A jazz ensemble should always try to find its energy output “sweet spot.” What does this mean?
The sweet spot is all about playing with efficiency, and how much output or power the band can deliver. When the band can play with dynamics, have a core sound that is focused, deliver blend and balance, hear each other, and ultimately produce a cohesive and full sound as an ensemble—then you have found the sweet spot.
Often, if the band sees a fortissimo dynamic marking, that means they will play as loud as possible, at 100 percent. When that happens, that means every player is maxed out—with no room left for any nuances. In other words, you have nowhere to grow energy-wise, and that’s all you have to offer—you’re done! Instead, when the band plays, they should play at 80 percent. If they play unified attacks and releases, listen to each other, and play together as a unit, they will hardly ever exceed an output level of 80 percent of their potential. Let me be clear, this does not mean playing softer or with less intensity—you can still give 100 percent musically! This also doesn’t mean that the band should never play past the 80 percent level. There will be times when the band exceeds the 80 percent target. If the band is playing together and listening to their section and the ensemble, then every indicated dynamic and nuance and the overall band sound will be totally effective—all with the desired intensity.
Beyond the fact that when players exceed 80 percent output there is no room for nuances, the ensemble sound will be “spread.” This applies to every instrument, including the rhythm section. For example; if the rhythm players are playing too loud / too much, it will sound cluttered and the groove will typically be smothered, which means there is no space. The groove, no matter what the style is, needs some space to breathe. The saxes will be over blowing which will produce intonation problems, a distorted and poor tone, and the players will tire easily. The brass will also have intonation issues, the sound of the horn will be exaggerated, distorted with a wide sound with no center core, and players will definitely tire easily. Combine all that and the ensemble sound is “spread.” We’ve all heard bands do this and it’s not a good sound. Rhythm players will tire easily and wind players may feel tightness in their throat, hurt their ears, and more. It’s like putting the gas pedal to the floor all the time—not practical and not good.
Simply put, avoid over blowing the music. Yes, it’s loud but the sound will not carry to the back of the room because it is so spread. The goal is to back off a bit, get the same intensity, play together as one but with a solid and efficient tone that will project. The band will have more endurance, be able to execute dynamics and nuances, hear soloists, hear each other, and still be able to deliver 100 percent of the music with efficiency.
Let’s call the 80 percent concept “efficient playing.” An efficient band can deliver all the intensity it can muster and rarely exceed 80 percent. This includes all the dynamics—from fff to ppp, and any physical movements as well. The soloists will be heard, the background behind soloists will be just that, background. The rhythm section players will hear each other: the saxes and brass players will hear each other and play with better intonation. The audience will hear the nuances and dynamics, and not be overwhelmed with sheer volume. Everyone wins!
It all boils down to this: back off a notch and save some juice for that special moment. You’ll need to remind your band frequently about this efficient and more effective concept (and maybe remind certain individual players a little more often).
Enjoy the jazz!
Instrumental Jazz Editor