Will Yager '11

Hometown: Harriman, TN
Senior Study Title:
“Transcription and Analysis of Ron Carter’s Basslines From Four Selected Recordings of Autumn Leaves
Dr. Bill Swann

Thesis Abstract

For many people, Will Yager’s Senior Study might just seem like an in-depth study of jazz bass legend Ron Carter’s music.

But for Yager, it’s a glimpse into Carter’s mind.

As a bassist focused primarily on jazz and improvised music, Yager wanted his Senior Study to be about music and of educational benefit.

He originally thought about studying Paul Chambers, the bassist in Miles Davis’ groups from 1955 to 1963, and Carter, who joined Davis in 1963 – and how their playing with Davis influenced the language of jazz bass then and now. After realizing that the amount of transcription and study necessary to reach any meaningful conclusion was beyond the scope of a Senior Study, he chose to limit his research to Carter’s playing.

“As an aspiring bassist, Ron Carter is a musician who has commanded my respect and interest,” Yager wrote in his Senior Study. “While I possessed a cursory knowledge of Carter’s oeuvre prior to this study, I had no real intimate knowledge of his music or playing style. This project served to fulfill both interests.”

In his study, Yager documented and analyzed the Carter’s playing and how it evolved over his long career.

This was not a simple task.

To do this, he selected four different recordings of the tune “Autumn Leaves,” which span 38 years of Carter’s playing career (in order to have a basis for comparison): “Autumn Leaves” from Miles Davis’ Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965); “Autumn Leaves” from Ron Carter and Jim Hall’s Alone Together (1972); “Autumn Leaves” from Billy Cobham’s The Art of Three (2002); and “Autumn Leaves” from Ron Carter’s The Golden Striker (2003).

He then transcribed by ear Carter’s basslines and solos into musical notation. He used a musical notation software called Sibelius to input his transcriptions. After he had transcribed enough material, he analyzed the results to gain an understanding of Carter’s playing style and see how it changed from recording to recording.

“By selecting the same tune, I could track differences and similarities in his basslines in order to derive meaningful conclusions,” Yager wrote in his study.

Dr. Bill Swann, associate professor of music and Yager’s advisor, said he was not surprised when Yager proposed a fairly challenging topic for his Senior Study.

“I’ve always been impressed by Will’s dedication to learning about jazz music,” Swann said. “From the moment he got here as a first-year student, he has been a voracious learner regarding anything jazz-related. The idea of transcription and analysis is not new to the field of jazz studies, but it is not common to see an undergraduate project that seeks to cover and explain as much information as Will’s has.”

What Yager found was that Carter’s use of clichés (one-measure phrases that serve as the foundation of a bassline) in his bassline seems to change very little over the 38-year period represented by the transcriptions.

However, what does change is the “taste” with which Carter plays in the different musical situations.

“What does change in an appreciable way over the course of Carter’s career as evidenced by these transcriptions are the ‘Carter clichés’ (phrases that are original to Carter but frequently appear in his playing) and their increased use over time,” Yager wrote in his study. “This shows that Carter’s voice as a bassist becomes more refined and confident as his career progressed.”

Yager said the study explained “what makes Ron Carter sound like Ron Carter.”

“What was surprising to me is that he sounds as fresh as he does even though he’s repeating himself as much as he does,” Yager said of Carter’s reuse of material.

Yager said the most difficult – and laborious – aspect of his Senior Study was the actual transcribing of Carter’s playing.

“While I had certainly transcribed a decent amount of basslines and jazz solos prior to my Senior Study, the sheer amount of what I had to notate eclipsed anything I had done previously,” Yager said.

Additionally, the process itself was not easy.

“While listening to something and writing it down may seem simple, the amount of detail that goes into a good transcription is surprising,” Yager said. “The fact that I was primarily transcribing basslines also added to the difficulty. In older jazz recordings, the bass is often buried into the mix and very hard to hear, especially when trying to ascertain precisely what the pitches are.”

Yager said Swann was helpful in refining his topic selection and formulating the design of the study.

“It was important to both of us that the process be as objective as possible so that my analytical conclusions would be valid,” Yager said.

Swann said as a result of taking on the project, Yager’s aural perception of music increased. The development of aural skills is part of the music curriculum at Maryville College, Swann said, and Yager’s project took the basic skills he learned during his first and second years at MC and used them as a starting point to build even stronger aural perception.

“His project demanded that he listen to jazz recordings, isolate the bassist’s performances, identify the pitches and rhythms being played and translate them to written notation,” Swann said. “All of this was accomplished by ear. It is a way of studying that has no safety net; he is at the mercy of what his ears can perceive.”

After graduation in May, Yager plans to continue his study of the double bass at the graduate level. He has auditioned for and been accepted into several graduate schools and will soon make a decision.

Swann said he cannot imagine a graduate school not being impressed with Yager’s study.

“His is the kind of study one sees at the graduate level,” Swann said. “His study shows that he communicates well in writing, has keen analytical skills and possesses a good musical ear. All of those things would be highly desirable traits in an incoming graduate student. I have to think that his study helped him significantly in his (graduate school) auditions, even if it was an indirect assist.”

Yager said he believes that playing the double bass is his calling, and he thinks his Senior Study will help him in the future.

“My Senior Study allowed me to look inside the mind of one of the greats in my field, and the knowledge gleaned from it is invaluable in my becoming a better bass player,” Yager said. “My Senior Study was both of tremendous benefit and a lot of fun. I enjoyed the entire process and am grateful to Dr. Swann for his help and guidance and to Maryville College for requiring it as part of the core curriculum.”