Saturday, September 14, 2019

Transcription: Fred Braceful - All That Funk

Here's an interesting performance by Fred Braceful, a drummer from Detroit who lived in Germany for most of his career, and recorded mainly with German artists. He also recorded a couple of albums with Mal Waldron; this is part of All That Funk, from Waldron's album Spanish Bitch, recorded in 1970.

Braceful's playing here is rather eccentric, and much of it sounds kind of rough. I transcribed only part of the beginning, and the drum solo, which starts after 5:25. I had the record on in the background to doing something else, and the middle of the solo caught my attention as sounding strangely current.

He mixes up his sounds on the snare drum quite a bit; we hear a couple of different quality of rim shots, occasional rim clicks, and missed notes where he hits the rim. Maybe there's even a bongo in the set up, coupled with the snare drum. I couldn't be bothered to figure out what exactly is going on, just note that he gets a lot of variety with the snare drum voice.

The tempo does speed up substantially— mainly during the piano solo, and coming out of the drum solo. It sounds like Waldron is instigating that, and Braceful is struggling to find a pocket with him.

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By the way, here's a video of Braceful playing in 1967, which is much more happening.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Notes on a Lenny White performance

I got to see Lenny White play last night, with the pianist George Colligan and bassist Buster Williams, at Portland's 1905 Club. Here are a few impressions. Between watching a performance and writing a blog post about it there's plenty of room for inaccuracy and incompleteness. Anything that sounds like criticism is not criticism.

Basic orientation
He played a right handed drumset with the cymbals reversed— ride cymbal on the left, crash cymbal on the right, and did all riding with his left hand— on the big cymbal and the hihat only. Matched grip— I've seen him play traditional grip with his right hand, but didn't notice that last night. He played the hihat mainly heel up, often keeping a running pulse going with it. I didn't get a look at his bass drum technique. His body was very centered and relaxed, not herky-jerky. Like most great players, his hand technique was unremarkable-looking. He had a normal relaxed grip, so-called American or German grip, without much obvious finger technique happening. Very much a whole-drumset player in the modern sense.

He was playing the house drums— probably still with my tuning, because I played them a few nights ago— toms tuned high, with a nice interval; live, tonal bass drum; snare drum high and dry, rather weak sounding.

Like many of the players I like the most, his denser playing was economical and non-technical— and it was plenty dense at times— meaning he used lots of singles and doubles. Which is our whole project here. Not a lot of technical, snare drum-istic playing. No fancy moves with the brushes.

No particular advantage to playing open-handed
White is one of the famous examples everyone cites in defense of playing the ride cymbal with the left hand. He does indeed do it— he had the big cymbal on the left, and an 18" crash on the right. Like everyone else, he plays the cymbals mostly with his cymbal hand, and keeps the other hand mostly down on the drums. He never rode with his right hand. So he would often cross over to catch the 18 with his left hand. And being that it was on the far side of the bass drum, it was a bigger reach for his left than play the left-side cymbal typically is for a right handed drummer. The whole reason everyone wants to play open-handed— so they can play a lot of tom toms while also playing the hihat— he never really did. He did that at times when playing the ride cymbal, but it's also easy to do that when playing a standard orientation.

It doesn't matter for him; he's a great player and has been playing that way for something like 60 years. I still don't think it's a great idea for other people to do it.

Tune oriented
The primary organizing principle seemed to be the tune, and to a lesser extent the four and eight bar phrase. There were extended periods when he played mostly straight time, but I didn't experience his playing here as being primarily groove-oriented. Maybe it's better to say it wasn't mainly about stating the groove. He often played what I would call featured comments; big accompanying statements that were not always on the same grid as the primary groove. Somewhat reliant on the bass to keep the through line during the more active parts— a thing that is said about Tony Williams with Miles as well.

But he varied it. For most of the piano solo on Bemsha Swing he played a shuffle. When he played brushes he mostly played time.

Tony Williams-like
Tony's playing in the 60s was clearly a formative influence. Listen to Four & More a lot to get the effect. Lots of pattern-based melodic action between the toms. No particular Tony clichés, but he did play a five-note cymbal rhythm quite a bit when the group played ESP. At the beginning, at least. Maybe he played a superimposed waltz groove based on a quarter note triplet for a few measures, on another tune.

In this interview— all of which you should watch— he mentions “the magnificent seven”: Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Kenny Clarke. Listening to him the feeling of that history was obvious, but not overt; I felt the vibe of Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones— though not Philly Joe's rudimental thing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

On having done a LOT of transcriptions

I guess I've probably transcribed as much drumming as anyone. There have got to be some other lunatics out there, but not that many, and they're not publishing their work regularly. In this past 9 years of cranking this stuff out, I've noticed some patterns in people's playing.

Caveat: There is a bit of selection bias: I only transcribe things that are transcribable— a lot things can't actually be written out, or written out in a reasonable amount of time. I don't transcribe a lot of hardcore-crazy performances, but I do things that have a greater than normal amount of drumming interest— something with the groove, comping, fills, or soloing. There has to be some element of improvisation. Most of what I transcribe is from the 1950s-70s, and most of the rest of it is from the 80s-90s.

What I've noticed:

People don't use their left foot that much
I'm always surprised at how much left foot activity there isn't on most records. Jazz drumming usually calls for a more active left foot, but many do not play it on arranged sections of a tune, or when soloing.

They don't necessarily play a lot of tom toms either
Plenty of things only have the toms in one or two spots, or not at all. Often the guy never makes it down to the floor tom. Relatively few things that are not Latin tunes have lots of toms throughout.

Hell, they don't even play the bass drum that much
I view the drumset as a complete four-limb instrument, so I'm often surprised that there are still drummers who do most of their playing just with the sticks. Some of these cases may be jazz players feathering the bass drum constantly, and it isn't audible on the recording. To me that's functionally the same as not playing it— I'm more interested in what people play for effect. And the bass drum is often used for effect very sparingly.

Nor do they necessarily hit a lot of different cymbals
A lot of the things I transcribe may only have two cymbals on them, and they often don't make it over to the left side much. On the few recordings where a China cymbal is present, they're usually not wailing on it throughout the tune.

Lots of people have little hiccups in their soloing
Not just extra beat of rest, but actual moments where the drummer loses the thread, and the beat evaporates for a second. It happens when you're improvising, following your ears, and letting your hands do their thing— sometimes your ears and hands just fail for a second. These older players were not fully working every single thing out in the practice room— they were mostly playing constantly.

Increasingly in recordings since the 70s and 80s, the best known drummers are more practiced, editing performances has become possible, and standards have evolved, and I hear that less often.

They have idiosyncratic ways of playing rudiments
They often get severely slurred, squashed, messed around a bit, especially on recordings from the 50s-60s.

Funk fills often have bass drum in them
And I don't mean as a modern linear thing. A lot of people will step on the bass drum under a heavy tom tom fill— just a steady rhythm, Gene Krupa-style. Especially in 70s funk.

Time flexes
Transcribing with a program like Transcribe!, it's easy to highlight a bar of music, and drag the selection forward when you're ready to transcribe the next bar. When you do that, it's easy to see that not every bar of music is exactly the same length. Also plenty of things recorded before there were click tracks rush or drag over the course of the tune, and tempos may change on different sections.

People play both more and less repetitively than you might think 
Most people, when playing, are not focusing on how to work in more of their stuff. They may not have a huge variety of stuff worked up in the first place. Some performances that sound pretty varied have surprisingly little actual variety. Other players are constantly making variations, but it still reads basically as a repeating groove. It's weird.

Dynamics track the song
On a level too subtle to notate. Jazz drummers are expected to be very sensitive about dynamics, but I hear the same level of sensitivity on older pop and funk records— it will be very obvious that the drummer is really listening, and his dynamics are shifting subtly to support a phrase or vocal line. It's important, because a lot of people think pop/funk drumming = whacking a backbeat at a perfectly even volume.

There is not that much fancy stuff happening
Much of it is just not that technical. 

There may be a lot of semi-intentional notes happening
In writing out every single note audible on a track, I've written a lot of unplayable transcriptions. Some of these things are like archeological sites, tracking the body motions of the performer, and obscuring the intended musical performance. It may say something about a player's physical attitude towards the instrument, where they're throwing a lot of motion at the instrument, and so a lot of extra stuff is sounding that wasn't necessarily intended.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Page o' coordination: basic 6/4

The first of three pages of fundamentals to go with that John Zorn loop from the other day. These POCs are a major part of my output right now, which is a little bit misleading— I only write them and use them for things would be too difficult to practice with an interpreted, Reed-style method. It's better to do the bulk of your practicing with the Reed methods.

This page has a 3:2 polyrhythm played between the left foot and right hand/right foot in unison, with left hand “independent” parts added. It's written in 6/4, but it could easily be felt in 12/8 by feeling the cymbal/bass part as your primary pulse.

Learn the whole page with your left hand on the snare drum, then drill it by playing the page with my stock tom moves. When doing the moves, I play rim clicks on the snare drum notes.

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Thursday, September 05, 2019

A quick rant and etymological aside

La mano dall'inferno
OK, I want everybody stop saying “dominant” hand, “weaker” hand— anything like that, as if it's a thing. It's not a thing.

None of your drumming abilities are dictated by the hand you sign your name with or open doors with or throw a ball with.

In playing the drums there is usually a lead hand, which may or may not be the same hand you write with. That hand starts most things, plays the strong side of the rhythm, and generally gets the most practice. It also plays the cymbal rhythm, and coordinates most closely with the feet, so it can be a challenge to do that exact same things with the other hand.

That doesn't mean the other hand is “weak”, and using it is not a Sisyphean struggle against biology, as some purport. It simply is not as practiced. I have encountered exactly no players of any age with left hand problems that couldn't be addressed in a few weeks or months of the right kind of practice.

So everybody stop building failure into your language— and excusing your lack of practice— by calling it your weak hand. I have had it with that.

This isn't only our fault, or the fault of people marketing drumming systems based on you believing one of your hands is weak. This good hand/suck hand thing is baked into most languages from the beginning. Fairly benignly in English— the names right and left suggest the correct hand and the other hand or the left-over hand. German is similar, with rechts suggesting correct... and links somewhat ambiguous. It has the same ancestor as the English slink, but I don't know if it has that kind of slinking/scurrilous connotation to modern Germans.

Romance languages have the very old association of clean (or able) and dirty built into them, most plainly the Italian destra and sinistra— dextrous and sinister. In French the words seem to reference manners with droit and gauche, but the implied meaning is the same. Spanish has the screwball izquierda for left, which is borrowed from Basque, and I suspect it sounds as random to Spanish speakers as it does to us. Esperanto, which was supposed to be the language of universal peace and brotherhood has dekstra and maldekstra— basically, able and badly-able.

Other Indo-European languages mostly have the same working/dextrous/able and dirty/crappy/evil/weak thing going. One Old English thing I wish had survived was to use a euphemism for the left hand, and call it the friendly hand. It was embarrassing and indiscreet to speak openly of that dirty hand you clean yourself with, so they went the opposite way and called it the happy hand. That also happens in Greek.

I don't know the history of referring to one hand as “dominant.” A lot of Americans seem to be attracted to the word, and like thinking in those terms. I can't find any egalitarian names for the hands. I thought there might be an Asian language that gives them a Yin and Yang connotation, but there doesn't appear to be.

Drummers could call them the cymbal hand and the snare hand... a drumset-centric thing that would really irk those snare drum guys. The way the hands function practically in drumming, often we're dealing with a leading hand and an opposing or opposite hand. People who think we're supposed to aspire to perfect ambidexterity could call them hands A/B, 1/2, 0/1. If those are still too hierarchical, we could assign them any two random Greek letters. I suggest omicron (O) and chi (X).

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Practice loop in 6: Tekufah

A fun practice loop in 6/4 with a strong suggestion of 12/8. It's really a compound pulse where it's both things at the same time. Hit the time signature labels at the bottom of the post for practice materials to go with this. You also need to have my book Syncopation in 3/4. Any easy thing you want to do with that book would be great to practice with this.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Transcription: Ivan Conti

Ivan Conti and Azymuth playing A Caça, a lightweight little 70s fusion arrangement, with some fun things happening. It's from Azymuth's album Águia Não Come Mosca. It's such a clean and tight performance and arrangement this would be a good candidate for someone to actually learn to play.

What caught my attention with it was the rather outrageous long tom fill in the middle. The fills generally are interesting, and different from what an American fusion drummer would play.

Swing the 16th notes, moderately. There are four tom toms present. And a couple of unusual cymbals, which I haven't bothered to differentiate. 

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Sunday, September 01, 2019

Bruce Gilden, a street photographer

A few videos of Bruce Gilden, a New York photographer. He's known as a street photographer, and a rather invasive one. He gets right up in people's faces and photographs them with a flash. It seems like a sketchy way of working, but he's a member of Magnum, and is Guggenheim fellow, and is respected as a very serious, top level photographer.

This video is from Vice magazine's site, so it's intended to be “edgy”:

This gives a good idea of the level of scrutiny you have to apply to any visual work— and the level of responsibility. These are street photos taken in uncontrolled situations, but he holds the photographers accountable for everything in the frame. I also like his comment about strength in numbers— repetition shows commitment to fully exploring a concept. 

In this video you can see how he works— it's pretty obnoxious, but at least there's no ambiguity. There are ethical issues when photographing people who did not volunteer to model for you, to illustrate whatever statement you want to make about humanity, and Gilden claims to have “no ethics.” But clearly that's not the case as you hear him speak and watch how he talks to people. There are certainly plenty of photographers who actually have no ethics and no empathy for their subjects, for whom this aggressive attitude will backfire. 

Here he gives a little more defense of his way of working, contrasted with a common mentality in this kind of photography that is just about sneaking around and stealing from people.

Here's a sit down interview by another photographer. Interesting that he studied acting with Bill Hickey, with whom my wife also studied. By now you notice that he has a little schtick with how he speaks about himself and his work.

The most important part of this for me is near the end, after 19:30, where they mention younger photographers in it to find fame as gallery photographers: “We're lifers; we do it because we have to do it.”

Friday, August 30, 2019

Page o' coordination: cut time funk / fusion cymbal rhythm

A Page o' Coordination for getting together basic funk coordination using a common fusion cymbal rhythm, that comes from Latin drumming— it's also the jazz cymbal rhythm, not swung. The rhythm is difficult enough for students at a certain level, that it's worth writing it out this way, so all of the notes are visible. With more advanced, pro-aspiring students I will just assign my funk drill using this rhythm.

These aren't primarily intended to be stand alone grooves, though they can function that way. I was working with a non-jazz student on the Max Roach rubadub cells, playing them in a rock/funk context, and this is a companion to that.

Learn the patterns then drill them with a variety of my practice loops. Sometimes it's helpful to break them down in a way based on my so-called skiplet method— playing only the 2&3 or 4&1 portion of the pattern, one time, in isolation. Or just the &2&3 or &4&1— if the & of 1 or 3 are present in the pattern. 

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