Lazy Horns and Keeping Time

Q: I’ve started rehearsing with a big band and while I’m finding it a lot of fun and a good challenge, I’ve been having a hard time keeping the time. The horns seem to play way behind the beat much of the time and it just feels uncomfortable no matter what I do. If I try and lay back for them, I get out of sync with the drummer. But if I stay with the drummer, it feels like the train is about to derail. Any suggestions?

A: You are not alone!

I’ve asked many horn players about this phenomenon throughout the years. It seems to be a combination of things happening. First, there’s the slight delay between the time they blow the horn and the time it produces sound.

But the bigger issue is the combination of a slightly lazy swing feel many prefer, plus the snowball effect of phrasing as a group, lazily.

It can really drive a bass player nuts!

There really is nothing quite like trying to keep time while half a dozen (or more) of the band is playing hits and falling further and further behind the beat.

Unfortunately, there is not much to be done about it. Aside from getting a tighter horn section or asking the section to try and play more on the beat during rhythmic figures, your only course of action is to lock your lasers (ears) on the drummer and fight through the tough sections of the tune.

Great big bands know how to lock the time up tight, and a good section leader won’t let the section get away with falling behind the beat so much.

You might make mention of it to the band leader and/or conductor. Chances are, they know it is happening (they’d better!) and maybe have given up a bit or have just let it slide and just need a simple and polite reminder to get them back in the driver’s seat and try and pull them in.

Bottom line, dig in with the drummer and make the tune swing so hard that they’d be fools not to play with the rhythm section.

A polite and well placed mention of it to the right person might be just the ticket but, beyond that… any suggestions guys? Post suggestions in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. David Aduddell

    It’s endemic to the gig. Convince your drummer that YOU (the two of you, that is..) are correct – NEVER ease off to match them. Stick by your guns whatever you do! I’ve always likened playing bass in a big band to the old farmer walking behind the mule poking him in the butt with a pitchfork to keep him moving. Keep poking!

  2. Mark Ford

    Yep! Drive the beast and don’t get pulled down. The horns may be emulating a ‘style’ such as some Basie (L’il Darlin’ comes to mind). Don’t rush, don’t drag, keep it in the pocket with the rest of the rhythm section and keep moving forward with the tune. I struggled with this for a while, too.

    • We had bassist Todd Coolman come in for a Master Class with the ISU Jazz Ensemble several years ago. He spoke mostly to the horn section, emphasizing that “you are all drummers”, meaning that everyone is responsible for time. His direction really made a difference in the tightness of the ensemble. (Todd also asked me if I was playing the written bass chart of just following the chords. He said “never play the written bass lines, they are written by non-bass players. Always play what you feel within the form of the song.” Valuable advice. Thanks Todd!

    • I’ve come to believe that many horn players hear the melody or head, at the “phrasing-speed” that they like.They have rehersed and practice it with that feel, and will often come in at that tempo- no matter what speed the song is counted off at. Make the horn section leader count off the tempo and then hold them to it.

  3. Chris Ellis

    I had precisely this conversation last night with a young, fairly inexperienced, but talented drummer who was in the audience at a gig last night. She was confused and concerned, confused because she didn’t know what she needed to do to keep her band “tight”. I tried to use the old analogy of the bass and drums being the “engine room” of any band, and that if the bass and drums are as tight as tight can be, and accept that their job is to “drive” the band, everyone else has to accept that and the band will be 100% improved. But I told her that she has to adopt a more assertive role, and, while listening to constructive comment, she has to realise it’s her “responsibility” as a drummer, to work with the bass player to improve the section. Glad I’m not young again in many ways!

  4. Jessie Smoor

    Yeah, what those guys said, plus my Musical Director pointed last week that what my drummer and I are hearing is the horns being reflected off the wall in front so even with the tightest horn section in the world you will hear a lag so if you follow the horns the whole band will slow down. Plus horns drag anyway, they try to keep time with their feet instead of listening to the drums. If there is a soli section where the rhythm section stops, the horns will invariably drag like the Queen Mary through a sea of Mars Bars. It’s the job of the bass and the drums to come back in POW! There’s One! Oh you missed it, horns? Go home and practise with your metronome. Don’t ever let horns set the time, be as one with your drummer.

  5. Bruce Jacobs

    This is, indeed, a universal issue. I have had an even more challenging time performing in a rhythm section that was working with a professional symphony through a series of “pops” shows…and the issue was exacerbated by the notion that everyone, including the conductor, had- the rhythm section should follow the expressive whim of the conductor. As section “leader”, I found myself in a conversation with the conductor, politely explaining that although a symphony is in some ways the ultimate in expressive group performance, when they are covering a Stevie Wonder song it is just not acceptable to pull the tempo around like using silly putty instead of a baton…and that once the rhythm section sets the tempo, it is the conductor’s responsibility to bring everyone else into line. And this brings me to my point- all big bands have leaders, and it is THEIR responsibility to keep the sections in touch…and if the leader is either cool with everything or not able to do this for some reason, the rhythm section has to musically “crack the whip”- not as “bosses” but as “shepherds” (love the mule analogy). It’s a stage- not a war zone, and the idea is to try and be harmonious whilst grooving relentlessly. Sorry for the length of the post, everyone- but this definitely hit close to home.

    • Pat M. Rempel

      I played in a performance band many years ago and it drove me nuts when the LEADER couldn’t keep the same rythym throughout a song! How, as a musician, are you supposed to play what comes naturally when you are playing to the beat of an everchanging drum? Well said Bruce!!

    • A properly dialed in rhythm section steers the bus – “backseat drivers” need to get in line :)

  6. Yes, a universal problem :-). Good column. One thing that helps IMHO is working with placement. Sound travels slow and we need the drummer to be in the “heart” of the band so everybody can connect and hear even the small nuances. I often get to rehearsals and gigs even with pros where this is totally overlooked – amps all over the stage. Drummer hidden away (they are sooo loud) or in a plexi-booth. Tip: I try to end up on the hi-hat side (natural for the drummer to face and good place to watch the kick – light travels faster than sound:-) and if possible take that part of the plexi away or open it. I always, when I´m not working with a monitormixer on stage, try to put the band in a position where everybody can hear everyone else without monitors. Of course instruments that are depending on monitors, like keys that don´t bring their own sound etc, will use them. But standing close, on boomy stages real close, helps a lot :-) It goes almost without saying that everyone also needs to adjust dynamically and with sheer volume as well. Another thing I would do is to, if I´m a leader, work the section that is troublesome separately and use a metronome. Then the problem will be obvious and they will, hopefully ;-), be more rhythm-conscious. Of course this can be done without actally talking about the problem. Just start working with a metronome when you´re running through parts with the horns. If they can´t hear themselves playing behind the beat then there is really work to do. At the en of the day, though, we need to glue the band together in these situations. Listen to the whole sound and find a rhythmic-sweet spot :-). Bless. Anders

  7. Our band leader likes to vary the time when we get too loose, just to emphasize the point that We should be keeping his time. It usually works after playing through a tough section at 4 different speeds we are usually ready to get it tight and move on.

  8. Yes indeed….Why is the trumpet player looking at me? Its the drummer listening and playing with the horns that’s why the time is behind.What am I suppose to do? Play by myself.
    We all go through this and it will never end.I try to speak to the drummer before the gig and suggest that we play slightly ahead of the quarter note and listen to each other.That seems to keep the time more where it’s suppose to be.Horns speak slower and playing right on the quarter note will drag the time.It can be uncomfortable if you rush so it’s a give and take situation.It gets better with time and the same musos playing together.No matter what its a compromise.One ear on the drummer the other on the rest of the band.