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.