Tempos? Fuggit.

The following is based on observations and experiences from my own very specific world, but I’m kind of thinking and hoping that it can be extrapolated into a wider context. So, here goes:

A sizable chunk of the music that I perform is taken from what is affectionately known as the Great American Songbook, and is often supplemented by selections from a body of work that we can call Jazz Standards. If there is more than one person involved with this sort of music-making, then there is etiquette involved with decisions regarding tempos and groove. Typically, whoever is the leader of the gig is given the choice of counting off a tune or deferring this choice to someone else.

Now, as the number of people making the music increases, so does the chance that one of them will disagree with the choice made by the one elected to decide on the tempo. “Harumph. That’s not where would have counted it off” is likely to be floating through the mind of one (or more) of the participants. There are a lot of reasons why a person chooses a particular tempo for a tune: It could be an attempt to duplicate a favorite recording, or it could be attributed to one of a garden variety of metabolic or emotional conditions at that point in time.

There are certainly good reasons why a certain tune shouldn’t be played at a certain tempo. First, if a vocalist is involved, a tempo might be too fast to convey the meaning of the words, or it might even be too fast to even get them out at all. Another situation might be in a Musical Theater production where choreography, light cues other other factors might inhibit one from taking too many liberties with metronomic creativity.

But, in a situation that allows for a certain amount of latitude, here’s what I think: It’s a far better thing to roll with the punches when a tempo catches you by surprise than it is to bitch and groan your way through it. And it’s not because I’m Little Mary Sunshine (but feel free to call me that),  even if I much prefer being around people who are having a good time to being around sourpusses. It’s because the music…this music that is played by improvisers…will be enhanced.

Think about it: If you play this kind of music, isn’t it great when someone on the bandstand plays something cool that you weren’t expecting? It kind of catches you by surprise, and can hopefully stimulate and propel a reaction that causes you to play something that in turn surprises them (and surprises your own self, too). These are the possibilities that make playing improvised music such a special kind of experience. Or (if you don’t play improvised music), you can compare it to having a conversation with someone who is just unpredictable enough to say something that alters your response in a way that sends the whole enterprise in a direction that neither of you saw coming, and where neither of you have ever been. I love those moments; they tell me that I’m alive.

And when I’m listening to (and watching) music as a member of the audience, I like to feel that there’s a certain amount of joy being had (and shared) by the participants, especially if someone is tickled by something that they just heard. I don’t even need to know the exact cause. It doesn’t have be as giggly as a bunch of eight year-olds having a sleepover, but know that joy is one of the main Life Forces of pretty much any endeavor. Grumpiness only helps to build walls between people and to foster more grumpiness like some kind of insidious virus.

Now go find that metronome that has been gathering dust. There are a lot of tempo settings, ranging from 40 to 208 beats per minute (and even beyond THAT, if you’re a Clever Willie). There is beautiful music to be made on EACH ONE of those settings, and if you find that you are resistant to any of them, then that is YOUR problem and you need to fix it. And I’m not just talking about extremely slow or fast tempos: a lot of people have trouble locking into the medium-slow range (around 85-105). I’ll never understand why.

Question: Which of these scenarios is more conducive to the creation of something positive and worthwhile?

  1. Tight, constricted, judgmental
  2. Loose, relaxed, adaptable

I sure hope that you answered #2 (and I refuse to stoop to an attempted witticism about the importance of a relaxed #2).

The fact is that a group functions best when the individuals can resist arriving with a personal agenda. The power increases exponentially when ideas get bounced around. So stop thinking so much, prepare to be surprised and watch what happens. It just might be better than you were expecting.



  1. Brad Schlueter says:

    Great article, Jeremy.

    I like when a tempo is chosen that I don’t expect since it may force me to approach a tune differently than I normally would, which can lead to new discoveries.

    As a drummer, people often look to me to count off songs. While I’m happy to do so, it strikes me as a slightly odd decision, since I can usually play a song at a wide range of different tempos (though I try to pick just one per song). I prefer the leader, singer or anyone with a strong preference to choose the tempo, since it’s often easier for me to adapt than it may be for them.

  2. Who was it that paraphrased Stephen Stills? “If you can’t be with the tempo you love, love the tempo you’re with.”

  3. Fred Simon says:

    On my own gigs, I often prefer to have someone else count the tune off … I’m tired of my tempos (tempi? tempeh?). I want to be surprised. That said, Satin Doll and Celebration are both almost always counted off too fast.

    • Check out the original tempo for “My Girl” and contrast it to the one you’ll find on most jobbing dates these days.

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