Putting together a set of tunes to play for a concert can seem as difficult as securing the gig itself. Having led a band at one point or another, most of us can empathize with being backstage and having your band members come up to you with the $10,000 question: "What tune do you want to start with?" Or "what's the first set going to be?"
It seems as though no matter how long you're in the business, or how many gigs you've done, figuring out which tunes to play and what order to play them never gets easier.
I'm far from an expert, but here are a few pointers that I use to make the process a little easier.
1. Start with something that you and your band can sink your teeth into.
I've been in numerous situations where the leader was determined to start with the most difficult tune in the book. Unless the band is well-rehearsed or have been playing the material for awhile, this can be a bad idea for a few reasons. One, the audience does not get a chance to hear the group at their best, which could leave a negative impression; and two, if the performance of the tune does not go well, it could shake the confidence of some of the members of the group.
2. Make sure that the tempo of the first tune is not too fast or too slow.
Starting with extreme tempos is uncomfortable for the players and the listeners. It does not allow players to properly sync with each other and it's difficult for the audience to get into a good listening zone for your music.
3. The first tune should represent the group's vision or concept.
If you have a straight ahead jazz group, don't start with the one free piece in the book, and vise versa. Save the oddities in your book for the middle or at the end of the set.
4. As the leader, make sure you start with something you don't have to read.
I always feel it's good for the leader to be able to observe what's happening on the bandstand, musically and personally. If nothing else, this will enable you to make sure everyone is comfortable. This is difficult to do if all of your energy is going into reading and/or counting.
5. Make sure the first tune isn't too long.
It's good to let the audience hear a range of what you do before the middle of the set. This is difficult to do if the first tune lasts for 20-minutes. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
6. Change the instrumentation when possible.
If you're leading a quartet, having all four musicians play all the time can become predictable. Playing solo, duo or trio can be a welcomed deviation from the norm.
7. Keep the talking to a minimum.
People go to jazz clubs to hear music, not lectures. An entertaining anecdote to set-up a tune can be a nice transition. For the most part, you just want to give the audience pertinent information: who's playing and what tunes are being played. Talking too much during the set prevents listeners and players from losing themselves in the music.
8. Make sure that you don't play more than two consecutive tunes with a similar feel and tempo.
Unless you are a trained musician, the subtle differences between tunes can be difficult to detect. This is why it's good to choose material that takes the listener and the music into unique and distinct areas.
9. Plan the set far in advance.
Trying to put together a set five minutes before the downbeat can be nerve racking. I would start thinking about what to play as far as a week before. This way you have a chance to weigh the different possibilities. So even if you do put together your set last minute, you will have spent quality time weighing the different tune sequence possibilities.
10. Have more than one tune option ready.
Sometimes it is difficult deciding between which two tunes to play. Instead of agonizing over them, just have them both ready. Sometimes you have to go with what's inspiring you at the moment.
As I said earlier, I'm far from an expert at this sort of thing. Picking a good sequence of tunes to play is not an exact science. But these aforementioned suggestions can make the process easier. And no matter what order you play your tunes, the most important thing is to have fun playing them.