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. 

1.  Go to the source: Papa Jo
Kenny is a real Papa Jo aficionado, and he told me right of that the bat that his entire brush concept starts with Papa Jo.  He recommended beginning by getting my hands on the Papa Jo Jones trio album "The Essential Jo Jones", and trying to get as close to his sound as possible.  Here is another terrifying/inspiring example of uptempo brush mastery, this time from Papa Jo:

And here is a famous video where you can see Papa Jo's uptempo brush work (especially around 1:42):

2.  Tightening and straightening out the left hand sweeping pattern
From carefully observing Kenny's playing at the festival, as well as from watching the video of clip of Papa Jo, the biggest single adjustment to my uptempo approach was tightening my left hand sweeping pattern so that it is almost just straight back and forth.  Kenny plays this pattern straight up and down, and Papa Jo played it side to side, but the important thing is that both of them tighten the pattern.  This tightening/straightening out of the left hand pattern correlates to what you are doing in your right hand when you go from a rounded triplet sound to a straight eighth feeling at really fast tempos. 

The simple physical reality is that at these kinds of tempos, there is no time for elaborate circular sweeping patterns.  That being said, notice how in both of these masters playing, you can't really hear any holes in the sweeping sound, only accents. That uninterrupted/accented sound comes from a carefully calibrated motion that allows the brush to change direction in as fluid a manner as possible.  

3.  No tricks!
Additionally, neither of these masters make any adjustments to their right hand spang-a-lang pattern at fast tempos other than to make the pattern straight eighth instead of triplet based.  I have seen many drummers try to find ways to distribute the spang-a-lang between the right and left hand to ease the burden on the right hand.  However in my personal experience, as well as in my study of Kenny and Papa Jo, there is no way to get a sound this clean and accurate with brushes without playing the spang-a-lang in the right hand just as you would with sticks.  As Kenny put it, he plays the right hand spang-a-lang pattern with "No tricks".

Developing a fast brush spang-a-lang
Mastering this fast spang-a-lang with brushes can be really discouraging at first, and it is a big part of why I found the Bill Charlap recording so terrifying.  The amount of practice you need to put in to develop the hand and finger control necessary to play the spang-a-lang fast with almost no bounce is intimidating to say the least. 

However, in recent years I have made really significant and encouraging progress on this front by just practicing with the metronome and moving the tempo up a little bit each day.  I like to set the metronome to play whole notes at fast tempos.  It is much easier to hear downbeats than quarter notes, and getting into the habit of just hearing downbeats can really help you relax at fast tempos.  Just remember, this is a control issue, not a strength issue, so don't try to muscle your way to a faster tempo.  

I remember when I was finally able to play along with "In the Still of the Night" without breaking down after 8 measures.  What a great feeling!


  1. Kick ass Andrew! This whole passage inspired me so much. Way to dig up that video.

  2. Thanks Greg!

    I appreciate the feedback, and I am totally inspired by this as well.