Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shout Part 2: Video of Papa Jo #7

As promised in my last post about shout sections, here is a video of me playing Papa Jo #7 and setting up the hits.  Notice how I try to observe all the dynamics and subtly change how I set up the hits the second time through the shout section.  Try singing along with the video to get a feel for how this works.  For the full written out exercise, be sure to click through to the last post on shout sections.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Transitions 6: From Trading/Soloing To Head Out

Quick and dirty today, I just wanted to touch on the idea of cueing the head out effectively from a solo/trading situation.  A couple of quick thoughts:

1.  Know and hear the song you are playing
The key to cueing the band effectively is to know where you are in the form at all times.  This means you should  try to always hear the melody and/or chord changes no matter what you are playing.  Nothing is worse than giving a cue at the wrong spot in the form.  Notice how I set up the simple vamp type sound and give the bass/pianist a clear look at the end of my last four in the video above (around 1:27), which leads me to my next point.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why Memorize?

When I was a younger drummer, I rarely had the patience necessary to memorize anything I was working on that was longer than a couple of bars.  I was so eager to get on to the next thing, that spending painfully frustrating hours just memorizing what I was working on felt like a waste.  Furthermore, I think I carried over a very common bias from the rest of my liberal arts education into my approach to jazz; that is that it is less important to memorize particular facts than it is to understand the overall scheme of things.

As I have matured in my playing and my approach to learning music, I have come to the realization that this imported bias towards memorizing is actually fundamentally wrong.  In fact, the only way to learn jazz (and music generally) is to spend real time and energy memorizing.  There is simply no alternative, here are a couple of reasons why:

1. Jazz is an oral tradition
Unlike the western educational tradition, jazz comes from an older oral tradition.  That is to say, information is transmitted through memory, not the written word (or note).  This is not to say that reading music isn't useful, but rather that is helpful secondary skill.  Essentially, just about everything that you do in jazz needs to come from some combination of your memory and imagination. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Shout Part 2: Setting Up the Hits

As promised in my last post on playing shout sections, here is one of the exercises from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" that has helped me develop my ability to set up hits.  Try this out for yourself and let me know what you think!

Papa Jo #7

Here is a great recording of Basie playing "Splanky" for reference (shout section starts around 3:00):

I will try to get some video of me playing the exercise sometime in the near future.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Transitions 5: Dynamic transitions

Dynamics add tension
Today's post is going to focus on moving between dynamics to build tension.  In the video above (featuring Bill Heid on keys and Kris Funn on bass), check out how the transitions from loud to soft at 1:07 and again at 2:13 build tension by upsetting the expectation of a loud climax.  This upset expectation, and the tension that comes from it are one of the fundamental elements of almost any kind of music.  The longer you can delay resolving this tension, the more intense the emotional response from your audience will be.  In the video, the dynamic tension in the song doesn't really resolve until the very end. 

Will they get together or not?
It's just like a sitcom
Tension and release works in almost any art form.  One example of this that may help explain the importance of tension and release is the sitcom.  In order for a sitcom to work there has to be some kind of central tension that never gets fully resolved.  The reason people continue to watch and enjoy these shows is that they want to find out if and how this tension will finally be resolved.  As soon as the central tension is resolved, the story is over. In music the same principle applies, so waiting to resolve dynamic tension until the climax of a piece is crucial. 

As a drummer, your job is to set the dynamic range of the music.  If you play loud, everyone else kind of has to.  With that in mind, if you can exercise the restraint necessary to hold back the bashing impulse, you will find that when you do finally release that impulse, the effect will be dramatically heightened.  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Using Melody In A Solo Part 2

The advantages of using the melody in a solo
In my previous post on this idea, I discussed two of the advantages of using the melody of a tune as the basis for improvisation.  The first advantage of this approach was how it unifies the sound of the song and makes everything more cohesive, and the second advantage was how it gives you an idea to work with and respond to instead of trying to create the whole solo from nothing.  In today's post I want to discuss a third potential advantage to this kind of soloing, using the example of "Chief Crazy Horse" by Wayne Shorter above.

Pepe is the man!
Inviting people into your solo
The third potential advantage of using the melody in a solo is how it can help invite other musicians to participate in your solo.  In the example above you can hear how my bandmate, the fantastic Pepe Gonsalvez, comes back in with the bass line of the song at around :48.  This in turn sets up a cool dialogue between the two of us which gives my solo a more varied and interesting character.  Not only that, when I quote the bass line at the end of my solo, it gives the band a way to transition seamlessly back in to the head out.

Of course, you never know exactly what is going to happen when you are improvising.  But if you strive to keep the character of the melody alvie in your solos, you will help to contribute to the conditions necessary for continuous interaction with your fellow musicians.  In essence by playing this way, you give your bandmates something that they can recognize, which invites them to participate in your solo musically.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


In today's post I wanted to talk about a part of the song that prominently features the drums, the aptly named shout section!  This is generally the climax of an arrangement, and is usually the spot where a drummer is given space to cut loose.  Although the conventions of the shout section were developed in big bands, the same ideas can apply to smaller ensembles.  The following are some good general strategies and ideas for playing a great shout.

1.  Study the greats
You may notice that I almost always bring this up whenever I am talking about learning the drums.  That is because not listening to the music you want to play and then expecting it to sound great is like expecting to be able to write poetry if you were raised by a pack of wolves.  How would you even know where to begin?  You have to have a frame of reference, a sound in your ear, before you can really aspire to produce anything great.

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but every great drummer in the history of the instrument has spent a considerable amount of time just trying to absorb what previous drummers have done.  If you still need convincing, here is how the great Tony Williams put it:

"You know the reason I play the way I do is because, when I first started playing, all I ever wanted to do was to sound like Max Roach, was to sound like Art Blakey, was to sound like Philly Joe Jones, was to sound like Louis Hayes, was to sound like Jimmy Cobb, was to sound like Roy Haynes. I really wanted to figure out why they sounded the way they did. I wasn’t interested in my own style. So I set about playing like these guys religiously, and playing their style because it was just such a wonderful, magical experience."

That being said, here is a classic example of some great drummers playing great shout sections to get you started:

-Mel Lewis on "The Groove Merchant" (starts around 7:26)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Transitions Part 4: Switching Between Soloists

Two Main Approaches
Transitioning between soloists is one of the most important parts of keeping the momentum of a song alive.  In my first transitions post I discussed the basic choice of every transition, whether to emphasize or de-emphasize it.  This choice gives you two distinct approaches for dealing with this particular transition.  Either you can try to carry the energy and mood of one solo into the next, de-emphasizing the transition by making it smooth, or you can create  dramatic contrast between one solo and the next, thereby emphasizing the transition.  Both approaches can be effective, it is just a matter of finding the appropriate time to use them based on where you feel the music is going. 

1.  The Smooth Transition
The main danger of this kind of transition is that the music will get monotonous.  If there is not enough contrast in the music, you will lose your audience.  That being said, this type of transition can also lead to some of the most exciting and uplifting musical exchanges.  

One of my all time favorite examples of this type of smooth transition is on the album "Live At Birdland" going from McCoy Tyner's solo to John Coltrane's on the tune "Afro Blue" (around 4:50):