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A good book about a great bassist
on May 1, 2002
This book and CD combination examines the music of James Jamerson, the studio bassist on most of the early Motown hits. Until rather recently, Jamerson was unknown to the general public and not widely known to musicians. Nonetheless, his playing was very influential and many bassists today consider his playing the gold standard of bass guitar in popular music.
This book is valuable as a reference for the history of Motown, but it is primarily a teaching tool. It is organized into three parts. The first 78 pages give a biography of Jamerson and put his work into historical context. Part two (17 pages) is a compilation of data: descriptions of bass equipment, recording facilities, accompanists, and discography. Also included in this section is a four page "Appreciation of Style" by Anthony Jackson that attempts to analyze the musical elements that made Jamerson unique. Part three contains 90 pages of transcriptions of Jamerson bass lines and accompanying text. The transcriptions go with the CDs described below.
The CDs and transcriptions are the heart of the set. The CDs feature Motown tunes with the bass lines played by over two dozen "all-star" bassists (e.g Marcus Miller, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle). Bass is on the left channel with instrumental accompaniment on the right. The bass lines are transcribed by the author and the transcriptions are accompanied by short bios of the artists who play the lines. The tracks on the CDs are interspersed with short interviews of people who knew Jamerson. The artists reportedly donated their services as a tribute to Jamerson and the bass lines and accompaniment were recorded in a variety of circumstances. Many tracks are recorded in home studios. The quality varies, but all tracks are well played and all are useful teaching tools. I thought the variation of sounds would be a drawback, but it is a very interesting part of the project. The best Precision Bass tones are not necessarily from the artists you would expect. (Not everyone tries to duplicate Jamerson's tone. Geddy Lee was approached backstage at a concert and contributed "Get Ready" on either a Steinberger or a Rickenbacker. Lots of fun.)
The level of the transcriptions is somewhat advanced. Transcriptions are given in traditional bass staff (no tab) and the rhythms will give your reading skills a workout. There are very few specific comments about fingering, right-hand technique, or damping. Yet the range of difficulty is from dead simple (beautifully rendered) line to lines that will challenge the most advanced player. (The challenge is rhythm and feel not lots of note or big stretches.) Beginning to intermediate players can use this book, but will benefit greatly by using it with the help of a good teacher.
One can quibble with the historical overview. It is quite readable, but doesn't dig deeply into any of the tough issues it raises (e.g. Jamerson's drinking and emotional stability, Berry Gordy's business practices). Since the focus is on the music, some of this reticence is laudable. However, one important musical controversy that the author fails to pursue is the question of the true credit for recorded bass lines in the era when Motown was moving from Detroit to LA. (Many tracks were demoed by LA studio bassists and then cut by Jamerson as well. There is still debate as to which track made it to the final recording. The question is acknowledged, but no new information is brought forth.) Another musical deficit is that there is very little about the interplay between Jamerson and other members of the rhythm section. (This is in contrast to the author's better-written (if slightly less important) book on the James Brown rhythm sections.)
Even with those minor issues considers, this is an extremely valuable book. It is clearly a labor of love and will be an extremely valuable learning tool for any bassist with the fundamental skills (or support) necessary to ap