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.