To Play or Not to Play?

To play or not to play, that is the question. Excuse the Shakespearian pun, but this actually is an important question any improvising musician ultimately considers.

How does one integrate stepping out and making a bold statement while occasionally taking the horn out of your mouth, letting someone else get a word in edgewise., and more importantly, letting your musical message breath.

Saturday night. The club is packed. The weekend crowd is ready for some high-energy jazz. Do you come flying out of the gate guns blazing/ If so, how do you build from there? If you are filling up all the spaces as a soloist, are you playing at the band or playing with the band? Do you wind up over-playing, and staying in one dynamic and tambral range for an extended period of time?  If you do, listeners could tend to drift, very much the way one tunes out someone who is babbling incessantly in conversation.

For a time I would succumb to the intensity of the moment and usually wind up over-playing and inevitably not presenting a clear musical story with purpose and direction. What’s a player to do? Do you wear an outlandish outfit and perform acrobatic body moves. There certainly is something to the way you look on stage. You can play with attitude (“acting important for no apparent reason”) Do you play fast, loud, lots of high notes while riding a unicycle and playing a cow bell with your left foot and a berimbau with your right foot? I don’t know. Some performing musicians are naturally entertaining while playing some serious music in the process. Then again, John Coltrane stood still in a stone-like stance, and, well, you know the rest of the story.

My approach has been to give some thought to how you phrase, how these phrases interact with the rhythm section, hopefully telling a cohesive story, one idea leading logically to the next. By leaving a good deal of space between my phrases I welcome in the other players to join in the conversation. By leaving more space, when I do play something it stands out, seems more relevant.

The players who did this so masterfully: Miles Davis, Paul Desmond, Lester Young, Wayne Shorter, Ben Webster, all had a strong sense of drama in the way they constructed their solos.

Here are a few devices to help reign in your blowing, and leave out some of the superfluous chatter:


  1. 1. Think motivically! Pick a rhythmical motif and play it several times with space in between, working it through the changes (Wayne Shorter’ solo on the Miles Davis recording of Pinocchio. He quotes the first phrase of the melody repeatedly towards the end of his solo).

Do the same thing with a melodic motif, repeating it and working it through the changes.

  1. 2. Use repetition!  Repeat an idea many times at points along the way to create a compositional event in your soloing.  Perhaps embellish the idea with each subsequent repetition. Eave space between repetitions and the rhythm section will construct a beautiful accompaniment to your solo..
  1. 3. Practice playing step one and two by yourself in a way where your time feel is strong and implies the groove. I like to think of projecting the whole rhythm section feel in the way I put the notes together on the horn. If you are paying sufficient homage to the groove you are less like to run off at the mouth.

The Yellowjackets have an incredibly strong ensemble sound in great part, I think, because we make a big effort to leave lots of space when we play together. The music is spacious, interactive, and breathes in an organic way. Things are frequently implied rather than stated.  When I solo in that band I am trying to be vigilant of fitting my soloing into what everyone else is doing. In that regard, we are all soloing. When it is working and we can hear each other clearly there is no better feeling I can think of! Having a great conversation with friends.





  1. Posted June 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bob-

    I met you briefly after the Yellowjackets show in Las Vegas. Thanks for taking the time to chat a bit. Excellent concert!

    Excellent blog post, especially re. “paying homage to the groove.” Several times I find myself having to ‘reset’ with the groove in order to bring myself back into the musical conversation and it really does clear things up musically and keeps me from getting ahead of myself and the rest of the band. This is a great reminder to be aware that its a conversation, not a monologue.


    Btw, on your suggestion I checked out Rafael Navvaro’s site. Great looking and sounding pieces. I’ll be getting in touch with him about an alto piece soon.

  2. -88-
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the reminder. Conversation is a most interesting word. I think everyone hates it when some bloke blows in and talks at us instead of with us.

    I’ve been guilty of that.

  3. Posted July 3, 2015 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Motival development seems to be the key. Sonny or Bergonzi and Hal Galper have this one down. Guns a blazin’ used to work with say, the old Brecker Bros. electric band? But that was a different era. Nothing wrong with that, sure is exciting, but times change. Playing intelligently with thoughtful consideration of audience’s ears may be the way? I personally wear a cape and helmet, but that’s another sory. Thanks Bob for always thoughtful and experienced advice.
    Best, Steve (another Buddy Rich alum and student of Bergonzi)

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