Blog # 33: What I've learned from Jam Sessions
I think I've learned something from every jam session I've attended; What works and What doesn't work.
1. Interact with the rhythm Section
I can't tell you how many times I've seen saxophone players or guitar players let the 8th notes fly with no regard to what's going on in the rhythm section, their phrases punctuated only by their breathing. If you play without listening or interacting with the rhythm section, you might as well stay home and practice to an aebersold play-along. Granted, there will be situations at Jams where the rhythm section might not be very good, in which case, you might be better off charging ahead in spite of them, but why not test the waters first? See what they have to offer; throw something out there, wait and see how they react.
2. Don't just play continuous 8th notes
If you play nothing but 8th notes without pausing except to take in air, you'll put the audience to sleep. I'm sure this doesn't come as any revelation, but rhythm may be the most important element of jazz. There is a world beyond 8th notes, just pick up any Joe Henderson Album. Listening to someone play nothing but 8th notes is quite boring.
3. Build a Solo
Strangely enough, most people have no idea how to build a solo. A solo is supposed to take people on a journey. A good solo is like a good movie, it has a beginning, middle and end. It has character development, a plot, a message/concept and a climax. The most obvious way to build a solo is to start with a simple melodic idea, leave some space, then play another idea that is a reaction to the first. Continuing this way becoming increasingly busy until you reach a peak. DYNAMICS ARE VERY IMPORTANT, use them to help build your solo, sometimes they are hard to use at a jam session because of the format, but it can't hurt to try. Your solo can build in more ways than described above, but that is the most obvious way. (What if you built, and then came down, and then built up again?)
4. Try to make something happen
As a musician in New York, I can say that there are a lot of people that can play, but that's not enough any more. I think its important to try to MAKE something different happen. If the band is playing a bop tune and everyone is playing in the same style, why not try to imply a different feel with your solo. Try to break it up so that things don't get repetitive or boring for the audience(or the musicians). Think of Tony Williams' playing with Miles Davis' Quintet. Was there ever a time when Tony wasn't trying to make something happen?
5. Develop a concept
I think one thing that is good to think about is having a concept to your solo. I think improvisors sometimes forget that we have a lot more options than we think. What if we made the concept of the solo something pointillistic, or based off of held out notes?(this would certain give the rhythm section different things to think about). What if your whole solo was based off the concept of octave displacement? What if you played rubato on top of a moving rhythm section? What if you based your solo off of chord inversions, or voice leading? Or extended arpeggiated figures covering the whole ranger of your instrument? Or off a totally different super-imposed rhythmic idea? What if you forced a 12 tone row on top of a standard? Maybe its time to just sit deep in the pocket and swing? The point I'm making is that there are a lot of options out there to explore.
6. Be Different; More Bebop--why bother?
One thing that I've noticed in attending Jam Sessions over the years is that most people play the same old shit. I'm not going to argue about the validity of the bebop tradition, clearly it is a working system of playing jazz, but if one alto player finishes a solo where he's done nothing but rip Charlie Parker Licks, the last thing I want to hear is the next guy do the same thing and rip MORE Charlie Parker Licks. If you want to be remembered, Separate yourself from the pack or be forgotten. I think it is important to try to be different. Its nice to offer some contrast to the other soloists. Try to make your solo a reaction to the one before it, or just do something completely different. With that said, if the guy before finishes a solo where he's played very chromatically, it might be a good time to play very inside.
7. "I'd rather play a bad solo than a boring one"
A few months back after attending a session, I came to the conclusion that this was going to have to be my new motto. That night I saw a lot of people just 'going through the motions'. The musicians that night seemed to be playing it safe. I came to the realization that I would rather go big and fail than play a safe boring solo. I would rather try something different and make mistakes than take play a dull or predictable solo. I have no problem making mistakes, missing notes etc, I would rather hear these things than someone 'playing it safe'. So whether I am succeeding at this or not, this is what I strive for. A Jam session is a great time to explore and try new things(Obviously we all have different concepts of 'what is boring')
8. Keep it short, don't ramble
I mentioned this in my last blog, if you're at a jam session this is not the time to take a John Coltrane style 15 minute solo. A Jam session is not your gig, the people are not there JUST to see you. Play a few chorus and get out.
9. Its hard to fly when you're draggin' weights
One thing I've learned at Jam Sessions is that you're only as good as your rhythm section. I've seen great players sit in and play with shitty rhythm sections and not sound very good The reality is that not every drummer is going to be creative, not ever bass player is going to have good time and note choice and not every piano player is going to know how to comp. Sometimes you just gotta make the best outta what you got.
Call me a snob or an elitist, but I avoid playing with any singers I haven't heard before. I've seen so many Jam Session train-wrecks that were the Singer's faults. I've seen singers ask for tunes is specific keys and have a rhythm section set the tune up and STILL come in in a different key, then the band has to find what key the singer is in and adjust. I've heard enough tone-deaf scat solos to want to avoid playing a song at a Jam Session with a Singer. The moral I've learned is be prepared, you might be getting yourself into some funny business.
Lastly, I want to say, that I know I'm not perfect, but these thoughts above are things I think about when approaching music, they are ideals are what I strive towards. Learning to play improvised music is about the process and my thoughts shared here are just my reactions to this process.