As a much younger musician I made the same mistakes many musicians do when it comes to tempo… I tended to look on it as broken down into 3 or 4 groups, like many things e.g. slow/medium/fast and so fast I’m leaving town. Just like small/medium/large or ordering your steak rare/medium rare/medium/medium well/don’t dare the next one of the chef will go nuts. Working as a guitarist I worried about the faster tempi and whether or not I could handle technique needed two execute the tune. It all changed for me when I began to lead bands or conduct ensembles and most particularly work with vocalists. I now began to understand that the string section needed to know how long fermatas would be, or how fast a phrase was so they could gauge their bowing. Similarly vocalists and their breath control has to be budgeted with regard to phrasing dynamics and indeed emotional expression – in there end it all has to appear to be happening naturally.
I am going to focus on what we loosely describe as a ‘medium tempo’ – by virtue of it’s name, neither too fast or too slow. To some, unfortunately they don’t get it and view this as a single tempo but to anyone who has worked with vocalists where the lyrics are so tied to breath control will tell you that the most subtle variation in tempo has a magical effect on the music. In preparation for recent Sinatra 100th Tribute performances the role of tempo is to the fore. Through his career he would vary tempi on some tunes just for effect. Listen to the tempo of Where Or When (The Billy Byers chart) on the Live At The Sands album and compare it’s brighter medium tempo to the VERY laid back tempi he would often choose later in life. The Live version of Under MY Skin was one that floated around too. Having THE rhythm section of Lewis Nash and Peter Washington on our performances meant we always fund that perfect groove we call “The Pocket”.
Listen sometimes to how a band leader or vocalist/soloist will count off a less experienced band and the band will come in at a different tempo. So how do you cure this? Practice imagining the tempo you want and then count it off and play. I will never claim to get it right all the time but I use some tricks to avoid getting it wrong.
Identify a part of the song that best exemplifies the tempo in the pocket. Now count it off.
Similar to above, may something in the arrangement will help you find where the best tempo sits – I used to use the sax figure on the bridge of Nat Cole’s Ballerina to get the tempo correct. If the triplets were too fast we were then playing a jig!
Practice playing the song completely out of tempo and then wind in to tempo in a way that any musicians playing with you will hear right away. The late Tommy Flanagan was a master of this and it always excited me when I hear Peter and Lewis inching with Tommy towards the tempo they would eventually settle on.
Anyway… I figured I’d toss this out there as a conversation starter. It was inspired by the meticulous attention given to the slightest tempo nuance by Lewis Nash and Peter Washington in our Sinatra Tribute gigs. There are enough recordings of Sinatra in rehearsal out there for a listener to hear how much effort he put in finding that ‘pocket’ and then witnessing the effect it has on the overall performance. Sometimes the difference from one song to the next is marginal but crucial.
On the subject of interpretation of this music. There is nothing more stiff to me than when when someone tries to produce verbatim or ‘drumbatim’ what was played by Irv Cotler or Alvin Stoller on the recordings. You only had to hear Sinatra live to know that he didn’t sing these songs the same way all the time. Need some examples? Check out the following:
Any performance with Basie.
Check out the Ellington album (even with it’s documented difficulties).
The Australian live album with Red Norvo.
The small group appearances in Paris and London (Royal Festival Hall footage is on the boxed set).
I am hoping that musicians who have developed a cynicism for playing with vocalists will find this useful as they take responsibility for their role in the disconnect too – and I’m not forgetting that there are singers who have worked hard to earn that cynicism! Thankfully, for me, they are in the minority.
Until the next one,