Friday, September 26, 2008

Playing Rests

In jazz folklore there's a fable-esque story where John Coltrane comes off stage after playing one of his legendary long 'sheets of sound' solos during a set with Miles Davis' band, and tells his boss something like, "I just don't know how to end my solos." Miles response: "Try taking the horn out of your mouth."

We're not all blessed with the endless ideas and technical mastery of Coltrane, but this is good advice for everyone. I remember a guitar teacher once forcing me to allow a bar of rest every four bars in my solo. It was hard, because letting go and knowing how to end your phrase before you begin takes concentration. But with this exercise, my improvisation grew by leaps and bounds.

Playing rests typically means NOT PLAYING. But for guitarists or pianists, it can also mean comping for yourself between phrases. Listen to Wes Montgomery. He is almost constantly playing, yet he throws repetitive riff-like chord patterns between phrases, as if a big band horn section is playing backgrounds to his solo. Or listen to Bill Evans play solo piano. He might play a long line with his right hand, but as soon as he ends his phrase, his left hand drops in for a chord or two before the next line begins.

Here are just a few exercises you can do to get better at playing rests:

1) Transcribe. Along with learning how to play over chord changes, learn when to not play.

2) Trade fours. Get with a buddy and play call and response. A great way to limit your phrases to smaller chunks of music.

3) Record yourself. Nearly every time I hear a live recording of myself, the first thought that comes to mind is, "Man, I need to play less!" It's a lifelong quest to find the right balance.

1 comment:

Will said...

Great post, we all need to use more space. I would suggest 'How To Improvise' by Hal Crook which has exercises on playing for so many measures, then resting. As a guitarist this is especially important.