I once had the privilege of hanging out for a week with the great Grady Tate when he was touring with Peggy Lee. He would come into the lounge where I was playing after his show and we would talk on my breaks about drumming and the philosophy of music. Though I never took an actual lesson from him, I learned more from him in that week than an entire semester at school. One of the main ideas that is still with me today is his analogy of playing jazz (or improvised music) to defense in baseball.
His theory was in jazz, when a soloist takes off or “takes it out”, it was important for someone to musically “cover the base”. Just as in baseball, when the first baseman is pulled off the bag during a play, the second baseman or pitcher will will cover the base. He said “too often, young players will try to go with the soloist”, either mimicking or answering what the soloist is playing. What is actually needed at that moment is for some of the rhythm section to musically “cover the bag”. “Someone needs to stay at home, create a solid base so the soloist has something to jump off of and something to land on again”. If not, “everyone is just chasing the ball around the field.”
A modern music example of this is in the Dave Matthews Band. When Jeff or Boyd is soloing, a lot of what Carter Beauford does is to “go with the soloist”, BUT Stephan is covering the bag, holding everything down with his solid bass line. This enables Carter the freedom to “go after the ball”.
If you’ve ever seen a soccer game of little kids, it is just a single mass of humanity running all over the field after the ball. It is amusing and cute, but not efficient or effective. As musicians, it is important to understand our positions and play our roles within the music. Support the soloist/ leader when they get pulled off the bag…. thanks Grady!