It’s possible that many of the people reading this have found themselves in a position where they’ve had to play a song that they’ve never heard without the benefit of a chart.
When I was 15 years old, I used to stay out until all hours of the night (yes… ALL hours) playing in a local jazz club with a well-established piano player in the area. His name was Eddie Abrams and his band was called the Red Port Review. Red Port like the wine, of which he regularly consumed a great deal. In fact, by the time I joined the band he had moved on to White Port. Maybe too many headaches, I don’t know.
As a kid I was exposed to a lot of music. My mom, when she was a child, was a big fan of the popular music of the 40’s and 50’s. Since she didn’t have a piano in her formative years, she would have to learn the songs by ear from listening to the radio, and then remember them until the next day, when she would go to school and have access to a piano. Needless to say, her ears were, and still are, scary.
A lot of what she learned, she passed along to me. And some of that repertoire was part of Eddie’s set. All of it, stylistically, fell into the category of “standards”. Even though I though I knew an awful lot for a 15 year-old kid, I found out quickly that I was going to be challenged on that gig. Eddie didn’t call the names, or the keys, or the tempos, or the feels of any of the songs. I sometimes wondered if maybe his hands just played and his mind caught up with them. Like his hands were doing the same thing to his mind, that he was doing to me. At any rate, I had to learn to hear on my feet. And I did.
I like to call it ‘Ear-hand’ coordination. I didn’t even know I was developing it until one time, on a wedding gig, I was playing with one hand and talking on the phone with the other (Off the side of the stage during a “continuous” ballad where no one could see me). Not professional, I know, but the audience couldn’t see me, and the band members were friends. The piano player played some hip substitute changes and without realizing it, I played them with him. When I turned around to react and say, “nice changes…those were hip”, I saw him and the bandleader laughing. They were apparently testing me. Nice… They thought it was some kind of freakish thing. It was second nature to me.
This is when something useful happened in my head. So many people ask me how I can do that kind of thing. Many of them can’t imagine how I do it, like it’s magic. People accuse me of having perfect pitch, which I do not. I came to the realization, through some of these conversations, that some people haven’t realized that music is not random. Not only is it not random… western music is typically VERY PREDICTABLE in terms of it’s harmonic and melodic content, which is what we as bassists are mainly concerned with in that kind of situation. If a c chord suddenly becomes a C7 chord, the chances of the next chord being an Fsomething are pretty good. There’s also a good chance it would be a B chord of some type, or more of C7. In most situations there are predictable likelihoods at the very least. Often, a song can lead you through it on it’s own if you listen carefully enough.
The point of all of this is that the only wrong way to get through a situation like that is to give up or get nervous. The main thing is to have an opinion! If you don’t know what the next chord is, listen and form an opinion in your ear. It might be wrong, but not having an opinion means not playing anything. And that’s useless.
If you’ve had any experience with Victor Wooten, you may have heard him talk about “A right note always being a half step away.” For bassists this is almost true without qualification. Obviously, there is only one right note to play for a written chord. If the chord is a C major chord, you need to be playing C to be accurate. BUT, if the chord you’re coming off of is an E7, and you think you’re going to A, and you play an A, you’ve just changed the C major chord to an A min7 chord, and that beats the heck out of playing nothing.
Can you hear the difference between a Cmaj7 and a Cmin7? Try this. Play all the white notes in one octave on a keyboard. Now change one. Do you hear the difference? I’ve never known anyone who didn’t. If you can hear this, you can hear a Cmaj turn to a C7. If you can hear that, you can hear a lot more. The trick is to identify it and remember it.
I hope this was useful. I could write volumes on the subject, and probably will. But for now, ponder this. And if you have an opportunity, play some jazz with some close friends and make them play tunes you don’t know. Ask them to tell you the form and play through it once for you to listen… in time so you can feel the harmonic rhythm. Then just go. Don’t be nervous. You’re only getting better which is all you can ask of yourself. You will be surprised, I guarantee you.