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Communication on the Bandstand

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by Seanto, Nov 23, 2018.

  1. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    Not sure if there is a running thread on this topic, so wanted to get one started. As a "blossoming" jazz bassist i am getting more and more opportunities to play with random people on gigs with little to no rehearsal or planning. Think "Real Book" style gigs where are generally playing standards top to bottom with solos in between.

    The last time i played like this i felt there was some struggle among both myself AND the group to determine where/when certain things might happen, particularly during solo sections. Some examples:

    -Transitioning to bass(or other) solo: Sometimes the group would miss the cue and keep playing at a fuller volume until they realized it was actually bass solo time and quiet down. I think i do a pretty good job of providing audible cues when my own solo is ENDING(start walking again during last couple of bars) but not sure what i can do to signify it is beginning other than stop walking and start soloing. In the last case the leader would sort of head nod to who is going to solo next, maybe some of the players missed that cue in my direction. Would waiting for the rest of the group to get it together before i start be a bad thing?

    -Trading on fours and/or giving the drummer a solo: We never seemed to be able to communicate an upcoming trading of the fours. At one point i could tell that half the band was trying to go into it but the rest weren't quite there and it didn't truly pan out. Honestly, i am not sure how that should be communicated mid-tune without talking about it before starting the tune.

    -Trading on fours and/or giving the drummer a solo(cont'd): Poor drummer really never got a chance to solo the whole gig. Trading fours never happened, plus he never got the nod to play a chorus or two on his own. This also got me thinking if maybe the band just couldn't handle giving the drummer a full chorus and knowing when to come back in. I'm saying this because i know I, myself, would struggle with that were it to happen, especially if i didn't see it coming. Again though, perhaps some audible cues from the drummer would solve this.

    Outside of the examples above, i mainly just want to know your experiences in how you handle this type of communicating with a group. Do you talk about it beforehand? Do you primarily depend on physical cues during the tune? Do you primarily depend on audible cues and are there any you think any player should recognize? All of the above depending on the group?
  2. dhergert

    dhergert Gold Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2018
    Blue Zone, California
    My impression from playing specifically with jazz combos and SBBs is that a band that doesn't watch body language eventually has problems with form and/or timing. And they may have other more fundamental problems too. Body language is an important part of playing together.

    To that end, learning to play your instrument without continuously watching your hands or your music -- watching your band mates instead -- is very important.
  3. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    If the communication is not happening adequately during tunes, a little more communication is required between tunes or at set break. If I notice the drummer is being neglected, I would just tell the other musicians, "Hey, let's trade fours with the drummer after the bass solo." IME, the visual communication (and almost E.S.P. communication) comes the more a group of musicians plays together. But the process can be helped along by giving the others verbal clues as to what they should be looking for.
    Dabndug and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  4. statsc

    statsc Supporting Member

    Apr 23, 2010
    Burlington, VT
    In terms of body language, what I’ve seen is players looking down or shaking their heads slightly from side-to side (as in, “No, don’t change”) when they want to continue their solo or stay where they are; and looking up and making eye contact with the other players or nodding their heads (as in, “Yes, this is it”) when they are ending their solo or they want to move on. Of course, this assumes that everyone is paying attention visually as well as aurally.
  5. Jim Dedrick

    Jim Dedrick Jim Dedrick Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2016
    Port Deposit, MD
    When playing these types of gigs with new players for the 1st time I think these problems can be common. More experienced players tend to do it less. Some ideas I try are:

    1) finding a method to agree on some of the songs your are playing ahead of time with suggestions on intros and outtros.
    2) paying attention to each other’s playing and body language. Solo transitions will get better in time and everyone cetainly needs to look at body language. Most people give some sort of a head nod a few bars before they are done with their solo. Usually the head nod will also indicate who has the next solo.
    3) discussing solo order in between tunes as some level of guideline or road map.
    4) after the 1st set I like to compliment other’s efforts and also talk about how well we communicated during improvisations, shared ideas, and transitioned for solos.

    Interactive multi person communication, for me, is the art of improvisation.
  6. Greg Clinkingbeard

    Greg Clinkingbeard

    Apr 4, 2005
    Kansas City area
    KC Strings
    -Eye contact. Although fake books and charts must be used at times, it’s important to not be glued to that music stand.
    -Listen. Better soloists construct solos in ways that help identify the form and length of their solos. With better players, I can sense when they are playing their last chorus. They will often tie up the end of their solo in a way that passes it to the next player or goes back to the head.
    -Comping. Comping is best defined as COMPLIMENTING. Too often, musicians COMPETE with one another. Comping is about supporting the soloist. I once yelled at a piano player, ‘maybe just one of us should solo now’!

    I completely understand your frustration about ‘when it is time for the bass solo’.
    Personally, I will usually make a decision on whether or not to solo long before it is my time. My decision is based on the overall feel of the tune. Am I locking in with the drummer? The piano or guitar? Are people listening? Communicating in a musical way? The last thing I want to do is fight my way through without saying what I want to say.

    Hope this helps.
    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    These are great questions and there is no single "right" answer. A lot depends on how familiar the group is with each other; as with any relationship, fewer words are needed about mundane things once partners know each other.

    My preferred method of communicating with others is through what I call making direct "ear contact". I can't describe it in words, but it's like the aural version of eye contact and knowing that you have someone's full attention and vice versa. Since I play best with my eyes closed, if I am unable to communicate this aural connection then others might get the idea that I'm off in my own little world. With people I know well, it's not a problem because we have been through the wars together and they know that this is a natural state.

    But with new people, it's important to begin every playing experience with head and eyes on a swivel, letting them know through visual cues that attention is being paid. After a few tunes, when everybody has got a feel for the lay of the land, it's OK (IMO, of course) to start to transition to "ear contact" and come up for eyes only when there is a possible transition point of some sort.

    But there is one thing I would like to address, which is what I have come to call the "macho code" of jazz; it's like a version of "boys don't cry", but as applied to jazzers there is a subset of people who seem to feel that it's somehow a betrayal of sorts to verbalize any sort of preference to one's bandmates. It's as if "it ain't real if you can't just hear it, man". I think this code is almost always BS, some nostalgic form of "jazz woo" that most often just delays a band getting its poopie together because a few people think that speaking directly to others is beneath them or a display of weakness in some weird, insecure way.

    Personally, I break the code all the time, telling the people I play with things like "I never want to be the 4th or 5th soloist on anything, ever", or "I like to hear rooted voicings beneath the bass solo", or things of that nature, sometimes before the first note has ever been played. My reasoning is that it's better that people know your preferences and then choose to follow them or not than for them to have to guess, potentially guess wrong, and then annoy me (which makes the music suffer). I'll sometimes ask questions about people's preferences on certain similar subjects (i.e. - are you the type of person who doesn't like the bass to walk in 3? etc.). Some of them seem incredulous to be asked. I don't care because I would rathe know than wonder. :)

    Last, regarding drum solos/4's/8's etc., I think it should be up to the drummer, so it's useful to develop a "do you want some on this tune" eyebrow that can either be nodded to in assent or shaken off as a negative. Forcing someone to solo who isn't feeling it doesn't help anyone, but never giving someone the option is also not particularly friendly. Once you have established the brief non-verbal look/cue, it makes for a happier bandstand, IMO.
  8. Jason Hollar

    Jason Hollar It Don’t Mean A Thing... Supporting Member

    Apr 17, 2005
    Pittsburgh area
    I've been lucky that in my first 20 years or so of jazz gigs, I've worked with some very accomplished players and their insanely tight groups. "Head on a Swivel" is the preferred state so you don't get left out of cool hits, the quick bridge at the end, or the unexpected transposition, etc.

    However, now that I've got a little bit of experience as a band leader - and finding more opportunities to play jazz sets with younger players I've not met before - I'm pretty comfortable being a "back seat driver" and helping to lead the group through a fun set without the predictable "round robin" of heads+solos...

    Fortunately most of my jobs are casuals where there's room for a quick convo between tunes without disrupting the flow.
    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.
  9. Jim Dedrick

    Jim Dedrick Jim Dedrick Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2016
    Port Deposit, MD
    Chris- I think you really hit the nail on the head with “Ear Contact”. In my esperiance it takes a few gigs with the same players to develope.

    As far as the macho code is concerned, I agree, total BS. The guys I most frequently play with are always complimenting each other on things that help get the music closer to that desired sound. Something like- “I really like how you mimicked that descending scale during my solo” or “super job cutting back on the energy over the transition”. I think this type of dialogue between songs (when appropriate) or between sets really serves the music’s growth.
    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.
  10. This is the reason why I prefer drummers who keep eye contact with me all the time. Some drummers look down, or to the other side or close their eyes or whatever. Hate it. I have to have contact with the drummer, and when we communicate well, the rest of the band follows. Well, except for the singers. They are always on their own planet.
    saabfender likes this.
  11. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    We have a vocabulary of post-mortum "left-handed compliments" to address less-than-ideal outcomes than may have occurred during a tune:
    "I like what you TRIED to do there!"
    "Wow - I've never heard anybody try that approach before!"
    "Sorry! I thought we were 'trading FOURS', not FIVES!"

    or, when things go better that expected:
    "Nice Arrangement! Who did you steal that from?"
    "Nice Solo! You must have gone to Music School!"

    Lee Moses, Seanto and Tom Lane like this.
  12. saabfender

    saabfender Banned

    Jan 10, 2018
    Yes there is one solution and this is it. Look at each other. We’re human animals and are adept at non-verbal communication with each other. Put that feature to work. We’ve been doing it as a species longer than playing music. Look at each other.
    Garagiste likes this.
  13. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Supporting Member

    They say Bill Evans wasn't a big fan of "eye-contact".
    Thanks! (Typed with eyes closed!)
  14. saabfender

    saabfender Banned

    Jan 10, 2018
    Just checked my calendar. Not scheduled to play with Bill Evans.
  15. My favourite, based on a true story:

    "You really have a unique understanding of music".
    Jason Hollar and Don Kasper like this.
  16. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    That made me laugh out loud, well done.
    Don Kasper likes this.
  17. Yep.
  18. turf3


    Sep 26, 2011
    I am also a big fan of SAYING things.

    I play a lot of bluegrass jams (bear with me) and the standard model is that each person takes it in turn to lead a song; i.e., to direct the flow of solo/ensemble/vocals. The typical thing is to try to make eye contact wtih each upcoming soloist. This often doesn't work, since so many people just stare down. Then the other thing is that people who don't want to solo don't always give a clear sign (like a big head shake) so you're sitting there waiting - is he playing a solo, or not?

    My solution is to pretend that I'm a band leader. I call it out: "and now, let's hear from Mark!" "how about some of that mandolin, Bill!". After all this is what a real band leader (who isn't Miles Davis) would very likely do.

    You can do much of this on the band stand in jazz, too. Just because a lot of people go along assuming everyone will magically be on the same wavelength doesn't make it bad to actually verbalize what's happening next. Just a simple "you want some of this?" can work wonders.

    Hand signals work great too. I've never had any misunderstanding when a few bars before the end of the chorus I hold up four fingers to indicate "let's take fours", and then point to each musician in succession the first time around to establish the sequence.

    And please, guys, if you don't want a solo, give a big head shake or wave-off as soon as the leader looks at you, so someone else can catch the beginning of the chorus rather than having to wonder for five bars "is he going, or not?"

    "...Although fake books and charts must be used at times, it’s important to not be glued to that music stand..."

    You really need to use the fake book the first couple times through, then quit looking at it. For truly charted tunes, you don't need to be constantly looking down once you understand the song form, usually.
    marcox, longfinger and Seanto like this.
  19. matthewbrown

    matthewbrown Supporting Member

    Jan 7, 2003
    Harwich, MA, USA
    As a leader, I try to talk through each tune in advance on casuals, as mentioned above. Ideally, I add basic arranged elements (intro and tag, at least, and a segue into the next tune sometimes, perhaps a solo over a vamp as a contrasting section). And I make sure to hire players who are responsive (more skilled and experienced than I am, really). Some of them have their own versions of tunes, and I follow their lead.

    As a sideman, I need bigger ears, TBH, and a more extensive repertoire. Sometimes there's little I can do. Some players have a default mode of paying attention solely to their own playing, which can make a musical conversation impossible. I grit my teeth and try to be supportive, knowing that my experience of the music is very different (e.g. I can hear that the guitarist and the pianist are playing clashing changes on the first ending every time). And I try to remember that my own shortcomings (see above) are glaringly obvious to some of the players I hire for my own gigs.

    I'll add to what's been said about eye contact and communication that there has to be an openness to letting one or another player take the lead when required, and a willingness to accept that leadership. Being shy and withdrawn in a musical conversation has the same kind of chilling effect as IRL. This assertiveness has to be balanced with the humility also mentioned in this thread, IMHO.
  20. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    I'd say take each one as a challenge and see how you can make it better from the bass. For more "concert" style jazz more or even less planning is probably the answer.
    Probably the best "jazz" concert I've seen to this day was Lee Konitz with Joe LaBarbra and Matt Brewer. No real eye contact, just pure sound. Lee would start a tune, the others would work it out!

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