When I work with jazz ensembles on style and phrasing, I strongly emphasize that everyone needs to know what instruments they are listening to – and why. These skills, when applied correctly, can have a large impact on the development of the complete musician. Let’s discuss how we can approach this thinking in a jazz ensemble rehearsal setting.
Drums and Bass
In the rhythm section, your main focus needs to be on the drums and bass. All instruments (including piano, guitar, vibes, etc.) are important and have unique roles, but the drums and bass are most important from a listening and style standpoint.
The bass is, in essence, the timekeeper, as their parts typically consist of steady quarter notes, eighth notes, or a similarly repetitive pattern. That’s typically something everyone can follow from a time perspective and gives us a clear anchor point with which to listen for tempo.
We know the drum set must also play with great time, but is even more responsible for feel, style, and dynamics of the music. The rhythms being played by the drummer usually go hand in hand with the style of each tune: swing, samba, funk, contemporary, shuffle, ECM, etc. Likewise, the dynamic range of any given band will often begin and end with the drumset.
Where to Listen
When the wind players are listening to the rhythm section, they have to key in on the relationship of these two voices. While the bass is the primary timekeeper, it’s important that the bassist also puts their quarter notes/patterns in time with the ride cymbal pattern and with “2 and 4” on the hi-hat. This not only helps overall time, but gives us the “groove” and “pocket” that is needed to produce a compelling performance.
Once this is established, the role of the wind players is to listen across the band for this sound and consistency of time. As they get used to this approach, they will become much more sensitive to time and tempo overall. Because most jazz groups do not rely on a director to conduct for time, the listening responsibility is quite high in this type of ensemble. It’s very common for this skill to transfer to all ensembles they play in and is another strong reason why jazz ensembles provides so many positives for musicians and their development.
The Wind Section – Who Should Lead?
All of the first part players – alto 1, trombone 1, trumpet 1 – are a priority when it comes to defining style in the traditional jazz ensemble. However, trumpet 1 –the lead trumpet – is the voice, the sound that most often has to guide the ensemble. Not just from a dynamic standpoint, but equally important, from a style standpoint.
It’s the one instrument that’s going to speak above the rest in the texture. In addition, it’s often the highest melodic instrument sound in the ensemble. The projection level of the trumpet along with the drums combine to dictate style, balance, blending, phrasing, and dynamics.
It’s important to note that the trumpet player with the highest range may or may not be the best selection for the primary lead trumpet voice.
Ideally, in the case of the lead trumpet, the player who plays with the best style and has the best understanding of jazz interpretation should be the one leading the section. The legendary trumpeter, Bobby Shew, spent much of his career as a jazz player before being forced into the lead chair of a very prominent big band by happenstance. Because he was such an accomplished musician with great style and phrasing, this ultimately became a natural fit for his career. We now view him as one of the greatest lead players (and well-rounded jazz musicians) of all time.
If your lead player does not have much range in the beginning, you can get around this through careful song selection. Most jazz publishers list the highest written note for Trumpet 1 on their scores and this, along with some creativity, can help you fill in the gaps as needed. Ultimately, the player can/will develop range as needed, but having someone with great style in this role will make all the difference long term in the way your band plays and swings.
Jazz Ensemble Rehearsal Tips
I have a couple of simple jazz ensemble rehearsal tips that I would recommend using with any group. One thing I will do in rehearsal is to have my just my lead players (alto sax/trombone/trumpet) play along with the rhythm section on certain phrases. If those lead voices don’t agree on style and phrasing, then the rest of the band will have a harder time playing as a cohesive ensemble. This also allows the rest of the band to hear how their parts fit in and to learn to listen more closely to the subtleties of style at the highest level of performance.
If it needs to be even more clear, I may have just the lead trumpet play to hear how they’re interpreting phrasing. It’s often been said that if you have a good drummer and a good lead trumpet player, you have a good band. I think in many cases, that still rings true with all levels of jazz ensembles. If both of these musicians agree on the aforementioned principles, then you are on your way!
Something else we will do often is to sing rhythms with specific syllables, like “doo-daht” and “doo-bah-doo-bah” making sure that the approach to style is correct before we turn these into sound and articulation on the instruments. Having a strong sense of articulation and swing eighth note subdivision is a tried and true way to develop style quickly with all levels of students. If your group can play swing style well, then most other straight eighth tunes should come together more quickly.
Other tricks, such as “bopping” and “clapping”, have been discussed in previous blogs and are among other techniques that work across a variety of instrumental ensembles.
Balance/Hierarchy of Melody and Harmony
Also important in this discussion is the overall musical and ensemble balance. It may seem obvious, but if you can’t hear the lead trumpet, then chances are the balance between melody and harmony is lost. Jazz employs many unique colors due to the extended harmonic nature of the writing, but we still have to focus on the basic concept of a hierarchy of priorities. Is the melody clear? Is the harmony supporting well, but not overplaying? Can everyone hear the drums and bass? Are we blending within each section and across the ensemble? Are all of the “color notes” coming through the texture easily? Can we hear the soloists during background figures?
From a basic ensemble balance approach, all of the inner voices must support, but not overplay, the lead voices. If the lower voices are playing a lot louder or softer than the lead voices, the ensemble is going to be unbalanced and we run into more issues with intonation, volume, etc. If the rhythm section is much louder than the winds, that creates its own inherent challenges.
Lastly, The delicate balance between acoustic and electronic instruments is another byproduct of modern technology. This must be treated as a factor in the overall blend and balance of a jazz ensemble. If you can’t hear the acoustic instruments or solos, the balance needs to be rethought and adjusted. The benefits both the performers and the audience.
The next time you are thinking about asking the bass player to turn up the volume because you can’t hear them, instead have them turn up their volume of articulation and “dig in” more into their sound. Electronic volume is there to boost the inherent sound of the instrument, not make them sound better overall. Bass, guitar, and keyboard amps should be used on the lowest levels possible to still project the sound but not overpower the acoustic instruments.
In any musical situation, listening should influence everything we do and understanding our relationships to time, style, phrasing, and balance will go a long way in the growth and development of a musician. Jazz ensembles provide many opportunities and different environments with which to improve and develop these skills and will help improve all aspects of individual musicianship and foster quicker musical growth in your programs.