It had been a long time since I’d gotten a call to be a sideman. Seven-plus years of solid work as a leader left me pegged as “not interested” by a large chunk of the sidemanseeking population. But nothing could have been farther from the truth. When you’re a leader, you’re often forced to focus on everything but the music — bookings, travel arrangements, publicity — all necessary components to successful music work, but many times removed from the melodies that got us here in the first place. But as a sideman, your job is simply to make the music shine, by any means necessary. A legendary jazz pianist’s fabled contract sums it up perfectly: “Performance fee: Free. Travel Fee: $50,000.” Most of us would play the gig for nothing. It’s the rest of the work that we need to get paid for!
And so when a few weeks back, a good friend of mine recommended me for a sideman gig, I jumped at the chance. It had been a while since I had been someone else’s keyboard player. I was interested to dig into the work head-on.
The thing you forget about sideman work when you’re accustomed to being a leader is that it’s called work for a reason. Learning someone else’s written and recorded catalogue in a matter of days is like cramming for the SATs — entirely possible, but not recommended. Luckily, I had a few weeks while on a tour of my own across Italy to digest the new material. I made notes, and listened to the tunes until I knew them cold.
When I got back to the States, I was able to dig deep into the technical side of the set, programming and tweaking sounds to match those on the artist’s record. A vibes part, a Mellotron string sample, a phased piano patch — all these and more were choreographed into the tunes, and I would need to do the same live. I forgot how much planning goes into a sideman’s routine — the sound design, the memorization. Everything has to fall into place, or the leader will be left naked on stage. And we’ve all been there.
The night of the gig, I dragged what seemed like a ton-and-a-half of gear to the show. As a singer and pianist accustomed to playing whatever piano a venue supplies, the workout of carrying keyboards, stands, and amps across town, and up four flights of stairs to the gig, was humbling to say the least.
In the end, a month-plus worth of work on my part allowed the hour-long gig to go off without a hitch. It was a thrill to be a part of a band again, and to remember just how much work goes into putting on someone else’s show. It’s easy to forget how much effort your band members put in to make you shine, so don’t take them for granted. They are worth twice their weight in gold.
I’m looking forward to doing it all again soon. Hopefully next time, the gig will be on a ground floor.