Barcelona players as jazz musicians, aka “Give the drummer some!”

Music. When it comes right down to it, the only real parallel that can be drawn with FC Barcelona is music. For four years, this club, under its coach Pep Guardiola, made music. I don’t want to go into the litany of titles, successes, records. Been there, done that. I want to talk about the creative delight of this club of ours, and the magic that it worked under its bandleader.

You get to thinking about music, and you start to wonder about types of tuneage. Classical is too rigid, even in its most modern, fearless iterations. It’s still a collection of notes on a page that you play until there are no more notes. Rock ‘n’ roll is amazing, but we need something with more virtuosity. Yes, there are virtuoso rock players, but too often their music is soulless. Blues? Nope. Again, great music, but too often simplistic and formulaic, even at its highest levels, unfortunately.

Jazz …. yeah. It’s music that has a structure, but one in which its players are free to deviate from in the solo setting, even as the band takes flight, coming back together to re-state the tune’s melody, revel in its syncopated delights. Jazz is it, the only music that, to me, encapsulates what the eye sees as our club does its thing on the pitch.

With this in mind, we’re going to take the starting XI and a few key alternate players, and figure out what jazz musicians they would be. The first few will have videos here, with links for the rest. I hope that jazzheads out there will come up with their own performer-player matches. Now, let’s have some fun:

Pep Guardiola: Count Basie. As a composer, Basie went the great Duke Ellington one better. His exploration of rhythm, pace, meter and use of the big band redefined the genre in a way that made him (prior to his shuckin’ and jivin’ days), a new style of big band leader. Because Basie’s bands were so much more than glorified dance ensembles — they were hard-driving, creative jazz ensembles. The below clip is from 1950. The jazz is straight, but it isn’t. The rhythm is jumping, with chord structures that show off the music’s roots in the blues. Simple but adventurous, like the tactical notions of the man who created a team for the ages. Everybody knows exactly what to do, where to be. It’s the whole that is irresistible.

Messi: Cecil Taylor. Innately physical, robustly so, with no seeming regard for how anything was done before, even as he uses traditional jazz structure to present his music. It isn’t that difficult to see Taylor play, hear his music and think of Messi. Taylor was educated at the very traditional Juilliard, knowledge that, like Messi’s Masia training, allowed him to have the knowledge base from which to depart from the structure. What makes Taylor so amazing is the way that he, and only he, puts notes together. Watch a mazy, crazy Messi run in which the defense is absolutely certain that it knows what is going to happen next, then is confounded by a moment of absolute genius. Taylor is the freest of free jazz players, as Messi is an unfettered football genius.

Xavi: Art Blakey. Blakey is renowned for being a drummer bandleader that often didn’t take a solo, preferring to lead from the back, with a Stonehenge-like sense of rhythm and timing. And he made everybody around him great, calming showboating soloists with a mighty tom-tom thwack, buttressing and augmenting the quality of musicians from Wayne Shorter to Wynton Marsalis. It was difficult to understand how amazing Blakey was, just as it is sometimes difficult (or was for a while, until he became too obvious to ignore) to understand how amazing Xavi is. “He just makes these simple little passes,” just as Blakey drops in exquisite fills, or explodes into life at the precise moment that a song begins to lag rhythmically.

Iniesta: Thelonious Monk. What Monk did made sense to somebody, maybe not even Monk. He created a new language for jazz piano, aggressively using both right and left hands in a revolutionary way. Pianists often favor a hand or more traditionally, use one for rhythm and the other for solo flights of fancy. Monk’s compositions relied upon blocky, almost child-like approaches to the instrument, herky-jerky, up-and-back structures that almost sound like he’s creating a song as he goes along. Witness Iniesta, shuffling along the baseline, playing with a defender’s rhythm before sliding past him with a completely improvised move. Footballers can do what Iniesta does, as jazz pianists can do what Monk did — after seeing the initial moment of creation. But the artist has moved on.

David Villa: Lee Morgan. Stylish, straight and to the point, Morgan’s playing was known for its beautiful melody and unerring sense of style. That was, however, coupled with a virtuosity that sneaked up on you. Morgan wasn’t fond of stratospheric runs that ascended the register, or blizzards of notes to show how fleet his fingers were. As with Villa and his uncanny sense of a match’s rhythm and pace, Morgan was all about the whole song rather than a soloist’s individualism. Even as bandleader, he was in perfect tune with the rest of the ensemble. You’d never catch him running off on a John Coltrane-esque flight of solo fancy. Watch how Villa keeps an eye on the man with the ball, mirroring his moves, sliding up and back, his move a moment of logic rather than logic-defying, a la Messi.

Alexis Sanchez: Johnny Griffin. Dynamic muscularity characterized Griffin’s playing, along with a seeming inability to sit still. Detractors said that Griffin’s playing was “everywhere all at once,” dense clusters of notes that took what John Coltrane started with his modal progressions, but used them as a lever into bold, aggressive solos that were innately musical. Then all of a sudden, he would go someplace weird, even as the band, because of the structure of his work, knew exactly what he was doing. It’s no coincidence that Sanchez seems to already have formed a bond with his attack mates. His constant, dynamic motion nonetheless finds him in places that make perfect sense, at the ready for a teammate who doesn’t quite know how, but voila ….

Busquets: Dizzy Gillespie. Equally capable of leading his own band or perfectly echoing the motions of a genius bandmate, Gillespie was the man who catalyzed the movement, the collection of players that became bebop. His playing was smart, elegant and perfect. He was the best trumpeter on the planet in his day, but you rarely knew it from his playing as much as from the way that every song that he played, everything that he did, just made sense. His solos always set up the next player flawlessly, whether he was bandleader or genius accompanist, as he essentially is in this clip with the great Charlie Parker.

Valdes: Ray Brown. The bass player’s bass player, Brown had a reassuring, immense sound that always, always worked. His job was support — musical support that formed the backbone of every song, even if he never took a solo. He drives the tune as Valdes often drives play from the back, after reassuringly cradling the ball in his arms. Brown will thump and snap if the song calls for it. But usually, he’s smooth and controlled, always there even when he isn’t obviously there, at the service of the composition.

Alves: Jean-Michel Pilc. Pilc is a remarkable pianist, a virtuoso who is also a trickster, performer of music that will not sit still, rhythmically or intellectually. Pilc is here, Pilc is there, delicate notes when required, staccato flurries of tone clusters at other times or full-on free playing elbow bombs. He’s equally adept driving a song along, or filling in with his band in an ensemble approach of exquisite beauty but always, always, you get the humor in Pilc’s music, the simple joy of a person who is among the best in the world at what he does, letting it all hang out.

Pique: Ken Vandermark. You might not know Vandermark unless you’re a devotee of the Chicago school of free/improvised playing, or happen to frequent European jazz clubs, where you will often find Vandermark. This reedist began life hiding behind his charts, rigidly making his way through a song before growing in comfort and stature as a bandleader. Now, he’s often chartless, sensing what a song needs, driving it at times, laying in the cut at other times. But even as a bandleader and soloist, he always has the unit at heart, even when ambition makes him flub the occasional note or phrase.

Puyol: Peter Brotzmann. You have to be a 24-karat, stone-cold man to even think about taking the stage with Brotzmann, the most aggressive, brawny, tsunami of a saxophonist to ever take a jazz stage. His playing is all strength and stamina, feet planted, big slabs of sound emanating from his saxophone in a way that is omnipresent. He demands the absolute best from every band member, each and every time. If you don’t deliver, Brotzmann will simply blow over you like Puyol, charging hither and yon like a mop-topped fireman, making plays that teammates are either too timid to make, or not sufficiently committed to make.

Abidal: John Coltrane. Omnipresent, but in a much cooler, calmer way than Puyol’s kamikaze attack, Abidal plays with an almost indescribable beauty. Listen to how Coltrane stacks note upon note, cluster upon cluster, modal melodies that come at the listener in an almost dizzying array of sound. Coltrane’s playing wasn’t as much a solo as an extended meditation upon the melody, always cool, always there and always reassuring. Modern saxophonists hurl down gauntlets for the next soloist. Coltrane’s melodious edifices left off where the song and the next player needed. No more, no less.

Keita: Charlie Rouse. This reedist was best known as Monk’s saxophonist. A brilliant player in his own right, Rouse shone because he understood how to co-exist with genius, how to do exactly what the band needed to make Monk’s music make the most sense. Always calm, always with the right note, Rouse was a smooth, stylish accompanist who held down the band in a way that a rhythm section often did. When Monk was driving his bassist and drummer nuts, listen (if you go exploring) the way that Rouse becomes the rhythm. It’s brilliant, almost metronomic. Like Keita, as he echoes and augments what Xavi and/or Iniesta do.

Mascherano: Mike Reed. Quick. Identify the bandleader in this clip. Drummer Reed is a Chicago player who is involved in countless ensembles. He reads a song, and is capable of giving it exactly what it needs. In this case, it’s fills, dump truckloads of fills, augmenting the front men, getting their backs when they need a rhythmic goad, sliding in with a burst of rhythm that always, always keeps the song moving. Sonically, Reed has your back. The drums are another melody instrument, becoming part of the ensemble rather than a mere rhythm instrument. Reed does everything, as Mascherano will stop, tackle, rise and bring the ball forward on the attack, delivering it to a midfielder, then receding.

Pedro: Matthew Shipp. Wow. This cover of “Autumn Leaves,” by the colossal reedist David S. Ware, features Shipp, a pianist who also has a couple of other groups. But you almost have to listen through Ware’s brawn to get your mind around what Shipp is doing, which is essentially running around the basic melody, coming in as needed with an artful, dynamic cascade of notes before running away again, but never far. If you look, No. 17 is always there, always running, always finding his way to unoccupied spots in the melody that is Barca just as Shipp, a titan in his own right, does with Ware.

So. I wanted to focus on this year’s crew, before any additions or subtractions are made. And no, I don’t have everybody, such as the Killer Bs who made their way into the side. And I’d love to tell you that it was a struggle to come up with parallels for players and musicians, but with the exception of Pedro, who taxed the font a wee bit, the rest were, for me, as obvious as night and day. At any rate, have fun, and as usual, thanks for reading.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. Anonymous_69
    May 31, 2012

    This web page is being saved to my favourites. This is so awesome and cool, thank you!

  2. andrecito
    May 31, 2012

    freakin impressive kxevin…im a sax guy myself…id slide coltrane over to messi and add eric dolphy for abi **

  3. barca96
    June 1, 2012

    Ooh I love Jazz and Mo’town type of music.

    But Pep is a Coldplay kinda guy 🙂

  4. Dani_el
    June 1, 2012

    Damn Kxevin!
    Thank you for this! Really appreciate it. If this team is music, I agree it must be jazz.

    Maybe we can try to associate some of the subs and former players with:
    Stan Kenton,
    Charlie Parker, (must be Eto’o, incredibly talented but overly complicated).
    Charles Mingus
    Sonny Rollins
    Art Blakey
    Herbie Hancock
    Thelonius Monk
    Duke Ellington (Henry?)
    Miles Davis

  5. nzm
    June 1, 2012

    Ha – love it, Kevin!

    Thiago is Tito Puente: mixing the Latin rhythm with Barca’s backbeat jazz track.

  6. June 1, 2012

    If you haven’t read the Manel Estiarte interview yet, they have a good English translation up over at Total Barça:

    I have also heard I had a bad attitude in press conferences. Well, if I have to listen to Xavi being asked about a possible link between Abidal’s tumor and doping, yes, well, of course I will have a bad face!! I have felt that two or three influential journalists have been always trying to compromise Pep, asking things over and over again to see if he would fall into some kind of trap.

    Interesting stuff.

  7. June 1, 2012

    This post looks awesome, Kxevin, but I’m not going to read it until I’m at home so I can listen to the clips. 🙂

  8. June 1, 2012

    And he who I dubbed Gone Adriano is officially gone at the end of the month, as the club will rescind Henrique’s contract on 30 June. And in the “bet you didn’t know” file, Keirrison is still on loan to Cortiba. Between the two of ’em, that’s about 30m tossed down the crapper, but talent evaluation is always risky.

  9. ooga aga
    June 1, 2012

    kxevin, very impressive. your mad writing skills never fail to impress, and didnt know you have such knowledge of jazz. i certainly havent even heard of some of the artists you name…but you make the link between the musician and the footballer very nicely. really, really enjoyed this post.

    • June 1, 2012

      It was fun. My mother was a musical omnivore, and I inherited her love of everything. My dad was a big jazzhead, and left a suitcase full of LPs when Mom kicked him to the curb, including Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Monk, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, George Shearing, etc, etc. I didn’t know what we had then, but we used the play the hell out of those LPs.

      That stuff all just stuck, and in my current role as Tribune music editor, it just keeps going. Some days, I can’t believe they pay me to do my “job.”

  10. ooga aga
    June 1, 2012

    was just thinking we could almost make an XI of players on the treatment table currently, after reading the post from the official site — press conference with Doc Pruna


    defense: alves (2), puyol (2-3), fontas (3?), abidal(?)
    mid: cesc(hopefully ready for euros), thiago(hopefully for olympics)
    forward: villa(?), cuenca (3-4)

    in paren are months out. question marks are indefinite. add in pinto with his ankle, and alexis and xavi, who are also half-frail, and indeed you have a complete 11…

  11. June 1, 2012

    No Jelly Roll Morton? No King Oliver? Not even any Louis Armstrong? I like the old-style hot jazz!

    • June 1, 2012

      If you think about what the club did and how it plays, it’s far more forward-thinking and looking than old-style hot jazz. As a genre, jazz really began to innovate in the late-40s, and Basie was raising quite a ruckus by 1950 and on. Then, of course, the boppers got going, which led to free/improvised stuff.

      • June 1, 2012

        But in the 20’s jazz itself was the innovation. Everything later built on that. And you could dance to it. 😀

        And I hate free jazz. It’s so…annoying.

        • June 1, 2012

          True. So in this context, Cruijff’s Dream Team would have been hot jazz, and this club the progression from that initial innovation, right?

          Ah, you have to hear good free. So much of free playing is crap. I’d start easy, with 1960s Cecil Taylor (the “Air” sessions are brilliant). Sink your teeth into that, then try some Hal Russell (started with Artie Shaw/Woody Herman, and it doesn’t get any straighter than that).

          From there, the progression (sorta pun intended) would go Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, more modern Taylor then something like Brotzmann’s “Machine Gun,” which many consider the greatest free jazz recording evah. As in EVAH! It is pretty monster.

  12. June 1, 2012

    Whoa! Word on the Twitters that from 2013 on, Spanish SuperCopas will be played in China. Say what now? Not sure if that technically encompasses this year, or if 2013 means 13-14 season? Or what. My brain hurts. Math makes me angry.

    • June 1, 2012

      If it’s true, one more reason to hate LFP/RFEF.

      Why not start adding some professionalism to the league before going on a world tour? Ughhh!!! I hate money grabbers. Liga management is a reflection of what’s wrong in Spain atm.
      No accountability, just want to have their share of the pie, and leave the rest to suffer. (Secretly wishing for Levante and Getafe to win La Liga and CdR next season).

      • mom4
        June 1, 2012

        Things that make you wanna say what the ****!

        So, the SPANISH Super Cup has been taken away from the SPANISH people! That’s a lovely thing to do to a people who are struggling so much in this present financial climate. So how many of them are going to travel to China for this? To be expected from an organization that can’t even get their act together enough to schedule the season properly!

      • AJ_10
        June 2, 2012

        This is nuts!!!! Does the RFEF have hollow heads?? Do they even have a single sane person amongst them? Everyone is complaining about fatigue and they want to take the SPANISH supercup to China??? After the euros???!!!(according to as). We might as well name it the Advert cup because that’s what its becoming. What next? Copa del rey in Asia? Or the liga moves to middle east?

        RFEF is a F******* disgrace.

    • hansh
      June 1, 2012


      What? Just… why? Do they think there are many Chinese fans? Are they attempting to grow the league in China? Just… what?

      OK, I have no clue about the politics of the RFEF, so is it likely that the General Assembly will approve this?

    • nzm
      June 1, 2012

      He has a great attitude and philosophic outlook.

      • June 1, 2012

        If we don’t get stupid, 3M could turn out to be the best 3M this club has ever spent.

        • nzm
          June 1, 2012

          They won’t get rid of him now that they’re playing a friendly in Tangiers. They will play Afellay in front of his countrymen and build up more of a Barca following for sure.

          Morocco is crazy about FCB. When we were there in April, we saw more Barca shirts on kids and locals than we saw any other kit.

          Football-mad country but in a very unique way. We had to recerve seats in a cafe to watch the Barca games, and the seats are in rows like a movie theatre!

          The new Ibn Battuta Stadium looks really good too. It’s a good marketing strategy by Barca to play there and tap into the North African fanbase – especially when there is already a hugely knowledgable following. It will be a wild night. Apparently the next Club World Cup is going to be played there as well.

          • Messiah10
            June 1, 2012

            The next TWO CWC’s will be there! Pretty epic. Hopefully, we make one. Afellay is to big a talent to not take to Euro’s. I’m excited because even if he doesn’t have a brilliant Euro’s he’ll get into better game shape for the upcoming season. His Euro’s is going to be important for us. I hope he plays often.

    • June 1, 2012

      He was declared fit by the doctors, but the manager Pep Guardiola kept him out of the squad for the big matches of the season against Chelsea and Real Madrid.

      Makes it sound like Pep had something against him. He had only *just* returned from injury and had played barely any minutes, of course Pep wasn’t going to put him in the squad for a huge match when he needed everyone at their best.

      • Josep
        June 1, 2012

        The majority of these Guardian articles have been poorly written, poorly edited, and even far more poorly researched.

        I know for one the “Poland expert” they had named two GKs as backups, who weren’t even in the 23 man squad. Same goes for Denmark.

        And the Netherlands write up is absolute shit too.

  13. mom4
    June 1, 2012

    Outside the realm of Big Band stuff I don’t even like jazz all that much (it’s the less melodic, more improvised stuff that annoys me if that makes any sense), but I loved this post.

    Now, if we did a which instrument, band or orchestral, is each of the players that could be fun too. Messi would have to be the oboe because all the other instruments would have to be tuned to him.

  14. SoccerMom
    June 1, 2012

    Now I have “Big Steps” in my head.

    Thank you!

    (I mean it!)

    • June 1, 2012

      As you already know, the city is so beautiful this time of the year, when spring becomes summer, and everything bursts into activity. The sections pretty much schedule themselves between now and September. We just did our Tribune summer music preview, and there’s just so much stuff to do, in so little time.

      Anytime you and the clan want to head up, you have a ready tour guide.

  15. icemel
    June 1, 2012

    I will be chewing on this post for a long, long time. A perfect succulent interruption to the standard silly-season fare.
    Thank you.

  16. icemel
    June 1, 2012

    Well I’m really glad you introduced me to Cecil Taylor, but because of the universal acclaim factor of Messi, I have to respectfully say Art Tatum fits the bill for me.

    …give me another 72 listens though, the Taylor genius may dawn on me.

    • June 1, 2012

      Tatum is certainly brilliant, but Taylor is always on the bleeding edge. And so athletic he plays solo in sweats, for obvious reasons. In many ways Taylor is a very natural extension of Tatum.

      Probably a lot more jazz folks could come to free more smoothly if they could trace its roots from straight jazz. So Jelly Roll begat Tatum begat Tyner begat Taylor, even thkugh Tyner and Taylor are contemporaries. There can be no Albert Ayler or David S. Ware without Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins.

      It’s lovely when music has such a rich heritage.

      • icemel
        June 4, 2012

        Indeed!And that begats line stretches back in time through Joplin rags and Beethoven sonatas. I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of years from now Jazz is listened to and taught as 20th Century American classical music.

        …so I’ve got some Tyner pre-requisites to catch up on, teach!

        Hope its as fun as watching Ronaldo and Ronaldinho vids to appreciate Messi.

  17. pr17
    June 1, 2012

    great post – a BFB magnum opus. Keep it up Kxevin.
    Almost all the comparisons make sense. Also thanks for opening my eyes to the horizons of jazz (i was restricted to monk and miles davis)
    Also i was in chicago last month and have to say it is a wonderful city. More eclectic skyline than manhattan, better waterfront and urban art and still easy paced compared to NYC. Blues brothers movie made it my fav city in the world.

  18. Chiu
    June 1, 2012

    – Brilliant article from Kxevin. Not a big fan of jazz, but you make the comparison with our players is just a perfect analogy. Wondering what your speciality in journalism? are you sport journalist in Chicago paper? I bet you write a lot about politics, no? 🙂

    – Super copa in China??? The plan sounds so commercial and unprofessional from Spanish FA, but yeayyyyyy I have good chance to watch Barca live for the first time

    • June 1, 2012

      Nope. Specialty is entertainment. I run the weekend section, and manage music and visual arts coverage.

  19. Dani_el
    June 1, 2012

    Xavi: “Messi is listened as anybody in the group, here we believe in consensing everything. There’s a group of four captains, where Leo is already the fifth captain, and he’s asked about his opinion as anyone.”

    I knew it.

    Spanish federation football draft (awards for the best younger spanish players in both leagues):
    ‘Golden eleven’: Pacheco (Real Madrid), Marc Bartra, Martín Montoya, Cuenca, Thiago (Barcelona), Muniiain, Aurtenetxe (Athletic), Koke (At. Madrid), Íñigo Martínez (Real Sociedad), Isco (Málaga) y Rodrigo (Benfica).

    ‘Silver eleven’: Canales (Valencia), Álvaro Vázquez (Espanyol), Oriol Romeu (Chelsea), Adrian Ortolá (Vilarreal), Muniesa, Tello, Deulofeu (Barcelona), Mallo (Celta), Luna, José Gómez (Sevilla) y Pulido (At. Madrid).

    ‘Bronze eleven’: Carvajal, Álex Fernández, Morata, Jesé (Real Madrid), Sarabia (Getafe), Badía, Amat (Espanyol), Planas (Barcelona), Insúa (Málaga), Pardo (Real Sociedad) y Pozuelo (Betis).

    So, 8 players for Barça (9 counting Romeu), 2 for Atletic de Bilbao, 2 for Madrid, 2 for Atletico de Madrid.

    Once more we have the best youth players of Spain. Our future seems promising.

    • K_legit in Oz
      June 2, 2012

      Who’s Pacheco at Madrid? AFAIK, he was Barça’s before he was poached by Liverpool

    • June 2, 2012

      And that’s 5 for Real Madrid, btw. Six if you count Canales, who technically still belongs to them.

  20. June 2, 2012

    Very interesting quote from Oscar Garcia, the new coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv:

    “I had better financial offers, but I preferred to come here (Tel Aviv) because of the challenge,” Garcia said. “I had the opportunity to become the Barcelona B coach in two years time, but I wanted to come here as I feel ready to be the Maccabi coach. I will certainly try to make Maccabi the Barcelona of Israel.”

    So the club wanted him to stay with Juvenil A for two more years and then give him Barça B? That seems odd–if they thought he was the right man for the job, why not give it to him now? Someone must have owed Eusebio a favour. And Garcia preferred to leave and get first-team experience somewhere else.

    This also reminds me of the comment Zubi made in one his recent pressers about Oscar Garcia, that the club would be following his progress closely, or something along those lines. So it looks like they may have plans to bring him back at some point. Possible successor to Tito in a few years (assuming Tito won’t want to stay longer of course)?

    Read more:

    • nzm
      June 2, 2012

      I wonder how Garcia going to Israel will sit with the Qatari sponsors, especially if Barca tries to bring him back from there. Hopefully, they do not have that much influence within the club when it comes to things like this.

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