At the intersection of rhythm, harmony

Band: Six electric bass guitarists at Western Maryland College take on leading and supporting roles in a class in which they share ideas, improve their skills and groove.

April 22, 2001|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Get more than two bass guitar players together for a gig, and chances are the booking agent made a mistake.

Unless the billing includes Western Maryland College's electric bass ensemble, which organizers say is one of two such groups in the country.

"I had a good group of college students in the studio that year," said adjunct lecturer Bo Eckard of 1987, when he started offering the group as a course. "When you have musicians, it's natural to combine them. The more the merrier."

The result has been a collection of six electric bass guitarists, including Eckard, who meet as a class once a week to practice and share ideas on how to improve their skills.

"When I'm with this group, it's like coming home," said Eckard, 42, who also is director of jazz studies at the college in Westminster, which has 1,600 students and 25 music majors.

The electric bass has been his instrument of choice for 28 years, one that he continues to play professionally with a group called the Essentials.

"The role of the bass is to be the point of intersection between the rhythm and the harmony," said Eckard. "You and the drummer are working on the groove, you and the guitarist are working on the licks. You get to see the whole picture, review everything."

Though the bass often is thought of primarily as part of the accompaniment, an experienced, creative bass player - such as Victor Lemonte Wooten of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and jazz performer Steve Swallow - can take control of the piece, said Eckard.

He gives an example that draws his knowledge of music theory: If one player is playing a C chord and the bass player plays an E chord, the sound the audience hears is a C7.

"We are gods," Eckard said with a laugh. "I have the power. I affect the tonality."

When Eckard began researching literature for the electric bass ensemble, four slim volumes were available from the University of Miami, home to the only other such ensemble he knows of.

"I couldn't find any more pieces, so I started writing," he said.

He's written more than 100 pieces, and received last year the Western Maryland College's faculty achievement award for increasing the number of students pursuing jazz studies.

"People will ask me, `Why did this get started at Western Maryland?'" said Eckard, who serves as the college's bass instructor while teaching private lessons at Coffey Music in Westminster. "Because this college says, `Why not?' when it hears ideas like this."

The bass guitar group is one of 14 chamber ensembles listed in the college catalog. Like the others, it practices at least once a week and serves as a teaching tool for student and instructor.

"I can disseminate information to five students at once," Eckard said. "We can get together, work on our scales, our solos, little licks and patterns. The members really help each other out."

Members are also required to give two recitals each year, one at the end of each semester. The group strives to maintain its irreverent tone by scheduling its performances at 4:07 or 4:37.

"The bass player is always late," Eckard explained. "Plus, if you're in the dorms on the other side of campus at 4, you can still make it to the performance.

In each of the Western Maryland group's pieces, most of which have been composed by Eckard, one student takes the lead. Each of the others then fills in with background, beat, chords and occasionally a solo.

His ensemble's sound, on display at a recent practice, ranges from a bluesy jazz feel to contemporary pop.

As they perform, the roles of student and instructor slowly melt away as Eckard clearly relishes this opportunity to jam with a group of fellow bassists.

Seniors Jason Boone and Eric Sledge, juniors Betsy Meade and Nick Valentine, and sophomore Chi Sukosi take turns jumping to the lead position, shining through solos or strongly supporting their fellow artists during their regular, two-hour Friday session.

"What happens next, in theory?" Eckard asks Meade with a grin as he attempts - from memory - to play "Bug," a pop-style tune from last semester. "I'm just too lazy to get the music out."

For a time, the group struggles with a section that requires three of its performers to hit one note in unison.

"The hardest thing to do with a pizzicato instrument is to hit that note at the same time," explains Eckard, as they decide to move on to a more mellow composition, "Faith, Death and the Rest."

With this piece, Boone jumps to the lead as his fellow students, intently watching their music, steadily support his lilting, floating melody.

Only Eckard projects the image of the master musician, leaning back with his eyes closed.

"In a small way, I think we win by just showing up," Eckard said, noting that it is rare for a group to have two - much less six - bass players. "There's a real unique quality to the ensemble."

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