There's a glorious sense of mystery, a rightfully rarefied air, reserved for the masters of American soul. It's not just that the genre is called “soul,” although that's got to be part of it. The greats of the music are held in special regard because playing soul well is something akin to magic, a little more so than other genres. Soul musicians get the same notes as everyone else, of course, but the best practitioners shade them differently, imbue them with a raw humanity that comes through disarmingly clear, probably because the music is purpose-built to exhibit it.
The power of the music is expressed most clearly through soul singers, like Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke, or Stevie Wonder. But soul instrumentalists deserve to occupy this realm, too. As the longtime bass player for the house band of Stax Records, Donald “Duck” Dunn — who died Sunday in Japan at age 70 — lent low notes to the songs of Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, and others. An instrumentalist for some the genre's greatest moments, it's no surprise that Dunn's recordings, at least, will be remembered. But what's notable about Dunn's playing wasn't how well it stood out — his bass rarely announced itself — but the superlative job it did of blending in, of holding together the rhythms and melodies that made those songs so powerful.