It’s fair to say that most of us are constantly working at becoming better players. We think about the subject often, and it may be a bit of an obsession at times. I’m going to cover some general and specific ideas that I hope will be helpful to players at all levels.
One of the most important skills is the ability to hear what is being played and to react to it in real time. The best players can understand what they are hearing at a deep intuitive level, including harmonic variations, etc. These variations, chord substitutions, etc. are happening in real time, and our goal is to be able to hear and react intuitively.
Knowing common chord substitutions and how and play over them is important. It is also essential that players know common jazz & Gypsy Jazz harmonic clichés and how to use them. (More in this in part II).
In my travels I hear players that range from beginners-intermediate to the top Jazz and Gypsy Jazz performers. One key aspect that separates the higher level players from lower-level ones is their phrasing and the organization of their ideas. The best way to learn to play more compelling solos is by studying and deconstructing their work.
Let’s begin by examining one of the key principles found in solos of the master players like Django, etc. which is called ‘Question and Answer’, the use of motif and response. It’s one of the key elements of Western music, an underlying principle or technique found in classical, pop, jazz etc.
We can define it as an opening statement or motif, followed by an answer. [tension-resolution].
ex. 1. Invention 13, from the Bach two-part inventions; In the ex. Above, bar 1 is the question, bar 2 the answer.
Ex. 2. ‘Blue Bossa,’ by Kenny Dorham. [The melody is usually played an octave up]. You could analyze the phrase as a two-bar question & answer followed by another two bar Q & A. My friend and former teacher Stephan Wrembel talks about this technique in his lessons and his book; ‘Getting Into Gypsy Jazz, ’  Using this technique, and learning to think in this way will go a long way towards helping you to organize your ideas. Your solos will make more sense and will be more engaging to the listeners. You can hear Q & A quite a bit when listening to the top players.
Working on this will be very helpful for you. Many players tend to play that way naturally. Working on utilizing this concept will help you to avoid a common stumbling block for aspiring G.J. players, namely playing way more notes than are needed. Leaving space will help your phrasing. Players like Bireli and Stochelo etc. have amazing technique and can execute double or triple time ideas with ease. It’s very exciting to hear, but they always make musical sense.
The great players use speed at the service of musicality. The better soloists can get into the groove set up by the other players and ‘tell a story’. In case you haven’t figured this out yet, NOBODY cares how fast you can play, or how many cool licks you know! 😉 To begin to ingrain the technique start by listening for examples of it in recordings and in compositions. You should also write out some solos using the concept. Note; the device is often used in a 1-2-3 formula, [like a 12-bar blues structure, where the opening motif is repeated higher or lower and/or varied a bit, then resolved].
It is a compositional device, which makes sense. After all, when we play a solo, we are composing in real time. It’s been said that music is communication between the unconscious mind of the composer to the unconscious mind of the player to the same in the listener.
Using ‘Q & A,’ will go a long way towards helping us to tap into our unconscious/creative mind. It’ll help us find balance in our solos and to sound more coherent with less effort.
We can learn a lot about playing musically, use of Q & A, and other important concepts by checking out Paulus Schafer’s version of Ninine Garcia’s standard ‘Paquito.’ I included my transcription of his melodic statement because it’s a bit different from published versions and it also shows Schafer’s style.
Paulus Schafer’s version of Paquito, pg 1 above
Paquito, pg 2 above
Page 3 above
Page 4 above
Paquito pg 5 above
The melodic statement starts at bar 9 after the intro. The bluesy two bar theme uses the 9th [F#] and the root [E], of the Emi7 chord Then it is developed a bit using what is called ‘similar motion’ in Bars 10 & 11 on the C9 chord, [using ‘D’ and ‘C’ natural], and then is closed out in bars 12-13-14, ending with a classic ‘Gypsy Dominant,’ run on the B7 chord, [bar 14], ending on the tonic [Emi6], in bar 15.
The eight-bar theme is played twice, [the form is typical A-A-B-A]. The bridge section is set up by an E7#11 in bar 24, beginning with a pickup Ami7 arpeggio, using an 8th note triplet, starting on a G# [lower neighbor of ‘A’ natural], typical be-bop, swing riff. Ending on an F#, the 3rd of the D7 chord, in bar 26.
Bar 27-28 is very much like the preceding two bar phrase played up a whole step. It’s a Bmi7 arpeggio preceded again by the lower neighbor [A#] of the root ‘B’ natural, starting on the up-beat of 3 in bar 27. Once again played as a pick-up, [anticipating the Bmi chord before it is played]. It ends on the ‘G’ natural, which is the 3rd of the Emi7 chord.
In bars 28-30, Paulus then plays the riff up another whole step, this time with a slight change; outlining a C#mi7b5 chord, again as a pick up, starting on the lower neighbor of the root, ‘C’ natural. Here Paulus plays the idea twice, each time resolving the 7th of the C#mi7-5, [‘B’ natural], to the 3rd of F#7, [A#]. Schafer closes out the bridge with a nice quarter note triplet figure in bars 31-32, using a Gypsy Dominant scale, [a mode built on the 5th degree of an ‘E’ Harmonic minor scale; B-C-D#-E-F#-G-A-B], using Bb & Ab passing tones ending on F#. he ‘B’ nat. on upbeat of 4 is a pick up to the restatement of the main 8 bar theme, last A section.
After the last ‘A’ Paulus plays a break or cadenza in bars 39-40 based on an altered V7 chord, [B7#5- # 9]. It starts on 2nd beat of bar 39, on ‘A’ natural, 7th of the B7#9#5 [Alt Dominant chord, #5-b9, Resolving downward to an E natural on upbeat of 4 in bar 40. The scale used is common for an Altered Dominant, [# 9-#5 or #5-b9, etc.] The scale is sometimes called a Diminished-Whole tone scale, spelled; B-C-D-D#-F-G-A-B. [I’ll cover that more in the next installment].
Schafer plays octave ‘E’s the root of the Emi chord and a trill on C#-D, a nice Dorian, raised 6th sound, bar 41. Then continuing, he starts his next idea using D# as a leading tone then on to E-F#-G, the beginning of an E minor scale, leading to a held ‘A’ natural, [the 13th of the C7 chord, bar 43]. Next, he outlines the 9th, 5th & 3rd of the C7 in bar 44.
In bars 45-46 Paulus uses part of an F# Locrian mode with Ab as a passing tone, ending on E natural-D on the last beat of the bar to the 3rd of the B7 chord, [D#], in bar 46. He is using what is called ‘enclosure’, here the E-D are the higher and lower neighbors of the D# in the next bar. F#mi7-5, [or F# half diminished], to B7 is a ii-V7 cadence in the key of E minor, which is the tonality of the piece. P. outlines a B7 chord and adds the # and flat 9, [D & C natural], on the third and fourth beats of bar 46, ending on an Emi arpeggio, played backwards starting on B natural, and ending on a lower B nat.
P. plays a fill in measure 48 based on Bmi using ‘A’ natural as a lower neighbor-pick up into an 8th note triplet. [Very much like what he uses in the bridge for the melodic statement]. [D# instead of D natural would fit the chord better, not sure if it’s an error or if P. just likes the sound, but it works fine and leads well into the next idea].
In meas. 49 P. plays an idea that we might hear a post-bop sax player use, outlining E minor 9, then using Eb as a passing tone as the line continues down in ½ steps to a D natural and then C# in bar 50 on the 4th string, then leaping up to a higher C#, finally resolving to B natural, the 5th of Emi7. Bar 50 and the 4th beat of 49 is a typical G.J. idea, played by Django and everyone who followed. It’s worth noting that it works for an A7 chord just as well.
Meas. 51, P. frames a C7 chord starting on a B natural on the up beat of 1. He then plays the flat and sharp 9 of C7 in meas. 52, [C# & D#], adding tension to the line, and resolving to a C natural in a lower octave. Bar 55, which is the 2nd ending of the ‘A’ section, P. plays a G natural on the upbeat of 4 and the downbeat of 1 in bar 56, [the 3rd of Emi], then going to G# on the upbeat of 1 in bar 56, [the major 3rd of E Dom. 7]. He then uses notes from the Gypsy Dominant scale in the key of Ami, to frame E7 and set up the tonality of bar 58, which is 1st bar of the bridge. He is emphasizing the pivot between Emi & E Dom.7, which is major.
Bar 58 has a common Django-style enclosure idea; C nat. [3rd of Ami], on 1st beat, then G# on the next 8th, [The lower neighbor of A natural], followed by B nat. on downbeat of 2, [upper neighbor of A nat.], followed by an A nat. [the target note], on upbeat of 2. Going on to outline Ami7, moving to A nat. on the 4th string on the upbeat of 4, same bar. He holds that note into the next bar, then moving down in ½ steps to an F#, which is the 3rd of D7.
P. plays an open D on 4th string at the end of meas. 58, and on downbeat of bar 59. Next, he plays an A#, [lower neighbor of B], on the upbeat of 2, then B, [the root of Bmi], proceeding to C#, [lower neighbor of D], to a D nat. on beat 3. Then an E, [fourth degree of Bmi], to an E#, lower neighbor of F#, 5th of chord, followed by another enclosure device landing on G nat. in bar 60.
In bar 61, Schafer outlines the C#mi7-5 chord and uses A#, [lower neighbor to B nat., the 7th of the chord], and a D natural on the upbeat of 2, leading to an outline of F#7b9 in bar 62.
P. starts on the 3rd of F#mi7-5 on the upbeat of 1 in bar 62, then outlines the chord, ending on the F# on the 1st string, 12th position, setting up a Gypsy Dom. idea in bar 64 to close out the bridge.
Schafer then uses an E blues scale for bars 65-71, staying in the 12th position. I’d say that B natural in bar 69 is harmonic generalization again, [as is using the blues scale over the progression], or it could be an error, it doesn’t really matter. Normally that note would be used as a passing tone or lower neighbor but a player at the level of Schafer can do whatever he wants[!] You can of course change it to a ‘C’ or Bb if you’d like.
I hope that my transcription and analysis of Schafer’s solo and melodic statement on ‘Paquito’ is helpful to you all. If you have questions or comments I can be reached at HotClubPhilly@gmail.com
Barry is the leader of the Hot Club of Philadelphia. He can be reached thru the email above for bookings, workshops, and lessons. Please visit their Facebook page and give it a ‘like,’ https://www.facebook.com/HCPhilly/ The band’s web site is www.HotClubPhilly.com
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Just kidding, folks! This is not a sleazy article to get you to buy products. Although, many of the topics I discuss are explained in explicit detail in my DC Music School Gypsy Jazz Rhythm lessons (featuring yours truly), this article will mainly cover the historical role of the rhythm section in the music of Django Reinhardt, Gypsy Jazz, and jazz/swing music in general. I will include many recorded examples to demonstrate my points.
I have been particularly interested in accompaniment and interpretation since I discovered the music of Django Reinhardt. The guitar accompaniment itself, that we call La Pompe has been a great source of confusion and mystery for many players. Many people are explaining it differently, and many claim that theirs is authentic. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Denis Chang is right, of course! Just kidding! Well, if you are familiar with any of my articles, then you know that we’re in for a roller coaster ride! When it comes to rhythm guitar in any style, there is so much that can be sound, but I will stick strictly to basic tone and basic execution/interpretation.
The answers to many of your questions require a lot of in-depth analysis. For starters, the word “authentic” itself is ambiguous and subjective; anything can be authentic, if enough people believe it to be. Repeat anything a thousand times, get other people to join in on the bandwagon, and it becomes the truth. For this reason, I will be talking about things from an objective and historical point of view. Of course, I will also share my opinions but they will be just that, and nothing more.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend and perform with some of the best players in the style. I won’t name drop, and I will even admit that sometimes these opportunities happened thanks to connections/circumstance, and not because I’m the king of rhythm guitar! Nonetheless, I am very thankful for these varied opportunities because they have given me tremendous knowledge and experience! I’ve also played with not so good players, and this too has helped me really understand the topic at a very deep level. I still have much to work on (as does everyone), but I would dare say that I am very knowledgeable about it.
La Pompe is far more than just playing quarter notes; many people underestimate the difficulty and artistry involved in playing rhythm guitar. Even the actual act of playing quarter notes involves interpretation; does one play on the beat, behind the beat, ahead of the beat? Should beats 1 and 3 be ahead of the beat, and 2 and 4 on the beat? Or vice-versa? The combinations are vast! We will discuss all of this in detail.
Furthermore, in contemporary Gypsy Jazz (check out my article on the history of Gypsy Jazz https://www.djangobooks.com/blog/author/denis-chang/), there are many styles beyond swing rhythm, but for simplicity’s sake, we will only be focusing on the standard 4/4 swing rhythm. Although many people focus on the rhythm guitar aspect of accompaniment, any other accompaniment instrument, whether bass and/or drums, is equally important and intrinsically tied to the rhythm guitar. I will certainly talk about it as well.
Let us first start with the guitar, and some history! Did Django Reinhardt invent La Pompe? No, he did not. The term itself is old French musician jargon referring to the alternation between bass and treble in piano and accordion accompaniment back in the day. La Pompe is literally “the pump”. In Gypsy Jazz circles, it refers to the swing guitar rhythm. La Pompe simulates the sound of a self-contained rhythm section: essentially, drums, harmony, and potentially bass. This is the key concept; the guitar is used to simulate other instruments. As we all know, instruments can sound many different ways; as such, it stands to reason that the sound of the guitar can also change depending on what we sound we are trying to simulate. Let’s make it clear right away: there is no one right way to play La Pompe! There are certainly bad ways, but even then, we end up in subjective territory.
La Pompe, in its most generic sense of the word, has existed before jazz music. On the guitar, Oscar Aleman was playing La Pompe in his native Argentina. In the USA, Lonnie Johnson was using it to play the blues. In France, Django Reinhardt was playing the popular dance music of the day. Furthermore, before the guitar became widespread, many musicians were playing La Pompe on 4 or 6 string banjos.
Django was also not the first to make it sound distinctly growly on beats 1 and 3 as is typical in Gypsy Jazz nowadays. It appears that it was always a sound that good rhythm guitarists naturally went after, back in the day, sometimes playing voicings that included the 5th of a chord on the low E string when the tonic was on A string (Charlie Parker 1943 Charlie Christian). Historically, I do not know if there was a specific reason for this, but I would assume that it just made things heavier, and helped strengthen the feel of the rhythm section.
Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that chord voicings were sparse in this style of guitar playing, often citing a specific period of Freddie Green’s career. However, in his early days, and in specific ensembles (notably with Eddie Durham in the 30s), Freddie, himself, played a rhythm style very similar to one of Django Reinhardt’s rhythm styles. Though, it is very difficult to ascertain the exact voicings, they were not the sparse one, or two note voicings that he became known for later in his career.
Rhythm guitarists in those days favoured dense voicings, sometimes with full bass notes on the lower strings. The voicings themselves were not very complex, generally triads for major and minor chords, and simple dominant 7th chords. Of course, there was no hard rulebook to which guitarists adhered. Therefore, one might occasionally hear special colours, such as augmented 5ths or dominant 9ths, but generally the chords remained simple.
Django Reinhardt, because of his limitations, had to figure out ways to play similar sounding chords and, therefore, came up with a few special voicings that made use of extensions. I have heard people claim that jazz music is based on 7th chords, and that Django innovated jazz by focusing on 6th chords; that is flat out wrong. The focus on the 7th sound came a little bit later in jazz history, and is mainly associated with the bebop movement. In earlier jazz, the 6th was the color of choice for major and minor chords, and Django simply adopted it into his rhythm playing. However, it is interesting to note that when he could, Django still tried to play triads. For instance, a C triad barre chord on the 3rd and 5th frets of the guitar; this can be clearly seen in existing footages of him. This is very interesting because, even with his long fingers, it requires a little bit of effort, when he could just as easily have played the famous Gypsy Jazz C6/9 voicing in the same position. Whether there is any musical intent behind this, we will never know, but it is certainly interesting to point out. What is important to note, was that his rhythm guitar players played the typical triadic voicings of the day. Django, therefore, did not insist that his rhythm players copy him, as contemporary Gypsy Jazz players often do!
From my conversations with Elios Ferret (son of Matelot Ferre who, along with his brothers, accompanied Django), I was able to confirm that Django was very musically aware; he insisted that the rhythm section be aware of dynamics. This is extremely important, because, it goes without saying that the rhythm section should be there to support the soloist. I believe that dynamically, the rhythm section should always strive to match the dynamics of the soloist. If a soloist is playing soft melodic lines, the rhythm section should play softly behind him/her. If, on the other hand, he/she were playing aggressive/virtuosic lines, the rhythm section should match the intensity.
While on this train of though, I’ve had conversations with musicians that said that guitarists have to be amplified if there was a drummer in the ensemble. I disagree; it is up to the drummer to learn how to be quiet to fit the dynamic intensity of the group. This is orchestration 101; good composers and arrangers write their music with full understanding of what each and every instrument can and should be doing at any given moment. There is no reason why this kind of reasoning shouldn’t exist in improvised music of any style. Listen to the fantastic recording of Begin the Beguine by Fapy Lafertin on his album Fleur De Lavende. Notice the light and sparse drumming supporting the soloist; it swings and it fits perfectly!
Nowadays with technology, it’s very easy to amplify the guitar, and it’s a big topic best left for another article, but in my opinion, one should not be a slave to amplification as it can greatly negatively affect one’s idea of technique and music. The tone of acoustic instruments change significantly in the way we attack the strings, and over amplification can force us to attack in a restrained way that does not allow us to explore the full dynamic range of the acoustic guitar. I believe that it is up to the entire ensemble to adjust their dynamics according to the lead instrument’s volume. Unless one were to approach this from the perspective of a rock band (and some do, which is fine, if that is their intent), amplification should be used sparsely and with great attention to musicality.
At any rate, throughout his career, Django and his rhythm players played La Pompe in many different ways. There is no distinct defining rhythm style associated with him. Again, with the lack of interviews and anecdotes, we will never know how much of it was intentional, but I would like to think that a vast majority of it certainly was!
Listen to the rhythm guitar (Joseph Reinhardt) in the August 1934 recording of Tiger Rag: very straight, equal duration chords with light accent on 2 and 4.
Now listen to Rose Room, recorded in 1937: still Joseph Reinhardt, but with the addition of another rhythm guitarist (Gusti Mahla). Notice, that the sound of the rhythm guitar during Django’s solo is a little bit heavier and slightly more staccato than the 1934 Tiger Rag recording. Because of the audio quality, it is hard to distinguish whether they were adding the upstroke grace note on beats 1 and 3, but Django certainly was when he was playing rhythm.
However, this upstroke is very audible in the 1937 recording of Minor Swing. I like to refer to this style of rhythm playing as the Hot Club sound. Even then, one should not quickly assume that this particular recording is the definitive way to do it.
If we listen to the 1939 recording of I’ll See You In My Dreams, we hear the same rhythm style but with a lighter attack, and a shorter duration for the chords. We begin to see with just these few examples how flexible rhythm guitar can be in swing/jazz music!
Moving forward in time, in 1943, let us listen to the recording of Douce Ambiance; a drum now replaces the second rhythm guitarist. Notice the sparse accompaniment that gives plenty of breathing space for the lead instruments! The rhythm guitar is light, and straight, matching the sound of the drums! This is very reminiscent of Charlie Christian’s own rhythm playing (listen to his recording of Rose Room with Benny Goodman).
In 1949, Django recorded a Minor Blues that I particularly like because of his accompaniment. It is very dry, raw and direct; it almost sounds like a march. I made a note for note cover a few years ago that you can watch here:
Assuming that my transcription is accurate, notice the use of triads on the I chord. On the IV chord (Cm), he uses a Cm6 voicing that sounds thinner than the Gm triad that he plays. Again, I would not dare say that I know exactly what he was thinking, but I do have certain theories about this. I believe that Django purposely used a richer and thicker sounding voicing on the I chord because it was more functionally important than the IV chord. Otherwise, if he had wanted to be efficient (and considering his handicap), he could have used the same voicings for both chords, which he clearly didn’t. He only starts playing Gm6/9 when doing effects such as the tremolo section on the penultimate chorus. With his handicap, he could have easily played Gm6/9 throughout, but instead, he always focused on the triadic sound! Of course, it is just a theory that I have, but I would not say that it is far-fetched; for someone who was illiterate and had practically no concept of music theory, Django was a very astute observer.
This leads me to the topic of voicings. I would like to think that Django was very aware of his choice of voicings, even despite his limitations! He played a specific voicing because that was the one he had in his musical vision. This is in stark contrast with contemporary players playing a voicing because it happens to be the one that they know. This idea of going to our “go to” voicings is not limited to Gypsy Jazz, but all styles of music. We should strive to play a voicing because it is the one we intend to play; we must always be able to justify it even if we may not agree with the choice, hence the subjective aspect of music. When I teach or give critiques, I try not to tell people how I think they should play, but I instead ask them if that is how they want to sound. Most of the time, people are unable to answer this question. Food for thought!
This is, of course, incredibly subjective and personal, and it is obviously something you will have to spend time thinking about in your own time. I will, however, explain my choice of voicings and rhythm styles.
I choose my voicings based on the repertoire, the style, the tempo, and especially with whom I am playing (both the soloist and the rest of the rhythm section). I am always listening for clues to find the best way to complement the band. There are countless variations for this, but I will give you a few different scenarios.
The same song can be played in so many different ways. If I played Minor Swing with a player with strong bebop inflections, I would gravitate towards Minor 7th chords. I might even add a Bm7b5 before going to E7, which I may dress up with a b9 or #9.
Notice the sound that I am using; fairly long duration of the chords on all beats, light attack with a slight accent on 2 and 4. Of course, keep in mind that this is a general example; in reality, I constantly react according to what the soloist is doing, and the rhythm style may change within the same performance according to what I hear.
If on the other hand, I was playing with a old style swing player, then I would opt to use the simple triadic voicings of the 1930s.
If I played with certain Gypsies in the east of France, I would use some of the heavy and rich voicings that Django used, and then some; I might even play F6/9 instead of Dm6 as is typical in that region! Played in that region tend to have a much heavier attack, which is the perfect opportunity to let loose!
Notice the difference in dynamics between this style and the previous recording. The same drive and intensity is there, but a different dynamic level. Again, I remind you, that things may change, and I may use a completely different way of accompaniment based on who I play with and which song we were playing. The Gypsies, themselves have many ways of accompanying, and it can just as easily sound a different way. As always, there is no specific principle that they follow.
Keep in mind that the sound of the rhythm can also change based on the tempo of the song; the possibilities are endless! Here are two examples of two uptempo songs just to give you an idea.
As you see, if we go beyond a narrow-minded contemporary vision Gypsy Jazz, there is no one defining style of rhythm playing. That said, when I do teach contemporary Gypsy Jazz, I generally teach a form of the basic Hot Club rhythm that we talked about earlier; with and without the upstroke, which is yet another option to all the rhythm styles (and then some) that we have looked at so far. Gypsies (the Manouche Gypsies anyway) seem to have preserved a lot of the sound of the old style, but they have also brought in their own touch, which is generally a much heavier and aggressive sound. Even then, as I mentioned earlier on, there is no one single defining style; the sound varies from region to region, or even player to player. People talk of a Parisian school, Alsatian school, Dutch school, German school, Bieber school but quite frankly, I’m not sure that I 100% agree with this. There may have been a time when that could have been very true, but in my travels, each player had their distinct way of accompanying; certain players may be influenced by local players, but accompaniment styles can still differ greatly. Listen to Hono Winterstein’s accompaniment versus Dorado Schmitt’s accompaniment. For your information, they are both from Forbach in the Lorraine region of France; Hono is Dorado’s brother-in-law.
If we are to assume that the real way of playing Gypsy Jazz rhythm is the contemporary Gypsy way (and I don’t, although I am heavily influenced by them), then indeed many people are teaching it wrong.
This leads me to my next point, there are a number of players teaching the Hot Club rhythm in an interesting way, and it has become quite popular among non-Gypsy musicians (all around the world, and even in Paris). This style of rhythm playing comes from trying to emulate the sounds that one hears on Gypsy recordings. Unfortunately, rhythm guitars aren’t always mixed prominently in a recording; with all the mixing and mastering, sometimes the sound of a rhythm guitar ends up giving the illusion of sounding a different way. This is what many players have copied. Interestingly enough, when these players, then record this way, it ends up sounding different from the recordings they originally tried to emulate. Again, I am not criticizing these musicians; it is perfectly their right to play it however they want. For instance, people who don’t speak French, generally can’t tell the difference between Swiss, Belgian, Quebec, Parisian (etc.) accents; I have been so deeply involved with Gypsy Jazz at an intimate level, that I am able to hear these little details, the same way I can distinguish between the various French accents (since I do speak French). Interestingly enough, I know the players that they try to emulate, and they themselves confirm that they definitely do not play it that way.
One such way is a heavy emphasis on beats 1 and 3 and a nearly or quasi-muted staccato 2 and 4. While it’s definitely not my “go to” standard swing rhythm, I wouldn’t be quick as to completely dismiss it despite its fascinating origins. I think certain rhythms can be used for very specific situations.
In the instance of a folkloric Gypsy song, it can be nice to have a longer 1 and 3 and a short 2 and 4. You can hear this on the lesson/album that I produced for Tcha Limberger, Romani Gilia Vol.2, on the song “Kai Djas Kan Miri Pirni”.
On certain slow to medium swings, it can also be interesting to have a quasi muted 2 and 4; it reminds me of a nice Sinatra feel.
Generally speaking though, I think it’s a good idea to match the duration of the chords on the left hand. If the 1 and 3 were to be played short, the 2 and 4 should be played short as well. If on the other hand, exceptions aside, the 1 and 3 were played longer, the 2 and 4 should be held longer as well. The duration of the chords don’t necessarily have to be exact, but there shouldn’t be such a huge contrast like in the last few examples. Again, this is but my opinion, based on the sounds that I like (which include both Gypsies and pre-war jazz guitarists)
In my opinion, the best way to learn Gypsy Jazz rhythm sound production, is to learn to play chords with longer durations, and then to learn to play them with shorter durations. Once these two are assimilated (and it is no easy feat), we will be able to technically achieve any sound we want. Most people are only familiar with a short duration for beats 2 and 4, and it is extremely difficult them to hold on to the chord without sacrificing tone on the other beats and the right hand. Indeed, while working on the left hand duration, the right hand must remain the same!
With regards to using the upstroke, there are many ways to approach it as well. Some upstrokes are lighter, others are more pronounced. It is merely a question of preference. In the instance of medium to up-tempo swing, the upstroke should generally be extremely close to the downstroke, to the point where they form one tight unit. The up and downstrokes should generally not be separate rhythmic units.
One can choose to hit all the strings on the upstrokes and downstrokes in the style of Fapy Lafertin, or just the bass strings, in the style of Hono Winterstein. The difference between the two is quite subtle (and we’re not even talking about left hand duration).
Disclaimer: I wouldn’t dare say that that is exactly how Fapy and Hono play their rhythms. In fact, they have more than just one style, but I would say that it is fairly close to what they do.
On beats 2 and 4, I like to hit all strings, but a few players like to alternate between bass (roughly E to G) and treble strings (roughly D to E) on 1 and 3. Once again the difference is subtle.
All strings on 2 and 4 :
Treble strings 2 and 4 Example:
Finally, coming back to the issue of upstrokes, one can apply pressure on the strings with the left hand before executing the upstroke, or one can totally (or almost) mute the strings, the difference is very subtle. See if you can hear the difference in the following examples
As you can see, the combinations are near endless!
On the other hand, when playing ballads, chord durations and the use of upstrokes are different than for swing rhythms; it’s an entirely different approach. Once again, there are no rules, and it depends on the song and the mood that one wishes to convey.
For lyrical passages, one can have much longer chord durations to the point where the harmony rings out in the sonic spectrum. I will give you three examples of ballad rhythms with long duration:
In the first example, notice the pronounced and slow upstroke before beats 1 and 3. Of course, the upstrokes are optional, it can be done with only downstrokes throughout./
In the last example, notice that my left hand never releases the pressure except to switch chords!
For passages that are more dramatic and require more intensity, I may make the chord durations much shorter, and if I choose to use an upstroke, it is much quicker:
I think I have given you enough examples for you to understand, that there is no one right way to do things. In fact, there are many other sounds that can be achieved, but the point of this article is to only to help clear some of the confusion.
How then do I decide which rhythm to use? As I said, it depends on many factors. If I were just jamming casually, it shouldn’t matter too much, though it would be nice to listen to each other and complement each other. If, on the other hand, I was working in a professional setting, I usually just ask the player what he/she prefers. Some are very easy going (phew!), others have a very clear vision of what they want, and I try my best to fulfill his/her vision.
My good friend Roberto Rosenman, from Toronto, coined the term Rhythm Bitch; it’s really just light humour, but the fact is, a rhythm player should truly be at the service of the soloist.
Of course, there are other styles, where the line between rhythm and solo becomes quite blurry, and the rhythm section actively influences the soloist. This is another style of playing, which is certainly valid. There’s not much to say about that style of playing, because in that world, anything goes! In my opinion, that style of playing works best in smaller settings such as duets, otherwise, things can easily get chaotic. Whenever I play this way, I listen very carefully to what the soloist is doing, and at times, I may even completely reharmonize a song if I hear that the soloist is about to hit a specific note, and I know that my new harmony will fit. It can be quite exciting!
Speaking of harmony, I’ve talked about the importance of choosing the right voicings, but one should equally be aware about which sets of chords to play. Many songs, if not all, can be played in a number of different ways. Some songs within a particular style have a standard set of changes that most players know, but others, that are less common, can be played in many different ways. In a professional setting, it’s a good idea of the ensemble to be an agreement with which sets of changes to use. It’s always amusing to witness a jam session with each player playing completely different sets of chords (and in some cases, chords that are conflicting) and seeing everyone being completely oblivious to it. I really wonder, are they listening?! I encourage you to listen to different versions of songs and to pay attention to what chords are being played, it can be a very educational experience, and can give you new ideas.
With regards to timing, believe it or not, it can be highly interpretive as well. The tempo can and certainly will move, though in my opinion it should be extremely subtle; anything more should be intentional. No one is ever 100% metronomic, we all move in one way or another. I have to admit that everything in my previous examples was recorded to a click track, and since I am using midi bass, I lined up my rhythm guitar to be perfectly in sync with it. This is not reality, however.
This is very subjective, but most people who are playing swing music generally want the beat to drive a little bit. It should give the feeling of pushing without really speeding up too much; once again, it is very subtle. In the more contemporary Gypsy Jazz style, people to tend to exaggerate this a little bit; I’m not a huge fan of it, but I suppose that’s what the style is. I, myself, am sometimes guilty of it if I don’t pay attention.
One of the best examples of subtle pushing, is Django’s first recording of Minor Swing in 1937. The band gets excited over the course of the song, and by the end of the tune, the tempo has sped up a little bit, though it is not so obvious.
With this feeling of subtly pushing the beat (without speeding up too much), soloists have more freedom in their phrasing, and can easily play on the beat, and with a bit of skill can play behind the beat which creates a very fluid and relaxed feel. Generally, guitarists with a lot of technical facility have no problem playing ahead of the beat, and in fact we tend to naturally gravitate towards it. It can certainly be an effect, and works great for certain passages, but in my opinion, we should try to use it sparsely.
On the other hand, if the rhythm player is dragging, it can make many soloists nervous, and those who tend to play slightly ahead of the beat will sound much more out of time than they should. This can especially be a drag (pun intended) on uptempo virtuosic songs, where the soloist is really giving all he/she’s got.
Any fluctuation in tempo should not be too noticeable (unless intended). Usually the ones who notice this feeling are the people soloing (or dancing!).
I would encourage you to experiment with a few different concepts; trying to push on 1 and 3, but keeping it steady on 2 and 4, and vice versa. Record yourself, and try soloing over the tracks to feel the effect. Again, this is something that is extremely subtle and kind of pushing should be microscopic. On slower songs, one might even want to have a subtle laid back feeling on the 1 and 3 and keep the 2 and 4 as steady as possible, especially for lyrical passages. On dramatic passages, where the rhythm is more staccato, I would suggest striving to keep all beats steady, but if it had to move, better to slightly push than drag. Again, I remind you that this is highly subjective and you should simply just try to experiment with what feels best for the people you play with. I have played with people who preferred that the rhythm section drag a little bit; I have also played with people who insisted that the rhythm section REALLY push the beat. There are all sorts of opinions out there, and if they are the leaders of the band, then they are the ones who are right.
I remember doing a tour with two rhythm guitar players, where one was fairly consistent with the beats, but the other one had a tendency to push the 2 and 4 a little bit more than what felt comfortable for the soloists; with two rhythm guitar players, with conflicting time feel, it created a bit of a echo effect. In instances where there are two rhythm players, I urge you to listen very carefully to the timing and to find a common meeting point. These are very subtle and require tremendous concentration.
No one is perfect, I’ve had my share of off moments on certain songs, where I dragged or pushed more than I should have, and I’m happy to say that I’ve seen all the best players do the same. In the end, it requires constant concentration, which is why rhythm guitar is not as easy as it appears to be!
But enough about guitar! As I have mentioned earlier on, the bass is an equally important of the equation. None of the sound issues we talked about matter, if the bass is doing the same thing all the time, especially if it’s a different thing! In fact, it just kills the whole feel, in my opinion. There was a time earlier in my career when I thought every bass player was the same; just get anyone who can walk in time, and that’s it. How naïve I was!
With regards to upright bass sound production, many bass players seem to play the same way, walking bass. When it comes to playing swing music, many are at a loss! Few can play with a bow in tune and with a decent tone. In fact, I believe that whatever instrument we play, we should learn to take advantage of all the sounds it can offer. The contemporary pizzicato rest stroke technique for bass involves playing fairly long tones for walking bass, and the attack is sometimes somewhat soft. It is the standard technique, and make no mistake about it, it’s fantastic, but it is not the only way to play the instrument. Yet, for many bass players, it is the only way that they know.
The slap technique of the old days is great and I don’t see any reason not to learn how to do it , even at the most basic level. It doesn’t have to be the virtuosic slap style that rockabilly bass players are known for. There is a percussive intensity in the old style of plucking the bass that works great for old style swing / dance music. Listen to this clip of Louis Armstrong from 1933:
or this contemporary Gypsy Jazz recording:
There is also no reason why the bass shouldn’t be played with a bow in jazz / swing music. It can create wonderful textures and can still swing, if done properly:
In the context of swing music or Gypsy Jazz, there is no one right away to play bass, again it depends on the same factors as rhythm guitar.
If we go back to the standard walking bass, there are many ways to do it as well. In this recording, the bass notes are held long but the bass player applies a certain level of intensity in the attack for each note, often using always the same finger to pluck each note:
Now listen to the same bass player, and same lead player playing a heavier song:
Notice that the bass player is still walking but now the duration of the quarter notes are much shorter, and the intensity of the right hand is a bit stronger resulting in a pumping feel!
I invite you to listen back to all the recordings that I’ve made for this article and listen to how the bass complements each of the rhythm guitar styles. Again, nothing is set in stone, it’s not about copying but about complementing, and there are different ways to do this; in the end, it’s up to you and your bassist to experiment.
As to when one should be playing in two feel or walking bass, once again, that entirely depends on so many factors. Everyone will have their own take on this. I feel certain songs certainly benefit from playing mainly in two feel, such as older swing songs purposely played in the old style. Occasionally, on certain passages, it can be nice to have a few walk ups in walking feel, as well; it’s really up the bass player’s discretion. I have tried to add some of that in recorded examples of two feel.
On certain songs, it can be nice to have parts of the songs in two feel and others in walking bass. Generally, the first and last choruses (melodies) can be played in two, and the solos can be walked. It can be a particularly exciting effect when there is a climactic build up leading to the final chorus ending with a heavy accent on the first beat of the last chorus, then switching to a soft two feel, and finally ending with a big bang. This is what I aimed for in this recording of J’attendrai with Yorgui Loeffler, at 3:20:
The important thing is to always listen to what’s going on, and to figure out what is the best way to complement the situation. There are no rules, but one should strive to make every action intentional in order to serve the music.
In order to have the freedom to concentrate on what’s going on, one must be very comfortable with the technical and mental aspect of rhythm playing. The technical aspect speaks for itself. The mental aspect is the mastery of the repertoire. Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate charts. I have never used charts to accompany anyone professionally. I’ve always committed every song to memory, and I have trained myself to be able to memorize the songs quickly. I don’t believe myself to be more talented than the average musician, but I understood early on that I had to train my memory and ears. I’ve had to memorize entire sets with arrangements the day of the concert, and the only reason I am able to do this, is because I stopped using charts long ago. If you are really serious about music, I urge you to do the same.
I also highly advise people interested in rhythm playing, to also learn as many lead playing concepts as possible, in order to train the ears to hear how certain notes and melodies fit with certain chords or certain voicings. If I hear that someone is about to go for an altered line, I can quickly adjust my chords to support his/her line.
That, my friends, is the secret to Gypsy Jazz rhythm. It is an organic and interactive process that requires tremendous concentration. I know that not everyone does these things in this style of music. Even some of the well-known ensembles don’t always follow these principles, but that is just my vision of music in general, not just Gypsy Jazz. Nonetheless, I still find joy in listening to artists whose vision are different from mine. My words are merely food for though. Hopefully they also dispel any kind of mystery and misconception that one has about this style. There is no one right way, and the leader of each ensemble decides what is the right sound; if a Gypsy Jazz bandleader thinks that a bluegrass rhythm with open chords is “authentic” Gypsy Jazz, then that is his/her right. The important thing is that everything is intentional and that it swings. Yes, the concept of swing is very subjective. I’ve heard music that I thought had zero groove, but that people enjoyed greatly. Some bandleaders are less strict about how rhythm should sound, others are very specific about what they want. Fair enough! It’s a great learning experience to work with these people, but I would also urge you to give it some thought so that you can come up what works best for your vision of music.
Gypsy or not, good accompaniment is very difficult and requires tremendous skill. Gypsies only have the advantage of learning sound through osmosis, but that is only one aspect of rhythm playing. I’d rather work with someone whose sound I didn’t necessarily like, but whose timing was solid, and who was able to learn songs quickly.
I think any style of music can be greatly improved if the whole ensemble strived, not only to work together, but to also serve the music, first and foremost.
If you enjoyed this article, and would like to know more about this topic, please check out the various Gypsy Jazz lessons on my website www.dc-musicschool.com, featuring yours truly, and many world renowned artists.
All examples recorded on my beautiful Martin Tremblay guitar
“Ready for 23 minutes of ‘All of Me’? Who takes first solo?”
After years of jamming in various situations, with all kinds of players, a recent discussion on Denis Chang’s facebook page had me figuring it could be useful to write about Gypsy Jazz jams and etiquette. We all have already been saddened and annoyed by certain behavior… or frustrated by different things: our performance, the way the jam is managed… sometimes we felt something went wrong but couldn’t figure out why.
I’m certainly not writing the perfect jammer’s manual here but just trying to share with you a few things I’ve learned and experienced through 15 years of jam-sessions. I’m thinking especially about the people who don’t have the chance to frequent a jam on a regular basis. As the French proverb says, “Hell is paved with good intentions” and a session with heaps of nice and enthusiastic people can therefore quickly turn into a sonic disaster, a musical wreckage, regardless of the musicians’ skills.
Jazz has always carried an idea of freedom in both music history and theory but if you look closely, there’s always a structure to prevent music turning into chaos. Just thinking about a few details listed below can easily improve your jamming experience. They are a kind of basic, unspoken rules that will apply anytime, with some of them more specifically dedicated open jams in public venues.
The general idea is that playing music is about pleasure, sharing and a bit of self-accomplishment too.
1. Get your gear
As basic as it seems, a true guitarist should never walk out his place without his pick. You never know what can happen! You can even take a pair of them with you in case you need to help another player that’s not as smart as you. I remember going to the number 1 French jazz radio for an interview with Latchès (Steeve Laffont, Chriss Campion, Yorgui Loeffler). Yorgui didn’t have any pick with him. Oops.
Bring spare strings of course and some chord charts if you are a beginner. Usually, a repertoire of 20-30 songs is enough to be able to jam pretty anywhere. Still, it’s better to start by learning 5 songs by heart instead of roaming jams for years with a gig book that will make you lazy.
2. Say Hello!
People at Gypsy Jazz festivals, like the Samois Django Festival, are so excited to jam. That’s legitimate as that event is to Gypsy Jazz lovers what Disney World is for kids: all your favorite characters are here and you can almost touch them! Consequently many GJ fans forget their manners and act as if they were shopping in Wallmart, picking-up jams as if they were wandering the alleys, easing their urge for music. This is rude. Please make eye contact to introduce yourself. Just look at people and ask (even with body language only): “Can I join you?”. Most of the time you’ll be answered a “sure!”, or maybe you’ll just be asked to wait until the next tune. On my opinion, it breaks the balance to sneak into a song as the “band” is already presenting something with a particular line-up and mood. Would you sit with a random family in a park, have a bite in their sandwich and leave the place without a word? Of course not.
3. The more the merrier: ok but…no
Honestly, who takes pleasure playing Blues Mineur for 17 minutes with 4 guitar solos, 3 violin solos and some bad scat singing on top of it?… I don’t and I know I’m not alone. The thing is you can’t focus on everybody’s solo for 17 minutes: at the end people are just waiting for their turn, their moment to shine whereas most of the audience and musicians are not listening anymore. Making love with one person is great, some do it with 2, 3, 4… but with a dozen it gets complicated… I believe it also applies for music in an informal and improvisational context. Also, it’s not easy for everybody to keep a good pace for a long time. Interesting analogy, hey?
I live in Paris and there is a kind of natural set-up in open-jam-sessions here that reproduces what you’d find in a private jam, being at your own place or at a gypsy camp. 3 guitars maximum playing at a time seems to be the most pleasant way to jam. You can then add a bass, violin, clarinet, singer, whatever… that way, soloists have 2 or 3 guitars as a rhythm back-up and everyone gets attention. The audience can listen to a tight piece of music that will not exceed 8 or 10 mns… One or two guitar players can switch place after a few tunes so that the music evolves from song to song. Some Aussie friends visiting Paris made me realize that. That basic organization gives plenty of time for everybody to play in good condition during the session and avoids the mess. As a musician, it’s also good just to listen to the music sometimes!
4. You are not alone
– Listen. It can only help you to serve the music better. Interplay is the key: you can fill gaps with chord substitutions or rhythmic accents if you feel that the soloist lacks inspiration, do some stop-chorus, breaks… or keep steady and simple the rest of the time to allow the soloists the freedom to play nuances and vary the harmonic colours, etc… Try to stay aware as much as you can.
How many times did I see people missing their turn in a 4/4 chase because they were so focused on… themselves. I think you’ll learn more listening to someone else, even people that are less advanced than you, rather that thinking about your phrasing schemes or your shopping list during other people’s solos. Furthermore, it shows when you do that.
With an audience, listen to what’s played and try to avoid performing two songs in the same key and/or same tempo in a row. This would give a feel of monotony both for audience and musicians. State-of-the art is too go up in the keys at each new song.
If you hear someone in the band playing out of pace, try to kindly make him understand he has to get back into the tempo, with words or body language. If you can’t, or if it doesn’t work, just ignore that person. It may not be easy, especially if the person is playing loud but you have to stick to the right tempo. Hopefully this groove killer will be back on track after a moment but if you try to adapt, then it will be a sum of hesitations between him, you, and the person next to you that doesn’t know who to follow anymore. The tempo problem can soon become contagious. These people lack listening and awareness. You must be able to hear when you’re sloppy otherwise you will never improve yourself. That’s why listening is important: if you feel that the tempo is giving you a hard time, or that you are rushing on ballads, just stop for a few seconds and synchronize yourself with the others.
– Make yourself heard…but remain civilized. Django’s music was born with roots in ballroom dancing, busking, playing totally acoustic or with a single microphone in front of the band. The soloist must be heard and able to produce a powerful sound. You’re not playing in your bedroom here. Playing constantly loud is aggressive and tiring to the ear but the opposite is just as painstaking and annoying for the mind: spending an entire dinner with someone yelling at your side is no fun… but a whole evening in a noisy bar with someone whispering just make you want to leave the place or yell : “Speak up!!!” As an acoustic guitar soloist, don’t be afraid to produce some generous sound. As an accompanist, if you don’t hear the soloist, then there is a problem. The whole rhythm section should lower the general volume to find balance and support the soloist. If that soloist is particularly weak in his sound, just tell him nicely to play louder. Gypsy Jazz is about energy. When you jam with top players they are not tearing you ears with continuous fortissimo phrases but you can feel they are involved and are giving you some energy. I often jam with people who don’t sound very loud. Well, it gets worse when they are at home. You hear the pick plucking as loud as the notes… this is ok around 3 pm to preserve the peace with you neighbors in a small building or if you have your girlfriend sleeping in the next room but otherwise it’s just annoying and frustrating. Maybe it’s a form of shyness? Once again, it is a matter of balance but you gotta make that guitar sound, I mean for real! It’s acoustic, not electric…
By the way I think that jams are the best place to evaluate an acoustic guitar’s potential in terms of power and tone. It has to be played the right way of course, with that famous gypsy right-hand technique but if a guitar is played correctly and strongly enough in that context you’ll immediately hear if it cuts through or not.
Sound is the basis of music, it is the first information listeners receive. You can be an awesome actor but if nobody hears you on the theater’s stage, what’s the point?
Clarinet player Florin Gugulica (who played with Moreno, in Gatlif’s “Latcho Drom” along with Bireli, Stochelo, Didier Lockwood etc…) told me one thing he noticed when performing with those great musician: “if you play with a loud and nice sound, in tune, in time… even if you play very simple phrases… you’ve won, the audience will appreciate.” So true.
– Look. I like to make short eye contact from time to time with people I’m jamming with. After all we are producing something together right now, right? Jamming with some soloist that pops up, plays, and leaves the bandstand without even looking at you is no pleasure at all. It says a lot. Man, if you blow your horn or play your violin for 10 minutes, the least you can do is to thank the rhythm section. I remember Samois a few years ago: we just sat in the camping with two friends in a close circle, out of the driveway because we didn’t want to show off. We just wanted to enjoy jamming together as we met only once a year or so. After 5 minutes a bass and a guitar came along, sat and started playing loud and out of pace, without even looking us in the eye or saying hello. Okay. Then another two guitars joined in. Hummm okay… Then a violin player just came and started soloing over whosever solo it was. That guy finished his solo, and just walked out to the next jam before the end of the song. He didn’t even look at us. Another day, in the middle of a song I suddenly heard a huge pompe behind me, and then the guy just started a solo over mine… What kind of manners is that?
Not to say, but some soloists have to learn to stay with the band during a whole song. I’ve witnessed that so many times: the guy plays melody, solo, then walks out for a cigarette or try to pick up a girl and comes back 5 minutes later for final melody and applause. I’m talking about violinists, singers, saxophones, clarinets, you name it. And guitarists should learn not to talk, tune or drink during bass solos as well… Come on don’t tell me you never did it.
When you’re playing in public, look at the audience. This will give you the feel, the general mood, and people are always happy to share a smile with the musicians. It just takes a second. If you are playing indoors, close to a wall or in a corner, and if you have enough room think about opening the circle so that the audience won’t feel excluded. It’s nicer to see faces and hands rather that people turning their back on you. If you play acoustic it remains the best way to be heard correctly. This is even more true considering the directive sound projection of a petite bouche. Jazz manouche is a style that can be easily appreciated by newcomers because it’s also fun to watch. I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine making a comment after I had took her to her first gypsy jazz jam at “Le bouquet du Nord” : “Your friends look like a bunch of grumpy, big-bellied, hairy guys playing for themselves”. I can’t really say she was wrong that night!
“2nd year here? All right come and play but remember dude: 2 guitars at a time!”
Another thing is to define each player’s turn for solos. Some just wait the end of a chorus to start theirs without asking permission. Most of the time people look at each other, make themselves understood or pass their turn clockwise for instance. Otherwise, it’s just an ego battle with often one musician being deprived of his solo because the final theme is being played and nobody cared about him. Cruel world! Each musician must be aware of that and that’s also the MC’s responsibility in case of an open jam. The MC must also keep an eye to all the musicians coming in the venue so that he can have everybody playing during the session. As far as I’m concerned, I like to let things happen naturally and just interfere to invite some shy people or ask the guy that’s been playing for an hour to pass his seat to someone else. Back in the old days at La Chope des puces, guitar players had to show up for months, before being invited to play. That’s a bit too much. Also, I think it’s better to let the less advanced players play at the beginning. It avoids tension and interest going down during the session if you have limited time and beginners will feel more secure that way rather that coming after a killer version of Cherokee by a Stochelo disciple in front of an engaged audience.
Talking about audience, whenever people are applauding at the end of a tune don’t forget to look at them and eventually say “Thank you”… Remember that these people are giving their time, attention, energy and probably money listening to you! It’s quite unpleasant to see musicians not even looking at the audience when they are being applauded. It is not about standing, bowing and thinking you’re at Carnegie Hall for an encore but just looking up at the audience and smiling. Seems fair, doesn’t it? Moreover it really helps the audience feeling involved and connected with the musicians. Cant’ be bad if you’re busking or asking for tips, right?
5. Acoustic? Electric? Make a choice
When having both kinds of instruments the amplified ones always tend to get louder and louder. I’ve recently been in a jam with acoustic guitars, an accordion (not what you’d call a weak sounding instrument) and an electric bass. It was awful: we had to play rough on our guitars but still, all you could hear was that fender bass. It’s the same with a 2 guitars “Stimer vs acoustic set-up” combination. Not so many people are aware and educated enough to have a good balance when playing. We are talking here about jam or small gigs because that problem is much rarer with a skilled sound engineer. Anyway they are so much medium frequencies in a Stimer or an electric pick-up that it tends to take over the acoustic guitar.
6. The gentle art of jamming with a singer
A singer will always impose a key because “it’s my key” or “it’s not in my key”. The tempo will most of the time be… unexpected. They just figure you can transpose “All the things you are” from Bb to C# in the blink of an eye… I won’t make comments on that! Oh yes: if you manage to transpose the chords but don’t feel comfortable for solo, just skip your turn. The world will survive without a messy solo of yours and it will shorten the pain… I’m ironic here but even if transposing is fully part of the accompanist’s job, I think is not appropriate to ask that in a jam. First, you can put people in a difficult situation: I personally feel insecure to have to transpose a song on the spot, except a super-easy one. I think one should go to a jam to play, propose what he can do and not be asked to sit on a school bench. In that case it becomes a negotiation and we’re not here for that. You’re not rehearsing for a paid gig here. So singer friends, if you like jamming, I suggest that you review the most played standards and pick-up the ones that match your vocal key instead of learning dozens of songs that 90 % of musicians but you play in the same key…
In a general way, if you are the jam-session MC, try to match singer with experienced players and rather at the end or the second half of the session. Actually, singers but also violin and trumpet players, tend to get all the audience attention, however good or bad they play. It’s hard to get that same energy by getting back to a two or three guitars set-up. Life is unfair.
7. The gentle art of jamming with… what is THAT? (a.k.a. the Jam Killer)
Depending on the city, the neighborhood, the time of the day the jam-session occurs, the probability of having a total weirdo entering the jam varies. Just expect the unexpected… That 6 feet body-builder guy singing with a cranky falsetto voice, that djembe player playing so loud, the Hippie woman playing a flute made out of a carrot, that tap dancer that blows out your ears and keeps tapping over everybody’s solo, that blonde that’s so hot but so drunk and out of tune, that young man singing his own dark “chanson réaliste” texts over All of Me, as if the whole society was tearing his skin apart… Well, as a polite person I’ll let them play a couple of songs but if it gets too painful, just ask them nicely to leave the bandstand because someone else is coming, because people drove a long way to play Gypsy Jazz or simply take advantage of this incredibly artistic performance to propose a general break… Nevertheless, remember not to judge a book by its cover. Always wait to hear the performance, you never know. I remember a jam in Paris with an African singer from Senegal entering the venue randomly and joining the crew on Danse Norvégienne. It was unexpected, strange but beautiful! Now with true jam killers it’s better to talk and explain them nicely why their behavior is killing the groove. A group of persons will be more efficient for that than a single one to fulfill this task.
8. Connecting people
Music should always be a moment of sharing and fun. Don’t be shy. Talk to that terrific player you’ve heard, ask her or his name, talk about the people you like or know, ask questions even if they seem stupid to you. Ask about that chord sequence, that phrase on the E7, that song they played, etc… It may seem elementary to many of you but I saw so many people come, play and just vanish. If you are new, don’t be shy. If you are a regular and see a new face come in, welcome him to make him feel at ease. Starting a conversation is also interesting to have some feedback about your playing. Sometimes you feel satisfied with your performance but nobody seems to care… On the other hand, I’ve often noticed that if you happen to feel disappointed and ashamed about your playing, you can be pretty sure to receive some unexpected compliments on specific points that you wouldn’t usually think about. It’s always difficult to judge yourself.
Remember also that, as far as regular open jams in big cities are concerned, they are the musician’s market place! Many times did I hear players complain about their lack of work, bitching on other musicians, etc… but how do you expect people to know you and call you for gigs if they never see your face? It’s good sometime just to remind them that you’re still around.
9. Playing jazz is always a new experience
Even with the same people, the same songs… the result will always be different. Jamming is a very important and unavoidable aspect of learning jazz. However hard you worked, what you’re playing now and then (be it with a bit of stress, or with that sloppy rhythm player, that awful guitar or amp…) is your true average level. Jamming gets you out of your comfort zone. Out of the routine you can have at home or with your friends. It forces to you to interact and pushes you forward. When non-musicians fill the audience, you’ll notice that it is not always the best ranked player among musicians that will get all the applause. Playing with feeling is the key and for that I’ll let you pick all the good advice from the excellent article Denis Chang wrote on the Djangobooks blog. Remember that music is made to give people emotions. It’s not an exception to see amateurs doing better solos than full-time musicians during a jam. That’s the magic of music. But if you hear the same guys playing in a dozen jams, the average level of the pros will always be higher, more regular. It feels solid. As pilots have to acquire flight time, I think music can be considered the same way. Take advantage of jams to work your time, sound, interplay and get chops from the other musicians.
As a conclusion, I will quote what Serge Krief often says to his students: “Playing at a concert or a jam is worth a whole month of home practice”.