Blues You Can Use: Jack Meyers - Outside the box

March 11, 2013
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I RECENTLY RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM A READER, John Schroder, hipping me to a blues bassist named Jack Meyers. While I had heard his playing on Junior Wells/Buddy Guy recordings from the 1960s, true to the fate of many bassists, his name was unknown to me. John wrote, “His playing on [Buddy Guy’s] “I Had a Dream Last Night” still freaks me out—some outside stuff that is really deep inside.” I searched out the slow 12/8 blues track, and within the first two bars, Meyers played an unusual approach pattern that signaled something was going to happen. I didn’t have to wait long: In bar 4, Meyer exploded out of the silence with a bizarre chromatic fill that was so against the grain, the next sound I expected to hear was Buddy’s guitar going upside his head. I was shocked, amused, and intrigued.

Like many musicians of his era, Jack Meyers’ life and career is not well documented, but his work on the classic Junior Wells disc Hoodoo Man Blues establishes him as a bassist with formidable chops, a solid feel, creative ideas, and the balls to put them into action. While I have not been able to find evidence to support my theory, my best guess is Jack Meyers had a jazz background on upright bass. His melodic sense is definitely bop-infused, he routinely adds tritone substitutions and extended dominant root motion, and his technical facility brings to mind an upright bassist who picked up a Fender bass and said to himself, “Man, this thing is easy!” Meyers played many sessions for Chess Records, and backed Otis Rush, Big Walter Horton, Big Joe Turner, Charlie Musselwhite, Roosevelt Sykes, Sippie Wallace, and a host of others. There are a few clips on YouTube featuring Meyers playing with Otis Rush (“I Can’t Quit You Baby”) and Junior Wells (“What I Say”), and his playing comes through loud and strong.

While I’ve certainly made my case for toeing the line when it comes to blues bass playing, Jack Meyers’ playing is a study in contrast. His approach on slow blues in particular seems almost iconoclastic. Where most players would leave space at the end of a four-bar phrase for the guitar soloist, Jack fills—sometimes unsubtly (to say the least!). Instead of the usually spare harmonic landscape of Chicago blues, Meyers reharmonizes, inserts extra changes, plays inversions instead of the root, and in general makes his presence known. I admire his chutzpah, but I wonder if someone else could get away with that kind of freedom on a blues gig. And yet, here is a man who broke several “cardinal rules” while playing on some of the most iconic blues recordings ever.

Let’s take a look at a chorus of slow blues in Eb. If you reference Buddy Guy’s “I Had a Dream Last Night” around the 3:23 mark, you’ll hear something that resembles Ex. 1. The example is written in 12/8 time for ease of notation, but remember—what you feel as a quarter-note is actually notated as a dotted quarter-note. In bar 1, a tritone sets up a chromatic approach to the quick IV chord, which starts out innocently enough. But an abrupt 16th-note triplet lands on a Dn (another tritone) on beat three—hello! Bar 3 remains fairly conventional, with the arpeggio going up to the high Eb, and returning back down with a chromatic approach to bar 4, after which all hell breaks loose. I scratched my head over this next lick for a while—not only over what he played, but why. The melodic profile of this lick is pure Coltrane, and stretching a 4-over-3 rhythmic pattern that culminates in a rocky downhill race to the downbeat of the next bar is an odd choice when you’re backing up a Buddy Guy solo. The next two bars of IV chord are normal, but when the I chord returns, a strange fluttering rhythm signals a chromatic trip up and down before Meyers settles in to finish up the last four bars in relative peace.

All this happens in just one chorus of slow blues! Now imagine over six minutes of this, and you’ll see why Jack Meyers wins my vote for President of the 5B club (Blues Bassists with Big Brass Balls). There is much more to be learned from this gem of a player who left this earthly plane on March 9, 2011. In the future, we’ll look at more of his ideas as a way to think outside the box shape.

INFO

ED FRIEDLAND

Ed “The Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays inside, outside, and upside the box from his bass base in Austin, Texas.
edfriedland.com

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