Zachary Smith

If you have ever heard a brass quintet plod its way through what is supposed to be a “swinging” arrangement of a standard and wondered why it doesn’t feel right, the answer is simple: It’s “all about that bass”…or more accurately, the bass line and the tuba playing it.

In a typical “classical” brass quintet, the tuba is treated as one of five voices which come together to paint a sonic picture. To create an effective “swing” quintet arrangement, a composer has to write for four voices which will play over the top of a tuba bass line. Listen to a jazz small group and you will realize that the bass almost never stops playing—often playing a “walking four” as horn players solo over the top. The tuba has to embrace the same role for a brass quintet to swing and to maintain accurate time.

“Walking four” is the art of playing long strings of quarter notes which provide the chordal or harmonic foundation of a swing tune. One issue for the tuba player playing a walking bass line is that there seems to be no opportunity to breathe. A composer can address this problem with skillfully placed quarter or eighth rests, and the tuba player must learn to take quick, efficient breaths. Planning and practicing where to breathe should not be overlooked when rehearsing a swing tune.

Connecting notes is also critical when playing an effective walking bass line. When an acoustic bassist plucks a string, it rings until the next note is plucked. Many tuba players have a tendency to leave space in between every note they play. The result is a stilted bass line that sounds more like ragtime than swing. In the quintets I have written for Alfred Music I frequently write legato marks over the quarter notes for the tuba as a reminder (or plea) to use a “doo” tongue and connect the notes. In addition, the “doo” articulation will provide a smoother, more connected line, therefore a more effective approach to the quarter note line. If your quintet isn’t swinging, work on it from the bottom up—because it truly is, “All about that bass!”

Zachary Smith
See all titles from Zachary including his three new brass quintets here.

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