The World According to Keitho

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Posts Tagged ‘jam sessions’

The art of the humblebrag

Posted by keithosaunders on February 28, 2017

Last night’s jam session was packed with people.  The establishment was going out of business and somehow this attracted jazz ghouls, suddenly smitten with nostalgia for a place that they were loathe attend during its run.  As a result the session went an hour overtime so that every last singer, sax player, and whistler could be accommodated.

When we finally finished the last “act,” a Danish accordion player who played Baby Elephant Walk in 5/4, I breathed a sigh of relief, and stood up from the piano when all of a sudden an audience member starting yelling, “LET’S HEAR ONE MORE FROM THE BAND!”  Of course the crowd cheered and hooted and the marathon night dragged on for another 15 minutes.

Now I love music as much as the next guy (probably more, since I actually play it for a living) but after having played for two hours straight I was ready for some Netflix.  Enough is enough, people.  If you really liked this club you would have patronized it during its heyday.

But let me tell you something, when a guy screams at the band to play one more song, it’s not about his love of music or his appreciation of the band.  It’s about injecting himself into the conversation.  It’s all about ego.  Look at me – I love these guys, I love music so much, I’m so hip.

The art of the humblebrag.

 

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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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The art of the jam session

Posted by keithosaunders on October 4, 2010

Zapple asked: I always wondered how the jam sessions worked. Did you just ask them to sit in?

While there is no pat answer there is a certain routine to most jam sessions.  For those of you who don’t know, the a jam session is an informal gathering of musicians who do not necessarily know each other.  You never know who you will play with and how the music will sound — it’s part of its charm, frustration, and excitement.  I have played with some incredible musicians just by happening to be on the bandstand at the right time — Roy Hargrove Jr., Joe Lovano, Jeff Tain Watts, and Esperanza Spaulding are a few who come immediately to mind. 

On the other hand, I have played with some real nut cases in my day.  There have been singers who don’t know their keys and can’t stay on pitch anyhow, sax players who play ten minute solos before stopping in the middle of the chorus, and anal trumpet players who shout out instructions on when, where, and how to play during their solos.  Just as in daily life, you meet all kinds of people.

I found that what works best for me is to go in with an open mind and a sense of humor.  I’m not looking to have the deepest musical experience, but I am delighted when things click.  More often than not I have a good time at jam sessions.  The beauty of it is, unlike a gig, you can leave whenever you want.  

You have to realize that jam sessions are like networking sessions for musicians.  It’s where we go to meet people and to showcase our abilities.  In this sense there is a certain pressure to perform.  In my younger days I was more nervous about playing good at sessions.  These days I’m more philosophical — I”ve done a lifetime of work practicing at home and playing at gigs.  If things don’t click instantaneously it’s not my fault.  In fact, usually it’s not anybody’s fault.   

The thing about music is that it’s impossible to quantify what combinations of people will or will not work.  You can put five great musicians together and the results can be less than spectacular.  The chemistry might not be right — maybe the drummer and bass player don’t agree on the time, which could make the soloist uncomfortable.  You never know what you’re going to get.

Jam sessions are really a horn player’s game.  They saunter into the club with their horn, take it out of the case, and sit in.  After they’ve had their fill they put the horn back in the case and leave.  They’re like musical Lotharios.  They have their way with the rhythm section and leave. 

If you’re a pianist, bassist, or drummer, jam sessions are a different story.  You can end up waiting a long time before getting called up to play.  For me this is the hardest part of going to jam sessions, for the longer I wait to play, the more I drink and the worse I’ll sound.  As I said before, you never know who you’re going to play with.  I could wait 45 minutes to play and end up with a mediocre drummer, or a bass player made surely by a parade of endless horn solos.  It’s a crapshoot to say the least.

For the most part, however, jam sessions work.  They work because in the end you have a group of like-minded people.  These are folks who comprise an increasingly miniscule portion of the population — jazz lovers.  So I say to you:  Let’s celebrate our musical differences and let the chips fall where they may!

…and at last, the answer to zapple’s question:  There’s usually a sign-up list.

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First gigs

Posted by keithosaunders on October 2, 2010

I’ve dipped the proverbial toe into the Bay Area jazz scene.  In the past three weeks I’ve been to a few jam sessions and even played a handful of gigs.  It’s very strange starting over in a new city after having been in New York for so long.  When I moved to New York I was a comparative kid — just 24.  Now I’m a 50-year-old man, set in my ways.  I’m crusty and curmudgeonly –moldy and figgy. 

Even though work-wise I find myself in the same place I was two and a half decades ago, the situation is not entirely the same.  Back then I was callow and unsure of myself.  I was awed and not a little intimidated by the size and energy of the New York scene.  Now, after having been beaten, brutalized, and molded by New York, I find myself with a great deal of self-assurance.  I know what I can do and what I am capable of. 

The challenge is to check my ego at the door.  Nobody here owes me anything.  Hell, nobody even knows me.  I am aware of the cache that comes with being a “New York” cat, but in a certain sense there is a fine line one must walk.  It’s not right to come on too strong –“I played with so -and-so,” or “I played at [insert name of venue here].”  The New York brand can work for or against me. 

In New York you are amongst such a wealth of great talent, all striving for an increasingly smaller piece of the pie.  You endure a great deal of attitude and “vibing” from your fellow musicians.  You feel like you have to earn every morsel of a compliment.  I remember some jam sessions where I had to literally fight for a solo.  I would be comping for horn player after horn player; as many as 12 in one song.  Sometimes twenty minutes would go by before they were done spewing.  I knew that if I didn’t jump in within a split second after the last sax player was done I would miss my chance.  Once the bass player stops walking it’s all over — you’ll never get back in.  I remember sometimes I would have to scream out at the top of my lungs “I GOT IT!”       

At first glance the Bay Area scene does not feel nearly as cut-throat.  People have been friendly, yet guarded, which is understandable.  This scene has taken a big hit with clubs closing, or barely staying alive.  What do they need another pianist for?  At the same time people have been welcoming — I’ve been able to sit in at the sessions and have met some good players.

I’m happy with what has transpired so far.  I’ve found a couple of good sessions in San Francisco which has yielded hanging destinations for Sunday, Monday, and Thursday.  A few of these sessions have led to gigs — nothing that spectacular as of yet, but how good does it feel to be working again, no matter how little the pay, after a three-month layoff!   As I thought, the initial plunge was going to be the hardest.  Now that I’ve taken it things don’t look quite as dire.

Here is a photo taken of a big band gig I played in San Francisco last Sunday.  I’m in the back!

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