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Accompanying Jazz & Cabaret Singers

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by matthewbrown, Feb 18, 2019.

  1. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    I do many different types of gigs in many different styles, but I have been caught up short with my lack of skill in accompanying jazz & cabaret singers, especially when performing an unfamiliar song, when I have to rely on a lead sheet. My main issue seems to be adjusting to the required tempo fast enough. I know there are a lot of factors here, but are there any rules of thumb or conventions that I should follow?
  2. Some more information would make it easier. Just you and a singer, or with a band? Is there a drummer? What is "required tempo"? Required by whom? The singer, or the band? Who counts off? You?
    Winoman and Seanto like this.
  3. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    For tempo, you play to the count off. If no count off, whoever starts first sets the tempo. Sometimes its helpful for a single person to play a short intro, which sets the tempo into the rest of the tune especially when there is no count off.

    Like the post above, more details would be great as i am having trouble defining your actual problem.
  4. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    This is a band setting, and very often the count offs are ...wrong. The singer counts off a tempo and then sings at a different tempo or tries to. At my last attempt at backing a bunch of different singers, the pianist seemed able to intuit what they singer wanted. The singers are not professionals, for the most part, at least as far as I can tell.
  5. Jim Dedrick

    Jim Dedrick Jim Dedrick Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2016
    Port Deposit, MD
    I run into this same thing where the singer says she wants to play in 12 but really meant 6 or something like that. Sometimes even counts off a completely different tempo. I completely understand the frustrations. Rule of thumb we use is adjust to singers tempo when she starts singing. Then there is, of course, the times when the singer comes in on a different section than the band is in and possibly even on the wrong beat. Piano player and I keep good visual contact and jump to where the singer is. Why is it always singers???
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2019
    G Aichele, pjbassist and matthewbrown like this.
  6. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    The joke goes like this:
    Bandleader: "OK, Autumn Leaves. Start in G minor, bar five up a half step, back down in bar nine. Bar fourteen is in 3/4. All good?"
    Singer: "I couldn't possibly do that!"
    Bandleader: "You did last night."

    One way to solve this problem is to rehearse.
    Another way is to insist that people bring accurate charts if they're going to sit in, and count off their own tunes.
    Another is just to do your best to make lemonade from lemons.

    Fundamentally, I used to be a beginner. I also used to play better than I play now. Sometimes -- heck, last night! -- I need people to give me all the patience that, other times, I try to give others.
    klyph, Winoman, Seanto and 5 others like this.
  7. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    I think of it as another species of ear training. Keeping up with a shaky singer is a real test of your ability to handle yourself onstage, and you learn whether your bandmates are paying attention too. It's not how any musician wants to hear the music, but when you're in it you have to commit to it, and the singer isn't the one who's gonna figure it out and correct hermself. So in the moment your choice is being right and wrecking the train, or going with the flow and pretending it's all OK.

    Be sure your stage plot allows for good eye contact between you and the rest of the rhythm section, then use it. After the first time the count goes sideways, I or the drummer will very politely and supportively take the count away from the singer for the remainder of the gig.

    "Where do you want the tempo?"
    "Like this!" (counts too fast)
    "Are you sure?"
    "Yup, that's it!"
    "Okay, here goes." (counts it slower, singer doesn't notice, everything goes fine)

    Lacking rehearsals to work this stuff out, there's no other system I know about.
    Winoman, rknea, Sam Sherry and 3 others like this.
  8. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    I should add that sometimes it works to have the singer test-sing the first phrase to the band rather than count off.
    notabene likes this.
  9. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member Supporting Member

    So, all good advice, IMO, and @Steven Ayres summed it up best for me.
    Accompanying jazz singers is one of the most difficult assignments I've experienced. Mostly because there seem to be two types of singers: 1) amateurs and 2) professionals. The pro's like to take a lot of liberty with the time but they know where it is and are counting on you to keep it while they walk all over it for the emotional affect they're seeking. The amateurs don't have the skills to count off the time accurately nor keep it once they start.
    Seems a sad fact, but many singers don't play an instrument nor do they spend any time with a metronome, so, really, it's unreasonable to expect better.
    What can you do? As Steve said, count it off for them. Providing them with a 4 to 8 bar intro helps a lot, but in many cases, you'll need to "nod" them in at the end of the intro.
    Lastly, jazz tends to be about a static, consistent groove from start to finish, but singer's tend to be more Broadway, where the groove isn't the be-all-and-end-all and instead, the time shifts for emotional affect. Sensing that and playing to it without a rehearsal is a really tall order, IMO. I do know a handful of brilliant bassists who manage to pull it off, but I can't do it and don't know how they can.
    Another thing that can help, and I encouraged when I ran a jam is, ask the singers for a recording of them singing the tune, or, if they don't have that, a reference recording that they're working from. When you hear that Disney pause, you'll know it's coming, even if you don't know exactly how long.
    Last, it's jazz; a live performance, unrehearsed; you'll have to decide of the value if having the singer do a muddled tune is more valuable than having a crisp groove for the gig.
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2019
    John Chambliss and Steven Ayres like this.
  10. Steven Ayres

    Steven Ayres Supporting Member

    Mar 11, 2007
    Northern Arizona
    For several years I worked as music director to a song-and-dance man, a brilliant, sunny entertainer. He was a musician of the pretty-good school, who loved the music but never took time to look very closely at it. He was a lot more focused on audience effect and being responsive to the people in front of him. He couldn't remember all the lyrics to half the tunes, and he'd routinely conform the occasional measure to whatever felt right in the moment. We did a lot of rehearsing, but there's no audience there, so once he hit the stage we knew anything could happen. We had to stay very sharp on stage every minute. We were the firefighters with the net, and he was happy to take any kind of flyer for a laugh. Once he took a high leap, missed it and landed flat on his back on the stage with a wham you could feel. It knocked the wind out of him for a second, and he dropped a few beats. The song nearly fell apart. But he'd held onto the mic, and, still on his back, he put his two-tone shoes in the air and 'conducted' us back in with his feet. The audience roared, and he sang there on the floor for half the chorus while he recovered, 'conducting' the whole time. It was sloppy sometimes, but he was always completely committed, and you have to respect that.
    Winoman, marcox, Who da Ville and 6 others like this.
  11. 'How would you like me to start this tune - too fast, or too slow?' said the pianist to his singer/employer. :)
    Sam Sherry and pjbassist like this.
  12. Esteban Garcia

    Esteban Garcia living la vida loca Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2018
    Portland, OR
    You know how to tell when a singer's at the door? Doesn't know when to come in and can't find the key. (You know how to tell when it's the drummer? The knocking speeds up.)
    Winoman and VictorW126 like this.
  13. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    Well, all joking aside, when I get stuck with someone who cannot count-in, I start doing the count-ins myself.

    Singers who are not also band instrumentalists rarely have even the foggiest idea how rhythm works. I figure it's the band's job to take care of this since we specialize in it.

    One of my favorites is when you play the tune walking in 4 and the singer says "oh, way too fast!" so you play it at a slightly faster tempo, but in 2, and they say "no, now it's too slow!"

    Also people who are unclear on the difference between "beats" and "measures". "Hold the G chord for onebeat, then C for two beats, then back to D". Oh, really?
  14. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    maybe just lay out for a couple bars till the tempo stabilizes? Or just play pedal tones for a bit till they figure out what universe they are in?
    matthewbrown likes this.
  15. Gravedigger Dav

    Gravedigger Dav Supporting Member

    Mar 13, 2014
    Fort Worth, Texas
    I once walked off a gig because the singer would not keep a reasonable tempo. It wasn't that he couldn't. He liked to vary the tempo for "effect." The effect was it was difficult to stay with him and he refused to stay with the band. Did I mention he was a self absorbed arrogant jerk?
    I did feel bad afterward because it was a totally unprofessional thing to do. The only saving grace was it wasn't a paid gig. It was a volunteer gig, but I couldn't put up with his snarky comments between songs. So it was punch him out or leave.
  16. Based on a few years experience, that may take forever.
    matthewbrown likes this.
  17. - What tempo and feel would you like?
    - Like this: *taps foot randomly* *hums meaningless rhythm*
    - Ooookey.
  18. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    In the end, I usually rely on the pianist, who is typically more used to backing up singers like these.
    Fredrik E. Nilsen likes this.
  19. It's not. We just can't tell when the solosists are lost in their sea of blues scales.
    Jim Dedrick likes this.
  20. Speak for yourself. :)
    The Biz likes this.

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