(Note: Please excuse this entry. I'm posting it like notes to some larger thoughts that I'd like to explore further. Feedback is welcome and encouraged.)
My last CD-a-Day article reviewed a small power-trio from Northern California, and I started thinking about the weaknesses and strengths of the band type, and the implications of band-membership as it relates to other aspects of life. Having played in a couple trios as well as larger bands, I have a pretty clear understanding of the dynamics at play, but this post is about more than being in a band. However, I will start there:
A power trio has a much easier time writing songs. With Marie Haddad, we base all our writing on her initial work. Usually, she'll bring a complete song to the table she wants to add to or change. Then Jason and I will add our bass and drum layers, which will help form the song into something else, usually a little more punchy, certainly more rhythmic. Sometimes, we like the sparseness of the piano-and-voice arrangement so much that we'll stay out, only accenting here and there for effect or dynamics.
With more than three in a band, it becomes harder to have those open spaces. (With less, it becomes difficult to fill the song, unless you use trickery or are named Jack White.) It can be done, but it takes a certain extra control which works best if the control is shared across all members in service to the song, as opposed to lorded over the other members by one guy, often the singer. Then the control becomes service to the singer instead of the song, and no musician really wants that. Even when the song is good, the musicians can be frustrated because they weren't allowed to use their gifts as intended, even by restraining. The liberty to restrain themselves was taken away by someone who couldn't let it be the other guy's idea.
However, when it works, it's amazing. When musicians are playing (or not playing at times) together all in service to the song, there is a magic that happens that is wonderful to hear.
The problem with a smaller group is that the sound can begin to resonate very much the same across all songs unless we stretch ourselves to go out of our comfort zones. Certainly we can rest on our laurels, but we may then run out of songs to play. This is OK, as long as we're content playing the same good songs over and over. Then of course, the danger in trying to grow is that sometimes we will fail as we try to push against boundaries. When we do, we have to be willing to learn from the mistakes and not repeat them.
Now, I'm not saying that a band doesn't or shouldn't have a leader. But the best band leaders are those who rest on and foster the talents of their group, knowing when to let them do their thing and not getting in the way. Healthy suggestion is important, but a good artist knows his limitations and when to rely on the perspective of the other musicians.
It's the same in all things. When one or two guys are steering a ship and another guy is in the crow's-nest watching for icebergs, it would be wise to listen when he cries "ICE! ICE!". If the pilots refuse to turn the wheel simply because the guy is yelling "ice" more than they'd like, regardless of the ice they've avoided because of his warnings, the pilots run the risk of sinking the ship in their chosen ignorance.
I think drummers are often in the crow's-nest. Just sayin'. tee-hee
Like any analogy, there are weaknesses. Sometimes, certain people can't play together, especially in something as subjective as a band. A band can be, and often is, an affinity group based around a type of music, style or ideal. In that case, there must be some compatibility, or the end product will suffer. However, when a musician sees the song as the standard, they throw out their need for compatibility with the other musicians. Some players may not enjoy the song, but they will play their best to serve the song that people want to hear. In this way, musicians from all walks of life and all different tastes can work together, submitting not to each others' preferences, but to the song as written.
Just so in other things, the question of compatibility goes out the window. Like the ship in dangerous seas, some things form an affinity by being raised up as the standard. In this case, the crew are in service to the ship-as-standard, not in service to their affinity. In fact, when they seek affinity apart from the standard, as in saying "I'm sick of that guy yelling "ice" every five minutes!" while sailing through the arctic, they risk being crushed by the weight of the standard they originally signed on to serve.
As a musician, I've played in groups that were formed out of affinity for a certain kind of music, and groups formed to serve the songs being played. They are very different experiences, and have informed me in other areas of life. When I choose to serve a standard, I find that I find more contentment in a "job well done". When I serve myself by seeking "compatibility" with others of like affinity, I can have fun, but the self-serving nature of the pursuit can ring hollow, especially if I judge my success or failure by a reaction or appreciation of my taste, rather than on if the song played was properly represented.
This begins to get into my views on being a drummer, but I'll save that for another time.