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The Bottom Line: Bass On Top

Thanks to fellow bassist Milt Hinton's prodding, Oscar Pettiford moved to New York and became one of bebop's most innovative musicians. (Courtesy of Bethlehem Archives)

There's a good reason why the contrabass resides at the center of nearly every rhythm section and every mix in the recorded history of jazz music. Notes from an unamplified double bass rank among the most beautiful man-made sounds; in jazz, the creator of those notes is always in the middle of the action, charting the harmonic direction of a band and plotting the rhythmic narrative as both an accompanist and a soloist.

It's no small task, but here are five musicians who performed the duty with aplomb.

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Milt Hinton

Known simply as "The Judge," Milt Hinton is one of the most recorded musicians in all of jazz, and rightfully so. When he wasn't documenting the jazz experience with his Leica camera, he was dedicated to the craft and technical mastery of his instrument. Whether bowing, plucking, strumming or "slapping" the bass, Hinton always seemed to play the right note at the right time. "Ebony Silhouette" was a Hinton staple during his 15-year tenure with the Cab Calloway Band. This version comes from a Hinton-led session of the Tony Scott Quartet. (Scott is listed under the pseudonym A.J. Sciacca.)

Duke Ellington with Ray Brown

When you hear a killer bass solo, remember Jimmy Blanton. Duke Ellington's greatest band included Blanton, whose melodic and harmonic fluency revolutionized the role of the double bass in modern jazz. He made the bassist a soloist, and he performed this daredevil feat before he died of tuberculosis at 21. Jazz great Ray Brown, the bassist of choice for most classic bebop recordings, attributed his playing the instrument to hearing Ellington and Blanton together on songs such as "Pitter Panther Patter." This time, it's Brown's honeyed tone with the Duke, with Blanton receiving the dedication.

Oscar Pettiford

Oscar Pettiford almost quit music. Had Milt Hinton not convinced him to leave a steady day job in Minneapolis, we might never have known Pettiford's contributions to the language of jazz, his notable compositions like "Bohemia After Dark," or his use of the cello in jazz music. Pettiford extended the rhythmic and harmonic sophistication of Jimmy Blanton to meet the demands of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and the major innovators of bebop. On the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Stardust," Pettiford shows off the melodic brilliance that makes him one of the pillars of modern jazz.

Charles Mingus

"Tensions" is the perfect name for a Mingus tune. One of the few virtuoso contrabass players in the truest definition of that word, the emotionally tempestuous bassist could goad all manner of sounds from the tension and release of his fingers on strings. Charles Mingus' music was often a hot, sweaty mess of collective improvisation, and as both leader and mad scientist, he often drove the members of his band to the limits of their own potential as improvisers. Listen to the pulse behind the stuttering horns on "Tensions." And that solo? Mercy!

Scott LaFaro of the Bill Evans Trio

When young bassists lament the fact that there's no comparable game for them like Guitar Hero, they should play records that feature Scott LaFaro. LaFaro's expression of advanced harmony, and his exploration of free swing as a member of pianist Bill Evans' trio, lighted the path for successive generations of polyrhythmic players who can swim in the ebb and flow of jazz time. Evans visited the Miles Davis composition "Nardis" frequently, and here he gives the bassist plenty of space to conjure what Ornette Coleman praised as LaFaro's "alchemy."

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