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.”

7 responses to “LEAVING SPACE(S)

  1. I work as a graphic designer and the same theory applies; Often it’s what you leave out that makes everything else look so good. Thanks for this article.

  2. Absolutely vital. “Space maketh the man” (yes yes, I know, the woman too)
    Far too much of 1000 notes a minute and not a phrase amongst them.
    “Let a phrase breath in space”
    …….a Spencer’s Nighthawks adage

  3. I couldn’t have said it better myself. The older I get the more space I want to leave. I love the way Bird played ballads. You know he could have filled up every second with harmonically perfect lines, but for the most part he sticks to the meoldy. His phrasing is lyrical and he is in complete command of his instrument without overplaying.

  4. Masterful post Michael. I fully agree, and especially like your example using Basie. As a drummer I would make the connection between Joe Morello and Buddy Rich. Joe used a lot of space – his solo in Take Five is an excellent example. Buddy, on the other hand, used far too many notes in any solo he played, wrecking (IMHO) anything he did. I have some excellent examples of Basie in a rhythm section only setting that illustrates what you are saying: http://drumz4sale.blogspot.com/2010/04/sound-of-swing-great-basie-video.html

    Check out this Youtube playlist for the entire session: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7c5G73xnoA&feature=PlayList&p=E498FF8628C7FD1B&playnext_from=PL&index=0&playnext=1

  5. The ultimate master of space in music: Sidney Catlett!

    And: Pee Wee Russell, Lester Young, Benny Morton, Vic Dickenson, Max Kaminsky, Joe Sullivan and of course Bill Basie. Light and shade…Can’t imagine good jazz without it!

  6. What a great video! I kept expecting the big band to come in at the end of every chorus.

  7. Pingback: LEAVING SPACE(S)

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