After forty years of listening to sets by jazz masters as well as masters of other genres of music, I’ve noticed they are not always effective in the overall presentation of their music. Many musicians respect linear improvisation far more than they do solo development and set formatting. Though important, improvisation is not the whole story of a jazz performance.
Countless times I have heard great improvisation ruined or contaminated by poor presentation. Conversely, when improvisation and presentation are equally smart, the impact is truly a peak experience—one you remember for the rest of your life. Playing a great phrase is less demanding than playing a great solo. Playing a great solo is less demanding than playing a great set. Playing a great set is less demanding than playing an entire night of great music.
For example, any avid jazz club patron has listened to numerous solos where the first three choruses were fabulous, but the soloist went on to play ten more weak choruses that severely degraded the initial effort. These players were good enough to play three superb choruses but not aware enough to know when to end. Interest and development should drive the length of a solo, not runaway ego.
This concept requires honesty about your playing and respect for the audience. People do not come to hear practicing. They are there to be entertained, edified, elevated, and to hear and experience your musical version of the profoundness of being human. Just as it is incumbent upon an audience to give a musical presentation its undivided attention, a musician is accountable for whatever he or she presents to an audience!
What is particularly unfortunate and shortsighted is that many jazz musicians have spent countless hours working on improvising chord changes, but very little time looking at the big picture—at how to artistically present their music to the world. The following guidelines are written for musicians, but listeners can benefit as well by understanding what it takes to elevate the quality of a musical presentation and maximize the connection with the audience.
For musicians, these parameters will focus and direct their improvisational efforts to make the strongest impact on civilian (non-musician) audiences as well as on other musicians. There are examples of solos and sets that do not necessarily adhere to these guidelines. Coltrane, for example, played solos for extended periods of time. He was an exceptional master who could maintain interest for long solos. But for most players these guidelines will dramatically upgrade the artistry and spirit of the band as well as increase the interest and appreciation of the audience.
1. AT LEAST EIGHT TUNES A SET—ONE HOUR LONG Many players have the idea they can play two tunes a set and sustain audience interest. Magnificent players can, but most players can’t and unfortunately they end up losing most of the impact they might have achieved with more suitable programming. To provide an hour of interesting music for an audience places a great demand on a player’s imagination and focus. However, by performing eight or more tunes a set you are able to radically control and change the musical moods. It is true there are other forms of music such as suites —Terence Blanchard’s last group played one very effectively— but most of jazz repertoire is based on tunes. From the first note of music, the serious jazz artist must be committed to take the audience somewhere. In order to do that, you must go somewhere yourself. Using at least eight tunes in a set gives the serious artist range to take the listener through a wide variety of emotions. It also ensures they will not wear out their welcome on one tun—a very common occurrence with players of all levels.
2. NO TUNES MORE THAN TEN MINUTES LONG Arguably, this one problem has hurt jazz more than any other issue. No audience is interested in hearing you search for inspiration while they waste their time and/or money. The shorter the tunes and solos are, the more demand for focus and drama is placed upon the player. How much does anyone really have to say on one tune? To play for twenty or thirty minutes per chart requires the player to be a master’s master. One way to ensure shorter tunes is to limit soloists to one chorus. Art Blakey was very effective at using this approach. This places responsibility upon the soloists to cut to the chase.
3. BALLADS NEVER MORE THAN THREE CHORUSES Nothing is so tedious as a ballad played for ten choruses. When the tempo is slow, it showcases the soloist more nakedly than when the tempo is medium or up. On ballads, rhythm sections tend to rhythmically and dynamically stay out of the way, allowing transparency for the soloist. It gives the listener much more time to hear the presence or absence of a musical message. As a result, the demand for interest and direction becomes paramount. A ballad should be considered a gift and an opportunity to show deep feeling with the wide dynamic and spatial possibilities that aren’t usually available in medium or up tempos.
4. NO DUPLICATION OF TEMPO, MOOD, KEY, OR GROOVE PER SET I have heard sets of music where three tunes in a row were played with the same tempo, groove, and key, offering no variety from tune to tune. A lack of variety limits the band’s possibilities for fresh ideas. It also demonstrates either ignorance or laziness (and ultimately a lack of respect for the audience). A big part of the fun of playing jazz is figuring out where you will take the audience and how you will get them there. Exploring the order of tunes, tempi, and grooves and how they achieve maximum interest is not only essential for the audience, but it’s critical to stimulating different responses from the band. People should not come to your concert to experience stasis. Don’t squander your audience’s goodwill and patience.
5. ARRANGE ALL TUNES An arrangement determines who plays what, and when they play it. It includes horn voicings, intros, endings, interludes, density, weight, tempo, grooves and keys. which must be varied in each tune in order to achieve maximum musical interest. An arrangement is nothing more than a point of view, a perspective of a piece of music. This is a great way to personalize a standard tune so it sounds like you wrote it. It also shows the audience that you have musical pride, self-respect, and respect for them, which should be the goal of all jazz. Playing “Green Dolphin Street” right out of the fake-book puts into question your desire to make the tune you own. Masterful musicians can create arrangements on the bandstand but for most players, especially players who don’t play together often, predetermined arrangements work best.
6. NO DUPLICATION OF ARRANGEMENTS Although many bands use similar arrangements throughout their repertoire because of ease of execution, repeating an arrangement conception from tune to tune is a wasted opportunity to treat each tune in a unique way. Using arrangement variety gives your set much more depth than, for example, having the sax and trumpet play all the melody lines. Varying musical arrangements provides maximum musical interest.
7. IMPROVISATION IS NOT NECESSARY IN ALL TUNES Although improvisation is a huge part of a jazz performance, it is very effective to play an original tune or standard without “blowing.” This a great opportunity to highlight a composition or arrangement and also “refresh” the audience’s interest in the next “blowing tune.” Without blowing, the beauty of the melody, harmony and arrangement become highly pronounced.
8. DO NOT TAKE A SOLO ON EVERY TUNE For each player of the group to take solos on every tune presumes the musicians are so filled with ideas they can improvise on all tunes in the set. How about letting inspiration determine if you solo on a particular tune? It is very easy to wave off a solo if you feel you don’t have much to say or if the tune length might be outliving its healthiness. There are other roles for non-soloists. Players can either lay out or play backgrounds. Also, if you’re not soloing, do not stand around looking bored—actively support your fellow band members, both in sound and spirit.
9. VARY THE SOLO ORDER It is boring and predictable to hear the soloists playing on every tune and in the same order. It is extremely easy to fix: Just do it!
10. VARY INTENSITY FROM CHORUS TO CHORUS Jazz players at all levels are guilty of this error. Every chorus should have an architectural reason for being there and if it doesn’t it should be eliminated. The music must progress; it must tell a story. Each chorus either advances the story or detracts from it. Most bands of all musical genres tend to get into a “wash,” which sounds like the faucet being turned on, and left on. The rhythm section plays at the same volume with unvaried rhythmic backgrounds and the soloist plays a wall of eighth or sixteenth notes. There is almost no change, just redundancy. Imagine a movie character who just sits on the couch and never goes anywhere or does anything, or maybe just babbles or says the same things over and over again. Aside from the obvious aesthetic limitation, a “wash” is a surefire way to alienate any listeners who want to have an enjoyable dramatic experience. The only people who will be interested, or pretend to be interested, in the soloist endlessly noodling around are his relatives and the groupies du jour.
11. NO MUSIC ON THE BANDSTAND There is no excuse for having music on the bandstand. Miles Davis’ bands never had music on the bandstand, unless it was a brand new tune. The players just memorized the set. The reading of a tune and improvising at the same time usually takes away from the improvising. If the tune isn’t in you, then why should you be able to express yourself with it? These days, with infrequent rehearsals and gigs and rotational band members, it is more understandable why music isn’t memorized. But that not withstanding, once you memorize it, all you have to do is express yourself.
Adhering to these guidelines requires a very serious and meticulous musical artist. I recommend implementing one or two of these rules each week until all are in place.