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First off, I want the person auditioning to play the music exactly like the record. I don’t want to hear them improvise, and I don’t want to hear their take on it. I want to hear them play it exactly with the right feel, just like they were playing Mozart or Beethoven. I want them to respect the music regardless of if it’s Pink’s music, or Cher’s or Janet Jackson’s, and I want them to play it exactly as you hear it on the record. Then if I ask them to change it, they’re changing it from a place where I know that they know what it is, so they can take their own spin on it after the fact.
One thing I love to do to keyboard players is to say, “You’re on stage and Pink is going to start this ballad. Play me 16 bars of an intro to this song before she comes out.” You’d be surprised how many of them will play the most ridiculous shit. They’ll play a lot of chord substitutions that don’t fit with the music. It’s a pop song with a one and a three and a five in the chord and their putting a seventh or a ninth on there and it’s like, “What exactly are you playing?”
Sometimes I’ll just say, “Just play me something. I don’t care what it is,” and they’ll immediately go to the busiest jazziest thing that they have. It’s like, “Dude, this is a pop gig. I don’t want to hear you play jazz. If the artist came right now she’d say, “What the hell is that?” So I’ll walk over and I’ll play something simple like The Beatle’s "Golden Slumbers" with just two fingers and the left hand barely moving and I’ll show it to them and say, “Just play that.” If it were me, I’d watch how it was being played and play it right back exactly the same way, but most of the time they’ll maybe get close but the time will be all over the place. I don’t care how many notes you can play, if you can’t play them in the right time, it doesn’t make a bit of difference.
A lot of times I’ll find guys that are great jazz players who have no clue how to play something like simple pop. There’s a right way and a wrong way to play anything and that stuff is just as hard to play right as any other stuff.
I’ve been playing with Cher for twenty years and some of it is really simple music, and after a while the players begin to wander a bit. I always tell them before a show, “Let’s play this show like it’s the fourth or fifth time we’ve played it, not the 105th. Let’s go back to square one and play it liked we originally learned it.” There’s a fan that comes in every night that can’t wait for her to sing "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," and as silly as that may seem to you or me, they’ve waited their entire life to hear her sing that song. If there’s a bunch of shit all around it and it doesn’t sound like the song they expected, they’re going to go home disappointed. So that’s the attitude you have to have when you go to play pop music. There’s an art to how the producer and the artist put the song together and you have to respect it, unless they’ve asked you to change it. You can’t just change it up because you’re bored or you think that your idea is better.
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