Wendy sent me the following question about how to communicate your musical directions to a jazz band.
If I’m going to sit in with a trio for the first time at a club, and I want to do Autumn Leaves the “first time around” very slow (do you say rubato in jazz lingo?), but then the second time upbeat, how do I communicate this to the trio? Thanks!
I’ve written a bit before on suggestions for counting off the band on tunes. There’s nothing really difficult to learn in there, but it’s a somewhat neglected topic that most people learn intuitively over time. Read the above link for more details, but in a nutshell you want to be confident with your tempo and also make sure that your count off also reflects the style and groove you want.
I think most jazz musicians would understand “rubato” just fine. From your description, my assumption is that you want to sing (or play, if you’re an instrumentalist) the first chorus rubato with maybe just a piano accompaniment and then go into tune with an upbeat swing groove. Just explain that to the trio and they will be familiar with this common road map.
One of the nice things about Autumn Leaves is that the melody has a pickup into the first measure. This pickup is long enough that the band can easily get your tempo from how you start the 2nd chorus, rather than needing you to count in your tempo. To make it easier on the band explain before you start that you’re going to play the first chorus rubato with piano and your pickup into the 2nd chorus will set the tempo. If they know the tune (and they probably will know Autumn Leaves) you probably don’t need to also warn them about the style (swing, latin, etc.), but you can’t always leave this to chance, so it’s best to explain the groove you want too. It might also be helpful for you to even give them an example of the tempo you plan on going to on the 2nd chorus before you start in case they are feeling it differently than you ahead of time.
You will want to be certain that your pickup is solidly in the tempo you want and don’t embellish the rhythms to the point of where it’s not obvious where the beat lies. It’s worth practicing this on your own (and in rehearsals with other musicians too). Sometimes a rhythmic embellishment we think is cool makes it harder for the rest of the band to follow your tempo. Simpler is usually better in this case, but you can take this too far and sound corny or confuse your band if they’re expecting something hipper.
Have fun sitting in with the trio!