The Improvisational Wonders of Jazz and Soccer

By Michael J. AgovinoMarch 17, 2019

The Improvisational Wonders of Jazz and Soccer
In a first round World Cup match between Argentina and Nigeria last year, there was a moment that will live on for decades. It came during the 14th minute. The Argentine defender Marcos Rojo won a ball within his own half, and dribbled up field about 15 yards to the midfield stripe. He had any number of options: he could’ve continued on at full speed (though Nigeria’s Kelechi Iheanacho was in deliberate pursuit); he could’ve touched it forward to his onrushing teammate Angel Di Maria, in full counter-attacking mode; but he instead made an abrupt stop, let Iheanacho run by, spun around, and calmly passed it backward to his teammate Éver Banega, who was surveying the players fan out before him. Banega, too, had choices to make. He may have held the ball a few more beats — he wasn’t under immediate pressure — to see how the formation unfolded; he could’ve dribbled the ball into the opposition’s half; he could’ve tapped it back to Rojo, or to Javier Mascherano in the circle to his right; or sent the ball long to his left and have Di Maria stretch out the Nigerian defense.

Rather, he looked up in his pocket of space just at the midfield stripe, and chipped an intuitive 35-yard pass to a streaking Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world (and, in the opinion of many, myself included, the greatest of all time). Messi, in turn, had to make his own decisions, these very much on the fly. At top speed, he managed to trap the ball first with his left thigh, then with a caress of his left boot, and with Nigerian defender Kenneth Omeruo well-positioned and hovering, he unleashed a shot with his weaker right foot that flew past goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and into the far corner for what would end up being one of the best goals of that memorable tournament. 

It was a reminder of the improvisational wonder of sports, but particularly of soccer, which has relatively few rules, scarcely any stoppages, and no constraints of movement (as players are free to pass the ball backward or meander side-to-side without the risk of, say, a shot-clock violation that exists in basketball).  

In that way, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to jazz, the art form in which improvisation is so essential. It is, in the words of The New Yorker’s late critic Whitney Balliett, “the sound of surprise.” It may be counterintuitive, since jazz, as we’re reminded ad infinitum, in the wonkiest of ways, is America’s first original art form, and soccer, until fairly recently, has been considered a foreign sport, hated and ridiculed in the U.S. until not long ago. (Of course, it still is in certain precincts.) 

Now, much has been made of the links between the improvisational qualities of jazz and the sport of basketball, and those links are valid. Five players take the court for a basketball team, and the quintet has been among the most beloved, and trendsetting, of all jazz groupings (so much so that Miles Davis had not one but two “classic quintets”). There is, indeed, plenty of improvisation among the players on the court (though the head coach, with a cadre of assistants, is always within stalking distance, barking out precise instructions, and drawing up detailed plays on a clipboard during the frequent time outs). Many basketball players have been jazz fans, most famously Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The late saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., a huge Philadelphia 76ers fan, once dedicated a song to Dr. J. (I also once saw the ex-Knicks All-Star Bernard King at a Romare Bearden exhibition — work that had its own jazz influences — where the great be-bop drummer Max Roach played solo while the writer Ntozake Shange, who recently passed away, performed a spoken-word piece.) And in 2017, the young drummer Tomas Fujiwara named his superlative album after a basketball term, Triple Double, for double-figure stats in points, rebounds, and assists — a great night’s work, in other words — but also his choice of using two drummers, two trumpeters, and two guitarists.  

So jazz and basketball are simpatico, for certain. But there’s that pesky shot clock, in the pro and college game, while soccer isn’t beholden to any such directives. Thus, the parallels between a large jazz group and a soccer team — made up of eleven field players and three substitutes — are even more in line. The similarities are not exact, of course; one of jazz’s great virtues, after all, is that it’s not exact (precise, and obsessed with technique, like soccer, but not exact).  

While the quintet — and the trio and the quartet — has produced some of the most important music in jazz history, so has the large ensemble and big band, from James Reese Europe in the early part of the twentieth century; to the “big band era” with leaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman; to more adventuresome ensembles led by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Sun Ra, and Charles Mingus in the mid-20th century; to the freer improvisational groups of John Coltrane and the avant-gardists out of Chicago in late-century; on to younger musicians like Cuban-born, New York-based drummer Dafnis Prieto, a 2011 MacArthur Genius, whose 17-piece big band album Back to the Sunset won Best Latin Jazz Grammy this year, and featured special guests Pulitzer Prize-winner Henry Threadgill,  2014 MacArthur Fellow Steve Coleman, and past Grammy winner Brian Lynch. 

Composition is integral to jazz — those musicians cited above all wrote myriad pieces of music still revered today — and, as in Prieto’s recent project, you’ll see his musicians, his team, often reading from sheet music. But jazz composition is usually enhanced by individual flurries of impromptu self-expression, either through the fabled solo or group improvisation, which musicians never duplicate. (In Miles Davis & John Coltrane: The Final Tour — a box set released last year — the quintet plays “So What,” one of Miles’s most famous pieces, four different times, and it never sounds exactly the same, nor does it sound anything like the original on the classic album Kind of Blue.) The solo run in soccer is often as memorable, and individual, as this famous goal by Argentina’s Diego Maradona, who Messi is often judged against, in the 1986 World Cup

In soccer, there are rehearsed plays, as well — they’re known as “set pieces,” usually corner kicks and free kicks — and there are, of course, strategies and maneuvers that are pre-determined on the training ground, the way a band has elements such as a time signature to establish the rhythm (which often changes in a jazz piece, as on the soccer pitch), melody, and the vertical, all-important harmony, set by chords. There are similarities, too, between the seats in a large jazz ensemble and positions on a soccer field. For instance, the 3-5-2 tactical formation is made up of the goalkeeper; three defenders; five midfielders; and two forwards. 

Imagine that as a big band. The bass player can be viewed as the equivalent to the goalkeeper: in the background, rarely seen, but absolutely essential. They lead by quiet example, always there, always reliable, but rarely the center of attention or “man of the match.” There are exceptions, such as Colombia’s Rene “El Loco” Higuita, Mexico’s Jorge Campos, or today, if more contained, Germany’s Manuel Neuer, who fearlessly veer out of their penalty area, defy expectations, and provide thrills (and occasional spills, as Higuita did against Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup and Neuer did last summer vs. South Korea). These iconoclasts are to goalkeepers what Charles Mingus was to bassists. He was the bass player, but also the focal point, the star, and where the unexpected would come from. 

The pianist, the key band member to dictate the vertical element of harmony, would be the central defender in the 3-5-2 scheme, as the center back is responsible for keeping the rear line together. The drummer, like Dafnis Prieto, would be the deep-lying central midfielder — like the splendid N’Golo Kanté of France, even, as soccer nerds will point out, his World Cup-winning team played a 4-3-3 — who controls a team’s tempo. In soccer, these positions make up most of what’s often known as “the spine”; in jazz these three instrumentalists are the rhythm section. 

In the liner notes to Gil Evans’s 1961 album Out of the Cool, he even has a diagram of his 15-piece orchestra that vaguely resembles a soccer formation, with himself at piano, Ray Crawford on guitar (also a chordal instrument), Ron Carter, also part of Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet,” on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums making a kind of spine. (With Ron Carter’s height, vision, superb technique, and leadership quality, he’d be my goalkeeper!) 

Then there are the workhorses in the band/team that complete the layers and add ballast. These are the other defenders to either side of the center back; in Prieto’s band they would be the trombonist and baritone saxophonist. Midfielders in soccer are expected to play both ways and supply support in defense and attack. If the drummer is the central schemer who sets the pace, he has woodwinds to his left and right: clarinet; flute; and out wider on either flank, the more glamorous soprano and alto saxophonists with their potential for streaking, dynamic runs along the wings. 

Then there are the game changers on the field, the goal-scorers, the “2” in the 3-5-2, the players who bring the fans to their feet. In a jazz band, large or small, they are often the tenor saxophonist and trumpeter (think Miles and Coltrane, or in a more contemporary context see Los Angeles native Kamasi Washington). Prieto has four trumpeters and two tenors in his group, who can track back when needed, but then seize the day, like Lionel Messi has done so many times in his career and did, at least in one game, in the enthralling, and now ever-so distant, World Cup. That was a memorable set.

LARB Contributor

Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City and The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game.


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