The first jazz recording came in 1917. In other words, we now have more than 100 years of great jazz bass lines to listen to.
Thus, I decided to make a list of the very best among them. This list should thus be a treat for all jazz enthusiasts, as well as bass players who are looking to familiarize themselves with the genre.
Many of the bassists on this list have recorded multiple classics. However, for the sake of versatility, I have chosen to not include more than one track per bass player.
I believe this makes the list more interesting overall and showcases the best jazz bass lines from a range of styles.
13. Ray Brown Trio – Cry Me A River
- Bass Player: Ray Brown
- Year: 1985
Ray Brown`s downtrodden and sorrowful bass line on Cry Me A River reminds us just how beautiful the double bass can sound.
For the most part, Brown`s bass line consists of long and slow notes. However, he also plays a lot of small variations during these notes, which adds a lot of emotion to the track.
This also makes it all the more effective when he plays off the piano and adds intermittent fills. The result is a track that moves slowly along, yet manages to sound more vital and alive than most faster tracks.
12. Sonny Rollins – Oleo
- Bass Player: Percy Heath
- Year: 1954
Percy Heath`s bass line on the hard-bop track Oleo is unique, creative, and technically impressive.
In addition to being fast, it also changes up in terms of speed throughout the song. As a result, it sounds a lot more chaotic than some of the smooth and slow entries on this list, in a good way.
Towards the later parts of the song, he plays a bass solo that builds on the previously established rhythms in the song. He starts by changing up the melody, and then later on the rhythm. The result is a cohesive bass solo that suits the song well.
Heath`s aggressive double bass playing on the track is thus not only a great showcase of his technical ability. It also shows how jazz bass lines can be hard-hitting while carrying a song, especially so when there is this level of musicianship behind it.
11. Frank Sinatra – The Lady Is A Tramp
- Bass Player: Joe Comfort
- Year: 1957
Playing a bass line that is smooth enough to match Frank Sinatra’s vocals is no easy task. Yet, Joe Comfort`s bass line on The Lady Is A Tramp manages to do just that and more.
While less complex than many other entries on the list, the line fits the track and is a major part of what gives this song its smooth character. Comfort also knows when to stray away from playing a walking bass line, and when to change up its melody.
At certain parts, he changes to a more rhythmic groove that retains the feel of the song while making it sound more dynamic. He also moves up the register on his bass, notably when Sinatra does the same. As a result, they sound in synch and the song sounds more connected as a whole.
10. Bill Evans & Eddie Gomez – Invitation
- Bass Player: Eddie Gomez
- Year: 1975
Invitation by Bill Evans and Eddie Gomez is a perfect example of how well the piano and double bass can work together as a duo.
Throughout the track, both instruments give each other enough space for both to shine. Not only that, but they also do well in supporting one another when doing so.
Related Reading: Playing the bass the way Eddie Gomez does on this track takes a good bit of theoretical knowledge. Thus, if you are an aspering jazz bassist looking to sound like him, check out my list of essnetial jazz bass scales.
This makes it unclear what parts are meant to be bass solos, and what parts are piano solos. Instead, we get a track where the instruments blend together seamlessly.
This allows Gomez to play slow smooth lines, walking lines, groovy fills, as well as upper-register licks. The result is a jazzy bass line that has a bit of everything, without any of it ever feeling overdone or out of place.
9. Chick Corea – Spain
- Bass Player: Stanley Clarke
- Year: 1998
Spain is a new-age jazz track that spans almost 10 minutes. However, Stanley Clarke`s bass line on the track makes it seem like 5.
On the track, he switches between playing a fast and groovy line and a sustained groove. He also does not shy away from filling the song with short licks. If that wasn`t enough, he even throws in a bass solo towards the end of the song which then transitions beautifully back into the main groove.
What`s impressive about the main theme is how fast-paced the bass groove feels compared to the flute, drums, and keys. Despite this, it fits in perfectly among them and serves as both a foundation and a riff for the song at once.
8. Michael Camilo – Not Yet
- Bass Player: Anthony Jackson
- Year: 1994
Not yet by Michael Camilo has without a doubt the most epic main theme on this list.
This is in large part due to Anthony Jackson`s smooth and groovy bass line on the track. His tone and his rhythmic playing are what make the song sound explosive while keeping it grounded at the same time.
He also breathes life into the rest of the track by changing up his playstyle. During the early parts, he plays a staccato groove that makes the track sound like it’s building up. He also throws in the occasional bass fill which helps the track move from one part to the next.
Then, as the track moves on he switches to playing more sustained notes. This gives the whole track a new feel and creates a sense of progress and variation.
7. Wayne Shorter – Footprints
- Bass Player: Reggie Workman
- Year: 1966
With an all-star lineup of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Reggie Workman, and Joe Chambers, there is no wonder Footprints is an impressive track.
While possible to write out on 3/4 time, the track does not have a 3/4 rhythm feel to it. Rather, it alternates between 4/4 and 12/8 time. Yet, this can be hard to notice due to the way Workamn ties these two parts together with his bass line.
Combine this with the bass playing everything from a haunting main theme, to a walking line, to a solo and you`ve got your hands on an extremely impressive showcase of musicianship.
6. Mat Metheny – Question and Answer
- Bass Player: Dave Holland
- Year: 1990
If the question is “who is one of the best jazz bassists of all time?” the answer is Dave Holland.
Question and Answer is a complex and dynamic 7-minute track. What`s most impressive to me, is how Holland ties the track together throughout its relatively long time span.
The guitar and drums are constantly playing complex parts. However, Holland mostly keeps things simple while playing occasional fills when it fits the songs.
Later on, he switches to playing a more complex line as the drums slow down and the guitar makes space for the bass. Then, as the guitar enters the mix, again Holland seamlessly and gradually switches back to a more basic groove.
This song is thus a perfect example of how a bass line sounds when the whole band is locked into each other’s styles.
5. Mingus Big Band – Haitian Fight Song
- Bass Player: Charles Mingus
- Year: 1957
From his line on Moanin` to Better Git it in Your Soul, it’s easy to see why Charles Mingus is one of the all-time greats.
Out of all his great work to choose from, I choose Haitian Fight Song for a couple of reasons. First of all, he shows an amazing understanding of how to fill his role as a bass player.
He plays a walking line for most of the song but finds great ways to deviate from this groove when the track calls for it. Mingus also plays around with the melody of his line and adjusts it to the intensity of the song. This becomes especially notable towards the crescendo at the end of it.
Another reason is the way the bass kicks off the track. He starts with a smooth free-form bass solo that transitions into the walking main theme. Thus, he not only sets the tone of the song fittingly once but twice.
Related reading: If you feel inspired by the above walking grooves, you will likely find these easy walking bass line exercises helpful.
4. Duke Ellington – Take The “A” Train
- Bass Player: Jimmie Blanton
- Year: 1941
I also featured Take The “A” Train by Duke Ellington on my list of the greatest walking bass lines of all time.
The reason for this is that Jimmie Blanton shows exactly how effective a walking line can be. Not only that, but he also deviates from the walking rhythm occasionally, while always retaining the core feeling of the song.
In addition to creative intermittent changes in melody and rhythm, he also changes his articulation. Thus, he makes the song sound upbeat when needed, and more laid back towards the end. All this, just by being precise with how he plucks the notes on his bass.
3. Weather Report – Palladium
- Bass Player: Jaco Pastorius
- Year: 1977
I have mentioned Jaco`s Teen Town countless times on this blog. Most notably, on my list of hard bass tabs. However, he has many lines that deserve just as much attention, one of which is Palladium.
On the track, Jaco plays a main theme that is both funky and catchy. Combine this with the smooth tone of his bass of doom and this makes for a groove that is bound to get stuck in your head.
The bass line is also impressive composition-wise. This is because it morphs into different versions of the main groove. The result is a bass line that makes the whole song sound cohesive, while simultaneously showcasing why Jaco is one of the best bass players of all time.
2. Marcus Miller – Detroit
- Bass Player: Marcus Miller
- Year: 2012
I have previously featured Marcus Miller`s track Power on my list of the best bass solos of all time. While Detroit could have made that list too, it is more fitting on a list of the best jazz bass lines of all time. This is because of its versatility, cohesiveness, and ability to naturally bring out different emotions on the same track.
Miller plays a line that is funky and articulates notes hard to add punch to the track. Then, he combines this with melancholy melodies, which he plays with careful precision. Not only do these parts sound groovy and beautiful in their own right, but not once do they feel out of place despite being so different.
To top it all off Miller throws in some impressive, slapped solo bass parts. Thus, this track is a great holistic example of everything that makes him one of the best jazz bassists of all time.
1. John Coltrane – Giant Steps
- Bass Player: Paul Chambers
- Year: 1959
With Paul Chambers’s great work on songs like So What and Summertime, it was hard to pick just one song from him. In the end, I went with Giant Steps for a couple of reasons.
The main reason is how he makes his bass sound restless and hyperactive on the track. In the beginning, it sounds like he cannot wait to start playing the main line. Then, after 5 seconds it sounds like he kicks off of the song as he just cannot wait any longer.
Chambers then sticks to a fast-walking bass line for most of the track. Thanks to an intense drum beat, he thus manages to add a feeling of intensity to the song. This feeling is augmented when he occasionally makes a melodic descent together with Coltrane, which helps keep the track feel fresh.
All in all, this makes for a fast and fun bass line with a lot of character to it. And most impressive of all, it is just one of many Paul Chambers` bass lines that could have made the top of this list.