Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 8: Soloing

In Rock music, a solo is usually taken as a section of its own. It’s a separate part of the song and may have a completely different feel or chord structure to the main body. In many cases, it’s even written. In Jazz, the musicians play the head of the tune and then its time for the soloist to improvise over the top of the same chord progression. In Funk, the band will usually lock down or land on a groove consisting of one or two chords and let the soloist improvise over that. Each tradition has its own style and its own treatment. In Jazz, for eg. the music is solo-based, whereas in Funk, it’s groove-based and therefore the solo is secondary.

The Katet’s improvised music developed out of this funk tradition. When the song has reached a middle section, let’s say after the second chorus, it can open out. Playing our residency at The Jazz Bar, we and the other late night bands have found that holding on to a good idea means keeping punters on the dance-floor for longer. This means that if after two or three verse/choruses you’re only 2 minutes into the tune, it’s best to keep things going. So what do you do? You groove. You jam. You take solos. Taking a solo is the equivalent of everyone having their say around the dinner table. Throughout the night, everyone gets their turn to take centre-stage and drive the song forward for a bit before its agreed to switch/trade solos, return to a head, verse, chorus or some other section in the tune.

With Suggesture, because the parameters arn’t set, the solo can be many different things and it can take many different forms in a live setting. Every Suggestor can choose how to treat the soloist. There are two ways in my mind; either hand over control/direction of the music to the soloist and let them decide where it goes from there; or retain control/direction and use the solo as a tool while you shape the music as a whole. One way is obviously more collaborative than the other. Me, personally, I like to keep my options open. I find, from experience, that what happens is often somewhere in between the two.

Most of the time I like to use the solo almost as a distraction for the audience, and during the solo I’ll set up what’s gonna happen next: be it new harmony, new rhythms, new tempos, an entirely new groove, lyrics, maybe a chorus etc. Now, what happens next is usually informed by the soloist. It’s a realtime reaction to whatever’s to what’s happening in the moment.

In fact, most of what the Suggestor does is informed by the music the players make, by the feeling of where the collective wants to take things. It’s up to the Suggestor to identify this and take it confidently in that direction. And there are techniques you can use to do this. As well as the solo being a platform for that particular player’s musical expression, you can also use it as a creative tool. You have to know how to react to a solo. Is it running out of steam and you need to change things up? Does it need breathing space and you need to step out of the way? Do you want to cut it off at its peak to create a dramatic transition into a new section, stopping the soloist before they can reach a natural conclusion?

This last one is a controversial idea. If the group is improvising together, then at what point, as a soloist, do your ideas become less important than the Suggestor’s? Surely the aim is to play the best music possible, and therefore have more fun. So, what if two good ideas clash on stage? The answer is in the name. The Suggestor must always remain secondary to the players making the music. The only way he gets his way is through trust. The relationship between himself and each soloist will be different each time, different from one night to the next. It’s about being adaptive, working together, moulding around each other. At the end of the day, its about making music together.

notes 1

Suggesture is a method for improvising with a group. It’s no better or worse than any other. It’s only one way. But it is a good way, because the process is good, the relationships are good, and the result is good. I hope it outlives us all.

We’ve reached the end of our Suggesture 101 series. I’d like to thank The Katet, The Jazz Bar, Jack Nissan and The Tinderbox Orchestra, Ruth Barrie(Camera) and Gavin Brown(Photography) for everything that they’ve given to this project. We’re all very grateful for the support we’ve received from you, the readers and viewers. You’ll be hearing more from me in the future as this system continues to evolve. In the meantime, why not try out some suggestions with your band, your choir, your class or your family. See if you can figure out why something like this exists in the first place. Start with the question:

Why do we play music together?