How are improvisational parts of jamband type live performances coordinated and managed among the band’s members?

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I’m thinking about bands like The Grateful Dead, Dead & Co, Phish, Dave Matthews Band… when it comes to the long, improvisational portions of the songs’ performances, how do the other band members know what parts to play or when to return to the regular cadence of the song or end the song all together? Some of these bands’ live performances of their songs improvise longer pieces than the actual songs themselves.

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Depends on the group, but usually there’s a basic chord progression framework and musical cues to let the other members know when you’re about to wrap something up or change to the next motif. What those are depends on the group.

It’s not a matter of management per se.. it’s more a common feel. I had a great Southern Rock band in the 70s, a la the Allman Brothers band. Sometimes it just felt right to keep going. We’d all watch each own for cues, listen to each other, and it just seemed to click. What makes a great jam band is the chemistry between the players.

I’ve been playing in jazz groups for 20 years. Not exactly the same as the jambands you mentioned but equally improvisational.

The simplest solution – what high school, college, and amateur groups might do – is just agree ahead of time. It sounds spontaneous to the audience, but they’ve actually written at the top of the music: guitar solo 3x, keyboard solo 2x, drum solo 1x, bass solo 2x. They rehearse it that way too. Everyone practices solos of exactly that length.

When bands get a bit more experienced, the next level might be to simply decide who does the first solo, and who takes the lead in ending the solos and going back to the song. That’s pretty much all you need, you can just let the rest be spontaneous. If the guitar soloist is doing great and they keep playing, you let them play another chorus. If they’re running out of ideas, they make eye contact with someone else towards the end of a chorus and signal they want to pass off to them. Or someone else gets inspired and so they just “interrupt” and start soloing. Or the bandleader gets everyone’s attention with a hand signal and signals it’s time to wrap it up. The important thing is that everyone else keeps playing the same chord progression and following the pattern of the tune until they collectively decide otherwise.

At the most experienced / professional level, when a band has been playing together for a long time, you don’t even have to rehearse it or write anything down. The whole band knows each other so well that they can anticipate what everyone else is going to do much of the time, and follow them the rest of the time. If you see them do something like a key change or stop time, you might wonder if it was spontaneous. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. It may have been spontaneous to do it right then, that time – but they’ve played that song together so many times that it doesn’t catch anyone by surprise.

At the virtuoso level, where everyone in the band is a world-class instrumentalist, you’ll see groups do even more incredible things like play a popular song that they’ve never performed before as a group, with everyone just figuring out their own parts as they go – or maybe adding a spontaneous key change with no previous rehearsal – and everyone else is so good that they’ll pick up within one beat and keep going as if nothing happened.