Anatomy of a Jam Session

Jam sessions are, almost by definition, something you don’t think too hard about.  You just turn up, tune up and do them.  If you think about it too much, it kind of spoils the effect.  I’ve been going to jam sessions since I was about eleven years old.  There were entire decades where, due to circumstance, I didn’t jam at all, but happily I am currently in a phase of my life where jamming is possible and I am enjoying it immensely.

When you get a little older and wiser (but never quite wise enough, it seems), I think you become more reflective (not in the sense of being highly polished and shiny, but in the sense of looking back on things).  When I reflect on jam sessions past and present, I realise that there is something quite distinct and special going on.  There is more to a jam session than at first meets the eye (and ear).

A jam session, where a group of musicians get together, plug in and start playing, is quite unlike many other gatherings of musicians.  It is not a song writing session, for example.  That kind of musical gathering has a distinct purpose and although it can be similar to a jam, there is a desired outcome, in the form of a finished (or at least sketched out) song.  An original work is supposed to exist at the end of it.  In jamming, there is no necessity to produce anything outside of the present moment.  The music you make can be played and is then gone and forgotten.  The point isn’t to capture anything; it’s to let it flow out of you.

Another thing that a jam session is not is a rehearsal.  When you are taking a band on the road or if you are preparing to record your songs, the musical gathering is quite clearly more like intensive training.  You run through the same set list and songs, over and over again, with the aim of perfecting the performance and delivery.  What you want to be is tight, as a band.  You want to all start and end at the same time, balance well, organize who will do what and when and generally to be as polished as you can for the public, your audience.  In pre-production for recording, you are trying to minimise the time wasted in the expensive recording studio.  You want to be as prepared for recording as a commando raid, so that you can get in, lay down your tracks, know what you are doing and get out, with the minimum of angst, wasted time or indecision.  Rehearsal is nothing like a jam session.

Jam sessions may seem to be quite unstructured and they are, in a sense, but there is also an implicit structure to them.  You need to improvise and test your skills as a musician, but not completely unconsciously.  Sure, you play what comes out, but there is a distinct need to think on your feet and react to what the other musicians are playing.  So it isn’t a haphazard thing, but it’s not totally premeditated either.  I guess it’s the difference between murdering a song and committing manslaughter, except that you don’t necessarily have to play a song at all, in a jam session.  A rambling stream of musical consciousness is just as effective and just as satisfying.  Form isn’t quite so important.

A jam session is frequently not a performance, although it can be.  In most performances, a pre-produced show is delivered, with varying degrees of polish, depending on how it pans out on the night.  Sometimes jam sessions do occur, live before an audience, and these can be quite exhilarating for the musicians and audience alike, but it is chancy.  Things can and do go wrong.  Bum notes are played.  Strange directions are pursued.  The audience is in danger of being left behind.  It takes a special group of musicians to jam spontaneously in front of an audience, yet keep the audience entertained and complicit in the endeavour.  More often than not, the musicians go off on a flight of intellectual fancy (musically) and the audience is rendered redundant and bewildered, politely applauding whenever it seems appropriate to do so.  Much modern jazz often fails in this way.  They forget to engage the audience, who have come to see them.  That’s very, very naughty.  In fact, it’s just plain arrogant, rude and bordering on the fraudulent, if the customers paid to see the show and expected to be entertained, for their money.

I find that a jam session is an opportunity for musical experimentation and experimentation with sounds and textures.  You play with your equipment and instruments to get them to sound the way you imagine they should, you mess with melodies, chords, rhythms and if you’re good, harmonies and counterpoint, but you do it all on the fly.  Off the knee, if you will.  You want to play around with different combinations in a quest to see what works well together.  It’s a musical idea laboratory.  That’s why it’s a good idea to record jam sessions and review the recordings later.  There are some gems of musical creativity in a jam session, usually.  I would have included some illustrative recordings of my last jam session in this blog post, but due to ineptitude, I managed to lose the file.  Next time.

Every musician acknowledges that there are physical skills involved in playing and that these skills, like anything else athletic, require training and practise.  A jam session is a fine place to develop your finer motor skills and for building up the stamina required to give a solid performance or work all day in the studio.  The sheer physicality of a jam session benefits your playing ability, your health and your state of mind.  It can be a bit like running.  It also keeps you loose, nimble and agile.  If you don’t play regularly, your hands and co-ordination begin to seize up and you lose some of the fluidity and articulation that you need to express every emotion through your music.  Nothing sounds clunkier, more lumpen and more contrived than an under-practised musician.

Participating in a jam session requires high levels of spontaneous musical creativity and invention.  You can’t get away with plunking through the standards.  It gets wearing for all involved.  Instead, you have to push at your musical boundaries, both physically on your instrument and in your mind, as a musical expressionist.  Coming up with something new and innovative is what drives the jam session forward.  They’re the sparks that light up the other players and spur them to add something else of their own to the fire.  It’s why they can be such a rich source of musical motifs, melodies and arrangements.

For the musicians in the jam session, there is a need to do some mind melding.  You have to guess where the other musicians will go next.  You have to sense when they might all stop or come in again.  You have to blend your sounds with theirs, in real time and harmonise with melodic lines that you might be hearing for the very first time, as you attempt to harmonise with them.  Fortunately, a little musical theory can help you achieve that particular feat.  You need to be able to anticipate what the other musicians are likely to play, having played with them before and gotten used to their way of musical thinking, then play something that matches.  Fortunately, they have to anticipate your guesses and musical utterances too, so it’s all a game of second-guessing each other, in real time, without the opportunity to be wrong.

If you are wrong, you need to have a bag of tricks up your sleeve that help you cover the error and make it sound like you knew where it was all going to go, all along.  Much like comedians have standard put downs to deal with hecklers, jamming musicians need stock ways of recovering from a bad note, a wrong guess or a discordant, inharmonious ensemble effect.  Often this is simply by making a virtue of the dissonance or arrhythmia.  You can turn it into complex syncopation or twelve tone, chromatic harmony, with enough chutzpah.  It’s remarkable how asserting a mistake confidently enough can make you appear to be some kind of deep musical genius.  I suspect a lot of musicians have made a lot of mileage out of the confident assertion of what were actually mistakes.  In any case, if the result turns out to be pleasing, novel or interesting, it’s not a mistake anymore.  It’s an invention.

The interplay between musicians, in a jam session, is a little like passing the ball in football.  There is collaboration and sharing and you are trying to pass the lead to whoever is likely to score the goal next, but in a musical sense.  Good musicians will play up to the point where they anticipate they will be passed the lead, creating a musical climax and a sense of tension and release.  When you see musicians successfully improvising in this way, in the context of a jam session, passing the lead to each other with smooth alacrity, it’s as poetic, exciting and beautiful as seeing football played magnificently.

To me, the process of being a musician in a jam session resembles sitting on a shingle beach and examining individual pebbles, looking for interesting features, colours, shapes, textures and characteristics.  You sift through musical ideas, discarding the commonplace and paying attention to the distinctive ones.  Whatever aesthetic criteria you apply to your sifting process, you’re picking up random elements and deciding whether or not they meet with your personally defined standard of outstanding.  That’s what’s so entertaining about it, for a participating musician.  You’re sifting through lots of ideas and selecting the ones you like most, then spending some time fascinated by them.  It’s a nice feeling.

While you’re doing your sifting, the other musicians in the jam session are finding their own gems at the same time, according to their own selection criteria, and showing them to you with a sense of wonder mixed with pride.  When your aesthetic criteria align, it’s like you’re all sifting through musical ideas, looking for the good ones and throwing them all into a common collection.  Often, the ideas that others find are even better than the ones you do.  The collection is much better than one you could have assembled on your own.

So the jam session is a very special musical gathering, although nothing precludes splitting your gathering time between jamming, rehearsal, song writing and even performance.  You can do it in distinct phases, or meld the processes.  But I think the purpose, process and practise of jamming is something altogether unique.

All that being said, I think I have to finish as I started.  The jam session isn’t something you should belabour or overly intellectualise.  All of the thinking needs to take place somewhat autonomically.  You don’t want to spoil the spontaneity by over planning.  In fact, the spontaneity is largely the point of the exercise.  No, I think that the primary motivation for jamming is that it is sheer recreational fun.  While it remains so, I’m jamming.  I hope you do too.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to Anatomy of a Jam Session

  1. Found your blog while reading about controlled guitar feedback, but it’s this post that stuck out to me. I’ve played an instrument since age 3 but only started jamming (as in improvising) in the last year. I’ve never had so much fun with music. The social aspect of group improvisation was totally lacking in my musical education. Your image of the musicians proudly showing off their musical pebbles to one another is spot-on.

    I look forward to reading your blog regularly!

    • Thank you very much for your kind words. I’m glad you found something in that post that resonated with you. I also hope you find other things in my blog that you find useful. I’m grateful to you for taking the time to comment. Much appreciated.

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