Freelancing in a College Town: Respect the Genre… By a show of hands (figuratively, of course), how many of you all, when asked the question “What kind of music do you listen to?” answer with “I like anything, really.” Also, when asked what kind of music you like to play, follow suit with “I can play anything.” Now honestly, how many of those styles of music can you listen to (at length), let alone play well? This latest installment of my freelancing series is about respecting the genre that you are playing, instead of just saying that you’re familiar with it.
Case in point: I had backed up a very talented singer/songwriter named Kristin Luna Ray (find her at www.kristinray.com) on occasion when she was in town, playing at church. Thanks to Facebook, I found out that she would be in town on Sunday (last night), playing a Kirtan. I asked her when and where (thinking it would be great to see/hear her again), and she followed it with “Do you want to sit in?” Never one to turn down the opportunity to try something new (my wife would say I’m a “trial by fire” kind of guy), I jumped at the opportunity.
I grabbed her latest album and listened to it all weekend, as well as looked up the definition of Kirtan to get a greater understanding of what was going to happen. Having never been to one – let alone played one – I wanted to make sure that whatever I was going to do was going to serve the music. And that is the first point I want to make; do your homework. Music is a historically and spiritually rich thing, and you need to know what you are stepping into, and make sure that you’re serving it appropriately.
And with that, I want to bring up another point that I see all too often in our younger musicians; don’t assume anything. Just because a style of music is similar to one you are well versed in does not guarantee that you’re going to be able to go into that gig and nail it. I’ve played with a lot of jazz guys that are well versed in hard bop and everything post 1950’s jazz, and watched them fall completely on their face when the gig is all swing/dance hall classics from the 1930’s.
Back to the Kirtan. With fretless in hand (after listening to her album, I thought that the best choice), I walked into the Kirtan and set up. Now, initially I was told that she’d have some charts for me, but as we all know, when you’re on the road you may not have time to come up with these. I had a couple of lead sheets, but for half of the songs I’d be relying on my ears and whatever she could tell me from the bandstand. She also said to watch the drummer and dulcimer player as they’d all help me through it. And this brings me to my next point; take direction, but more importantly, take it gracefully. When it came down to it, they were all the experts in this genre of music that I was not familiar with. I was relying on them and their expertise to be able to play this gig; they were the teachers and I was the eager student. Anything I could learn would not only benefit the overall gig, but my personal musical journey as well.
Again, I’ve seen many musicians take this for granted, thinking that their chops and technique are going to get them through the unknown gigs. I’ve had that mentality before, and I’ve ruined a good amount of gigs by thinking “Oh, it’s just a blues gig. That stuff is easy.” Technically, yes. Musically, by no means is the blues easy. And those of you that have played the blues (or in blues bands), know what I mean. And to those overly-patient old bluesmen that this (then) young upstart sat in with, you have my deepest respect.
The Kirtan started, and went rather well as we gelled musically as a quartet and moved through song after song for the 90 minute set. Afterwards they all thanked me for my playing, mentioning that they appreciated how I could play so subtly and sweetly when needed. Truthfully, I just listened to what was happening, and tried to make sure that whatever I was playing would add to the overall music. Much like that quote about making your bass playing be as fluid as water (I think Vic said it?), I tried to fill up the sonic space where it was needed. Sometimes that was sitting on the low B, and sometimes it was providing something more. And even at times, that meant playing nothing at all.
As a musician (freelance or otherwise), you will have a number of opportunities (which I suggest you take) to stretch your musical vocabulary and knowledge by playing new genres. All of the points we’ve covered above are a good starting place to get you in the proverbial ballpark to be able to walk in and play that gig. But the biggest thing I can mention in regard to respecting the genre is exactly that; respect. Musical styles are similar and can draw some influences from what you may already know. That doesn’t mean that just because you can play style A, that everything that’s similar to it is a piece of cake. All it means is that you’ve got a small idea of what “might” happen, which I’d argue is more dangerous than no knowledge at all. But with the respect for each and every genre of music that comes your way, you will have the attitude and the ability to learn and grow. You will also have the respect and appreciation of the musicians you play with.