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" 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Making Weird Things Work

As promised in a previous post, here is a great example of how to escape from the sometimes monotonous head/solo/head format.  In this example of the song "Just You, Just Me", Chuck Redd (the vibes player) sets the pace by introducing a new melody halfway through the song.  This is not something that you can do lightly, and there are a number of instructive things that Chuck did to make sure that this unusual technique would work.  The following are three of these things extrapolated into general principles for making weird thing work. 

1.  Broadcast your intentions ahead of time
Chuck introduces the new melody ("Evidence" by Thelonious Monk) a chorus ahead of time by quoting it on the bridge at 3:26.  This gives the musicians in the band a heads-up that something funky could be going on (although I still totally bungled the transition to the new melody).  Of course there is nothing wrong with actually talking about an idea before you begin the song, but that is only if you think of it ahead of time and doing this can also take some of the fun element of surprise out of the music. 

2.  Listen
This is certainly not the first time I have brought up the importance of listening, but nowhere is it more obviously important than when something outside of the box is going on.  If you are just playing on auto-pilot and you aren't engaged in what is going on in the music around you, you will totally miss any subtle hints that something strange is happening and will most likely make a mess of things.  For example, notice how quickly everyone in the band picked up on the new melody.  Even though I was shaky for a second, because I was listening I could find my way back by the second A section.  

Another great example of listening is how Chuck picks up on the phrase from Nicki's solo (5:05) and turns it into a shout chorus!  

3.  Know what works and what doesn't
Chuck knew that "Evidence" fit well over "Just You, Just Me", and that it could easily be super-imposed for that reason.  Knowing when this sort of thing will work and on what songs is a key component to pulling it off.  Essentially, you can't move between melodies successfully in this fashion without a great deal of knowledge and experience.

This video is another from a great gig from several months back featuring my teacher Chuck Redd on vibes, Chris Grasso on piano, and Nicki Parrott on bass/vocals.  For residents of the DC area, if you want to hear some great jazz check out the calender at the Mandarin Oriental.  Chris books the shows there and always does a great job!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Music, Music, Music

Great album + Awesome pun = Highly recommended
Tommy Flanagan Trio "Overseas" aka "Elvin Plays Amazing Brushes"
I didn't get hip to this album until this year when it was recommended by Jon McCaslin at FOUR ON THE FLOOR, and it has been a joy getting acquainted with it.  It is too easy to form a one-dimensional picture of Elvin Jones.  The irresistible force of his playing in the classic Coltrane quartet overshadows the many other sides of his playing.  Not that I have anything but the deepest love for that group, but it is good to hear Elvin playing in other contexts, in this case a straight-ahead piano trio featuring the great Detroit pianist Tommy Flanagan.  Elvin was a master musician, capable of adapting to fit any context in the enormous range of jazz music.  

The big highlight of this album for me is getting to hear Elvin's nasty brush playing.  In my experience Elvin is a really underrated brush player, despite the fact that his deep, rolling, triplety vocabulary works equally well with sticks or brushes.  Just listen to the track at the top ("Beats Up") for proof!   

Friday, August 10, 2012

Create An Arrangement

Practice by creating an arrangement
I was feeling inspired by a fantastic solo by Jeff Hamilton where he plays a whole arrangement of "Caravan" (it seems to have disappeared from the internet) on the drums, so I thought I would record my own version of "St. Thomas" as well as share some thoughts on how to play an arrangement in this fashion.  Making an arrangement of a song is a great practice tool for internalizing whatever tunes you are working on, soloing more compositionally, and often inspiring some great ideas that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Here are some basic techniques to use when playing an arrangement:

1.  Come up with an overall map of the arrangement
It is important to understand the over-arching structure of the arrangement you are going to play so that you can anticipate what is coming next.  The map of my very basic arrangement goes like this:
  • Brief rubato intro on the cymbals
  • Max Roach inspired latin groove taken from the original Sonny Rollin's recording
  • Melody twice- I tried to match the contour of the melody on the drums
  • Solo section
  • Melody twice again
  • Ending- I tagged the last four bars three times
2.  Stay in the character of the song
In order for this style of solo to come across to an audience you need to spend some time thinking about how to keep your solo in the character of the song.  To accomplish this, when I am soloing I am constantly thinking about the melody of the song (for more on this check out my post about the two songs of jazz).  If you listen carefully to my solo you will hear me referencing the melody, playing off of the call and response structure of the phrases, and also outlining the form of the song.  

This is the most important part of this exercise, and is also the most difficult.  Start with simple ideas that come to you from the melody or structure of the tune and then build off of them.  Often using the most basic call and response style phrases is a great place to start.  Don't worry about trying to play your fanciest, most technical ideas, this isn't really the place for that.  Just play what comes naturally and take your time.  

For more inspiration on how to keep a solo in the character of a song, I would check out Max Roach.  As a matter of fact, his classic solo on "St. Thomas" is a great place to start:

3.  Try to give your solo a shape
Once you start to hear the song in your solo and you are feeling more comfortable, you can begin adding a macro dimension to your solo, a shape.  In the most basic sense you can think of your solo as an arc.  It has to start low and build intensity to some sort of climax before coming back down.  There are different variations of this shape, starting high before coming down and building back up, multiple crests and troughs, ending at a high point, but they all work on the same basic principle of tension and release.  

This deceptively simple phrase basically describes why music works, it builds up tension and then it releases it.  The important thing to take away is that if the shape of your solo is too flat for too long, you will lose your audience.  

There are a number of elements you can manipulate to build tension in your solo including:

  • Dynamics- How loud or soft are you playing?
  • Texture/Orchestration- What parts of the drum set are you using?
  • Note density- How many notes are you playing or not playing?
  • Rhythmic phrasing- Call and response?  Reference to the melody?  A groove?  Rudimental ideas?  
Essentially, the degree to which you use your musicality to control these elements will determine how much tension and release there is in your solo.  This in turn will effect what impact your solo will have on an audience.  More tension and release = Better solo.  

Monday, July 30, 2012

Newk The Bass Drum

Applying ideas from other instruments
As mentioned in a previous post, here is an exercise from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" that features Sonny Rollin's solo from "St. Thomas".  Just a friendly heads up, this exercise can be soul-crushingly difficult at first, so take your time! Max #5.pdf

Just for reference, here is the melody used in the exercise again:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Brazilian Drumming For Jazz Musicians

1.  Don't be afraid to stretch
Zack Pride!
In my experience one of the biggest mistakes that drummers make when playing Brazilian music is that they get so caught up in trying to play the groove "correctly" that they forget to try to make music.  One of the really beautiful things about Brazilian music in general is how it is infused with the spirit of improvisation, so don't be afraid to experiment and go with your instincts!  

For example in the recording of "How Insensitive" at the top (with Chris Grasso on piano and Zack Pride on bass, make sure to listen with headphones), listen to how I start out with by just sketching a rhythm with my right hand during the A section of the melody, or how I go into a kind of weird Bolero on the snare drum on the vamp out.  These things aren't really textbook or correct playing, I just thought they sounded good at the time. 

Speaking of sounding good, how sick was that bass solo?!  Zack Pride ladies and gentleman. 

2.  Check out Milton Banana
My excellent teacher Chuck Redd suggested that I check out some Milton Banana to help deepen my Brazilian concept.  I have absolutely loved learning about his music, and I highly recommend that everyone who wants to learn about Brazilian drumming make this a priority.  One thing I immediately noticed about the way Milton grooves is how he uses a strong bass drum (particularly on beats two and four) and an ever so slightly swung eighth note feel to give a strong, earthy samba feel to everything he plays.  Listen:

If like me you have somehow gotten to this point in your life without checking out this fantastic book by Duduka da Fonsceca and Bob Weiner, there is no time like the present.  Here is a solid write up from Cruiseshipdrummer on all the relevant literature.  Books like this can help you get a lot of essential information fast, but it is important to remember that you need lots of listening/application/experience for all of it to be useful.  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Food For Thought: Listening Outside Of Your Instrument

Listening outside of your instrument
In my experience, any musician can fall into the trap of only listening to their particular instrument for inspiration.  There are a number of advantages to listening outside of your instrument, particularly for drummers. 

1.  Rhythmic genius isn't drum specific
As I mentioned in another post, the jazz musicians who have made the biggest impact on the music all had really deep rhythmic vocabulary, regardless of their instrument.  My favorite example of this is the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.  If you haven't already, check out his classic solo on "St. Thomas" (starts around :55):

Did you hear how he took that little two-note idea through all those hip rhythmic variations?  I have a whole exercise from my forthcoming book devoted to this solo, and you can easily see how Sonny's style of playing could translate on to the drums.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Food For Thought: Rushing

Rushing isn't necessarily bad
Saying that rushing isn't necessarily bad may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I believe we need to rethink how we use this word.  Here is a simple experiment to illustrate my point: 

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!
1.  Listen to the recording at the top (which features my great teacher Chuck Redd on Vibes, Ehud Asherie on Keys, and Hassan Shakur on Bass) straight through.  Ask yourself how it sounded and felt.  To my ear the whole things sounds pretty good and the band is swinging throughout.

2.  Now listen again, but this time skip from the head in right to the head out.  We were definitely rushing!

Here is the thing, human beings don't really experience or play music non-linearly.  We can and should only play what feels good in the moment, and in general, what feels good in the moment isn't necessarily metronomically precise.  If we go back and analyze a recording, sometimes what felt good in the moment is essentially a gradual increase in tempo over the course of a song.  In other words, rushing.  I have found that this tendency to rush seems most powerful in a live setting. 

Another more famous example from Max Roach, try doing the same listening experiment:

Again, to my ear this recording sounds great all the way through, but man are they rushing like crazy!

Thursday, July 5, 2012


One important technique that is also, due to it's nature, frequently overlooked is misdirection.  The point of misdirection is to lead your audience to pay attention to one thing so that another thing you are doing can appear startlingly effortless.  At around :30 in the clip above notice how I play a pretty bold comping figure with my L.H. while I am reaching over to switch to sticks.  This use of misdirection makes it so that my ride cymbal beat seems to just materialize. 

Make it look easy
What is the point?
The point of musical performance as opposed to say, magic, is not to confound but to move or inspire an audience.   The importance of misdirection therefore is not illusion for illusions sake, but rather to wrap what you are doing in a shroud of effortlessness.  The experience of watching a musician struggling can range from distracting to painfully awkward for an audience, so masking difficulty with some clever misdirection can remove a barrier between your audience and your music.  In other words, judicious use of misdirection can make for a better performance.

The master at work
Notice in the clip below how much Papa Jo does to give the impression of effortlessness.  Everything from his posture, to what he does with his hands, to his facial expressions seem to disguise how difficult what he is playing really is.  What we the audience are left with is an amazing show:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Soloing Over A Vamp

Tension and release in a solo over a vamp
The easiest and most effective device that you have at your disposal when soloing over a vamp is choosing when to play with the band and when to play something against what the band is playing.  This may sound like an oversimplification, but this is basically how the tension and release work in this kind of a solo.  Essentially, playing against what the band is doing produces tension that is released when you finally play something in unison. 

In the clip above notice how I would periodically release in this fashion by playing the hits of the vamp with the band.  In my experience, doing this occasionally helps keep the band together as well as the audience engaged in the music. 

Two tips
He is actually this cool.
The most important skill to develop to solo over a vamp is to try to sing or hear the vamp throughout whatever you are playing.  This idea goes back to my general philosophy of the two songs of jazz, but it is even more important in this case than in an open solo, because in this case there are literally two songs going on at the same time (your solo + the vamp = two songs).  How well you are able to interact with the vamp is directly tied to how well you can hear it in your head while you are playing.  

To practice this, try something straightforward like improvising a vamp, and then trying to sing it while you play against/with it.  You will quickly discover that this seemingly simple exercise is actual fraught with difficulty, and is something you really need to work at to develop.  

The other thing I would recommend you do is to listen to some great players soloing over a vamp.  One of the drummers I always love to listen to and draw from for this type of playing is Roy Haynes.  Check him out here with his band: 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Trading 4's: Passing Ideas

Passing Ideas
Notice how I picked up on the rhythmic phrase that the pianist played at the end of his solo and used it as the basis for mine (listen around :17)?  Passing ideas between soloists like this weaves the music into a more cohesive whole.  This technique is a great one because strengthening the connection between solos benefits both the musicians on the bandstand and the audience. 

You see?  They love it!
Musicians will feel that you are listening and responding to what they are actually doing, not just operating in your own mental space.  This in turn will give them the confidence to take more chances with the music and generate lots of positive energy. 

In my experience, audiences also love this kind of interaction on the bandstand.   Jazz is not popular music anymore, and often times audiences will not have a lot of experience listening to it, especially not live.  Passing ideas like this is a way of bringing your audience into the performance by making the connection between solos as clear as possible. 

Dont Forget About "Yes, And"
For this kind of interaction to work you need to remember the principle of "Yes, And"  discussed in an earlier post.  The basic gist is, when you are passing ideas don't just parrot back whatever the last person played, add something of your own to it.  In the clip above I did this by adding my own idea at the end of my phrase. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chopping Wood

Chopping wood is great for building energy unobtrusively
Chopping wood, meaning playing a strong rim-click on beats two and four, is an effective technique for building energy in a song while also staying out of the way.  I am particularly fond of chopping wood when more than one soloist is trading (like in the clip above starting around :52), as I find that trying to switch gears between different soloists can lead to tedious and overly complicated playing.  In my experience it is better to just play good time, build energy, and not clutter up the soloists ideas.

The Lumberjack, Sam Woodyard
General Playing Tips
In general, once you start chopping wood don't move away from it too quickly.  This is because chopping wood works best gradually and over time, and switching in and out of it too abruptly can feel herky-jerky to the other musicians and audience. 

You can do some simple bass drum comping and marking of the form while chopping wood, but don't try to do too much.  The main thing here is just the intensity of the groove, so focus on building energy and enjoy the feeling you are helping to create. 

Perhaps the greatest recorded example of chopping wood, and also a brilliant guide for learning how to use this technique, is Sam Woodyard's epic performance on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" from "Ellington At Newport 1956".  I spent a whole summer playing along with this track just to try to capture some of it's feeling, check it out:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Music, Music, Music

Ballads and calligraphy
A statement
This is sort of the opposite end of the spectrum from the last post.  To me, great ballad drumming is somewhat akin to Japanese calligraphy.  In order to work, both art forms have to be approached with almost unselfconscious mastery and be defined as much by negative space as positive (check out 4:59 above for a stunning example of negative space).  Here is a excerpt from the related Wikipedia article:

"For any particular piece of paper, the calligrapher has but one chance to create with the brush. The brush strokes cannot be corrected and even a lack of confidence will show up in the work. The calligrapher must concentrate and be fluid in execution. The brush writes a statement about the calligrapher at a moment in time."

Kenny Washington exemplifies this kind of mastery.  Every motion he makes on this recording has a purpose, and every motion he doesn't make has a purpose as well.  His playing is entirely in service of the music without even a trace of self-aggrandizement.  As a listener, this kind of music gives me the feeling of being present in a particular moment and being grateful for that moment. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Philly Joe-Ism

In today's post we are going to be talking about learning and applying a great four-bar phrase from Philly Joe.  You can hear this phrase twice starting at 3:51 in the recording above, which incidentally is from the album "Kelly At Midnite" that I recommend everyone check out.

Two elements that make this "Philly Joe-ism" so great
This elegant phrase has two elements that make it particularly ear-catching.  The first and most obvious is the left-handed triplet that Philly Joe builds an exciting tom melody on top of.  The second is the way he paces the phrase so that it starts out relatively uncluttered before building to a climax in the sextuplets of the fourth bar.  Here is what it looks like on the page:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Music, Music, Music


Quarter Notes!
Louis Hayes + Sam Jones = Unstoppable Juggernaut of Swing
As I have mentioned in a previous post on the ride cymbal beat, one of the most efficient ways of learning how to get comfortable in a particular tempo or style is to isolate your ride cymbal and play along with a great recording until your beat feels grounded.  

One of my current favorite drum/bass combinations to work on uptempo jazz is Louis Hayes and Sam Jones, heard at their driving finest in the clip above.  I have been working hard on trying to capture some of the unbelievable forward momentum of this duos quarter notes the last couple of weeks, and I have experienced noticeable improvement (still a long way to go).  If you are trying to improve your uptempo playing, I strongly recommend checking out this recording from the Cannonball Adderley "Nippon Soul". 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

5/4 Dawson Exercise

This exercise was swiped!
A Swiped Single Stroke Exercise!
Today's single stroke exercise comes from a combination of two different exercises that I swiped.  The first was Todd Bishop's idea of translating "Stick Control" into 5/4.  As usual, Todd's ideas are brilliantly clear, useful, and thought-provoking all at the same time.  

I wanted to find a way to incorporate this idea into things that I was already practicing, so I thought of combining it with Alan Dawson's fabulous single stroke exercise from "The Drummers Complete Vocabulary".

The result is below, and I am happy to report that based on my time with it so far it is a great way to both work on your single strokes, and to get your hands feeling more comfortable in 5!

The Dawson Single-Stroke Exercise In 5/4
For those of you not familiar with the Dawson Single-Stroke exercise, the premise is really simple.  Using the first column of "Stick Control" alternate between playing a line and playing two measures of eighth notes in groups of four to a hand.  Always start the groups of four on the opposite hand of the one that played last on the line.  The result is a great exercise for developing your single strokes, as well as your ability to move seamlessly between rudiments.

Here is that same exercise translated into 5/4 ala Todd Bishop:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Food for Thought: Rules of Improv

She really is a boss

Food For Thought
This series of posts is all about trying to approach music in a new way.  In my last post in Food for Thought, I discussed some alternate possibilities to always playing head-solo-head.  In today's post I am going try to get some inspiration from a source entirely outside of the world of music.

The Rules of Improvisation
My wife (an improv enthusiast and the source of the link to the left) and I sometimes have conversations about the similarities between improv comedy and improvised music.  So today's ideas come from these conversations as well as a somewhat unexpected source, Tina Fey's new book "Bossypants".  The entire book is hilarious, but the thing that really caught my attention were her "rules of improvisation".  I will share these rules with you and try to highlight how these same rules apply to jazz drumming.  

1.  Always Agree
The underlying idea to this rule is that in order for improv to work, you have to "respect what your partner has created".  This builds up a foundation of trust so that a group can work together and create something.  

Our man Higgins
I think the wisdom of this rule is immediately clear to any jazz musician.  If you don't listen to and respect what your band-mates are doing, the atmosphere on the bandstand will become poisonous.  I think "respecting what your partner has created" is especially the case for drummers.  We are primarily accompanists; our job is to make a soloist sound as good as we possibly can.  A great drummer can lift the music of an entire band if they respect what the band is doing and work with it.  Conversely, a drummer with a dismissive or contrary attitude who refuses to acknowledge what is going on around them can sabotage even the best of bands.

When I think of drummers who could "always agree" and uplift a band with their beautiful attitude, Billy Higgins springs to mind.  This man was a living example of "always agreeing", and this ability of his allowed him to play a stunning range of music, from straight-ahead to avant-garde and everything in between.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Elvin Jones: This Is Also What I Am Talking About

Modern Drummer Interview
 In an earlier post I focused on a video interview where Elvin explains how he would embellish a melody on the drums.  Today I wanted to continue to develop this theme of using the melody as the basis for improvisation with an excerpt of the Modern Drummer interview from July 2002.  

The interviewer in this article was the great John Riley, and the whole thing is incredible, but I want to share a particularly relevant exchange:

John Riley
Riley: When some people solo, they string together a bunch of licks.  Other people play off of the form and melody, or the last motif of the previous soloist, or the emotion of the moment.  When I listen to your soloing, I always hear an intimate relation with the melody, but with great embellishment.  What's your philosophy?

Elvin: I think the structure of the composition is very important to know and to learn.  You have to play within the context of the composition and interpret the composition in a way that the composer envisioned it.  I think about that more than anything else. 

If you are playing in a group and understand the composition, you can hear what's necessary as far as what you can do to embellish what the soloists are doing.  If you have an opportunity to play a solo, understanding the structure allows you to play a solo that references that structure. What you play makes sense that way.

Wisdom from Monk
If everybody is playing the same composition, usually it comes out pretty good.  For example, Thelonious Monk heard some fellow playing a solo once.  Monk was very sparing with his words; he didn't talk much.  Monk said, "That was a nice solo.  But it was the wrong tune." [Laughs]

Riley: So you're always singing the melody in your head?

Elvin: I hope I am.  I try to make sure that I'm in the same place as everybody else. 

That wonderful line of Monk's reveals so much about what makes a drum solo work or not.  If you evaluate your own playing, do you feel like your soloing is a natural extension of the song you are playing, or is it totally unrelated?  Being able to play your instrument is great, but if you can't make a solo connect with a song in a meaningful way, you are cut off from the life of the music.  As Elvin would put it, connecting your soloing to a song is what makes it "make sense". 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ludwig "Speed Master" Bass Drum Pedal

The Speed Master!
The Ludwig Speed Master
Last night on a gig I got the pleasure of playing a vintage Ludwig bass drum pedal, the "Speed Master".  My drum teacher Randy Gelispie used to rave about his old pedal, a "Speed King", which was a slightly earlier model of Ludwig pedal than the Speed Master I got to play on. 

In any case, now that I have played on one of these things I can see what all the fuss is about!  

Things that I love about this pedal
Try to feel happier than this
  1. This is hands down the most responsive pedal I have ever played on.  Every subtle foot motion translated into a reaction from the pedal that made intuitive sense.  On my current pedal (a Tama "Iron Cobra) I always feel like I am fighting extraneous motion, whereas with the Speed Master there was no fighting.  The mechanism is incredibly simple, but so well balanced and designed that there is no need for bells and whistles. 
  2. This is also probably the lightest bass drum pedal I have ever run into.  This makes it really nice for packing up and taking to gigs.  More on this later.  
  3. The fact that the base of the pedal is bright red made me feel like I was playing on a Radio Flyer. 
  4. Those of you who know me would be able to anticipate how much I would love something just for being called a "Speed Master".  I am a big time sucker for classic modern gee-whizzery of any sort.  If your product sounds like an exhibit at the Chicago Worlds Fair, I am in. 

Why is modern hardware so heavy?
Every gigging drummer I have ever talked to has asked these same questions.  Since when is heavier hardware better than light?  Why is modern hardware so much heavier than vintage hardware?  Who wants to carry this stuff to a gig?  

I have an unfounded suspicion that all this heavy, double-braced madness is a hangover from when everyone wanted to be like this:  

The simple problem is, these guys didn't have to carry their own drum sets.  Making hardware heavier does make it more stable I suppose, but speaking for myself I have never had any problem with any piece of hardware falling over or moving around too much on the gig (unless it was missing a piece or was badly designed).  Certainly if I have a choice between allegedly greater stability and easier portability I would go with the later every time. 

Speed King VS Iron Cobra
Pitting my Tama "Iron Cobra" against the "Speed Master" is a replay of the opening scene of "The Empire Strikes Back".  All those light, maneuverable, fun looking snow speeders dominating the seemingly unstoppable AT-ATs.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Evolution of Drumming

Drumming hasn't gotten better
One of the biggest misconceptions about drumming that I had as a young student of the instrument, was that the art of drumming has gone through a historical progression.  That is to say that over time drummers have elevated the craft of drumming, so that what people are playing today is infinitely more sophisticated and better than the great drummers of the past.  After all, I thought, back then drummers didn't even have double bass pedals, so how could they play anything like this?

Evolution doesn't mean improvement
This guy will cut you with brushes!
This is an easy and common mistake to make when you are learning about the drums, and I think the basic problem comes down to the misuse/misunderstanding of the word "evolution".  Essentially, evolution doesn't mean improvement, it means changing to adapt to changing circumstances.  In the world of biology this means that every organism that survives this process is highly adapted to one particular niche.  So fish are really good at swimming, and birds are really good at flying. 

In the world of drumming the exact same idea applies.  Great drummers of the past mastered the musical niche of their time and place. While it is true that Papa Jo never played any ferocious double pedal drum solos, it also true that he could play circles (forgive the pun) with the brushes around just about anyone alive today.

The reason for this is simple, Papa Jo had to play brushes to survive and thrive in the musical environment he lived in.  That in and of itself doesn't make Papa Jo a better or worse drummer than Thomas Lang, it just makes him different

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ed Thigpen: This Is Also What I Am Talking About

Mr. Taste
Ed Thigpen is an often overlooked master drummer whose taste and musicality kept him out of the spotlight.  This (somewhat awkwardly titled) series is all about highlighting  my drumming heroes  demonstrating what I would call a melodic approach to drumming.  In the video at the top you can hear Ed playing and talking about some pretty clear examples of this kind of drumming.
  • Listen to how "Edmund" explains (around :42) his approach as trying to find ways to express himself "not only rhythmically, but musically"
  • He goes on to say that he is experimenting with ways of getting "tonal quality" from the drums and cymbals
  • During the head in (around 2:00), Ed has a couple exchanges with the pianist Billy Taylor where the drums seem to complete or extend a line that the piano starts.  
  • In Ed's solo you can hear some clear Papa Jo influence, particularly the way he plays the drums with his hands.
  • You can also hear how Ed uses the sound of the vamp as an inspiration for the beginning of his solo (especially around 2:25!).
  • As I explained in an earlier post, a melodic approach to drumming is not the same as literally quoting the melody.  Ed's drumming is melodic not only because of his incorporation of the vamp and the "tonal quality" of his playing, but because of the way he phrases and structures his solo with repetition and call and response. 
  • Listen to that bass drum starting at 3:34, YIKES! 
  • One of my favorite moments happens at the end of the solo when the piano comes back in.  Listen to how Ed moves his roll from the snare drum to the hi tom to match the pianists expanded chord, so musical!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Learning New Music

This past couple of weeks I have been deluged with new music to learn.  Below is an example, the beautiful tune "No Surprises" from an all Radiohead jazz gig put together by my friend Bobby Muncy.

All this got me thinking about one very important part of being a musician that I don't hear people discussing very much, how to learn new music.

For me, if I am burdened with having to think a lot on the band stand, the music really suffers.  There are any number of things that I could be thinking about that would interfere with my ability to listen and interact with a band in an organic way, and often they rear their ugly heads when I am playing music that is unfamiliar.  That being the case, the most important part of learning new music is to put yourself in a position where you can turn off your brain and just play.  All the strategies that I am going to recommend have that end in mind. 

I know it isn't cool, just do it.
1.  Organize
Although this may seem really obvious to many people, just getting organized can really help ease the process of learning new music.  If you have charts, put them in a binder in alphabetical order.  If you have recordings, put them on your iPod.  Make this easy on yourself and do this work when you have time so you won't be scrambling when you don't.

2.  Study what you have
If you have a recording of the music, the best place to start is to listen.  You want to focus on things like melody, form, important hits, and overall groove/vibe.  Try to get a sense for the song without going into too much detail.  It is crucial to remember that you are not trying to transcribe, or even necessarily emulate how the drummer on the recording is playing.  If you do try to do this, you will be so caught up trying to think about this on the band stand that it will trip you up. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Food for thought: The Tyranny of Head/Solo/Head

A relentless experimenter
Why do we always play head/solo/head?
A couple of weeks ago I played a great gig with a group of musicians who got me thinking about the pervasiveness of the head/solo/head format in jazz.  Obviously there is some good reasons why this format works and I love it, but does that mean that there isn't room for anything else?  I think a lot of jazz musicians get tired of playing every song with the exact same format night after night, and I know that audiences do.  Let me give you a couple of examples of some other possibilities.

1.  Experiment with structure
One of the great inspirations for endless experimentation with the structure of a song is Duke Ellington.  Just listen to a tune like "Cottontail":

There is so much going on this song that you barely even notice that they only play the last A section on the head out!  It should be noted that experimenting with structure at this level usually takes a lot of arrangement and practice, so trying to pull something like this off on the fly may not work.  The main point is though is that jazz doesn't need to stick to the familiar to be compelling. 

2.  Introduce a new melody
Another one
During the gig I was referring to, we played the standard "Just Friends".  Everything was proceeding normally until we got about half way through the song.  At that point Chuck Redd (the vibraphonist on the gig) suddenly began playing the melody of the Monk tune "Evidence".  This was a startling twist, but it worked brilliantly and added a completely new feel to the song.

This technique of introducing a new melody (generally it has to work over the same chord changes, or at least be close) can take a song in a completely new and exciting direction.  And provided that you are playing with a good group of listening musicians, there is no reason you can't pull this off.