When to play - and when not to play.  Graham Clark March 2010

When we are playing jazz, it is easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment, and play and play and play. However, playing too much is one of the cardinal sins of improvising in jazz. Not leaving space within our solos is a fairly clear offence, and I will deal with that later, but there are other kinds of "too much" playing that we need to think about.

To start with, do you know the tune? If you don't know the tune, can you still sit in? This depends on how complex a piece it is. If you are at a jam session and someone calls a blues whose head you don't know – you can still join in. You might not play the melody, but you might be able to do some accompanying riffs, or answering phrases. Such answering phrases shouldn't distract us from the main tune, but draw our attention back to the tune. You don't play a blistering cluster of fast notes – you just play a phrase that relates directly to the “call” phrase – copying the last part, or just a little phrase that doesn't fight the tune. We always have to be aware of what the other people in the band are doing, so that what we do fits. Of course, as we know the blues chord sequence, we can do a solo. If we have absorbed the tune, so much the better, but we can at least play the changes.

What do we do when it is the next soloists turn? The first thing we do is to stop playing, acknowledge , with a nod or two, any applause we might have been given, and get out of the centre of the stage. If we can't move far away, we should “shrink” a little. It's the other guy's turn now. Leave him to it. If his solo needs it, at some point further in, or if he gives us the nod, we might add some stabs or riffs, but we must again be careful not to overpower him, or take the audience's attention away from him, by drawing it to ourselves.

OK, that is what we do if the unknown tune's structure is familiar. What if it isn't? What if we have never heard the sequence? Well, we can wait a few choruses, see if we can “hear” where the chords are going, and take a calculated risk. In which case, we might build our solo carefully, feeling out the corners of the harmonic movement in the first chorus or two, until we know what's what. Or, if we can't hear it, and the changes seem alien – we should just say “no” to a solo. Don't play. Wait till the next song. It is better to play nothing and not ruin everyone's enjoyment, or our own reputation. Imagine sitting in on “Moment's Notice” without having learnt it. Bad idea.

So how about tunes we do know, and know well? Again, depends on the tune, and its style. A fast swinger can have a head played by several frontline in unison. A ballad can't – it is a much more personal statement with more idiosyncratic phrasing and timing. But you can give a middle eight to someone else, or the whole second half, and play answering phrases on the last eight, like Lester Young for Billie Holliday. Playing such answering phrases is an art in itself. As I wrote above, we have to reflect the attention back to the song, highlighting elements of the tune, and not getting in the way of the words, or main melody.

When it comes to backing up someone else's solo, it is a matter of personal taste. I tend not to play at all, and leave it to the rhythm section. Single line instruments have a sound that commands attention, and that doesn't really, in my opinion, make good back-up. There are some forms of music, like country, where a continual violin back up is wanted, but I don't think it works in a jazz setting. If we are in a funk groove, and we want a horn section-like riff, then we need to make sure it is strongly rhythmic, and leaves plenty of space. It is always about creating space for the frontline.

Compare the business of musical interaction with having a conversation. You don't talk with the other person simultaneously. You listen, wait until they have finished, and answer with something relevant to what they have just said. Or, if you judge that they have made a point worth commenting on, you might interrupt, again with something relevant. You might agree, disagree, even change the subject, but you do tend to take turns. And you do have an underlying unspoken agreement to make what you say relevant to what the other says.

What of leaving space within a solo? This is a very personal thing. We need to define phrases with phrase boundaries, showing where one phrase ends and another begins. At an even smaller level, we need to look after both the beginnings and the endings of our notes. Rests need a clear beginning just as played notes do. Making our note endings clear gives clarity to our rests. Making clear rests defines our phrase boundaries.

Sometimes we need to leave a little space because somebody else in the band is doing something that needs to stand out. Sometimes we need to stop to let the other guy realise he is getting in our way. Other times we need to let the audience digest what we have just played. They may need silence to process that last line.

And sometimes, we just need a breather.