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Australian jazz/blues guitarist, Richie Robinson
answers the following question...

Richie Robinson

May 2010

The Question:
What's your job? - A brief look at ensemble etiquette

Response by Richie Robinson share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Over my 35 years as a performer I have come across many situations where the role or job of individual musicians on the gig raises some questions. So just what is our job as we are called to sit in as “hired guns”, or as regular members of a particular small or large ensemble?

MANY SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT abound as we learn our craft as jazz and blues performers. Sometimes we can draw from as many of those as we need to see clearly, and sometimes the opportunity to come into contact with the required breadth of information is not so readily available.
When we go out on gigs, quite often we may have never met the people we are performing with. At the least, we may not have a clear picture of the musical situation we are becoming involved in. Other times we take our school of thought with us and hope that it stands up well and helps us to do our job.
So, what are we expected to do on the job? What is the role of a drummer or bassist or guitarist or any other ensemble instrument? Let’s check out some scenarios.

SCENARIO 1 - A FEW YEARS AGO a known band-leader was running a small ensemble working twice a week in various venues around town. On one of these gigs he got a young aspiring drummer to sit in with a horn player/vocalist, and a keyboard/pedal bassist. The drummer came highly recommended by the vocalist so he was hired without the band-leader having seen him play – as often happens in this industry. He was from overseas and was beginning studies at the local conservatorium, and though he was new to the industry he came across as a capable jazz musician.
The keyboardist was a professional jazz musician the band-leader had known for a long time. He began performing 4 nights a week at the age of fourteen in prominent venues some twenty-five years previously. He was a Jimmy Smith fan and he had a unique and well developed style. At the time, the band-leader felt this was a sound that would separate his band from other typical bands around town – at least for a few shows where the keyboardist was available. During the gig the drummer complained that the keyboardist was not doing his job, and that he was finding it difficult to play as a result. The band-leader was not sure what he meant by this and pushed on to complete the gig.
The groove was not where it could have been that night. After the gig the band-leader asked the drummer about his performance. He announced that although he had the ability, he did not want to be a “two and four player”. He felt that the keyboardist’s style made it hard for him to present his own style, and he was disappointed with the overall performance as a result. Naturally, the band-leader was disappointed too, as he had not predicted the drummer would focus in this way.
SCENARIO 2 - MORE RECENTLY a guitarist who is a permanent member of a large ensemble was told by a young-ish bassist who was a newcomer to the band what his job is. The bassist suggested this during a moment in which a piano player who had sat in for a rehearsal took a while on a particular song to get her rhythm to gel. She was reading her part entirely from a chart. The guitar and piano parts clashed slightly until she got hers tight, as the guitar was working improvised chordal phrases out around her solid written parts.
The suggestion put forward by the bassist was that the guitar was supposed to play “Freddie Green style”, and then explained it as “chunking out full block chords on every beat of the bar”, and finished by saying “that is your job”. As good as his intentions may have been, it is interesting that a young newcomer may have thought it his job to come in and tell others what their job is. (Fortunately the guitarist was an old hand and not about to be misled).
Little did the bassist realise at the time that his suggestion also brought to light his ignorance in the actual style of - and reasons for the style of Freddie Green. Further, it showed he was not acquainted in the variety of established large ensemble guitar styles. Last but not least, in telling the guitarist what his job is, the bassist showed he had not taken into consideration any suggestions that may have already been put forward by the conductor.
SCENARIO 3 - FROM A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT ANGLE - Recently a band-leader hired a keyboardist/vocalist for a job with his ensemble. They had not played together before. On this particular job, and as often happens on quieter gigs, the band leader did not hire a drummer. As experienced musicians know, this requires a different level of listening and commitment to rhythmic interaction from the players in order to keep it solid. When it sounds tight, it is because the performers know their craft and are good listeners.
The band-leader’s main mistake on this gig was to give the entire band access to the mixing desk, and once the sound was set up, he left them to do the fine bits from there. As an experienced producer/musician, sound was one of the areas of the band-leader’s expertise, and his experience should have told him this was not a good idea, particularly with a new player on board.
Sure enough, any self-mixing ensemble experience these seasoned professionals may have had turned out to be mostly irrelevant. It was speaker and stage positioning that created the inevitable increasing volume cycle. Before long, the band-leader was at max volume during background harmony parts, drowned out by the keyboardist, and the usual way of leading the band through melodic and harmonic suggestion became an unheard guessing game with hand signals required.
As it went, with the keyboard so forward in the mix, the percussionist had begun to play much harder. When he swapped from bongos to saxophone for a solo, there was a big hole where the band-leader’s performance would usually have been holding the rhythm section together. The keyboardist felt the “rhythm” had stopped, and began calling out to the band-leader to go and play the bongos!! (An interesting reminder at this point is that this keyboardist was a recommended and experienced professional at the time).
So, now all the frustrated band-leader could do was stay on his instrument and attempt to direct the band as best he could till the end of the set and then re-balance the sound. In that moment (with all good intentions I’m sure), the keyboardist promptly got off her instrument and went over to continue the bongo part during the sax solo!
Ah well, what can I say? The band-leader certainly had his work cut out that night!
I’m sure the breadth of these can bring many more "what’s your job" situations to mind that many of us have on a regular basis. The most unifying thing I see among them is that going into any job with a preconceived idea of what it should sound like, particularly if we are a “hired gun” is not a good idea.
The next thing I see is that there are so many schools of thought. There is no right and wrong in music, and the things one person sees as right on a particular gig may be completely wrong for somebody else. The sound and stylistic nuances required of a musician on any gig is really something to discuss with the band-leader.
It’s amusing to see how eager some people are to go about telling others what their job is. The real life scenarios above show that even experienced professionals can misperceive the situation, sometimes forgetting to just hang back and listen, unwittingly adding to a problem. Further, musicians with a little experience can sometimes tend to be overly excited about what they know and like to “pass it on”. Now and then this can be less than helpful.
The last thing I see in these scenarios, but far from the least, is that the most valuable thing we can take onto a gig is the ability to listen.
Many of the finest players in the jazz/blues idiom take musical direction via the ears, while hand signals are a back-up technique. How would the above scenarios have turned out if each musician had asked themselves “Can I hear everybody?” Can I hear all members of the ensemble well enough that I can take musical direction from them? Am I allowing them to play softly if they want to? Am I forcing them to play hard and loud? Do I trust the other musicians in the ensemble to listen out for me if I turn down enough to listen to them?
IN CLOSING, if someone were to ask me what the job is of any given instrument in an ensemble, I would say that it is not about playing this way or that, or including or excluding any particular set of stylistic nuances. Our job as “hired guns” and regular ensemble players is to arrive with enough time to set up and discuss what’s happening as a team and who is the leader on the gig, then to have a range of well practiced techniques, approaches, and styles at our disposal, then listen, listen, and listen to the whole ensemble, before, during and after everything we play.

What do you think a musician’s job is in an ensemble? Is there anything you feel a musician should and shouldn’t play as a rule? Has anyone told someone you know what their job is lately? Was it helpful?

Richie Robinson

© 2010 Richie Robinson

Have Your Say
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I like your comments very much Bill, especialy the one about whether to play or not, and making silence an integral part of the music. I do this a lot, particularly in multiple harmonic instrument situations. Now and then I get the odd raised eyebrow - better that though than leaving too little airspace for expression and musicality.... and yes, it really is up to the ears to decide :-)

Posted by Richie Robinson on Sunday 2 May 2010

Totally agree Bill. By the way, you are my bench mark musician to which the rest of us aspire, from your note selection, sense of idiom, ears and attitude. Thanks for the article Richie. Good food for thought :-)

Posted by Tony King on Saturday 1 May 2010

Some good points Richie. When playing I have always found it helpful to listen to yourselves as though you were sitting in a chair in front, listening to a CD. Can you hear everything? Are you playing something you would want to listen to? Where are you placed in the stereo field? Are your solos an appropriate length for the form of the song? If five people just did 5 minute solos, should you do one too? If there are too many people playing chordal instruments (vibes/guitar/piano) should you play at all? The goal for me is always to play something that makes the silence around the music an integral part of the music. I usually let my ears decide what I should play.

Posted by Bill Risby on Saturday 1 May 2010
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