December 22, 2011

Musical Baggage

Jazz and blues groups who are able to play every gig with the same set of members are rare today. Most musicians play with multiple working groups, and band leaders need to have a roster of accomplished musicians who can fill key spots when their preferred member is not available. When opening the book to decide who to call for any given gig, some factors are more important than others. The finest musician in the area might not get the call if he/she brings with him what I call “musical baggage.”

“Subbing” is taking the place of someone on a combo or big band gig without the benefit of a rehearsal. The musician will want to make a good impression whenever the call comes in. There are obvious requirements for being a good sub, including accurate sight reading, soloing ability, having suitable gear to do the gig (an electronic keyboard and appropriate amp come to mind) and playing in a style that fits the given ensemble. Having a respectable number of tunes memorized is a plus. (When was the last time you saw a blues band on stage with music stands?) It’s important to find your place in the ensemble, especially if you are not the lead player in the section. Often when band leaders are looking for musicians to play in the short- or long-term they have a choice of players who can fill the bill on any given instrument. What makes a band leader choose one musician over another? There are issues that go beyond excellent musicianship and technical skills.

Assuming a choice of four different but equal players on an instrument, why does player B get my first call while players A, C and D might not? For me it comes down to being free of baggage on the gig. Baggage may refer to frequent tardiness which puts the band leader on edge before the start wondering where the person is and hoping there is enough set up time. Excessive gabbing with fellow musicians in between songs is also baggage. It’s more commonly seen at rehearsals, but sometimes it’s demonstrated on actual gigs when as soon as the song ends it’s time to converse with whoever happens to be in proximity. Do they bring inappropriate volume baggage? Players should have the ability to match their volume not only with the rest of the band but also play at a volume appropriate for the room. It’s unpleasant when a band leader has to face a complaint from the club owner at night’s end that the band was too loud. Is the musician versatile enough to play within the context of the music, and does he take care to play in a manner that befits the style? For example, if the player is a progressive jazz drummer who has accepted a rock & roll gig, he should play simply and with a strong groove and not feel compelled to fill every space. The music should be allowed to breathe. Baggage also includes the player with the need to fuss with equipment after every song. There is nothing more annoying than having to wait to count off a tune because the sub on second tenor is clamping on his third reed of the set, in search of the perfect sound. Especially as a sub, the player should be attentive to the band leader, or a subsequent call may not materialize.

A sub might keep in mind that it’s important to know the appropriate attire for the gig, what time it starts, and what the pay will be so as to avoid any awkward situations at night’s end. Though it’s a good time to network and subs may want to have business cards ready, they should be aware of the distinction between making connections and looking like they’re out to steal the gig.

When it comes to subbing, leave the musical baggage in the closet.

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