(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
Sometimes, it helps being a huge jazz nerd.
By sometimes, I obviously mean ‘almost never, and certainly not on dates’, but it does help with reading the people you’re on the stand with and figuring out how best to operate as part of that team. This, of course, is an extension of just being a good sideman (how do I make this group sound good, what are these other people expecting out of me?), but it’s also a side-art on its own.
For example: not long ago, I was sitting in with a tenor trio—the leader of which I’d never played with before. Before I got up on stage, I spent 15-20 minutes listening intently to their playing and trying to figure out where they were coming from. Here’s some of the things I remember picking out:
1) Highly change-based player. Played off the vertical structure, even on more modal tunes. VERY little side-slipping. More or less rules out any chance of horizontal playing like Don Cherry or Ornette—and if I do, I should directly justify it afterwards.
2) Tended to call tunes from the later hard bop period, eg. Moment’s Notice. I’m sure that Inner Urge is under their fingers, but not preferred. If I call a standard those types of players would have loved to stretch out on, I’m sure they’ll go for it. (Here’s where I’m also thinking about what tune I’m going to call. What do I sound good on that won't make this band go 'oh jeez, not this tune'?)
3) Penchant for longer, logical lines. Not necessarily playing the whole chord-scale like Coltrane, but certainly a fleet player. Goes for content over flash or Aylerian energy. Perhaps a fan of Warne Marsh?
4) Thinner, crystal-clean, darker timbre and a seriously developed altissimo concept. Not out of the Hawkins school (Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, et. Al). Definitely a Tristanoite.
(This gets me a little excited, as I can play off of that/with that very well. It also means I can call tunes the Tristanoites used as chord sources for their contrafacts. Furthermore, my Avishai Cohen impression is going to get a little mileage tonight, as his playing with Mark Turner is probably the best way a trumpet player can complement a Tristanoite.)
5) Killer ear. Continuously incorporating drummer’s rhythmic ideas and bassist’s harmonic ideas. Cements them in the highly spontaneous tradition of Tristano, but also means we can feed each other ideas. We might be able to stretch an ending of a tune out, or blow together, or something.
Here’s how it went:
I stepped up, called What Is This Thing; they were into it. We played off each others' ideas for about thirty seconds at the end over a C pedal (as I suspected from #5). We moved onto the next tune—I suggested Out of Nowhere because I didn’t know Isfahan (side note: tenor players who call Isfahan tend to know their Joe Henderson, which cements the suspicion I had about Inner Urge in #2). Over Nowhere, I quote 317 E 32nd Street, a Tristano tune. They IMMEDIATELY recognize it, confirming #4. I use my Avishai Cohen impression and it works. The last tune was Donna Lee, yet another Tristanoite tune. We use the bass player’s folksy ending phrase as a signal to play an ending harmony, with the tenor player on the C above my high Gb (a blues reference, and something characteristic of Mark Turner Quartet’s writing).
Overall, a streamlined and objective success! Everyone had fun and sounded great, because I was able to pinpoint what I could do to contribute best. In a perfect world, I would have known Isfahan, but that was remedied by going home and learning it as to be better prepared next time.
Of course, if I’d walked in and the tenor player was playing Strasbourg St. Denis like James Carter, I would have instantly started reaching for my (admittedly limited) repertoire of straight 8th tunes (wanna play Cantaloupe Island, wanna play Mr. Clean…?) and started remembering my Freddie Hubbard impression. If they’d been playing all the tunes off Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, I’d have started pulling from that songbook and remembering how to play like Miles. I didn’t know what I’d need to do till I started listening for what was going on.
And if you’ve got regular gainful employment with a group, you can start listening for the special bits in their personal playing. Maybe they’ve got a neat harmonic concept, or a rhythmic thing they like to do! Maybe they really love playing ECM, or ballads, or funk.
The point is, you can help someone sound their best even when sitting in, and that’s super neat.
EDIT FROM THE FUTURE, 7/21/2020:
About a year after I wrote this, the tenor player in question asked me to join his quintet. We made a record together shortly before I left to Chicago, and then after that he had me write extensively for his large ensemble. By bonding with him musically, I opened the door to bond with him personally. I think that's the real power of listening.