Interviewing Hein van de Geyn on Jazz Phrasing and Interplay

As part of my research during my Master’s studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, I conducted a number of interviews of renowned jazz musicians and academics from the International Jazz scene. Dutch jazz bassist Hein van de Geyn was very generous to offer me his time and share his wisdom in this conversation we had via skype. You can listen and read the whole interview below.

Title of the research project:

Phrasing and interplay from the vocal point of view.
Phrasing as the vocalist’s tool to stimulate interplay within a jazz combo.

Research Question:

How can phrasing become the tool of the jazz vocalist that wants to stimulate interplay and respond creatively in the band’s musical conversation, while singing the theme or improvising?



1.    What does the word phrasing mean to you?


Phrasing is the coherence within a musical phrase or within a series of musical phrases. If you do (example) it’s a musical phrase. Now what you do after that… you can do (example), which is a contrast of the first phrase or you go (example), which is more a continuation. It’s the music understood as a language.

It’s the way we speak. The language of jazz is like rap. It’s totally different from the language of classical music, which is “melos”, very melodic and takes you away in a voyage, but it’s not (example)! Jazz is very rhythmical, very irregular, it’s close to rapping, to talking. You’re not going to get into a conversation by just reading the dictionary and think that you’re saying something! Even in this conversation… if you listen to the WAY we speak, fast and slow, where the accents are, where the silence is…. It has nothing to do with (example)! So phrasing is connected to speech.  And especially in singing because you DO have lyrics, you DO have words, it would be silly to not connect it to speech!


2.    Why is phrasing considered to be one of the most important elements in jazz music?

If there’s no phrasing it’s just a bunch of notes and that’s utterly uninteresting to any listener.


3.    Besides the limitation of the lyrics and the fear of risk taking while scatting, what more differences have you noticed in the rhythmical phrasing of an instrumentalist in comparison to that of a vocalist, when playing the theme of a song and during their solos?


Scatting and improvising for a singer is hyper important, not as a goal but only as a means. Singers sometimes don’t have the tools to become musically flexible and be able to phrase and be different every time; so they get stuck in just one version of the rhythmical interpretation of the theme. On the other hand they may become “trapped in their musicality” and get “hysterical”, making variations with the theme but in the end the phrasing of the lyrics is not natural and the story is not getting across. The real phrasing of a singer is the presentation of the lyrics in a musical way but having the lyrics and not the musicality as the leading parameter.  And that is what you hear in singers like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald… It always sounds natural.

The phrasing and the interpretation of the singer should embrace the fact that there are lyrics involved. The focus should be NOT be on being different, but on the personal rendition of the song.

Regarding improvisation… the phrasing awareness of the singer is mostly somewhat poor compared to that of an instrumentalist. If somebody happens to be a very good piano player then might be different, and like in the case of Chet Baker it’s very different because he just sang as he played. But in general, in my experience most singers that improvise are naïve and hysterical in their improvisations and it’s not fun to listen to; it can actually become embarrassing. They don’t have sophistication of the half step, everything is more or less diatonic, something which works on most standards, but that is quite naïve really. The hysterical thing comes in when one feels that freedom, when one starts to improvise and get too excited and in the end the singer works him/herself up into hysteria! Of course everybody gets through this stage in their musical life when they begin improvising but some singers stay into that stage for the rest of their lives. And they should protect themselves (and the listener) against that… Audiences will clap because audiences always clap for somebody who goes crazy and loses themself… rock n’ roll is largely based on that phenomenon.

Jazz IS like a conversation. Everything you say in a conversation has to do with the fact that it is done in the moment. If you sit with someone, have a glass of wine and you talk and you have a GREAT conversation; that can be fantastic! And if you could record that or film it, then you could actually have an incredible movie! Two intelligent people talking! But if you would take down the words of that conversation and not the body language, not the empathy between the people and not the fact that it’s done on the spot… only taking the words down on paper and you said here’s a novel, you’re making a mistake. In other words if you write down Charlie Parkers’ solo and you say that this is art… you’re wrong. Because Charlie Parkers’ solos are not art. But they are an incredible, superior way of conversation, and to listen back to that, years later, is still exhilarating! It’s not art, it’s not Mahler, it’s not Stravinsky…

The beauty of jazz lies in the fact that the performer is able to pull you into an exciting “now”- not of beautiful (composed) music - but a sincere “here and now”; it grabs you by the throat. The way the player sings/plays. I think that phrasing somehow has to do that. The jazz musician gives the impression that they’re telling you the story for the first time! We’re like magicians. And that’s because we (the jazz musicians) have the “resource” to make it different every night without going hysterical.


4.     Besides the obvious contribution of the story that lyrics offer into music, what more strong points/advantages or tools of the jazz singer are there, that could reinforce her/his role in the band?

The most important thing is the quality of the instrument for a singer. And the quality of the instrument is a very wide subject. Many people’s favorite singers don’t have great instruments, like Billie Holiday… she didn’t have a great instrument. Quality is a very wide phenomenon. I’d rather listen to the copper voice of Nana Caymmi than the bedroom whispers of Astrud Gilberto. Yes, she was famous… and she could sing, she could hold a melody; but the more personal and coloured singing of Nana was so much more interesting and touching for me.

Like so many conservatory vocal students… they all come with that breathy voice; lovely, meaningless, sensitive. But I want to hear olives, I want to hear vinegar….whatever that is!!!

And somehow this is also true for instrumentalists (maybe less for piano or guitar) but it’s definitely also true for horn players. And there is this element that it’s not talked about enough…. What is your sound, what do you like? I mean Dexter Gordon’s sound had little to do with the sound of Zoot Sims. Yet, they were both tenor players. Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, they all had such a gigantic different sound!

So, when a singer comes and she doesn’t just sing “pretty”… who needs it?

So in relation to your question... Yes, what you can add is a very deeply personal instrument, a very personal sound, in which you will deliver the song that you want to sing whether it’s a fifty years old Broadway song or a modern song.

If that’s not addressed, you’re really missing the point. If after four years of Bachelor education in the conservatory you just go doo-ba-dooba-doo….. and now you think you are a jazz singer…. NO!!!! Where’s the voice, where’s the expression?


5.    How can a jazz musician achieve a more adventurous and interesting phrasing in your opinion?

 To go into the meaning of the song… you also miss the point.  That’s what a mediocre vocal teaching often does. Here’s the mature 50 or 60 years old singer that can say to the 22 years old student: “I don’t feel that you mean it…”.  Yes, that’s true… of course you can say that but is that ALL you can do?  I find that cheap! But… what do you do about phrasing? How do you practice? How do you work on the way you can delay, where does it land on the beat, how can you postpone, how can you make it earlier, how can you learn that flexibility. Where can you go away from the melody? But in order to do that, you have to be a jazz person. You have to feed the student with variation techniques and improvisational tools. From thjat you might create, or better: inspire great singers! Give the student the tools to pull it into their own field and then if someone says “I’m not comfortable with that, I just go…(example)”…. That’s fine as well!


6.    What are the elements of phrasing itself that encourage the interplay within a band?


If you refer to the phrasing of the melody…. We have to pull that apart. There are two areas. When you do the melody or if you’re scatting, those are different worlds. When you do the melody there is no interaction. Interaction during the exposition of the theme doesn’t exist. It’s an overrated myth in music. The real interaction started from the 60’s, from Bill Evans onwards. Before that the rhythm section was the rhythm section.

Then the interaction was not the big thing about jazz. But of course there is a subtle interaction that has been a part of jazz and part of music of all ages. Let’s say when a singer goes up, often the singer becomes louder. If as a band you don’t respond to that, in terms of dynamics, not in terms of imitating like (example), then there is this swell or this little thing on the drums… When you sing that note you want to feel supported. If the band plays soft at that moment, you feel alone as a singer. Interaction excists on many levels. One of them is the dynamic level and the dynamic level is as natural as life.  (example with a story)

If musicians are not able to deal with dynamic level, you might as well find another drummer or another pianist or bass player. And I would say (interaction) it’s not really that important. If the pianist gives you the right chords and you sing your song and he doesn’t bloody get in the way, and the bass player knows that all he has to do is to play on the one and the three (if it’s in a ballad)…because that’s really all it is, and it serves the music and serves the story of the singer (or the horn player…) it’s what it is all about, then that’s it!

The other thing is… if you as a singer want to pretend to be a mature improviser and you do your “shoo-be-doo-be-doo”, hopefully the guys might be nice enough that when you go (example) they’ll follow you a little bit so you don’t feel like they’re not hearing you. But I think that once a good singer starts to do mediocre improvisations, the whole thing of interaction becomes quite an irrelevant issue, because what you’re going to do with a mediocre improviser…?

I.K. But let’s suppose that it’s not a mediocre improviser because the question is not only about singers…. But about the elements of phrasing that encourage the interplay within a band and it affects all musicians that are soloing.

H.G. Often it’s not the phrasing; it is the energy – and mostly: it is the LISTENING. Often people think it is about the rhythm section responding to the soloist – but the vice-versa scenario is at least as important.


7.    What different types of interplay are there in your opinion?


You know there’s this period that all musicians go through...  they all start not hearing anything. And the next step is that you hear a little bit what the drums is playing, and of course the general energy, but you really don’t know what the soloist is doing. Then later in life you start to hear the pianist playing a b9 or wether there’s a tritone substitution. And then you’re still quite immature… and when the soloist goes (example) then you go (example) “aha, I heard you”! It’s really not that interesting and actually you hear many young musicians do that all the time, it’s like an imitation; it’s really not very interesting, it’s just a step within development. It’s fine but (interplay) is not about that.

But if you want me to answer your question… (example with a story) I was playing with Dee Dee (Bridgewater) in a jazz festival in Antibes ….. and after we played there was Stan Getz with Kenny Barron on the piano, Ben Riley on drums and Yasuhito Mori on bass. Stan Getz’s phrasing is fantastic. And what the drummer was doing was (example) beautiful groove and he was doing that little stuff on the snare (example). I start to focus on that “little stuff” on the snare and I realize that it was totally in sync with what Kenny Barron was playing on the piano. And then I listen to Stan Getz finally… He was playing (example) and those three (notes) were on the piano and on the snare drum at that moment and then I realized how incredibly high the level of those musicians was. You can say that jazz drumming is like this (example) and on the snare drum you do this (example) random “kat-ka”. That’s the sound of jazz. But what I heard was that, this random stuff on the snare drum was not random at all. It was totally connected to the phrasing of the soloist. And the pianist was actually doing the same. They all had their ears glued not to themselves, not to each other but: to the soloist. So that stuff would “fall” together and be coherent. It was such a lesson, telling me interaction is not an obvious phenomenon, but can be a very subtle one.


8.    In what way(s) can the interplay become a sort of musical conversation?


Interaction is often an overemphasized element I think and at the same time it’s the most crucial element of making music. But that’s not true just for jazz, but for all genres of music.  Interaction can have something to do with imitating phrases; but it is only one way.  Interaction has so much to do with dynamics, interaction has to do with bending the time… There are many subtle ways of interaction that are fantastic and as we learn more about interaction to look at classical music or great pop music becomes fascinating. You see how Steve Gadd plays behind James Taylor and it’s not that he’s reinventing his part every time, because pop music is in fact written music; sometimes it’s not written down but it’s the same every night. But there is a fantastically subtle interaction going on and that’s what makes Paul Simon band sound SO much better than the top 40 bands that imitate his songs to the note. And funny enough this has to do with all that interaction, leaving space like instead of go (example), there are many bass players that will go (example). Nothing wrong with that! Many great bass players… they don’t do it! They don’t interact because the choice to NOT interact is the best choice!  And I had to learn that because I played way too busy as a young man… And it took me 25 years to go (example) when Toots Thielemans would go “ne me quitte pas”. Just play 1 note per bar.

I.K. Of course! Because he left space but he meant to do that! He didn’t want anything or anyone else to comment on!

H.G. RIGHT! And there’s also the pianist… who has to do more because he can’t just put the chords down… so he’s filling. And the drummer does not just go (example). So what is the place of the bass? “Boom”… (example) and loving that whole thing! And THERE is interaction! Now… if someone would analyze that bass part and said: “hmm, the bass player in this case didn’t interact at all with his fellow musicians”, he’d totally misunderstood what he was doing!

I.K. Interaction is to respect the space and the silence of the music at that point!

H.G. Absolutely! Like in a good conversation! A great conversation is not like “oh yeah, I know what you mean, I agree” You try to stay quiet and attentive. To be attentive is perhaps the basic word… and the understanding of music. These are the basic tools you need to interact. Often interaction means taking the choice to NOT interact. With my bass players I call it “the poker face: “I hear everything… I’m not going to react to it”. “You played a tritone substitute, you played a quick dat-dat-da rhythm (example)… I’m not going to respond to that! I could do that but I won’t! It’s my choice.”

And I’d say, the more mature you become, the “non-response” becomes the best choice!


9.    How do you teach your students to become more elaborate and interactive while playing in a band?


I’d say to the rhythm section: “I just want you to do this: bass player, you don’t do anything except this (example) nothing more than quarter notes. The drums plays only (example)… that’s it. You do not touch that snare nor the bass drum.

Already that… is deeply satisfying to listen to.

And then to the pianist I was saying: “just think of Red Garland and go (example) on the one and the three. That’s it! It took me half an hour to convince them to play like that.

I tell you Irini… THAT already sounded great! Because there was no hysteria in there, there was no so-called interaction, there was in fact: nothing.

And then I’d say: “Ok now, I’m going to scat now for you, I’ll be the horn player. So I’d start (example) and I wouldn’t stop of course (example) and I would repeat a little phrase like that a few times and there they were!!! Pa-doo-dap on the snare drum!!! And the pianist would go like that (example) instead of (example). But it would be for a reason!… Which reason? The reason of connecting to the phrasing of the soloist. Every group of students I did this with… their eyes were falling out of their faces because they had never ever though about that. What does a piano player practice? Voicings. But then he goes (example) and it’s generic nonsense. It is not connected to anything. So by putting the youngsters into that neutral-listening space and say: “you only deviate or play on the snare drum when there’s a real reason for it. When your ear is not glued to yourself but to the phrasing of the soloist, then you have the right to respond!” And then after an hour doing that with these cats, they bounced out of the room because they realized something that is so essential but maybe also so forgotten. And then to reflect that back in the mirror to the soloist or to the singer… if you’re singing a medium (tempo) song like “my romance” and the whole rhythm section is (example) doing all that stuff and you want to do (singing) “my romance”…. And all that stuff behind you is in fact unrelated to what you’re doing. That doesn’t teach you much as a singer. For what reason would you want to change your phrasing? Because it’s like you’re trying to have a great conversation and nobody’s listening.

The relevance of the phrasing has so much to do with the embedding of that phrasing within a real context. Otherwise you might as well go on stage and put a Jamey Aebersold thing on behind you. If a real band would sound close to that it would be terrible, don’t you think!!! And maybe that’s not that far from the truth some times.

I.K. And the word space that you said… I like that one because if you don’t let some space as a soloist, the rhythm section will not have room to respond to anything that you’re offering.

H.G. That’s absolutely true; as long as they realize that the space can be filled with a lot, or with nothing.

I.K. It’s the same thing but looking from the other point of view. If you said to the rhythm section to just play so simple and do nothing else but only when they feel that it’s time to do something, the same thing also applies on behalf of the soloist; to not just do things because now it’s his turn but because music is demanding for something to be “told” at that moment.

H.G. Absolutely true. You’re so right! Because it bounces back the responsibility to the soloist; what are you going to do…? If you imagine (example) and you sing “my romance” (example), you will be sure there will be no reaction. (example). So in other words, the responsibility also comes back to the main speaker, which is the singer at that point.

Because the conversation is about the listening and leaving the space for everyone to respond and take it into another direction.

I.K. Exactly! Because that is my main conclusion actually… That if you don’t leave space nobody will interact, nothing will happen. You’ll just be on your own world, “riding the horse” and running all by yourself.

H.G. Exactly, exactly. Everybody’s bored and…. It’s so true!

Irini Konstantinidi