The World According to Keitho

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Jam sessions: Not for the faint of heart. (or the humorless)

Posted by keithosaunders on November 10, 2015

For the past four years I’ve played in a house rhythm section at a jam session in Oakland. The gig follows a common jam session template: The house band plays a set which is followed by a break after which the jam session starts.  Anybody can sit in.

Anybody.

The singers are the worst.  At least with the horn players you can assume that they have spent time actually studying how music works.  For instance, it is useful to understand that songs are divided into equal units we call measures and that these measures contain smaller, equidistant units known as BEATS.  The singers don’t understand this.  If they’re lucky they will intuitively feel the beat and are able to maintain their place in the song.  But often they can’t feel the beat leaving them with two options.

a) They can listen to the band and try to hear where the downbeat is. Often the pianist (that’s me) will feed them the melody as a cue.

Needless to say option a is rarely utilized.

b) They can guess.

Option b is a very popular option.

So what happens when you have the singer and the band in different parts of the song?  It works out just fine if you’re performing a Yoko Ono song, but not so well for Gershwin or Cole Porter.  What ensues is a kind of musical free for all. The pianist may follow the singer while the bassist may stay put hoping the singer gets back on track.  Now you have people in three different spots of the song while the drummer silently congratulates himself for choosing an instrument that doesn’t require the playing of notes.

If you are ever in the audience when this happens check out the expressions on the musician’s faces.  The pianist, with lips pursed and glowering eyebrows will be doing the slow burn, resembling a constipated ombudsman. The bass player will probably be stifling a laugh, while the drummer, having given up on the tune entirely, will be at the bar flirting with an out of work tarot card reader with breasts the size of basketballs.

To sum up, you have to have a sense of humor to play at a jam session.  Especially after receiving your paycheck.

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2 Responses to “Jam sessions: Not for the faint of heart. (or the humorless)”

  1. jmlbmusic said

    What about horn players who solo for too long?

    • At this particular session they would be welcomed, but I know what you mean. When I lived in New York I played some sessions where there would be a line of horn players each playing 5-6 choruses. That’s brutal on a rhythm section.

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