Thursday, June 6, 2013

Playin' in the band...

Now here's an interesting challenge:  on Sunday I led a nearly 20 person band of wildly talented musicians through a 90 concert and tonight I will take the back seat to become a player in my friend's jazz ensemble.  One day I called all the shots and directed the ebb and flow of the sets while tonight I must become one who will receive and respond to the direction of another.  An interesting change of pace, yes?  Being a back-up guy and playing bass, you see, is a very different groove than being the front man and setting the pace.

Each role demands a different skill set: when I lead a band, for example, I not only insist on practicing a lot before a gig - it is important to me that everyone has maximum comfort with the music - but I like to encourage each player to watch me carefully for cues concerning pace, improvisation, volume, etc. In my band, I not only listen to the music of the moment, but anticipate what comes next so that we might all get there together.  After all, we're working mostly with non-professionals and big bands require that kind of clear leadership. 

Not so tonight as our gig will be much more... free form. We almost never practice as an ensemble, there are never any prepared set lists and we rarely discuss in advance what we want to accomplish. To be sure, we get together for dinner before hand and check in as friends - and that is always important. What's more, I will work closely with the drummer to keep the beat tight, I'll listen and read the charts as carefully as I can and keep in regular contact with the piano player, but tonight all bets are off about the shape and groove of a tune because this is free form playing to the max.
Sometimes there are magical moments playing this way - especially when we're given the go ahead to go way out of the box - and then the spontaneity is a total gas. Being in the moment when all the notes and rhythms come together is unlike anything else: it is pure blessing. Other times, however, we have a train wreck on the bandstand and simply try to put the song out of its misery as quickly as possible. There are lots of reasons for train wrecks, right?  We're not together in our understandings of the song - or the chart - we fight each other for the right beat or feeling - too much alcohol has been flowing - we've just had a fight with a loved one - we're too tired from our day job.  Who knows?  Except you DO know when it happens and I hate train wrecks on stage.

Tonight we'll be playing with the same group that went to Istanbul together two years ago - a reunion of sorts.  My hope (but not my call) is that we play a lot of things from that tour, both because we know them well and to stand in solidarity with our friends in Turkey.  But it may not happen that way because, like I noted earlier, this is not my call - I'm a side-man tonight - and my job is to do what the band leader calls as best as I can.  I'll let you know how it turns out...

NOTE:  So the gig went really well - there were a few train wrecks and some hurt feelings, too - but we talked them out and have another show tomorrow.  But there was also MAGIC happening, too and I give thanks to God for those blessings. (I also give thanks for the very different understandings I am working with playing in two very different bands and hope to learn from them both.)

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