bill Evans Trio over the last few years of the bassist's life. His playing on Evans's Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby is just remarkable.
5. Victor Wooten
While Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke were major innovators in the electric bass, Victor Wooten has been a vital pace-setter on the instrument with his virtuosic playing and his two-handed approach. From his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in the early '90s to his solo releases over the last seventeen years, Wooten has shown he's clearly huge force in the electric bass. His outstanding 1996 debut, A Show of Hands, is just one document of just how far Wooten can take the bass.
4. Stanley Clarke
While Stanley Clarke is both a master of the double bass and electric bass, and a dynamic visionary on both instruments, he's also an accomplished composer, as evidenced by many of his solo discs, the groove-heave 1976 release, School Days, as well as his film scores. Clarke is clearly a master of jazz-rock fusion, especially during his time with Return to Forever, but he can lay down a funk groove like no other, and he swings like a madman.
3. Jaco Pastorius
A fiery and muscular player, Jaco Pastorius, who passed away in 1987 at the age of 35, remains one of the most influential electric bassists in jazz. His 1975 self-titled debut album is hailed by some as the best jazz bass album ever; it should be required listening for any aspiring bass player, especially his interpretation of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," or his harmonic work on "Continuum" and "Portrait of Tracy." Pastorius used to say he was the greatest bass player in the world, and dude could back it up with his virtuosic abilities.
2. Ron Carter
Ron Carter has played on over 2,500 albums and secured a spot in jazz history as one of the world's finest bassists. Doing much more than merely helping anchor the rhythm, Carter is a melodic master. In his five-decade-long career, he's played with countless jazz legends, including a five-year stint in Miles Davis's quintet, an outfit that also included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. While his playing on most of the recordings he did with Davis are stellar, some of his albums as a leader, like Uptown Conversation, are excellent, as are his duo albums with guitarist Jim Hall, platters like Live at the Village West and Alone Together.
1. Charles Mingus
Although Charles Mingus probably could have performed professionally as a pianist, as evidenced on Mingus Plays Piano and Oh Yeah, he was an absolute monster on the bass, as well an incredibly gifted composer. While his bass skills can be heard on the outstanding 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall live album with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Max Roach, his landmark 1959 Columbia disc, Mingus Ah Um, is hailed by some as his finest recording. It's certainly a great place to start for uninitiated. The disc showcases the bassist's affinity for gospel on songs like "Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul," while also paying homage to Lester Young on the gorgeous "Good Bye Porkpie Hat," as well as tributes to two of his biggest influences, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.