I didn’t catch much of the Ottawa Jazz Festival jam sessions this year but was in attendance for a guaranteed highlight every year — the big Dave Restivo solo.
Every year, it seems, Restivo, a long-time JazzWorks faculty member, shows up at the jam and plays a solo that takes everyone’s breath away. Another JazzWorks faculty member, Jim Lewis, has referred to it as the moment when “Restivo levitates off the piano bench,” or words to that effect.
“I’m just going down there for awhile,” I told my wife, as I headed off to Alpha Soul shortly after midnight on the last night of the festival. And I added, “if I hear All The Things You Are, I’m turning around and heading home.”
And, of course, it was All The Things You Are, that Restivo played on the festival’s closing night, with some people I didn’t know and some I did, including JazzWorks artistic director John Geggie on bass and the great Roddy Ellias on guitar. I didn’t go home.
To change direction for a second, I had been intending for some time to do a blog post on long solos. This is a timely topic heading into jazz camp, where the jam session is key component. Observance of jam session etiquette helps make the jam session the happy event it should be and one of the tenets of jam session etiquette, I had always thought, was that you don’t play too long.
Not playing too long, at least at the JazzWorks level, means getting off the bandstand after a couple of tunes. And it also means not playing lengthy solos. Two choruses is tops, half a chorus on a ballad, if you’re accompanying a singer.
Part of that has to do with etiquette, giving others a chance. But an equally important part is that most us, amateur players, run out of things to say after a chorus or two. Even at the advanced level of some of the student musicians playing at the jazz festival, repetition begins to creep in pretty quickly. Searching for something different to say, trumpet players begin the high-note exercises, saxophone players start honking on one note (a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, unfortunately).
Better to quit while you’re ahead, but I know the feeling. You’re finishing one chorus and thinking about whether to go for another. Two thoughts make you go on: (1) “I’m going so good, I should take another”; or (2) “That was so crappy, I better take another to see if I can get it right.”
Judging from I’ve been hearing at higher-level jam sessions, such as the jazz festival’s, four choruses now seems to be the minimum. Students are among the worst offenders but that’s understandable: they’re only doing what the pros do; there’s a feeling that you’re not a real jazz musician unless you go on and on.
Some jazz historians blame John Coltrane for the long solo, and indeed he could go on for 20 minutes. Some point out that you never heard Charlie Parker playing long solos, but that’s probably because he did most of his recording in the days before the long-play record. The essential point is that nobody minded listening to Coltrane for 20 minutes and nobody would have minded if Charlie Parker took another.
One of the great memories of Ottawa Jazz Festival jam sessions is the time that Donny McCaslin took what must have been 16 choruses on What Is This Thing Called Love at the jam session at the Crowne Plaza in 2009. Chorus after chorus, each full of new ideas or expansions of ideas he had just played, poured out of him as his bandmates — John Geggie and Nancy Walker were playing — just gaped. And also laughed, because it made them happy. Aside from some jazz critics earnestly discussing something in the lobby, everybody in the place was transfixed.
And here’s the thing: They wanted Donny to keep on playing.
Same thing with Restivo the other night. He stoppeHe played four or five choruses, not 16, each chorus building on what had come before, and we wanted him to keep going.
So there is something to be said for the long solo. If you’re Donny McCaslin or Dave Restivo.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.