Monday, October 3, 2011

Uptempo Jazz: Playing fast, slow

I recently stumbled across a lovely video of Steve Smith talking about his practice habits.  Check it out:

Practicing slowly
Although this is all stuff that I have thought about and pursued in my own practicing, something that Steve said about practicing slowly and quietly stuck in my mind.  The one thing that I can never seem to practice slowly is playing fast. 

This may seem like a crazy thought at first, but let me explain.  I have been working on playing uptempo for the last month or so because I have a gig with Marty Nau, a DC saxophonist who does not shy away from playing truly burning uptempo.  In order to try to keep up with him and the rest of the band I have been focusing on my uptempo playing. 

Translating fast to slow
Back to Steve's idea of playing things slowly.  I normally take anything that I am working on and go through the process of playing it super slowly and deliberately to get control and really internalize it.  When I tried to do this with uptempo comping figures though, it just didn't seem to translate.  I could play the figures just fine at a slower tempo, but I couldn't make them work when I cranked the tempo back up.  In other words, I couldn't play fast things slow or vice versa.  

However, I recently had a breakthrough moment when I remembered something that my friend Sam Genson wrote about in his book "The JX Method" which is all about uptempo playing (link to book:  Sam observed that at extremely fast tempos the ride cymbal beat "flattens out" and becomes straight eighth notes as opposed to swung.  Up till now the problem with the way I was trying to play fast things slow was that when I played at the slower tempo, I was morphing the groove back into the swung eighth note feeling that I would normally use at slower tempos.  

Playing slowly with straight eighth notes
In order to overcome this problem, when I am playing fast comping ideas slowly I now play them with a straight eighth, almost samba style ride cymbal beat.  Below is an example of me doing this using the first comping example from John Riley's excellent book "Beyond Bop Drumming" (check out this and everything else he has done at  What I am practicing here is going from quarter note = 90, to half note = 90, up to whole note = 90 and then back down playing the same comping pattern.  

I am trying my best to follow Steve's advice and play through this in as relaxed a fashion as possible, focusing on breathing, control, and really hearing what I am playing.  I use this same process with any comping patterns I am working on, either from Riley or from my favorite drummers (I have a personal list of good uptempo recordings to steal comping ideas from on the discussion board at drummerworld:

Practicing in the context of a song
Once I have taken a comping pattern through this process, then I start working on it in the context of a song.  My way of practicing this is to sing an uptempo friendly melody like "Cherokee" while playing the comping rhythm to see if I can still play and feel it through the form of the song.  This looks something like this:

Once I've done that, then I try changing my comping patterns around based on where I am in the form.  For example I might play a set pattern in the A sections and improvise on the bridge.  The specifics don't really matter, the point is to practice in as musical a way as possible.  That is, try to always be thinking of how what you are playing relates to the music around it, not in isolation.  This goes back to my idea of the two songs of jazz (see the related post to catch up on this), and how I try to instill that basic principle into everything I am working on as much as possible.

Here is a link to the next post in this series.

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