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.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Winard Harper: This is also what I am talking about

This video of Winard Harper is another in a series of videos of great drummers playing and talking about the importance of melody that I have been bringing up through this blog.  The main things I wanted to highlight in the video are:
Winard at work
  • Starting around 4:33, Winard talks about the importance of learning melodies
  • More specifically (around 5:30) Winard talks about how all the great jazz drummers were "hearing melodies" when they were playing, even if they weren't producing specific pitches.  
  • Winard connects this idea of "hearing melodies" with the even more fundamental idea of "playing musically"
  • As an example of this he talks about Max Roach's playing and how he incorporates Max's ideas into his playing
  • At 6:40, Winard points out that all the great jazz drummers would even sing melody when they were playing, using the examples of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Billy Higgins
  • He goes on to talk about giving the "idea of what the melody is", and shows some great examples of how to do this by singing the melody and playing around it (starts around 7:30, uses "Now's The Time" and "All The Things You Are")
I hope you enjoy this example of Winard's beautiful playing and teaching as much as I do!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Transitions 7: Building Momentum Throughout a Solo Section

Building Momentum Throughout a Solo Section
In one of my previous posts in the "Transitions" series I discussed some techniques for moving between soloists.  In today's post I want re-examine how to transition between soloists, this time from the larger-scale perspective of how to build momentum throughout an entire solo section.  

Chuck Redd!
If you go back and read through my earlier post, you will notice that I discuss the possibility of the "smooth transition" between soloists, carrying the energy from one solo directly into the next solo instead of trying to start building momentum afresh in each solo.  If you can do this same smooth transition through several solos, you can essentially create one large-scale climax in the entire song.  It is easy to lose sight of this bigger picture when you  are in the moment, and it takes a very sympathetic, mature, and sensitive group of musicians to really pull this off, but the results can be really thrilling. 

I had the pleasure of playing with just such a group of musicians the other night (Chuck Redd on Vibes, Chris Grasso on Piano, Nicki Parrott on Bass, and Lyle Link on Sax), and the video of the beautiful Bossa-Nova "Once I Loved" at the top is a great demonstration of how this can work. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Fundamentals of Jazz Drumming Part Two

Here is the second installment of my series on the fundamentals of jazz drumming.  This time the topic is comping, and I will take you through my approach to learning how to comp.  Here is the recording used in the exercise:

For more on my approach to comping in the cracks, check out this earlier post.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hutch! Again!

The alternate title for this post was, "Now watch Greg Hutchinson do everything better than I ever will".  Loyal readers of my blog know that I have a particular fondness for both Ray Brown and Greg Hutchinson's playing, so it should come as no surprise that I am bringing up this particular concert footage:


Hutch's solo in the first tune (starting around :57) is a tour-de-force.  A couple of elements that make this solo so great:

1.  Use of the melody
You can hear Hutch reference the melody throughout, but he really spells it out around 2:01 on the bass drum.  Besides these references to the melody, Hutch is also following the larger structure of the form, making this a melodic solo in every sense of the word. 

2.  Uptempo brushes
Hutch is one of the contemporary masters of uptempo brushes, listen to the clarity of his articulation and his really slick vocabulary throughout.  

3.  Dynamics
This solo has real dynamic variation, not always an easy thing to do when you are playing with brushes.  Listen to how far down Hutch comes around 2:42, I felt myself leaning in towards my speaker to hear more! 

4.  Band interaction
Not only does Hutch catch all the hits in the beginning of his solo, he also does a beautiful job transitioning to the half time feel at the end.  You may have also noticed how smooth his transition from brushes to sticks is at 3:10.  

Hope you are enjoying this footage as much as I am, and long live Greg Hutchinson!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Shout Part 3: More Setting Up The Hits

If you read through the exercise in my last post on setting up hits, you may have noticed a reference to another exercise that dealt with this issue in greater depth.  So today I wanted to post that exercise, and here it is!

And here is the recording used in the exercise:

I am hoping that eventually I will be able to get all these exercises published in my book "Melodic Syncopation".  In the meantime, I hope these exercises help you as much as they have helped me!  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why Learn Jazz?

I did a guest blog about this topic, mainly targeted at younger drummers or drummers from non-jazz genres who are considering why they should spend the time and energy to learn jazz.  

Why Learn Jazz?

Most drummers do not grow up listening to jazz music.  In many cases, including my own, drummers don’t start exploring jazz until they are encouraged to do so by a teacher.  Jazz music is a big, complicated, and intimidating genre, and often times it doesn’t resonate with a new listener right away.  When you add all these factors up for many students the question is, why bother learning jazz at all? 

I am going to try to answer this question to the best of my ability based on the main benefits to my own playing from learning jazz.  Please keep in mind that I am not claiming that the following benefits are an exhaustive list, or the sole domain of jazz drummers. 

1. Historical Perspective
The drum set as an instrument was created to play the jazz music of early 20th century New Orleans.  Drummers needed a way for one person to play both parts of a traditional New Orleans marching band, bass/hihat and snare, at the same time.  From that point on, the history of the drum set has been inextricably linked to the history of jazz.  Learning about the great jazz drum innovators of the past like Baby Dodds, Papa Jo Jones, and Max Roach can teach you a lot about why we play the way we do today.  Getting this historical perspective on the instrument through studying the great jazz drum innovators can immeasurably enrich your playing.   

2.  Rhythmic Improvisational Flexibility
In jazz, improvisation is at the heart of everything you do.  Learning jazz is largely about learning to improvise rhythmically.  There are two important parts of learning to improvise.  First, rather than thinking of what you are playing as a beat or pattern, you develop the flexibility to adapt what you are playing based on what is going on in the music, all while maintaining a strong overall groove.  Secondly, and just as important as learning to change what you are playing, you also quickly learn to focus on what is going on around you in order to respond appropriately.  No matter what kind of music you play, the ability to listen intently and improvise fluidly in response will always be useful.

3.  Expanded Range of Tempo, Dynamics, and Rhythmic Feels
Because jazz is the oldest drum set tradition, it has had the longest time to develop.  One result of this is that jazz drummers are forced by the genre to play a wide range of tempos, dynamics, and rhythmic feels.  On any given gig, jazz drummers will have to play everything from an exquisitely soft ballad with brushes, to a burning uptempo standard, and everything else in between.  This expanded range adds a lot of depth and versatility to a drummers playing.

4.  Musical Education
In order to thrive in the world of contemporary jazz, drummers have to learn a lot about music.  Some examples include being able to read and write charts, having a minimal understanding of piano, having basic theory proficiency, and most importantly an extensive vocabulary of tunes, composers, styles, and drummers at their disposal.  The broader musical perspective that you get from learning these things will give you additional insight into whatever music you play.   

Hopefully this list of benefits will encourage you to start pursuing jazz on your own.  Even though it can be hard at first, learning jazz is worth the effort!