Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Brush Comping and Sweep Direction Part 1

A simple experiment
Recently I noticed something peculiar about my comping with brushes.  Depending on what rhythm I was comping, I would change my left hand sweeping pattern.  As with any discussion about brushes, this sounds more complicated than it actually is.  I suggest that you grab a pair of brushes and try the following experiment:

1.  Play your regular brush pattern and comp on the "+" of 1 with your left hand- does that feel comfortable?

2.  Try the same thing but comp on the "+" of 2- does that feel comfortable?

I have found that depending on how you hold the brush and what direction you sweep in, one of the two comping rhythms above will be significantly easier to execute than the other.  For me, comping on the "+" of 1 feels totally natural while the "+" of 2 does not.  

People tend to address this challenge in one of two ways, either they change their left hand sweeping pattern so that they comp the uncomfortable rhythm in a direction that is comfortable, or they just play the comping rhythm in their right hand.  Often times people (myself included) just cobble together some combination of these two approaches to find something that works.  

Integrating comping into your sweeping pattern
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding something that works and sticking with it!   Recently however, I found myself feeling constrained by my brush comping.  I wanted to find a way to expand my rhythmic palette to make it feel more like comping with sticks.   I quickly realized that the most direct way to make my brush comping feel more like stick comping was to tackle the issue of integrating my comping into my sweeping pattern.  That is to say, learning to comp in whatever direction my left hand was naturally moving in.  

Those of you who are familiar with this blog know that I am a huge advocate of making every exercise as close to musical as possible.  With that in mind I came up with the following system:

1.  Practice only comping in your awkward direction with just your left hand
Before you do anything else with this, you have to work out the physical motion of your left hand that will achieve the comping sound you want without breaking up your sweeping.  This is more challenging than it sounds.  For example, I noticed that I put a little extra pressure on beats 2 and 4 in my left hand sweeping pattern.  So being able to release this pressure and get my fingers to snap the brush without breaking up the sweep entirely was hard.  What ended up working was thinking of the motion as the reverse of what I normally do on the "+" of 1.  So if I normally snapped my fingers out on that beat, I had to try to get a similar sound by snapping my fingers in on the "+" of beat 2.  Although this step can be really boring, don't skip it.  Everything after this will depend on your ability to get a good comping sound in your left hand.

2.  Practice only comping in your awkward direction with music
Now that your left hand is feeling at least reasonably good, it is time to get to the music.  For this exercise I highly recommend the song "Lorelei" from the Bill Charlap album "Written In the Stars".  Kenny Washington is playing drums on this album, and his brush sound, combined with the tempo and feel of this song, make it a perfect one to practice along with.  
For this step, simply practice playing time and comping consistently in your awkward direction.  For me this meant comping on the "+" of beats 2 and 4.  Don't worry about referencing the song too much in your playing at this point, just focus on getting a good sound and locking up with the bass player (the fantastic Peter Washington)  Here is what that will sound like with the melody:

Stay tuned for the second half of this exercise coming soon!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Food For Thought: A Minor "Stick Control" Revision

Lists imply hierarchy
Any list, no matter whether it is intended to or not, implies a hierarchy.  People generally seem to feel that things closer to the beginning of any list have a higher priority.  George Lawrence Stone's classic "Stick Control For The Snare Drummer" is easily the most widely used rudimental book.  It is also essentially a list of sticking combinations, or as Stone refers to them, "Single Beat Combinations".  That means that the section of the book with the highest priority, the first column, has become particularly important to many drummers practice routines.

Readers of this blog know that my personal favorite of the many fantastic methods using this first column comes from Alan Dawson, in John Ramsay's book "The Drummers Complete Vocabulary".  In a nutshell, this Dawson's method involves alternating between a line from the first column of "Stick Control" and groups of four, then eight, then sixteen notes on a hand.  Using this method means that your hands get very familiar with the first column of "Stick Control".

Something is missing
Recently while warming up with Dawson's method, I suddenly realized that something important was missing from the sequence in the first column of "Stick Control".  Having memorized this column years ago, it had been quite a while since I actually looked at the page, but when I opened the book it turned out that my sense that something was missing was correct.

G.L. Stone
In "Stick Control", Stone goes straight from double strokes starting on the right hand in line three, to double strokes starting on the left hand in line four.  On the surface this may seem perfectly logical, but to my mind the inversions of the double strokes were clearly missing (in my version of the book they don't show up until line 45!).  By inversions of double strokes I mean the following stickings: RLLR RLLR or LRRL LRRL.

My initial feeling that skipping over these inverted double strokes didn't really make sense was reinforced by the fact that Stone goes through all four inversions of the Paradiddle in the first column.  Going through the Paradiddle inversions makes perfect sense, but then why skip the double stroke inversions?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Uptempo Jazz 8: Fast Brushes Continued

Since my last post about uptempo brush playing I have made some progress and I thought I would share some helpful ideas.  

One of the top-selling jazz albums of all time!
Take five of these and see me in the morning
The center of my practice is playing along with "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" from the Ahmad Jamal album "Live at the Pershing".  This track is perfect for playing along with because the recording is very clear and concise, the tempo is strong, and Ahmad Jamal's drummer Vernel Fournier is an absolutely killer brush player (despite the fact that he said he never played brushes before being in Jamal's band!).   

The strategy I have been using is attractively simple, I just play along with this track five times a day every day. Within this basic framework I  have some additional recommendations:

  •   Focus on your right hand first.  Always try to maintain focus on your right hand "spang-a-lang" and getting a clear sound while staying relaxed.  This really is the most challenging thing about these tempos, more on this in a moment.
  •  Then focus on your left hand.  If your right hand is feeling good, try get your left hand sweep pattern as clear and focused as possible.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, like Kenny Washington I really am thinking of my left hand as a slightly rounded line that sweeps across the snare on every quarter note.
  • Learn the arrangement.  Once your hands are feeling good throughout the track, start focusing on learning the arrangement and the specific comping ideas that Vernel plays.  Pay particularly close to attention to how he plays the bass drum.  Vernel is originally from New Orleans, and like most drummers from New Orleans he has a very particular and very hip way of using the bass drum, even at this fast tempo.  
  • Record yourself!  At first, listening back to these recordings may be discouraging.  Use these recordings to identify specific problems that you need to address.  As you correct these individual problems, you will have recorded evidence of your progress.  The video at the top, although it does still have a couple of noticeable mistakes, represents a lot of progress for me.  I am much happier with my sound today than I am when I started this process!

Vernel Fournier

Don't worry about accenting two and four with your right hand
My great teacher and mentor Chuck Redd is a masterful brush player and shared the following insight with me.  Although it seems heretical, at these fast tempos it really helps to not accent beats two and four of your spang-a-lang.  Instead just aim for relaxed, clear, and even eighth notes and allow the hihat to do the accenting.  Playing the spang-a-lang this way helps your right hand to play more nimbly and goes a long way towards clarifying the groove.  Try it for yourself!