Lesson With Dennis Carroll

Dennis Carroll is a man of refined tastes. This is the immediate impression when visiting Dennis Carroll at his apartment. The walls covered in striking reproductions of chiaroscuro paintings, mostly Goya – “I’ve always wanted to live in an art gallery.” He also serves the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had. The lesson spilled over into a lunch, where he had to hip me to the best italian beef sandwich in Chicago (I’m going to keep it’s identity a secret). His discerning palate applies to his music, too; his teaching reflects a lifetime of careful listening. Dennis is on faculty at DePaul University; you can find his bio here: http://music.depaul.edu/faculty-staff/faculty-a-z/Pages/dennis-carroll.aspx

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Rhythm Changes: Chord Substitutions and Lines

I wanted to know how he would approach teaching a new student. “The first thing I would ask is, ‘could you just walk some rhythm changes?’” He counted off a moderate tempo and had me play many choruses so that he could listen for the redundancies in my line (there were many). He pointed out my line on the bridge. “Any time you see a dominant, especially if you have a dominant for two bars or longer in a row, say, like “Dig” or “Sweet Georgia Brown” or a myriad other examples, you can always think of those as – what? (he was using the Socratic method here) – what always precedes the dominant?” Once I had finally realized he wanted me to figure out that you could substitute  ii-V or II-V for V, he played an example for me, at the same time demonstrating his amazing tone and rock-solid time (e.g. playing Am7-D7 instead of just two bars of D7. Example 1 is a transcription of what he played).

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You can download a pdf file here: lesson-with-dennis-carroll

“The master of developing the line in modern language, of course, is Ray Brown… He constantly did that.” He proceeded to play another Rhythm Changes line (example 2), this time at a blistering tempo, proving how the substitutions can make the line more clear and interesting. “As (students) advance a little bit and get the concept of how to get to the fifth; how the fifth can be used as a starting point… The main thing there is that we’re on the hook for every quarter note – every beat. And horn players could be in front of us for a while and the tempos could really be up there. It’ll have to be real muscle memory, right? So count it off fast “ “I’m thinking always how can I get (the students) to understand that by opening up like that you’re not just surviving at those tempos, but you’re also not letting yourself get bored. You can almost think of yourself as playing a solo within the solo by having a creative bass line. Frame it not as another arduous task, but that you’re playing a solo within the solo.  

On Teaching

He explained the idea of “framing” – “the way you phrase things as a glass half empty or glass half full scenario. People are always risk averse, but you can put things another way where they’re gaining something out of it. And they can hear it.”

As we continued talking about teaching methods, his enthusiasm became obvious. In fact, Dennis got so excited about our conversation that he insisted I meet one of his students at DePaul right away and put these ideas into practice.

Listening

We talked about how the most important part of the process is listening. This means learning without using books or charts. He stressed being able to pick up tunes on the fly. “As bass players we are on the hook. The people on the front line – they just want to play, and they are expecting us to get it – that’s just the gig. My point with that with my students is that it makes them more competitive… that is an attractive thing in the marketplace.

He sits at the piano and started playing a tune without naming it, expecting me to jump in. Dennis is a beautiful piano player, by the way – lots of refined voicing and chord substitution ideas. He explains that he’ll accompany students on the piano, making them play by ear and stopping at different places to see if they can identify the harmony. “If they can’t do that, then how are they going to walk? After you get the right root note, then what are you going to do?”

Here’s his method for developing chord recognition skills: He’ll have them turn their back and he’ll play chords on the piano for them to identify. Then he’ll have them record themselves playing the chords, with their own voice announcing what the chord type is.

He had me play a dominant pedal while he played some chromatic harmonies above. That got us into “the next level of harmony, which is slash chords.” “By the time you get into the sixties with Herbie and Miles you’ve got to be able to know that stuff, otherwise you’ve got a problem.” These things are also important because, not only are you learning to be a bass player, but also a budding composer.

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