There’s arguably no relationship in a band more organic and unbreakable than that of the bass player and drummer. Together they create the structural base of the music, cementing and shifting the foundation underneath the chaos of what’s happening above (e.g. guitars, keys, vocals, etc.).
In order for this partnership to function, each musician needs to be totally aware of the other’s sense of time, their musical instincts, and personal playing style. They need to be able to anticipate each other’s changes, fills, and pocket diversions, while creatively plugging the holes in that space. Speaking as a bass player myself, nothing compares to playing with a drummer who fits your groove. In an ode to some of the more unsung heroes of music I humbly submit, in no particular order, some of my favorite rhythm sections.
Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine
Hired by Joe Zawinul for Weather Report purely on a recommendation from Jaco, Peter Erskine brought his impeccable sense of timing to the pioneers of fusion in 1978. Jaco’s bounce and soul on the electric bass was totally unparalleled, and Erskine’s playing fit like a glove. Somehow, in a fusion band where virtuosity was paramount, this rhythm section maintained a deep, foundational pocket for Wayne Shorter and Zawinul to soar on. If there’s one track that shows just what these two could do together, it would have to be “Birdland” from Weather Report’s live record 8:30. Jaco’s stamina while playing triplets to pair with Erskine’s uptempo shuffle is nearly unbelievable.
The two were completely in sync during their four plus years together in Weather Report, and together created a body of work that’s worth studying. The pair would also work together outside of Weather Report, lending their talents to Joni Mitchell’s Mingus record and Jaco’s own albums Word of Mouth and Invitation.
There’s no better way to solidify a playing relationship with your bandmate than to know them intimately as a person first. Listen to Erskine talk about a time Jaco surprised him on stage…
John Paul Jones and John Bonham
Seemingly polar opposites, the underrated Jones and larger-than-life Bonham were at the center of one of the greatest bands of all time. Led Zeppelin simply couldn’t exist without both of them — a fact that became all too real after Bonham’s death in 1980. While John Bonham is considered one of the most influential drummers ever, Jones has a more understated legacy, which seems to fit the bassist. Though he played many more instruments than just his Fender Jazz, his bass playing was always exactly what the track needed.
Of course, any Zeppelin song is going to have Bonham and Jones’ influence on it, but one that stands out to me is “Black Dog,” the opening track on Led Zeppelin IV. Bonham is an absolute force in this tune, supplying the perfect beat to JPJ’s now legendary riff. To fully appreciate their cosmic tightness, check out this live version from 1973.
Paul Jackson and Mike Clark
One of the funkiest rhythm sections ever, Paul Jackson and Mike Clark were the driving force behind Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters-era records. They each possessed a complete mastery of syncopation and the ability to make the odd feel completely natural. It is no wonder that these two are both huge influences for bassists and drummers looking to improve their groove.
Clark’s rhythm part was the catalyst for the tune “Actual Proof” from Herbie’s record Thrust and Jackson’s bass playing is jaw dropping on this cut. They weave through an incredibly challenging form and improvise while maintaining an undeniable sense of time and pocket: a must-learn for any serious bassist or drummer.
Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker
What makes this pair so incredible is that they played beautifully together, while literally hating each other most of the time. Before Cream, Baker had actually fired Bruce from the group Graham Bond Organization. But when he approached Eric Clapton about starting a band, it was inevitably decided that Jack Bruce was the bass player they needed.
In many ways, Cream represents the birth of the power trio, with much thanks to Baker and Bruce as they laid a massive foundation for Clapton’s guitar playing. Though their discography is not that extensive, every cut Cream recorded was heavily influenced by the bass player and drummer. “White Room” is a personal favorite of mine, showcasing Baker and Bruce’s perfect time and ability to make a trio sound almost orchestral.
Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan
I thought about discussing the relationship between Pino and Questlove, but instead I’d like to focus on the unexpectedly brilliant playing showcased within John Mayer’s Trio. Jordan and Palladino have something together that is incredibly special. I’ve heard that Willie Weeks was supposed to be Mayer’s bassist in this trio. Somehow it didn’t happen and they went with their second choice — Palladino.
Their sound is clearly rooted in the blues, but this dynamic rhythmic duo infuses elements of shape-shifting jazz with the hard-hitting, forward driving rumble of heavy rock. And there isn’t a beat on their live album Try! when Palladino and Jordan aren’t tightly sewn together at the seems. Just check out “Who Did You Think I Was.” This is the power blues rock trio 2.0.
Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
Ringo and Paul’s parts were always deeply imaginative and melodic, while always being the definition “serving the song.” There isn’t a single thing either of them recorded that didn’t absolutely need to be there. A whole bunch of drummers got together to salute Ringo Starr in this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame video. I particularly like Abe Laboriel Jr.’s description of his playing: “It’s this sloppy, swampy, falling-down-the-stairs kinda sound that is, like, the coolest thing ever!” You can’t just invent something like that — it’s internal. And somehow Paul McCartney was able to lock into that on his bass.
They each had a warm and inviting tone that made later Beatles recordings incredibly identifiable. It’s nearly impossible to pick one tune. But if I had to choose one that showed both players’ abilities to create interesting parts and textures, it would have to be “Come Together.”
William Parker and Hamid Drake
Here’s something from the avant-garde side of things. Parker and Drake have traveled the globe together performing in what seems like hundreds of ensembles. In each new band, they bring both something unique and something wholly familiar to the table: their musical unity. In fact, this rhythm section is so well-known and appreciated in free jazz circles that filmmaker Michael Lucio Sternbach made a film about them!
In free jazz, since there’s such an overwhelming amount of improvisation, it can be difficult to develop deep relationships between players. Getting the feel of someone’s playing in a space where everything is constantly changing is not easy. It’s what makes this form of music so challenging, even to seasoned jazz musicians. But Drake and Parker have a magical connection that affords them the ability to let each other’s lines cast out super far. They’ll still be able to tighten up in a split-second, change direction, follow one another, and play games with the other, all underneath a soloing lead. It’s powerful stuff. But perhaps the best way to showcase their rhythmic relationship is with this very short nugget of groove from their album Piercing the Veil.
Of course, I could have gone on and on with this list. Even so, there were some notable pairings left off. I stayed away from any double bassists as that’s just not my world (though I thought about putting Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones in the mix, and probably should have). If you have some you’d like to add to the conversation, hit the comments section below!