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Where are all the notes coming from?

Paul Edis

Several years ago I was playing piano on a gig at the Side Café in Newcastle. It was a small upstairs room, full of character and on the weekly jazz nights, often full of characters. 

After one of the numbers in the second set, an animated lady stood up and said (in all seriousness) “Where are all the notes coming from?!” She meant, I think quite literally – where are the dots? Where’s the music? 

The devil is in the lack of detail

For the majority of classical repertoire, the dots are on the page. The performers have to interpret these markings and bring them to life, but there are nevertheless notated instructions that’ll point towards the composer’s intentions regarding pitch, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, tempos and so on. And the longer the piece, the more sheets of paper required.[1]

A lot of the time if jazz musicians have music in front of them, or more accurately ‘sheet music’ (often referred to as ‘the chart’) then it will be a lead sheet with only a single line of melody and some chords. 

Despite what might at first seem like a negligent approach to detail, a few copies of a single lead sheet handed round can actually give enough information for multiple performers to create an extended work with different sections, textures, twists and turns and all the dynamics and more that could be notated in a traditional score.  

In big band writing and large ensemble jazz, the charts are often much more specific. But even then, the piano, guitar, bass and drums may have a curious mix of notated music alongside a great degree of freedom about how what is written is realised by the performer and contain huge gaps in detail which the performer is supposed to fill with their own arrangement skills and knowledge of musical context in performance. 

Follow my lead (I’ll be right behind you)

So how does a jazz band perform a standard together when there are so many variables? 

Well the answer lies largely in conventions and an awareness of tradition. Even if there are only 32 bars on the page, there’s often a very hurried set of instructions issued by someone in the band just before the song starts which should give you all the essential directions about where you’re headed and that assume that you will pay attention as you go to take in any other relevant details. 

Much like: 

“go straight on, turn right and follow the signs” 

as opposed to: 

“go straight on, past the pub on your left, past the chip shop on your right, you’ll come to a T junction with tree on your right, turn right, past the Methodist church, keep going past the vets…”

The instructions might be as simple as ‘last 8 in’ – as in play the last 8 bars of the tune as an introduction. If there is more than one horn player[2] there might be a quick discussion of who plays the tune where (it could be split up between them). After that, so much of what happens might happen through a process of aural queues, occasional gestures and eye contact. 

It might even be that someone in the band just starts playing without any verbal cues or indications whatsoever. The rest of the band in this example are supposed to just catch up, to identify the harmony and rhythmic outline in what is being played, or to listen for some kind of brief allusion to the melody and to be ready to jump in at the right moment. 

Lead sheets are like Rorschach ink block tests for jazz musicians. What you play as a result of what you see perhaps says more about you and your conception of music than it says of itself.

Without dots

In classical music soloists often perform concertos from memory, and indeed the Aurora Orchestra have performed entire programs without any notated music in front of them. It’s a commonly held view that this process of internalisation allows musicians to get into a different sort of detail and emotional depth than if they’re relying on reading the notes (or even just having the dots there as a memory prompt). If only because by learning what’s on the page, you can close your eyes and exclude one sense to focus purely on listening to sound (although this might not be as easy for the Aurora Orchestra, who still need to follow the conductor). 

For jazz musicians the process of internalisation is encouraged for the reasons above, but also so that when improvising they are free to navigate the harmony and form, able to think both inside and outside the box, without being blind to the fact that there is a box to begin with.   

When a band gets together and plays a piece from memory – particularly something that would be considered standard repertoire - there’s no one definitive version of the piece and there’s no single point of reference. There may be a shared awareness of iconic recordings, and everyone might have had the same Real Book at some point, but actually, the musicians really aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet – as there isn’t one. Even if the performers were playing from a lead sheet, it’s common that harmony players will change the odd chord here and there, and whoever plays the melody is unlikely to phrase it exactly as it’s written on the page. 

A jazz musician’s ability to know where they are in the piece and what’s going on around them, and the ability to visualise and conceive of how this game of consequences might proceed next to produce a coherent whole is vital to this process.  They must know what it’s meant to sound like, but also they must be willing to accept that there are multiple possible variations of what it’s meant to sound like, and each could be worth pursuing. 

Jazz musicians are perhaps a bit like lawyers. They don’t make as much money, and there aren’t as many jokes where jazz musicians are the punch line (unless you’re a banjo player) but they're like them in that they're given a series of propositions and statements, a musical contract of sorts, and their role is to interpret and negotiate the meaning of each word, sentence and paragraph on the page (even when there isn’t a page).

[1] There are some 20th and 21st Century scores that don’t fit this description, a good example being graphic notation or some minimalist works such as In C by Terry Riley. 

[2] A term that really refers to a single line instrument such as trumpet, trombone, saxophone, clarinet, flute and so on, often stood at the front (hence also known as front line instrument) who generally get the melody and first solo. 

About the author

Paul Edis


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