Lesson with Ken Walker

ken-walker

I’ve wanted to have a lesson with Ken Walker for years, ever since a friend called him “the Ray Brown of Denver.” Ken has played with so many top jazz players that I hesitate to name some, because I don’t want to exclude the others. He teaches at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver; his bio can be found on their site: http://www.du.edu/ahss/lamont/faculty-staff/faculty/walker-ken.html

We began by talking about how he got into the business. He proudly talked about his on-the-job training in supper clubs in Little Rock and Hot Springs, Arkansas, backing up traveling artists six nights a week. He stressed being able to learn tunes on the gig – being expected to play after hearing it once through.

Sound/Right Hand Technique

Ken wanted to hear me walk the blues – then he quickly borrowed my bass to show me how it’s done. He got twice as much sound and drive as I had. “I try to get as much sound out as possible.” “Pull down toward the fingerboard at a 45 degree angle.” “Your fingers end up on the next string.” “I want to hear the attack… that’s the edge of the knife of your sound… it helps your sound cut through.” (in contrast, I was often just brushing over the top of the string rather than digging in.)

He uses the index and middle fingers together on medium tempo, alternating them when it’s faster. If the tempo allows, he pulls from the right elbow, using the whole arm, not just his fingers. I could see his whole body involved. “If I’m using my whole arm, I’m not really moving my fingers.” “The faster it goes, then it becomes more in the fingers and the wrist.” “I think of it like bouncing a basketball.”

“Another thing is: I like to keep my hand within a couple inches (from the end of the fingerboard).” (I had committed the sin of allowing my right hand to creep up away from the bridge). “You make yourself work harder up here (away from the bridge).”

Ken stressed how the sound comes from the instrument and not the amp. “The amp is not your sound, it just makes you louder.”

His string height was lower than what you might expect for how much sound he got. Ken once had the opportunity to play Ray Brown’s bass; he told me that Brown’s action was similarly not high. He uses Rufus Reid’s specifications for string height –  G string – 1/4 inch, D string – 3/8 inch, A string, 3/8 inch, E string – 7/16. (Reid, 3)

Groove and Style

He recommends legato playing – “one note doesn’t end until the next one starts.” This means being aware of how long you are holding notes, as well as the shifts between them.  “It doesn’t matter the tempo, always move the left hand fast.” (I.e. don’t have lazy shifts on ballads.)

Ken talked about the importance of adapting to musicians who play on different parts of the beat, and finding solutions that work. E.g., he mentioned listening to Woody Shaw play “Misterioso” (Shaw, “Misterioso”) – Stafford James is playing way behind the beat. When he tried to imitate that, it didn’t work. “I always listen to the ride cymbal.”

Concepts and Practice for Building Bass Lines and Solos

I was struck by how there was a rhythmic context for everything he wants his students to practice. Here’s what he showed me:

lesson-with-ken-walker

You can download this as a .pdf here: lesson-with-ken-walker

  1. Arpeggio practice, starting on each chord member (See example 1).
  2. Targeting/approaches. Ken teaches practicing simple, rhythmic licks that end on a chord tone (he uses the third as an example) on the “and” of 4 (Ex. 2). It doesn’t matter whether the approaching notes are in the key or not, since “the last note justifies what you played, whether it’s inside or outside.” To prove this, he played some examples of “outside” playing that ended beautifully on a chord tone.
  3. Using limitations to spur creativity:
    1. Soloing in a limited range, e.g. play a solo using only notes within a span of a perfect fifth. “You start playing in a more melodic way… and more rhythmically.” ‘It’s about finding a way to get students to stop thinking about notes.” On this point, Ken cited the etudes throughout Michael Moore’s Method (Moore, passim) that are limited to one position, and also Jerry Bergonzi’s material on http://jazzheaven.com/
    2. •Rhythmic limitations. This is an idea he got from an IAJE Clinic: improvise a solo using only dotted quarter notes, or dotted half-notes, “forcing yourself into a box and seeing if you can be creative with that.”

Transcription

Ken assigns two transcriptions per academic quarter. He usually has beginning students transcribe selections from the album Leroy Walks! by Leroy Vinnegar. Students then progress to Ray Brown and Paul Chambers and beyond.

On Taste

I’ll never forget what Ken told me about rhythm in solos when he quoted Dizzy Gillespie: “I hear rhythms, mostly, and then I put notes to them.” When he solos, Ken will start with a rhythmic motive and develop it: “I like to develop ideas. It’s not about a lot of notes, it’s about what you’re trying to say. Playing a lot of notes is like somebody who just talks and talks and they don’t really say anything. Make a statement and embellish that statement.” “A rest is just as valid an idea as a note.”

This all ties in with his advice about keeping your musical priorities straight. “Fundamentals are what get a bass player hired.”

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Works cited:

Bergonzi, Jerry. “Saxophone Mastery.” How to Play Jazz Lessons & Jazz Improvisation Videos with the Greats. Fawi, Inc., n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2016.

Michael Moore, The Michael Moore bass Method, Rottenburg: Advance Music, 2007. Print.

Reid, Rufus. Evolving upward: an aid in developing thumb position technique for the double bass. Teaneck, NJ: Myriad Ltd., 1977. Print.

Shaw, Woody, Steve Turre, Mulgrew Miller, Stafford James, Tony Reedus, and Bobby Hutcherson. Master of the Art. Wounded Bird Records, 2009. CD.

Leroy Vinnegar, Leroy Walks!, Contemporary, 1992, CD.

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2 Responses to “Lesson with Ken Walker”

  1. Jim Rintoul Says:

    Great! Really enjoyed this and looking forward to more
    Thank you Mark

  2. Mark Foley Says:

    Thanks, Jim! Bass on!

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