"Doing the Best I Can" - Fred Wesley

"Doing the Best I Can" (PDF) from the James Brown album, The Payback.
Support this blog via Patreon.

As Fred Wesley described in his autobiography, The Payback album marked the beginning of the end of his time serving as James Brown's sideman.  Much of the production for the album consisted of Wesley writing the music, but then having Brown direct the performance during its recording, which on this tune included an extended vamping outro and impromptu soloing between the sax and trombone, which may explain why the album was eventually scrapped as a film soundtrack.  However, Wesley suggests that it still became one of James Brown's best selling solo albums.

"Doing the Best I Can" is a slow shuffle in 12/8 meter that implies a bluesy plead for forgiveness, an admission that things may not always be perfect.  For instance, I still struggle with improvising in a 12/8 shuffle, never establishing a solid sense of the rhythm, but I'm doing the best I can.  In fact, within the first few bars of Fred Wesley's solo, it sounds as if he, too, is shaky about finding the rhythm, like a beginner skater stepping out onto the ice.

Once Wesley adjusts to the slower tempo, we can then dissect his phrasing to better understand the 12/8 rhythms.  By definition, the eighth note is the basic unit of measurement with twelve eighth notes filling the measure.  Typically, the twelve notes are divided into four groups of three notes, or four strong beats similar to the common 4/4 meter, and each note of the beat has a purpose.  The first, obviously, provides a strong beat, and the third indicates a swing feel into the next strong beat.  The second eighth note serves as a syncopated placeholder where its instability creates the tension, or the funk.  Notice how Wesley punches out his rhythms by accenting the off-beat eighth notes to separate his sound from the band.

Here is a YouTube video of Fred Wesley playing "Watermelon Man" from last month with dueling trombones.

Recommended Reading: Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman by Fred Wesley Jr.  Published by Duke University Press.