I’ve noticed a trend recently that’s beginning to concern me. During musical performances, you can hear people making loud and inappropriate noises and indulging in other forms of inappropriate behaviour. And I’m not talking about members of the audience coughing, taking photos or answering their mobile phones. Keith has said enough about that.
No, I’m talking about the performers. At a jam session recently, a singer was singing a beautiful and fairly sensitive song. A phalanx of three sax players advanced towards him, blaring on their instruments. The visual effect was threatening. The auditory effect was to drown him out.
Of course the sax players didn’t intend this. They were excited and wanted to join in.
Life is hard for front-liners. The rhythm section get to play the whole time, while for a front-liner opportunities to play are limited to the head and their solos. To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz: The opposite of playing isn’t listening. The opposite of playing is waiting.
Alongside that, front-liners require the ability to show-off, to play fireworks, to give fiery expression their inner feelings. On your own, it’s hard to practice playing subtly behind other players. Especially on one of those loud instruments like a tenor sax. A trumpeter can put a mute in, but a sock isn’t often to hand on the stand, and anyway it affects the intonation.
And it’s not just the front-line that’s guilty here. Sometimes the rhythm section get a fit of show-offery in the middle of a beautiful song or a subtle, reflective solo.
In a quartet, where everyone is listening to everyone else, all the players can make an equal contribution at all times. This is not accompaniment, this is ensemble playing. There are times when, during a sax solo, the drums or piano might dominate. That’s cool. It can be way beyond cool, in the right context.
But a listening drummer is unlikely to decide to dominate in the middle of an intense ballad. John Marshall said (and I don’t know if it was original but I hope so): Anything goes, but it doesn’t really.
Here are some basic guides for accompaniment. There are no rules, so these aren’t rules.
Watch your level Trevor Tompkins, a fount of jazz aphorisms (and world champion name-dropper) said: If you can’t hear the soloist, you are playing too loud. (He also said, and I love this, Why is it that when some electric bass players take a solo, the lights dim in all the surrounding streets?)
There’s often an effect where one instrument is too loud, and the others raise their level to match it. This happens at gigs even at the highest level, though in those cases it may be down to the sound or monitor engineer. If someone is too loud, tell them. Play with intensity and leave the volume to the death metal bands. They need it. You don’t. You want dynamic range, and if you’re already loud, there’s nowhere to go. If audience members wince or cover their ears, they’re telling you something.
Spaces are important Mike Monteiro suggests that you should play (he wrote talk, but it’s exactly the same principle) only if it improves the silence. If you find that you are contributing all the time, then consider whether your input might be habitual rather than reflective. And consider whether you might be hogging a space that others could use, or that could be left blank to greater effect. It’s the notes you don’t play that matter, Miles possibly said.
Put yourself behind the soloist / singer Your contribution should be in the background. Don’t draw attention to yourself, draw attention to the soloist. Make them look good. And make sure there’s not too much going on. If in doubt, don’t play.
Pay attention to the genre This gets subtle. I once saw a top bebop guitarist ruin a folky piece. Where the part said D2 he played D9. Went down like a fart at a funeral.
Things vary between genres. If you don’t know the genre there’s not much you can do about it on the night. A good start is to be aware that you’ve suddenly gone from being a top-player to a blundering ignoramus. Your habitual shit will just not cut it. Think Kiri Tekanawa or Yehudi Menuhen attempting to play jazz. You really don’t want to be that person radiating confidence and ineptitude in equal proportions.
Jazz players attempting folk can be susceptible to this problem. If you’re joining in with a couple of acoustic guitars and a voice, your saxophone is unlikely to fit, unless you’ve done a lot of work on how and what to play in that context. If you haven’t, there’s a risk that you will honk all the beauty away.