Thursday, January 15, 2009

Big band begins

This week I had my first practice with a big band. Due to lack of a second piano player, I was asked to join the second big band group, and even though it means I'll have to get up at 4:30 twice a week so I can leave work early to make the 4:00 start time, I was anxious for the experience and agreed to join.

It appears that the band will have 14 members, but we are hoping to add a tenor sax, so it might end up being more. The director gave me three pieces of music right after I sat down at the piano. One was an original song and arrangement, one was an arrangement of "My Funny Valentine", and the other was some kind of boogaloo piece. After a brief introduction of myself and two other new members, we jumped right into the two numbers, since we are preparing both of them for a Valentine's concert on February 11.

I have to say, I'm a bit amazed at how little I really have to do. Comping chords - if they aren't too complicated - is one of the few things (I think) I do reasonably well, and so I did that, straight up in both hands through the first song (the name of which eludes me). I started to embellish a little bit, but it occurred to me that if there was something I was expected to play, it would be shown on the piano part given me, and since there wasn't anything there, I stopped doing that. (I talked to the director afterwards, and he said, "Yep. Just play what's there." Okey-doke. Vanilla it is!) There was a lot of sitting through repeated sections of songs as the trombones "try it", then the saxes, then the trumpets, then all together, then add the rhythm section, but really, I kind of like that pace. It's especially nice to play in that environment knowing that I will also be playing in the same combo this semester that I played in last semester, a class where the pace will be a lot more brisk and the demands on my skills and speed will be a lot higher - which is the essence of playing in a smaller group. But enough about the combo...

After about fifty minutes on that one song, we worked on "My Funny Valentine" which starts with a slow (really slow, quarter note = 56) six-bar piano solo. Honestly, I couldn't play it that slow. It was impossible. I kept wanting to swing it and take off. I'm going to have to get my drum machine out, turn it down (if it goes that low), and pound those slow bars into my brain. I'll need to get my piano instructor to suggest some interesting chords to comp with so I'm not just playing straight up during my debut big band solo. We only really had about fifteen or twenty minutes to work on that, so practice seemed like it was over before it even began. I felt relieved, and happy, though.

So, now I'm playing in two groups, one at a leisurely, comfortable pace, the other at whatever pace we are going that day. It promises to give me a lot of good, solid musical experience, across a broad spectrum in a very short time. And with my reduced alcohol intake and increase in practice time of late, I expect to realize the dividends very soon. At least, a successful concert four weeks from now. (Speaking of which, if you are in the area, have a look at the concert schedule, and swing by to hear me sometime.)


Anonymous said...

I was interested in your comment that you have a natural facility at comping. Do you play the root in your left hand? I've been chewed out more than once when my pinkie instinctively hits the root. ("Hey, man--you're stepping on the bass players turf!") Do you concentrate on the octave below middle C, or go further down the board?

Eric said...

One thing I had to learn, which seems obvious but wasn't to me, is, there is a difference between solo and group comping. If you are playing solo, I think you need to play the root or, at least, "imply" it (play the rest of the chord in the position where the root would be on the bottom). In group playing, which is all I'm doing now, I almost never play the root. One reason is what you cited. If the bass player's playing the root, why make the effort to duplicate the tone? Sometimes the bass player will do something different, then you can go ahead and play the root. (I'm not good enough yet to recognize when that is.) I have one director who only wants to hear 6ths and 9ths, which require a third and maybe a seventh to get anything out of, but again, in that case I never play the root. It also happens in that combo, we have a guitar, bass, piano, drums and...a tuba! There's no room for the piano to play anything very far below middle C, really. There, most of my comping is in the higher registers. (When everything's on, it sounds really good, with all that "low over there, high over here" going on.)

The only time I play the root in combo is when it is anchoring some funky chord sequence that is the whole heart of the song, like the C, Cmin/maj7, Cmin7, C6 sequence in "My Funny Valentine". I don't know of another way to do it. I also always play the root in any diminished 7th chords. Again, I can't figure another way.

Ultimately, comping is personal taste, which will be dictated over by some of the people in the band who have strong opinions of what they want to hear (which is usually them). I try to stay in a comfort zone where I sound good when performing, using practice to experiment and try new things. When I find something I like, I run with it, no matter what the other band members say and whether it is below middle C or not.