Some years back, I took one of the six-hour driver training courses designed to reduce my auto insurance bill. What I remember most was the instructor exhorting everyone to leave space — that is, not to get right up behind cars on the highway (“tailgating”) or even when stopped at a light.
But “leaving space(s)” is just as valid in a jazz context. Last night, when the Beloved and I were at Birdland, I was admiring the way the front-line players — Gordon Au, Jim Fryer, and Dan Block — intertwined but stayed out of each other’s way. The space between their phrases was almost as important as the phrases themselves.
Think of the Basie rhythm section: a pianist who could, when younger, fill every bar in the best Waller manner — but came to understand that his job was to be an aphorist, a tap dancer over the sweet cushion of Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones. As phenomenally brilliant as Art Tatum was, if Tatum were to replace Basie for a number, the world would be irreparably out of balance. Consider a solo by Louis or Lester, or Buck Clayton’s accompaniment to Billie Holiday, Bobby Hackett’s to Lee Wiley. Their pauses are essential to the shapes of their sound-sculptures.
Jonathan Swift defined style in writing as the proper words in the proper order. He might also have encouraged speakers and writers to leave space for breath, as the best jazz soloists and singers always do.
Or (as the story goes) when a young John Coltrane asked Miles Davis what he could do to improve his playing, Miles is supposed to have replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth once in a while.”