Turns out I’m not the only classical instrumentalist with a penchant for improvising who loves Frank Sinatra. Jeff Agrell has a great post about his experience playing in an orchestra backing up Sinatra-embodier Steve Lippia. Jeff adds a brilliant description of techniques jazz singers use that classical players hardly ever do, and, asking himself why jazz singers do what they do, offers wise insight into what makes effective performances so effective:
1) Variety. The success of every composition depends on the proper balance of unity (what you can predict) and variety (what you can’t). Too much unity and the listener is bored. Too much variety and the listener is frustrated. A 50/50 balance is just right, where the listener can guess what’s coming next about half the time.
2) Expression. None of the tracks were unaccompanied. All vocal lines have a band supporting them, contrasting with them, providing solid beat (predictable) plus phrase end fills, occasional bridge choruses, and rhythmic punctuation along the way (variety) against which the vocal lines can create their magic.
(Read the whole post–it’s worth it.)
This balance of steadiness and freedom, of predictability and surprise, about which Jeff writes so clearly, is one of the essentials in a great free improvisation. Which is why, I suppose, I love improvised melodies over drones or ostinatos (repeated patterns), which provide a solid platform to be creative over.
I’m reminded of when years ago I played in a small orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson. Smokey toured with his own rhythm section and added local strings, as I recall. (Maybe winds, too. I’m not sure. But bless him for hiring those of us he hired!)
We locals had a rehearsal with his music director, who played a Dr. Beat metronome, set to its most clanky setting, through an amplifier.
“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation,” the m.d. announced, with obviously-practiced authority, seeming somewhat grim about having to retrain yet another set of overly-lyrical musicians.
“There is no rubato. There will be no slowing down or speeding up. You will stay exactly with the beat” Resigned but determined, he worked to make sure we knew the charts and kept everything steady. (OK, there may have been some ritards as songs ended, and some cued entrances and holds. But 99% of the time, we were amazingly rock-solid and did not adjust to what he was doing.)
It seemed obnoxious in the rehearsal. In the concert, I got it. We hadn’t rehearsed with Smokey. Didn’t need to. Because there was no interpretation on our parts. He did his magic over the solid foundation his music director made sure we gave him. We were steady so he could be free.
And here he is, in the most recent video on his website, in which the virtues of a steady-as-a-rock rhythm section are in abundant evidence: