Nathaniel Facey who will be playing with singer Alexander Stewart and his group at Boisdale Canary Wharf on Wednesday 18 May writes about the delicate art of playing with singers
Playing with a jazz vocalist is one of the most pleasurable and challenging things a horn player can do. It is, for me, a delicate art where finding the right balance between space, timing, clarity of ideas, phrasing and sensitivity is essential – especially when the horn player is a featured voice alongside a vocalist. In this role you have to function as an accompanist as well as a soloist without detracting from or clouding the singer’s performance. The challenge here is play with total clarity of ideas in what traditionally is a tight space. Generally speaking in the regular jazz context you have the space to ‘stretch out’, having time to search for ideas in the moment that relate to the band. With a vocalist, you may find that you only have eight bars to play with, sometimes less. It is the test of saying plenty in a small space, which the great masters of the past did so exceptionally. Charlie Parker for example regularly found himself with limited space in which to play on record, but always managed to say so much.
Bird’s great predecessor and inspiration Lester Young formed one of the greatest musical partnerships of all time with Billie Holiday. To say anything of worth now one has to study the great masters of the past, and studying the musical relationship between Lester and Billie has been massively beneficial to my playing: every song is a master class in itself.
Lester’s attention to his tone and the way he blends it with Billie’s is incredibly beautiful. He also matches her in nuance, subtle pitch bending and blues inflected phraseology, so when they are playing at the same time there is a seamless flow to the sound. Billie was one of the most emotional singers of all time and I feel when he played with her, Lester (an emotional player in his own right) would mirror this quality. These are the hallmarks of a great musician, being sensitive to the qualities that the vocalist brings and matching them without being forceful or overbearing.
The challenge is finding balance. On some songs the horn may have a freer, roaming role, playing around the vocalist, rather than playing a set number of bars. The task here is to complement the vocalist without playing too much. My philosophy – based on what I’ve heard the masters play – is less is more. The horn player should never be too loud, or take up too much space, playing only what the music needs at any given moment. This is exemplified by the way John Coltrane approaches playing on his classic collaboration with Johnny Hartman.
All of Coltrane’s musical statements in answer to or in tandem with Hartman’s vocals are perfectly placed, played and driven. To play with such beautiful clarity and strength requires enormous control (technical and musical) and knowledge, and Coltrane achieves a real unity with Hartman.
Recently I’ve been working with the great young male vocalist Alexander Stewart, and I have had to think about all these examples in finding a sympathetic style for his sound – and then being ready to cut loose occasionally with the band. I hope I’m starting to get it right.