Jazz Small Ensemble skills: what are they and how are they acquired?
Playing in a small improvising jazz ensemble, or jazz combo, involves a specialised set of skills. A jazz combo is more than just a small version of a big band (aka stage band, jazz orchestra, and so on). In this post I will explain what these jazz small ensemble skills are and explain how large reading-based bands are different from small improvisational groups. My aim is more to indicate the kinds of thing that are included under the umbrella term ‘ensemble skills’ rather than give a detailed list of everything. The things I describe here are all examples of important skills that good jazz players use and that inexperienced players need to learn.
Small jazz groups, or combos, are improvisational. The obvious aspect of improvisation that probably springs to mind is where the musicians take turns playing improvised solos. Typically, after playing the head, the composed portion of the tune, members of the band play solos before playing the head again to finish. These solos are usually based on the chords of the tune or its style. Most jazz improvisation pedagogy focuses on this aspect and learning how to do this is itself a major undertaking over time. However, there is much more to it than that. So, what are these other jazz small ensemble skills?
Almost everything that happens in a jazz combo is based on improvisation. Improvising is fundamental to this way of playing jazz. The finished product that we hear when a combo performs is changeable, fluid, flexible, and interactive. The small ensemble skills include interpreting lead sheets, responsive interaction, instant arranging techniques and shortcuts, blending and balancing parts, real-time communication, and stagecraft.
Interpreting lead sheets
Improvisational jazz combos use lead sheets instead of explicitly notated and arranged parts for each player. For more details about using lead sheets, there’s a whole post here. A lead sheet shows the basic outline of the composed portion of a tune (aka the head) that the combo will form the basis of the band’s performance, It shows the main melody, often in a simplified form, the chords, and the structure. If there are lyrics the lead sheet may show them and it typically gives an indication of the style and tempo of the tune. What a lead sheet does not show is harmonised parts for each individual player or detailed arrangements. In a jazz combo, those decisions are made by the players often in real-time. Most importantly, musicians using lead sheets need to know how to perform the simplified music in a fluent, authentic jazz manner. Also, rhythm section players must know how to adlib accompaniments and parts based on chord symbols and general structural outlines alone. Pianists and guitarists need to be able to comp, bassists to create walking and other styles of bassline, and drummers how to play fluently a diversity of styles, forms, and tempo.
These skills must be learned through teaching, experience, listening, and experience.
Probably the majority of everything that happens during a jazz combo performance is shaped as any given moment by responsive interaction between the players, What each member of the band does depends on what all the other members are doing. Imagine two musicians sitting side-by-side reading a classical score. What each player plays is predetermined by the score. Apart from small personal variations in tempo and phrasing that may vary between interpretations, the piece will be basically the same every time it is performed. In this case there is little to no responsive interaction between the musicians.
Now consider a musician improvising to a backing track. What the soloist plays will vary based on what they hear in the recording, but the recording will not respond to them. In this case there is one-way interaction.
In an improvising jazz ensemble, the interaction is two-way or multi-directional and it is responsive. Things like volume, intensity, register, tone colour, chord voicings or substitutions, rhythmic feel, and note choice often all depend upon the musical choices of all the other performers simultaneously and in real-time. The audience and the venue can also play a part in shaping the performance. Each performance of an improvised jazz piece will be unique to its context.
A useful analogy to understand how small-group jazz works is a game of team sports, like football. We know the general rules of the game, the arena in which it will be played, and the kinds of things we will see during the match. But once the game is underway, where each player is, who they are looking at, where they are going, and what they are doing, depends on what all the other players are doing. An improvising jazz band works in the same kind of way.
How to interact in this way is not straightforward and is another crucial small jazz ensemble skill that must be learned and practiced over time.
Techniques for arranging in real-time and ensemble shortcuts
Jazz players need to know how to create introductions, endings, contrasting sections, interludes, vamps, shout choruses, and other structural elements. Not only do they need to understand how to create musical arrangements in rehearsals, they must also be able to do these things in real-time while performing. Because so much of jazz performance is improvised there are many common or shared ways of doing these things that are widely known by jazz musicians. These instant arranging shortcuts or idioms must be learnt and practiced. Even very simple and common practices such as I VI II V vamp or ‘rhythm section plays the last 8 as an intro’, trading 4’s between drummer and front line, or ‘3 times tag to end’ can be obscure to outsiders. These are all further examples of small jazz ensemble skills that jazz students need to learn.
Blending and balancing
Blending and balancing refer to combining instruments so that the sounds mix together in ways that supports the style and aims of the performance. Typically, no single sound should dominate or overpower others. Some examples could be playing drums at a reasonable volume, keeping trumpet melodies in a middle or lower register so as not to overpower other instruments in unison lines, adjusting the register of a walking bass line to avoid clashing with a guitar soloist, and comping on the piano loudly enough and with sufficient vigour as to be audible. Avoiding having two chordal instruments comping at the same time might also be an example of this, although it could also be seen as a real-time arranging technique.
Communication and stagecraft
Communication between jazz musicians as they play is a crucial skill, especially given that number of decisions that must be made in real-time during a performance. This communication involves listening and hearing, looking and seeing, gesturing, and often speaking out loud. Stagecraft can refer to things like using a microphone effectively, acknowledging the audience, and deportment in keeping with the style of the group, the venue, and the occasion. However, it also includes using communication between the musicians to facilitate a seamless, cohesive, and creative performance.
An example of communication and stagecraft would be one player turning toward the next player as they finish a solo to signal that they are done. Other examples might include using gestures to indicate trading fours, playing the head, taking the bridge, or repeating the last four bars. These are simple things but not obvious. Professional jazz musicians are aware of them and use them. Inexperienced players tend to neglect these things to the detriment of their ensemble.
Summary and conclusion
I have given examples of five kinds of ensemble skill that jazz students need to develop: interpreting lead sheets, responsive interaction, instant arranging techniques and shortcuts, blending and balancing parts, and real-time communication or stagecraft. These jazz small ensemble skills are not just common-sense. They need to be learnt and practiced over time. Students learn these most efficiently if such skills are taught explicitly and modelled by an expert teacher.