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Popping And Bopping: The Electric Bass In Jazz

Stanley Clarke performs on stage during the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival in 2007. (Getty Images)

In the jazz fusion era of the 1970s, a new breed of jazz superstar was born: the electric bassist. Although electric bass wasn't unheard-of in jazz before jazz-rock fusion, it quickly became an important component in fusion bands, and the bassists themselves became more prominent in the spotlight as soloists.

So here's a quick look at electric jazz bass and five of its greatest players from the '70s to the present day. We obviously can't cover all the "basses" with five artists and songs, so be sure to tell us your favorite electric jazz bass players and performances in the comments.

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Jaco Pastorius

Although Jaco Pastorius wasn't the first electric bassist in jazz, his self-titled 1976 debut is probably the record that sent the most electric bass players back to the practice room in the biggest hurry to catch up. With his recordings as a bandleader and his phenomenal contribution to the group Weather Report, Pastorius had an effect on electric bass players similar to Charlie Parker's effect on alto saxophonists: He forever changed the way musicians thought about playing that instrument. It seems fitting, then, that the first song on Pastorius' debut album was a solo bass performance (accompanied only by Don Alias on congas) of a song Charlie Parker made popular: Miles Davis' composition "Donna Lee."

Stanley Clarke

The same year that Jaco Pastorius released his solo debut, electric bassist Stanley Clarke appeared on his sixth LP with the group Return to Forever. His composition, "The Magician," might be more of an exercise than a song, but what a delightful exercise it is: The unison playing between Clarke, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola and Lenny White is spectacular, as is Clarke's soloing. Here's a band having a great deal of fun at an extremely high level of musicianship.

Steve Swallow

After years of playing acoustic jazz bass with the likes of Stan Getz, Paul Bley, Art Farmer and Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Swallow switched to electric bass in 1970. It was a graceful and fruitful transition. The work he's done since then with Carla Bley, John Scofield, Gary Burton and many others has distinguished him as one of the finest jazz bassists and composers of our time. "Lost in the Stars" is a seldom-performed Kurt Weill song with a gorgeous, touching melody. In this duet with pianist Carla Bley, Swallow tastefully uses the full range of the electric bass to explore the song's possibilities.

Hear "Lost in the Stars" on MySpace.

Victor Wooten

In 1988, electric bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, Roy "Futureman" Wooten, joined banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck in his group, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones. With Victor Wooten's bass chops and Futureman's invention, the "drumitar" (which makes him the band's guitarist and drummer), The Flecktones can boast one of the most innovative and in-the-pocket rhythm sections in contemporary music.

Marcus Miller

With this version of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," bassist Marcus Miller runs away with the idea of "fusion." He's taken a classic-rock instrumental and turned it into a metal-funk-jazz-rock extravaganza. The guitars grind out in-your-face rock, which is overlaid with a meaty, funky horn section and topped off by jazzy solos from trumpeter Michael "Patches" Stewart and (in the video here) alto saxophonist Keith Anderson. Then there's Miller's electric bass solo. Can you say "bottomless groove"?

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