Easter

As usual, got up early and played a couple services.  Easter is fun because it’s one of the few times I get to play the piccolo, and also I play a lot more jazz than classical.  Also, I rarely get to play with a pipe organ.

We did the Stanley Voluntary as a postlude.  I don’t have a D trumpet; I play it in E on a piccolo.  I have the A extension, so I could play it in F, but frankly the trills are harder.  If they weren’t, all other things being equal, I’d pick E on the argument that sharp keys are more joyful.  (All other things are not equal.  Intonation is more difficult in E.  However, my ear is in Bb, so I’m just as happy to take that challenge.  Also, the valves are in Bb–they don’t adjust proportionally with the extension, but that’s a trivial effect.  The trills were the deciding factor.)  It went very well at the early service.  It went long, which meant for much of it I was playing in full reverb for nobody but the choir, and it felt terrific, just the joy of playing.  (The applause was nice too.  Remember when nobody would dare clap hands in a church?  I mean, certain denominations?)  For the later service, we made some cuts to shorten it, and both I and the organist were tired and ready to go.

As always, we played the Hallelujah chorus.  I’m thankful my piccolo (an Amati) has the fourth valve, because that means I can switch halfway through.  I prefer to start with the fuller tone of the strad, but you have to be on the piccolo for that run leading into “King of kings”.  (Honestly, those five notes are the reason they hire a trumpet; everything else is gravy.)  With the fourth valve, I can get to E above middle C (concert D) for some accents with the tenors and basses, then do the arpeggios into the high, delicate passages.  Very useful.  Easy to overblow the little guy on the low notes, though.

We also played “Worthy Is the Lamb,” which really isn’t great for single trumpet, organ and choir.  On this and parts of the Hallelujah, I play in unison with one or another vocal part, quietly, letting the note just hang on to the voices and float along with them, adding color rather than volume.  For some sections I wrote out a part that moved between vocal parts, staying in rhythm and chord but not actually doubling anybody.  It’s all about accenting and staying out of the way.  Other than that, sight-transposing a few hymns, making up a descant, reading a part (transposed) on an arrangement for the processional.

I do like the piccolo.

Eye contact on stage

I’m sure it’s possible to be over-rehearsed, but it isn’t something I experience regularly.

In a Real Book group, it’s far from uncommon to be ten seconds before downbeat and get a quick rundown: “Last four, take the coda.  Two, three, four…”  Some decisions are made in-flight, such as who is going to play the head and whether the bass will take a solo.  That’s good, because jazz is in the moment.

It seems chaotically loose, but it works because of two things: defaults and eye contact.  In the quintet, we’ve been playing together a long time, and we know the default roadmap–who takes solos and in what order.  If nobody says anything, we’re fine and nothing needs to be said.  However, during the intro I can give the sax player a look that says, “You go ahead and take it.”  I might actually mean, “This sounds better on sax,” “I hate this song,” “I just swallowed a fly,” or “I don’t have my sheet music”, but those all boil down to the same result.  (It gets ugly when we both give each other that look.)

We can do more than that.  We have a rudimentary language that allows us to use hand signals or even lip-reading, and for that matter we can actually talk (wind players when not playing, rhythm players most any time), though we don’t much.  So in a group that’s been playing together for a long time, I can raise an eyebrow and find out if we’re splitting the head AA/BA.  A nod from the piano player can mean “another chorus” or several other things depending on context.  It’s hip, dig?

Even when we are following the standard form, as trumpet player I spend a lot of time not actively playing, so I go ahead and double-check.  We generally end solos with a physical turn to the next person, and something I learned from theatre is to step out of the way and focus my gaze on the person playing to direct the audience’s attention where it should be.  I look at the next person during each solo, wait for them to look up, and get visual confirmation.  When I get a signal I make eye contact with the others to be sure we all go there together.  There’s a whole different set of signals for communicating with the sound man (“The singer two people to my left needs to be higher in the center monitor”).

The other thing I do with my eyes is watch other people play.  This has a number of uses, including but not limited to learning new licks, enjoying the show, checking where we are in the changes, and realizing that my copy of the music is in the wrong key.  It’s good to memorize music and/or play by ear.  I mean, with all this going on, when do I have time to look at my stand?

Blending

One of the challenges of playing in multiple combos is being able to blend well in each.  Even in one group, it can vary: it’s common for sax players to switch between alto and tenor and flute, for example, and the horn section in Play It With Moxie! changes lineup on every song.

Also, although we’re usually playing standards and often the same arrangements, each player learned it a little differently or takes different liberties with the rhythm.  When you rehearse weekly, you have the luxury of getting familiar with the other person’s patterns.  Otherwise, you probably won’t match exactly on unison or harmony parts (as in the quintet’s Comcast videos).  You can finesse it a lot more easily on harmony than in unison.

Harmony is a lot more forgiving for intonation as well.  Every instrument has its bad notes, and they’re not the same.  I know I have to be careful of low D and C# and middle A and high F, etc., and I know a few of the evil notes on other instruments.  Sure, you can say that a good player will play in tune, but that goes out the window when there’s an HVAC vent right above you.

My favorite part of blending in combos is mixing different tonal colors.  When playing with a flute, I usually use a cup mute, specifically a wood one (makes sense, right?).  There are some exceptions–the popular version of “Cape Verdean Blues” was flute and open trumpet, and “Lorraine” often  is flute and harmon mute.  Also, I stay in close harmony, though often in sixths.  An Alto flute is great for close thirds and unisons; octaves with a regular flute is asking for trouble.  I also like to invert, to have the trumpet above the flute on the occasional long note, but that’s hard from a volume standpoint.  With a sax or trombone I’m most often open, which actually is a little more forgiving on intonation, partly because I don’t hold back as much (playing quiet and in tune is the kind of thing trumpet lessons drill on).  Sometimes I’ll use a straight mute against a tenor sax, but it’s a more strident sound than some venues call for.  Usually if the bone is using a mute, I’d use the same one, although mixing plunger and wah-wah is interesting.

Unison and harmony are great sounds, but a lot of the time we just have one person play the melody and the other do decorative licks during long notes.

Specifics Without Chords

All Blues wasn’t so bad since the bass riff defines the chords pretty well, the chords are well known, and there’s a counterpart that can run through the head.

Black Orpheus, Blue Bossa, and Straight No Chaser all work fine just harmonizing the melody.

My Funny Valentine needs the descending chromatic line for the Cm – maj7 – dom7 – 6, though the bass might do that with double-stops.  Throughout this piece it’s difficult because the melody often hangs on a suspended note, which means any chord-defining note (i.e. 3rd, 5th) will be dissonant and harmony will imply a rather unrelated chord.  So I lay out of the difficult measures, put in fills on the long notes (nice dim to 7b9 progression) and grab the chances for harmony in the odd measure that lends itself.  In the B section, I can parallel the bass by staying on the third through the Ebmaj7 – Fm7 – Gm7 – Fm7 sawtooths.

Misty starts off with 4 bars of filling arpeggios over the long notes, some harmony for a couple bars, and tight harmony in the B section.  Mostly it’s arpeggio fills.

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore is nice because you can harmonize both the melody and the answer for the first four bars, and then you get a nice long note where you can play the third and arrow it a half step up into a stop on the root of the next chord, then lay out until the melody returns in the first ending.  The B section is problematical because the melody is doing suspensions, so it’s probably best to lay out there or put in sparse fills.  I’m still looking for ideas on that.

Autumn Leaves is all about voice leading.  When the melody’s moving, nothing’s needed.  When the melody holds, the chords are circle of fourths, so I’ll pick the third on one and whatever note is conveniently close on the other.  So in the first two bars, Am – D7, I play E and F#; over Gmaj7 – Cmaj7 I play G and E.  Over F#dim – B I stay on D#.  On the last Emin I do some figure off G – F# – G – E.  I lay out eight bars and come in on harmony in the F#dim-B7b9 through the end.

When You Wish Upon A Star is awkward because the melody jumps around and hangs on suspensions.  I stick to the third in the first two bars, which means I cross from below to above the melody; play the fifth in the third bar (where the melody is on the third) and harmonize the half-step slide in the fourth.  I lay out the next 2 bars (suspensions) and do half notes in the 1st and 2nd ending.  The bridge actually gets the same treatment as the first four bars–half notes on the thirds, parallel the half-step slide.

Overall, it’s a heck of a lot easier on the up-tempo tunes.  But if this happens often enough it might be worth plotting out some of the empty stretches.

Jazz Without Chords

You’re prepared.  The time comes for downbeat and, horror of horrors, your keyboardist has car trouble and your guitar player is in jail.  It’s bass, drums, and horn staring down a deep, dark 2-hour tunnel.

Well, Mr. or Ms. horn player (or singer), I hope you’ve been hitting the treadmill, because you’re in for the Iron Musician endurance challenge.  The bass might take a couple solos–though if your drummer is also missing, that’ll be tough sledding.  You won’t be able to improv as freely as usual.  Granted, with no chord it’s hard to hit a wrong note, but that’s far different from hitting right notes.  How can you make the audience hear what isn’t there?

I wind up playing a lot of arpeggios, avoiding suspensions (suspend against what?), and not going outside very much (again, outside what?).  The bass player is more likely (but not guaranteed) to play the root on each chord change, so I’m hitting a lot of chord changes on the third and doing small scalar figures right around the color tones (like b9 or #9).  I’m also playing lots of long notes and looking for interesting through-lines.

If you have two horns, you’re still walking without a net, but at least you have a balance pole.  Now you have melody, the implications of chords from the bass, and a one-note chord instrument.  (I just got home from playing this gig.)  So I look at the melody note, listen very carefully to the bass, and pick the other note that most defines the chord.  The instrumentation is an awfully thin sound, so I do a lot of long notes even though just harmonizing key notes in the melody would suffice to indicate the harmony.  For the same reason, I do a lot of fills, again favoring arpeggios.  As for the melody on the head, it’s useful to do a lot of re-articulation (instead of a long note, play several short hits on the same note) to keep the rhythm going.  Beyond that, I hope the other guy plays it pretty straight because I’m doing a lot of guesswork on every note he’s going to play.

The best hope, however, is to play songs the audience knows well and let them fill in the missing chords.  Hopefully they know something other than Jimmy Buffet.