Monday, January 30, 2012

Flexibility: Bend Don't Break

Strength from flexibility
There is a Japanese proverb that goes something like, "The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists".  In music there is a real strength that comes from adapting to what is going on around you as opposed to trying to insist on your way, regardless of whether you are right or wrong. 

A big part of the joy of playing jazz is dealing with the unknown.  No matter how much you practice, listen, and play with people, there will always be situations where you will be genuinely surprised.   In these types of situations there are a few helpful things that you can do related to this idea of musical flexibility.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Playing the Melody: More than a Gimmick

A musical transition using the melody
Just a quick post today to illustrate a point I was making in an excellent conversation on the AllAboutJazz forum.  The conversation was focused on whether a drummer playing the melody was really musically relevant, or just a gimmick.  My contention (predictably) is that there are a lot of ways in which a drummer can use the melody in a musically compelling fashion.  If you go to 5:40 in the video above you can see one example of how a drummer can use the melody effectively.  

In this clip Jeff Hamilton plays the melody at the end of his solo to transition seamlessly back to the head.  To my ears this is not just a drumistic gimmick.  Using the melody this way ties the drum solo to the rest of the song, something that an audience would really appreciate and relate to. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Papa Jo #4: Repetition

Continuing with my Papa Jo series (last post), in today's post we are going to talk about one of the most fundamental elements of Papa Jo's style, repetition.  Repetition is such a critical part of Papa Jo's style because it gives audiences something that they can recognize and hold on to.  There is a great example of this at around 1:51 in the classic solo above where you can hear Papa Jo play a two bar phrase and then repeat it almost note for note.  The following exercise from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" is designed to help you develop some tasteful repetition in your soloing. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Me Playing the Melody: "I've Got Rhythm"

Trying to play the actual melody
I mentioned yesterday that I just got a new recorder in the mail, and today's video is the first example of my new vastly improved audio capacity! In a conversation on the excellent drummerworld forum I brought up that I was trying to get a way from just thinking about the melody towards trying to simulate it's actual pitches.  The video above is the first example of me trying to play an actual melody, in this case (somewhat ironically) "I've Got Rhythm".

I was able to play this simulated melody by carefully tuning my drums, playing with mallets, and applying very specific amounts of pressure to the drum heads (all inspired by the incredible Ari Hoenig).  This is a real challenge for me, and it still needs a lot of work, but I think that I got the basic point across. 

What is the point of this?
In the aforementioned conversation, Todd Bishop from the excellent drum blog Cruiseshipdrummer brought up really good question.  Essentially, why bother with trying to play the melody at all.  The drums are a primarily rhythmic instrument, so why not, as he put it, "Just play your instrument?". 

I am still relatively inexperienced at trying to play the melody on the drums, so I can only speak from a limited perspective, but my basic thought is this.  The history of jazz is full of examples of people who took the approach they learned on one instrument and applied it to another, often with revolutionary results.  Two classic examples of this are Lois Armstrong singing like a trumpet player, and Paul Chambers playing horn lines on the bass.  These initially bizzare-seeming imported techniques were enormously influential, eventually becoming standard practice for those instruments.

I am not suggesting that playing the melody on the drums is going to become standard practice any time soon.  Rather, I am saying that we should not limit how we play our instruments to what people assume is possible.  As long as there is music, people will continue to find new ways to approach their instruments, and this pan-instrumental technique can yield incredibly fruitful results. 

Musical Benefits
In addition to this broader historical idea, there are also more practical musical benefits to learning to play melodies on the drums.

The first and most obvious benefit is that by forcing yourself to be accountable for the actual pitches of the melody, you will get much closer with the melody.  A deeper connection with the melody will always provide better insight into the music, regardless of whether you are playing the melody, or accomanying someone else playing the melody.  As Ari put it, "If you can't make music by yourself, you can't make music with other people". 

The second slightly less obvious benefit is that by playing the melody this way, you will get your audience to listen to you in a new way.  When I played the melody of "I've Got Rhythm" for an audience last week, I got more positive feedback than I have ever got for anything I have played before.  People love new sounds, and people love melodies, so playing this way can lead them to appreciate what you are doing on the drums much more than they ordinarily would. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Brian Blade and Kenny Garrett: Dialogue and Pacing

Brian Blade and Kenny Garrett are two of the most communicative musicians in contemporary jazz, and when you put the two of them together they will burn the house down.  The key to the explosive energy that these two produce is the way that they listen and respond to each other, as if they are in a dialogue.  I chose the video above to illustrate the importance of this conversational back and forth because of the magical duet starting around 2:30.  

Brian and Kenny's playing weaves together like two strands in a cord.  For example, listen to how Kenny's repeated rhythm starting at 3:43 blends and lifts Brian's groove, and how Brian's groove accommodates and pushes Kenny's rhythm in return.  Because of the way they are listening to each other, they always know when to give the other person space, and when to push them.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Philly Joe Beat

The Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis' first great band with Philly Joe on drums has become the standard for hard bop drumming.  Given the central role that this band plays in the history of jazz, it is important for every drummer to spend time listening and learning from the great Philly Joe.  If you haven't checked this group already, the epochal prestige recordings and the album "Milestones" are the best place to start. 

The Philly Joe Beat
In today's post we are going to be exploring one particular element of Philly Joe's playing that he popularized during his tenure with Miles, the Philly Joe beat.  This beat is a thick sounding cross-stick played on beat four that replaces the usual snare drum chatter, typically used during a piano solo.  In the example below from "Billy Boy" on the album "Milestones", Philly Joe starts playing the beat around 2:00.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Transitions Part 3: Brushes To Sticks

Brushes to sticks
The transition we are going to focus on in today's post is moving between brushes and sticks.  This transition appears to be relatively simple and unimportant, but in reality it is very difficult to do well and makes a big difference in how the music comes across to an audience.  It is exactly the sort of thing that you don't notice when it is done correctly, so many drummers make the mistake of not practicing it. You can see me do a version of this transition at 1:25 in the video above.  The song is another great Bobby Muncy original "Bouncin With Joe And Dana", and the soloist is the fabulous Gene D'Andrea.

Friday, January 13, 2012


The two most important parts of a song
The two parts of a song that are going to have the biggest impression on an audience are the beginning and the ending of a song.  In today's post we are going to talk about four general strategies for playing great endings. 

1.  Listen
Everything you do, including playing a great ending, is predicated on your ability to listen.  If you are listening intently you can have the confidence to know when to be flexible, and when to be assertive.  The following clip of me playing a great Bobby Muncy original is an example of how listening can make an ending flexible:

Did you hear how the note the band held at the end started to rise and crescendo?  That wasn't planned, it just happened because everyone was listening to each other. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Transitions Part 2: Head to Solo Section

Head to solo section
In the last post about transitions I discussed transitions generally, and also explained some strategies for practicing them.  In today's post I want to focus on one transition in particular, that is moving from a head into the solo section of a tune. 

 Break into 4/4 swing
The classic transition in this situation is to give the soloist a break at the end of the form, usually two to four bars long, and then go right into driving 4/4 swing.  One of the greatest examples of this type of transition is Charlie Parkers terrifying break on "A Night In Tunisia" (around 1:16):

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Uptempo Jazz 6: Brush Advice From Kenny Washington

The Reign of Terror/Inspiration
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Kenny Washington playing uptempo brushes (the video above starting around :58).  His playing absolutely terrified me.  It was this same version of "In the Still of the Night" from the album "Written in the Stars" by the Bill Charlp Trio, I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan, and my first thought was, "This is physically impossible".  For those of you who haven't tried to play these kinds of tempos with brushes and don't see what the big deal is, I encourage you to try playing anywhere close to this tempo for yourself.  

Kenny Washington's Advice
I had the good fortune to get to hear and talk to Kenny at the Detroit Jazz Festival several years ago.  He was again playing with Bill Charlap, and their set included some incredible tempos which Kenny played with brushes.  After the show I asked him for advice about developing uptempo brush technique.  I thought I would pass three of his pieces of advice on to you because I know lots of people struggle with this issue like I do.