Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Brush Comping and Sweep Direction Part 1

A simple experiment
Recently I noticed something peculiar about my comping with brushes.  Depending on what rhythm I was comping, I would change my left hand sweeping pattern.  As with any discussion about brushes, this sounds more complicated than it actually is.  I suggest that you grab a pair of brushes and try the following experiment:

1.  Play your regular brush pattern and comp on the "+" of 1 with your left hand- does that feel comfortable?

2.  Try the same thing but comp on the "+" of 2- does that feel comfortable?

I have found that depending on how you hold the brush and what direction you sweep in, one of the two comping rhythms above will be significantly easier to execute than the other.  For me, comping on the "+" of 1 feels totally natural while the "+" of 2 does not.  

People tend to address this challenge in one of two ways, either they change their left hand sweeping pattern so that they comp the uncomfortable rhythm in a direction that is comfortable, or they just play the comping rhythm in their right hand.  Often times people (myself included) just cobble together some combination of these two approaches to find something that works.  


Integrating comping into your sweeping pattern
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding something that works and sticking with it!   Recently however, I found myself feeling constrained by my brush comping.  I wanted to find a way to expand my rhythmic palette to make it feel more like comping with sticks.   I quickly realized that the most direct way to make my brush comping feel more like stick comping was to tackle the issue of integrating my comping into my sweeping pattern.  That is to say, learn to comp in whatever direction my left hand was naturally moving in.  

Those of you who are familiar with this blog know that I am a huge advocate of making every exercise as close to musical as possible.  With that in mind I came up with the following system:

1.  Practice only comping in your awkward direction with just your left hand
Before you do anything else with this, you have to work out the physical motion of your left hand that will achieve the comping sound you want without breaking up your sweeping.  This is more challenging than it sounds.  For example, I noticed that I put a little extra pressure on beats 2 and 4 in my left hand sweeping pattern.  So being able to release this pressure and get my fingers to snap the brush without breaking up the sweep entirely was hard.  What ended up working was thinking of the motion as the reverse of what I normally do on the "+" of 1.  So if I normally snapped my fingers out on that beat, I had to try to get a similar sound by snapping my fingers in on the "+" of beat 2.  Although this step can be really boring, don't skip it.  Everything after this will depend on your ability to get a good comping sound in your left hand.

2.  Practice only comping in your awkward direction with music
Now that your left hand is feeling at least reasonably good, it is time to get to the music.  For this exercise I highly recommend the song "Lorelei" from the Bill Charlap album "Written In the Stars".  Kenny Washington is playing drums on this album, and his brush sound, combined with the tempo and feel of this song, make it a perfect one to practice along with.  
For this step, simply practice playing time and comping consistently in your awkward direction.  For me this meant comping on the "+" of beats 2 and 4.  Don't worry about referencing the song too much in your playing at this point, just focus on getting a good sound and locking up with the bass player (the fantastic Peter Washington)  Here is what that will sound like with the melody:



Stay tuned for the second half of this exercise coming soon!


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Food For Thought: A Minor "Stick Control" Revision

Lists imply hierarchy
Any list, no matter whether it is intended to or not, implies a hierarchy.  People generally seem to feel that things closer to the beginning of any list have a higher priority.  George Lawrence Stone's classic "Stick Control For The Snare Drummer" is easily the most widely used rudimental book.  It is also essentially a list of sticking combinations, or as Stone refers to them, "Single Beat Combinations".  That means that the section of the book with the highest priority, the first column, has become particularly important to many drummers practice routines.

Readers of this blog know that my personal favorite of the many fantastic methods using this first column comes from Alan Dawson, in John Ramsay's book "The Drummers Complete Vocabulary".  In a nutshell, this Dawson's method involves alternating between a line from the first column of "Stick Control" and groups of four, then eight, then sixteen notes on a hand.  Using this method means that your hands get very familiar with the first column of "Stick Control".

Something is missing
Recently while warming up with Dawson's method, I suddenly realized that something important was missing from the sequence in the first column of "Stick Control".  Having memorized this column years ago, it had been quite a while since I actually looked at the page, but when I opened the book it turned out that my sense that something was missing was correct.

G.L. Stone
In "Stick Control", Stone goes straight from double strokes starting on the right hand in line three, to double strokes starting on the left hand in line four.  On the surface this may seem perfectly logical, but to my mind the inversions of the double strokes were clearly missing (in my version of the book they don't show up until line 45!).  By inversions of double strokes I mean the following stickings: RLLR RLLR or LRRL LRRL.

My initial feeling that skipping over these inverted double strokes didn't really make sense was reinforced by the fact that Stone goes through all four inversions of the Paradiddle in the first column.  Going through the Paradiddle inversions makes perfect sense, but then why skip the double stroke inversions?




Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Uptempo Jazz 8: Fast Brushes Continued



Since my last post about uptempo brush playing I have made some progress and I thought I would share some helpful ideas.  


One of the top-selling jazz albums of all time!
Take five of these and see me in the morning
The center of my practice is playing along with "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" from the Ahmad Jamal album "Live at the Pershing".  This track is perfect for playing along with because the recording is very clear and concise, the tempo is strong, and Ahmad Jamal's drummer Vernel Fournier is an absolutely killer brush player (despite the fact that he said he never played brushes before being in Jamal's band!).   

The strategy I have been using is attractively simple, I just play along with this track five times a day every day. Within this basic framework I  have some additional recommendations:


  •   Focus on your right hand first.  Always try to maintain focus on your right hand "spang-a-lang" and getting a clear sound while staying relaxed.  This really is the most challenging thing about these tempos, more on this in a moment.
  •  Then focus on your left hand.  If your right hand is feeling good, try get your left hand sweep pattern as clear and focused as possible.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, like Kenny Washington I really am thinking of my left hand as a slightly rounded line that sweeps across the snare on every quarter note.
  • Learn the arrangement.  Once your hands are feeling good throughout the track, start focusing on learning the arrangement and the specific comping ideas that Vernel plays.  Pay particularly close to attention to how he plays the bass drum.  Vernel is originally from New Orleans, and like most drummers from New Orleans he has a very particular and very hip way of using the bass drum, even at this fast tempo.  
  • Record yourself!  At first, listening back to these recordings may be discouraging.  Use these recordings to identify specific problems that you need to address.  As you correct these individual problems, you will have recorded evidence of your progress.  The video at the top, although it does still have a couple of noticeable mistakes, represents a lot of progress for me.  I am much happier with my sound today than I am when I started this process!

Vernel Fournier

Don't worry about accenting two and four with your right hand
My great teacher and mentor Chuck Redd is a masterful brush player and shared the following insight with me.  Although it seems heretical, at these fast tempos it really helps to not accent beats two and four of your spang-a-lang.  Instead just aim for relaxed, clear, and even eighth notes and allow the hihat to do the accenting.  Playing the spang-a-lang this way helps your right hand to play more nimbly and goes a long way towards clarifying the groove.  Try it for yourself!  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Create An Arrangement Part 2



1. Now's The Time!
Charlie Parker
In this installment of the series I tried to take my drum arrangement to the next step by actually playing the "pitches" of the melody.  You can hear the melody played through twice starting around   after the brief introduction.  Although trying to get even a relatively simple melody like this across on the drums is a lot of work, it can can also inspire some really fascinating musical directions in your drumming, so in my opinion it is well worth it.  Here is the original Charlie Parker melody for reference:




Always inspiring
2. How to develop an arrangement
In addition to the overall idea of staying in the character/form of the song discussed in the last post here are some more strategies for developing your own arrangement.  
  • Experiment with different sounds and use those sounds to dictate what/how you play.  For example in my arrangement I start with the open snare/tom sound.  This sound strongly influences my playing lending itself to less cluttered and more melodic style drumming.  After a couple of choruses of that sound I transition into a closed snare sound which leads me to more intense and busy playing that builds intensity. 
  • Use rudiments thematically.  For example listen to how I use flams in this solo.  I am not playing a flam and then moving right on to another rudiment, I am really trying to explore the sound and feel of the flam all around the drum set.  Using rudiments this way can help you develop your solo in an unhurried way.  In general playing an unaccompanied solo like this can make you feel a lot of pressure to play everything you know right away, it is just you up there after all!  So combat this tendency by using rudiments in this fashion.
  • Listen to the greats.  Max Roach springs immediately to mind, but there are many others.  I know I sound like a broken record with this, but the truth is that ear-training is the single most important part of learning the drums.
  • Use call and response.  The idea of playing a simple idea and then responding to that idea is probably the single most common/helpful phrasing technique for drum soloists.  This kind of phrasing not only takes a lot of the pressure of improvising off, it creates a structure that listeners can easily grasp.  Communicating with an audience is always a challenge, particularly when you are talking about drum solos.  The conversational nature of call and response phrasing is perfect for confronting this challenge, so try incorporating it into your solo.
  • Use mistakes and unintended things to grow your arrangement organically.  As you are practicing  you will often stumble across great ideas entirely by accident.  For example initially I meant to turn on the snare and leave it, but it slipped.  When I turned the snare on again I had the idea of alternating between the snare on/off sound.  The truly great improvisers can incorporate these kinds of ideas on the fly, but for right now just think of them as new compositional elements for you to incorporate into your solo over time. 

3. Overall map of my arrangement
Each section or idea usually divides along roughly the lines of the form, hopefully some of these ideas will be useful or inspiring to you!
  • Short intro 
  • Melody twice
  • Solo with pitch
  • With Flams/Pitch
  • Pitches again, but more aggressive and with rolls
  • Alternating between snare on and off sounds
  • Press rolls and cymbal chokes
  • Open playing around the drums
  • Staccato rolls followed by looser rolls with right hand lead
  • Floppy long roll
  • Head out
  • Short outro

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beyond A Beat Part 1

The Grady Bossa
My teacher (the great Chuck Redd) recently introduced me to a slick new way of playing the bossa nova that he picked up from listening to Grady Tate.  You can clearly hear and see Grady's Bossa at 7:58 in the video below:




Grady at work
The basic gist of this groove is that the right hand plays a guiro-like pattern with a brush instead of the typical eighth notes.  If you listen to how Grady plays this groove here, you quickly realize that this approach to bossa nova is much more than simply a beat.  Grady plays with such command that he is able to alter the beat to fit whatever is going on in the music.  In other words, Grady's bossa is beyond a beat, it is more like a style.  

Here is what the basic groove looks/sounds like:



Rather than simply showing you this groove, in this series of posts I am going to take you through the process that I am using to get myself beyond just playing this idea as a beat, in the hopes that it will help you navigate this process more efficiently yourself.

Step 1: Orient your ear
This step is reasonably self-explanatory but also surprisingly easy to overlook.  You need to know what a groove is supposed to sound like in context, so find some good recordings and dive in.  I would recommend a combination of really mentally engaged listening where you are trying to actively pick apart the groove, as well as more passive listening to let the overall sound wash over you.  For the Grady bossa, the song "O Grande Amor" from the Stan Getz album "Sweet Rain" is perfect:




Step 2: Get it in your hands
This step is all about the physical feeling of the groove, mastering the technique and coordination necessary to play the groove.  One really helpful tip with this step is get a lot of this work done away from the drum set.  This will help you use your actual time at the drum set more efficiently as well as open possibilities for more flexible practice. 

Here is an example of me practicing the Grady bossa away from the set:



Once you feel good away from the drums, it is time to work out the basic groove on the drums. Chuck has hipped me to practicing at 100 bpm, as this is a very challenging "in between" kind of tempo that tends to either rush or drag.  Check out the video of me playing at the top to hear what this sounds like at this tempo.

Ol' Faithful
Step 3: Generalize and expand possibilities
After you have a groove firmly in your ears and hands, the next step is to expand away from the basic beat by generalizing and working on variations.  In this case, generalizing means to find what makes a beat distinctive.  For the Grady bossa, the brush sweeping the guiro pattern over a bossa foot ostinato with a cross-stick sound in the left hand is what makes it distinctive.  But you can play just about any rhythmic variation with your left hand without compromising the distinctive sound of the groove. 

In order to get at some of these rhythmic possibilities, I like to use Syncopation to experiment. Here is a video of me playing through the first couple of lines of page 34 in this fashion again at 100 bpm:


In the subsequent posts in this series I will discuss more steps to getting beyond a beat, so stay tuned!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Play like it's fun!

David Sanchez, a great musician and teacher!
Last week I had the privilege of studying and hanging out with the San Fransisco Jazz Collective.  This incredible group was engaged in a week-long residency at the University of Maryland where I am currently pursuing a masters degree. 

Play like it's fun
I wanted to share a profound observation that David Sanchez, the Collective's tenor saxophonist, laid on my group at one of these masterclasses.  We were playing "Freight Train" at an uncomfortably fast tempo, and everyone's playing, while technically correct, came across as tense and hurried.  David pointed out that an audience comes to enjoy themselves and have a good time, and that tension and stress on the bandstand translates directly into an unpleasant experience for the audience.  In other words, if you aren't enjoying the music you are playing, why would your audience? 


Like this
Here is an example of me playing the Monk tune "Pannonica" with a great group (Ted Baker on Sax, Tim Whalen on Piano, Joe Bussey on Bass) at Twins Jazz Club a couple of weeks ago:


If you mute the video and just watch us playing, you can easily tell how engaged we were in the music, and how much we were enjoying it.  Do you see how we are moving together and looking at each other?  This feeling of engagement and joy translated into a great night of music for our small but loyal audience. 

A simple reminder
No matter how hard the music you are playing is, how difficult the circumstances of the particular performance, how you feel about the people you are playing with, or what is going in your life, once you get on stage your job is to love what you do.  Music is meant to be enjoyed, and that enjoyment has to begin with you!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Newk The Bass Drum Part 2

St. Thomas appreciated here!
St. Thomas appreciation week
It is apparently St. Thomas appreciation week here at the Melodic Drummer.  Today's post features a video example of me playing the first part of the bass drum exercise from the previous post in all its soul-crushing glory!




Preparing the bass drum mentally
I have spent a great deal of time practicing and thinking about the importance of preparing notes with my hands, but much less dealing with the issue of preparing my feet.  While practicing this truly difficult (to me) exercise, I re-discovered just how important preparing notes on the bass drum really is.  Doing something as simple as focusing on relaxing my foot and mentally anticipating/hearing the melody line was usually the decisive factor in a successful play through.  Quick quote from the bard that sums up my point nicely:


"All things are ready, if our minds be so" 
-Shakespeare