By Hilary Brown
Like rock ‘n’ roll, revolutionary tone and technique play a role in carving out some great jazz legacies. And throughout Fender’s storied history, there has been a wealth of jazz produced by talented players whose groundbreaking music is a testament to Fender-fueled versatility and self-expression. While you might think great jazz is limited to the hollow-body guitar and the upright bass, here are 10 great musicians whose careers suggest otherwise.
Seminal session bassist Steve Bailey opted for a fretless bass at age 14 after running over his fretted instrument. Tragedy or ironic twist of fate? The bassist’s diverse catalog suggests the latter, boasting stints with Latin jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Bailey’s ambient six-string playing and masterful execution of artificial harmonics technique have piqued the interest of both jazz audiences and fellow artists, notably fellow bassist and Bass Extremes founder Victor Wooten. Fender’s six-string fretted and fretless Steve Bailey basses of 2009-2011 are the only six-string long-scale basses in Fender history and remain coveted today for their sonorous low end.
Watch interview with Steve Bailey below.
Victor Bailey’s love affair with Fender basses began long before joining fusion juggernaut Weather Report in 1982 in the seemingly daunting role of replacing Jaco Pastorius; he’d learned the ropes on a short-scale Musicmaster® bass in his formative years. Fender’s five Victor Bailey signature basses of 2001-2011 (four-string, five-string and fretless acoustic and electric models) speak to his versatility as a player, and rightfully so: Bailey’s standout tapping technique, lightning-fast finger style and deep R&B grooves proved him a worthy successor to Pastorius during Weather Report’s final years. And with a trio of formidable solo releases, stints with Ramsey Lewis and the Brecker Brothers, and outings with contemporary hit-makers such as Mary J. Blige and Madonna, Bailey has earned more than enough credibility as a true musician’s musician ever since.
Watch Bailey in action below.
Nels Cline is widely recognized as guitarist for alt-rock darlings Wilco, but he’s also a seasoned jazz player with plenty of ambitious projects. Cline and his go-to Jazzmaster® are perfect complements; dark and brooding at times; viciously aggressive at others. It’s all par for the course for this musical risk-taker, who is as influenced by Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool and forward-thinking European jazz as he is by the Byrds, the Minutemen and Sonic Youth. These influences boil to the surface during Cline’s duo performances with fellow Fender jazz guitarist Marc Ribot and his own experimental free jazz outfit, the Nels Cline Singers. Don’t be fooled by the name, however; the group features no vocalists, but plenty of bold, gut-busting fretwork is always in store.
Standout Track: “Square King”
Bill Frisell is often labeled as a jazz guitarist, but the acclaimed Telecaster® master is not one to be pigeonholed, as inventively evidenced by 2011 John Lennon tribute All We are Saying, a bevy of silent film scores and numerous performances with his Beautiful Dreamers trio. And even all that is just the tip of the iceberg. Frisell is revered for his distinctive vision and imagination, with an innovative playing style that stands out as ethereal, airy and delightfully eclectic. He’s no stranger to jazz’s upper echelons, either, having performed with players such as influential drummer Paul Motian and pianist McCoy Tyner. His enthralling grasp of numerous musical styles, from freewheeling blues to old-fashioned Americana to artful jazz, makes him one of today’s most distinctive Telecaster stylists.
Standout Track: “Shenandoah”
Outfitting his beloved ’52 Telecaster with heavy-gauge strings and playing finger-style rather than with a pick, Ted Greene (1946-2005) was an influential guitarist with a style far removed from his contemporaries. The longtime educator had a passion for the classics, which he displayed on his one and only acclaimed solo outing, 1977’s Solo Guitar. Greene’s earthy, sincere technique combined functionality with subtly shifting extended harmonies (called voice leading) and clear-cut melody lines. The result was a series of graceful standards with as much simplicity and sophistication as calculated counterpoint.
Standout Track: “Autumn Leaves”
Fender’s Reggie Hamilton Standard Jazz Bass was introduced in 2005 and is a fitting tribute to the venerable, diverse jazz and R&B session bassist, who’s as adept at composing and singing as he is at grooving in the pocket. Since partnering with bassist Stanley Clarke and the late George Duke, he’s since taken his fast-and-loose East Coast rhythmic prowess to mainstream levels, performing with a varied roster that includes Billy Childs, Babyface, Whitney Houston, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Barbra Streisand, Seal, Anita Baker, Bette Milder and other, and on numerous film scores.
Standout Track: “All Jazzed Up”
Bass great Marcus Miller is a renaissance man, with a hefty resume that includes a wide variety of heavy hitters across all genres. Chalk that up to inspiration from bassists Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham, and his time with Miles Davis, during which Miller flourished as the great trumpeter’s protégé(and later his producer, composer and arranger).Miller often credits Davis with helping him discover his signature style during an artistically fertile tenure that saw the bassist’s popularity surge on the New York jazz circuit. Miller’s 1977 Jazz Bass was a worthy weapon of choice for his unrivaled thumb-style technique (check out aptly named track “Power” as a prime example of the rapid-fire “double-thumping” Miller helped pioneer). He’s as in-demand a session man as he is an accomplished solo artist, contributing to more than 400 albums and film scores and doing it all with irrefutable soul.
Standout Track: “Scoop”
Jaco Pastorius’s name may be synonymous with phenomenal jazz bass, and there’s no question that he sits atop the pantheon of virtuoso bass players. His arsenal consisted of war-torn Jazz Bass guitars; his main workhorse being a 1962 fretless from which he himself removed all the frets. Pastorius (1951-1987) was as deft as he was wildly inventive, with a penchant for inventive harmonics (listen to “Teen Town” from his famous 1976-1981 stint with Weather Report), dizzyingly fleet-fingered note flurries and infectious Afro-Cuban rhythms sprinkled with ghost notes. His dazzlingly virtuoso playing seemed effortless, and his stage presence electrified music fans, many of who still revere him as the world’s greatest bass player.
Standout Track: “Portrait of Tracy”
John Scofield is traditionally associated with other guitar makers, but he has noodled notably with Stratocaster® and Telecaster guitars more often in the 2000s. Catch him in Fender action with his recently reunited group, Überjam; with jam band circuit regulars Medeski Martin & Wood; and with his new band, Uncle John’s Electro-Jam Band. Though some of his later efforts feature edgier electro-dance influences, they still have plenty of trademark “Sco” qualities—angular melodies and unique phrasing with effortless hammer-ons and pull-offs.
Standout Track: “Over Big Top”
There’s no mistaking guitarist Mike Stern’s aggressive alternative picking laced with underlying bop influences, swirling chorus and fluid, airy delay. Nor is there any mistaking the Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars Stern used to create this signature tone on early recordings. A student of rock ‘n’ roll and blues, the former Blood Sweat & Tears guitarist eventually performed with a veritable who’s who of jazz giants—Miles Davis, Billy Cobham and Jim Hall, to name only a few—before embarking on an ambitious and diverse solo career.