Some ideas about playing in a jazz ensemble

I spent the weekend teaching jazz at Grafham. We had a great session in the group I was with. This clarified some ideas for me. These are not particularly original, but I believe them to be true.

  • In jazz, the music is created in the listener’s head, much like the pictures on the radio. We can trust the listener to create the music. This is one way in which jazz differs from a lot of the conventional music that we hear – jazz doesn’t have to spell everything out. A little hint goes a long way. Adding too much information can destroy the illusion.
  • It’s not enough that some authority (a tutor, a book, a video) says that a given thing should be played in a given context; if the player doesn’t understand what it means, they are reciting, not communicating. To be musically wise, you have to own all the components. In other words, you play a given thing because you know what it means and why you are playing it, and not because of some rule that someone has given to you, or that you have imposed on yourself.
  • If you have a concept of how something should sound, you may not need to analyse the mechanics of how to make the sound. There’s a parallel with learning to walk. Unless you have studied bio-cybernetics you are unlikely to have any idea how you walk. You learned that by trial-and-error, as a child. The same brain and spinal column systems that learned to walk can achieve musical effects for you. Try stuff, and listen for the desired effect. It will come. If we have a concept, and we know that it is possible, we can trust our bodies to figure out how to achieve the effect.  Paying too much attention to the mechanics can  inhibit learning.  The aim is to go from concept to execution without thought. Just like when you turn left out of your front door. 
  • If you don’t have a concept of how something should sound, you probably need to listen to more music. If you do have a concept, but haven’t achieved it yet, you probably need to practice more.
  • It may be inefficient to practice two or more superimposed figures if you can’t play them well individually. [And for most people, if you learn a rhythmic figure with one hand, your other hand doesn’t know it until you learn it with that hand too.]
  • If, while you play, you read the chords from a book, you aren’t listening to what is being played in the moment. And if you then play what you read, you may restrict everyone else too, if they are playing something different.
  • If you read a book because you can’t trust your memory, you are actively preventing yourself from remembering. And memory needs practice, like everything else.  We have to learn to trust our memory and to trust our ears. In the process we will make mistakes. We have to accept that mistakes don’t matter. It’s only music, after all. [As a child I asked the classical violinist Raymond Cohen if he ever made mistakes. All the time, he said. I was shocked.]
  • If you learn a piece out of a book, or a drum pattern from a chart, that’s unlikely to be sufficient. Imagine a Martian came to Earth, trying to pass as a human, having read books on how humans behave.
  • Just like scales, drum patterns in books represent a summary of what people play. In real music people rarely play all of the scale notes in order. It’s a family that you can select from. Drum patterns are similar. You don’t need to play all of the stuff all of the time. 
  • The harmony instrument doesn’t create the harmony. The listener can hear much of the harmony from the bass line and the melody / improvised line, and they can deduce what’s missing. And if the harmony instrument does state the chord, the listener doesn’t need any more harmonic information until the chord changes, or some other event (like the bridge, or the next section) is about to happen. The harmony instrument can signpost these parts harmonically and rhythmically; the rest of the role is purely rhythmic.
  • Focusing too much on one element of the music can divert our attention. For example, if I spend too much time thinking about which chord voicing to play, I may not be thinking enough about what is rhythmically interesting. And time trumps harmony. It doesn’t matter how fancy your voicing is if it’s placed wrong. I would prefer to hear simple chords (or single notes) placed at rhythmically interesting times. Fancy voicings are icing on the cake. Don’t allow attention to the icing make the cake go soggy.