Listen to the Singer

This post is mainly for jazz players, or let’s say musicians that focus on instrumental music. And that drag their feet when the time comes to play with a singer.

We all know the jokes … What’s the difference between a terrorist and a singer ?

With the terrorist you actually can negotiate… etc …


Firstly, you can learn from singers in your daily practice. If you learn a jazz standard (or any song), and you don’t check a vocal version: you’re on the wrong track. Lester Young knew all the lyrics of the song he played. Singers will really show you how the song is meant to be played, and despite the fact that they have to deal with more restrictions than an instrumentalist -lyrics, meaning of the lyrics, rhythm of the words-, they manage to come up with great solutions on how to be both respectful of the tune AND creative.

It’s a very common idea that great musician share regularly, but I wish I hear more instrumentalists actually APPLY it… But maybe it’s just me.

What I really want to talk about today is even more specific :

Listen to the singer that is singing RIGHT NOW.

Wether you’re on stage, or doing a session, the singer that is singing NOW, is what you have to follow, he/she is giving the direction and the spirit of the song. Many players will start their solo as if nothing happened before, imposing a double feel on ballad, changing rhythmic and harmonic language. The contrast can be interesting, and if it’s required by the singer, the arrangement, the producer or music director, it’s fine.

But what could also be very interesting, is to try this : play the same SONG as the singer.

Larry Goldings is a renown jazz pianist and organist, playing with stars like Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, etc… leading his own bands. He is also a sought after accompanist for singer-songwriter. In a DownBeat interview (January 2013) he explains :

“I like to be in the spotlight and play my own music and present my own groups, but I also love the challenge of playing other roles.” “As long as the music is strong and there’s a hight level of musicianship going on, I almost don’t notice the change in the genre. To me it’s all great music. You are serving a story, really, and that’s a great challenge for a guy who’s used to just play in instrumental situations.”

Playing behind a singer doesn’t have to be a punishment, or the only way to pay the rent.

The singer and the song sets the mood: know the melody of the song, pay attention the phrasing of the singer, and use that as a starting point. The singer drags a little ? Play on the back of the beat too. The singer uses long notes to ends his/her phrases, work on long notes and sustain. Vibrato or not ? Play with the intervals used in the melody. Make your interventions unique to that song and that interpretation.

You can also use the meaning of the lyrics to give you a direction sometimes.  For example, Jim Campilongo when recording ‘Gotta Get Drunk‘ with The Little Wilies tried to sound ‘drunk’: not playing messy like you’d play when drunk (if you still can play), but what a drunk would sound like in music. Brilliant !

A song is about telling a story, and if the singer is setting the mood for a rom-com, don’t come up with sci-fi nerdy propositions. It seams obvious put like that, right ?

In the following weeks I’ll show you some note-worthy instrumental-interventions (don’t call them solos…) in songs that I really like. Spoiler alert, Adam Levy is up next…

Thanx for reading, take good care.

ADDENDUM on March 3rd 2015




Maestro Adam Levy advises us to listen carefully to Robben Ford with Rickie Lee Jones “Pop Pop” (1990). It’s a wonderful album, with Charlie Haden on some songs too, and also Joe Henderson. Robben Ford plays nylon string guitar, and his interventions are indeed very tasteful, his sense of space in this drumless context is simply brilliant.

My dear friend Lois Le Van introduced me to that album 10 years ago (God time flies…), but it’s a good reminder. Thank you Adam, and Lois.


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