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The bassist who wanted to excel at improvising

Fredrik Sahlander played fast, but it was not fast enough. He played elegantly, but it was not graceful enough. He has now defended a doctoral dissertation where he presents the method that made him a better bassist within two years.

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Boo Fredrik Sahlander with his bass
Boo Fredrik Sahlander has become a better bassist after two years with Gary Willis' improvisation methodology. Photo: Atle Christiansen.

Boo Fredrik Sahlander is a senior lecturer at the University of Agder (UiA) and recently defended a doctoral dissertation on the development of his own skills at electric bass.

The dissertation is an action study that documents how the teaching and practice methods of the jazz bassist Gary Willis influenced Sahlander’s improvisational skills at electric bass within two years. Sahlander has also tried out the Gary Willis method on five of his students.

The doctoral thesis consists of a dissertation and two recordings. The first one (Past: Present, 2012) was recorded before using Gary Willis’ methodology; the other recording was registered afterwards (Present: Future, 2015). Each album consists of eight songs composed by Sahlander, all with solo sequences for electric bass. The purpose of the recordings was to document the changes in Sahlander’s skills as a bassist before and after the meeting with Gary Willis.

Municipal music school

Sahlander started playing bass at the municipal music school in his home country Sweden in 1979. He started a band and practiced bass. The band held concerts and Sahlander held the bassline. He played solo shows and improvised, but the bassline called him back. The bassist will after all keep the bassline; the deepest and most central tone of the musical course.

The band was dissolved, a new one was established and then dissolved. Sahlander got then caught by rock'n roll and gave jazz later a chance too. Life was bass and bassline, and it was all about the instrument and practice. With the bassline, Sahlander held the band together and made sure that the melodies did not disappear along the way.

The bassline

"The bassist's task is to keep the bassline, but it is then difficult to improvise. You are constantly pulled back to the bassline”, says Sahlander.

Boo Fredrik Sahlander med sin elbass

Boo Fredrik Sahlander playing bass following Gary Willis' improvisation methodology. Photo: Atle Christiansen.

Sahlander needed to get rid of the bassline. He did not know that when he started playing jazz in the 1980's. He was not aware of that when he was watching movies, listening to CDs or to the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius. He just kept practicing bass and playing concerts.

He listened through what was worth listening to and practiced for weeks, months and years. Practice makes perfect, but Boo Fredrik Sahlander obviously did not practice the right way.

"I do not see myself as a bad improviser, but I do not belong to the elite in the area, as I wish I would. Why have not I gotten there? ", he asks at the beginning of his dissertation.

20 years of practice

Sahlander has been practicing for more than 20 years – including 10 years of music studies – before he finally finds the answer.

In the doctoral thesis, Sahlander puts his own hands, fingers and soul under the loop: will he be better at improvising if he gets his teaching from Gary Willis for two years?

Gary Willis is considered to be among the best improvisers at electric bass, and if Sahlander wants to succeed, he needs then to collaborate with one of the best.

Sahlander was previously keen on using varied scales and chords. The harmonics of classical music dominated the jazz of the 1960s and beyond.

"Now I see the electric bass more like a piano keyboard, where you have all the possibilities visually in front of you. Before, I had a more academic view of the bass where I thought the chord related to different scales. Then you get incredible choices, you have 10-20-30 scale options, and to me it just became too many. With Gary Willis' method, I visualize the tone of the bass neck, which I started seeing like a kind of a geometric shape, and it becomes then easier to improvise. I do not use a detour around scales and chords anymore, but I go more directly to the next sound and tone,” says Sahlander.

The Gary Willis method is called Finger Board Harmony. While the classic way to play bass is academic and thoughtful, Willis' method is visual and more direct.

“The music gets a pattern directly on the bass neck. You do not have to choose chords, scale and rhythm. You jump over a variety of filters and go straight to the music. You make a faster link between the brain and the instrument. Nobody goes back to the academic way of playing after trying the Willis’ method”, he underscores.

From virtuosity to depth

In the past, Sahlanders was impressed by virtuosi that played fast and had a brilliant bass technique.

"Now I am more interested in creating music – I care more about musicality," he says.

"It's about absorbing the best techniques of high-level musicians, integrating parts of their playing way into my own and adding new elements to create my own musical identity,” Sahlanders adds.

Sahlander’s five students confirm that Gary Willis’ improvisation methodology develops the bassist’s skills. All the students experienced improvisational improvement.

Sahlander is no longer mastered by the bassline. He mastered it. Now he avoids starting and ending with the bassline, which makes improvisation more melodic.

"I am at a much higher musical level now and have definitely become a better electric bassist. The two years with Gary Willis have changed my view of bass as an instrument”, says Sahlander.

Boo Fredrik Sahlander: From the bassline to B2. A methodical research project of Jazz. Doctoral dissertation, University of Agder, 2017

Audio files

Download: Future - 2015

Download: Present - 2012