Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Drum heads!

This. Just get this. 
Did you know that it's rather hard to write about drum stuff while your country is being dismantled and driven into the ground by a narcissistic criminal psychopath, who is certainly compromised by a hostile foreign power, and is apparently hell bent spreading disease and sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of your fellow countrymen and women, nominally in a futile bid to revive the economy, and his electoral prospects along with it, but actually just a mass-suicidal gesture of fealty to his boundless, pathological vanity? It is. Hard to write under those circumstances. Or to do much productive work at all.

So let's talk about DRUM HEADS today. This is by no means a complete overview of what's available, it's just my personal impressionistic idiosyncratic list of what I've played and recommend, and for what purpose. Or what I recommend against.

Remo Ambassador
Remo's medium weight general purpose head, and the Coca-Cola of drumheads. The one correct answer that is always correct for any music, tuned high or low. These are just what drums sound like. Use them top (coated) and bottom (uncoated or coated), for all drums, including bass drum (no muffling, if you dare), and be done with it. Easy to get a sound, pleasing character.

Remo Renaissance Ambassador
A hazy medium weight head, with a slightly textured, matte finish. They handle well in a range of tunings. Sort of a “natural” look and sound. Possibly slightly lighter than regular Ambassadors? They “play” a little lighter, more responsive, slightly less body. Since about 2000, these have been the tom heads on my Gretsch set, and have been excellent tuned high or low. I used them more recently on my Sonor set and they didn't work so well.

Remo Pinstripe
Drumhead of the 80s, for that full-on post-Gadd fusion sound. They have a particular timbre that sounds quite dated. But they also have a promising full sound tuned high, and I do know one or two jazz drummers who still use them. I used them on my Sonor set recently, on a lark. In the 80s they were the standard tenor drum heads in drum corps, and sounded great tuned extremely high.

Remo Emperor
A two ply head in case you need more durability, but you don't want to go full Pinstripe. Similar sound, with less of that Pinstripe character, and less character overall. It's a blunted sound. Bass drum head is acceptable, if you want a semi-live sound, without going for the full unmuffled Ambassador experience.

Remo CS Black Dot 
For an edgy 70s sound. Like the Pinstripes they have a distinctive sound that is dated— see mid-period Tony Williams— but it's been quite awhile since they were popular. Standard head for concert toms, if anyone is still using those. It's not a pretty sound, but it has an energetic edge to it. Right now I'm using one on my bass drum with a felt strip, and I like it a lot. I probably would not use them on regular toms, definitely not on the snare drum.

Evans coated medium single ply
The RC Cola of drum heads. They're fine, they sound pretty good, but characterless. Characterless as the name they gave the line, which I can never remember, and am not going to look up. Acceptable, but to me not a great sound in any tuning.

Evans coated single play bass drum head with the changeable muffle rings
Again, give your heads a name I can remember, please. Excellent head, with a nice tonal sound; they sound too pretty to me. It's a mannered sound. Younger jazz drummers will love them. I need more edge. I'm sure it's an easy head to record. Comes with three sizes of muffling rings, I never used any of them. The ring holder alone muffles the drum enough.

Evans ST Dry
You know these muffled heads don't sound to the audience the way they sound to you, right? Specialty snare drum head, with an extra ring around the edge on the inside, pinholes around the edge. I normally don't muffle my drums at all, but I have this on one of my drums, and I liked it for low volume playing. Good for maintaining definition if you play a lot of dense stuff on the snare drum. Probably great for recording, once again.

Not recommended

Remo Fiberskyn
These came installed on my first drum set back in 1982, and I've tried them a few times since then, and they just don't make it. They have a stiff feel, and I could never get a deep sound with them, or a good high sound— any good sound at all. It's a very surface sound, with a funny slap, and a strange kind of papery roar.

Remo Diplomat
The thinnest general purpose head by Remo. They don't quite handle the way you expect them to. Strange trebly, papery sound, they choke easily. It's a choked sound generally— lighter weight does not equal more resonance. Some potential as a snare drum top head if you're doing a lot of brush playing, and use light sticks— they have a very bright, edgy sound. If there's any funk in your touch you'll kill it. I've had one on my hammered bronze Ludwig drum for about ten years. I don't like the Diplomat snare side head— again, a thin, papery sound.

Powerstroke bass drum heads
And their copycats— that is most “modern” bass drum heads. Anything multi ply, anything with built in rings. I hate 'em. It's a “thick”, long sound that people interpret as “full.” A lot of lows, I guess, and mediocre attack. People hear them as having a full, “funky” sound, but they're mediocre. Poor response, difficult to produce much volume.

All other heads
I've gotten to use Aquarian heads in various settings since before they were even commercially available, and I've never been particularly impressed. I used one of their vintage-style heads a few years ago, and did not dig it. Multiply Evans heads never made much of an impression on me— basically they're flavorless Pinstripes, even-more-flavorless Emperors. The no-name heads that came with your mid-line drum set suck, replace them with Ambassadors. There are some new calf/goat/???-skin heads being made I would like to try, but the manufacturers never respond to my requests for free stuff.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Very occasional quote of the day: Roy on time

“Mingus use to say the damndest thing about me years ago. He'd say, 'Well, Roy Haynes. You don't always play the beat, you  suggest the beat!'

I didn't know what the heck I was doing. But I know that the beat is supposed to be there. If I leave out a beat, it's still there. If I'm playing 8 or 12 bar fills and I play four and a half bars then leave out a bar and a half, that doesn't mean I don't want it to sound like that! But if I'm playing with a horn player sometimes they may get confused. They get hung up because I didn't fill in that bar and a half.

You've got to use a little imagination in there. That bar and a half still counts. I'll come out in the right place, where it should be to make the fill even, and the other players are somewhere else at that point. I didn't always play the beat, which I thought was very good. You don't always have to say ding ding-da ding ding-da ding, you know. It's there! So, if one of those saxophone players has to depend on that, then you know he's not right.

You've got to have that ding-ding-da-ding within yourself. Coltrane had it! Pres had it. Miles has it. So, it's beautiful to play with them, but there are so many other people who don't have that thing and you've got to carry them. How you gonna be inventive and create when you're trying to lift them up?”

— Roy Haynes

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Reed tweak: adding flams to a basic method

This is a small tweak on a common funk practice method for Ted Reed's Syncopation, adding flams to the method in which the right hand plays the book rhythm on a cymbal, and the left hand fills in. To me it's a 70s funk flavored thing, and brings this method a little closer to my Heavy Funk Drill, and my harmonic coordination-type methods.

For the examples we'll use line 7 of the well-known full page exercise on p. 38 in the new editions. As always with Reed, we're interpreting the top line rhythm, ignoring the bottom line rhythm.

The basic funk method we're using is: play the melody rhythm on the cymbal with your right hand, with bass drum in unison, fill in the 8th notes on the snare drum with the left hand. Which gives us this:

So, today's tweak: where there is more than one left hand note in a row, add a flam on the last one:

In the p. 38 exercise there is that situation where there is a quarter note followed by a quarter rest— that happens in the first, sixth, seventh, and eighth lines. When that happens you could alternatively put the flam on the middle left hand note— that will be on the 4 or on the 2. Another musical possibility.

I do the flams left-handed— that means the right hand plays the grace note, and falls first. Usually the grace note is only a little softer than the main note; I don't try to make them correct concert snare drum flams. The left handed flams convert easily to RH-lead 16th notes, with a small adjustment to the timing.

Exercise 4 on p. 41 of Reed is a good one for this method. Also use these linked reading exercises of mine. And my book Syncopation in 3/4, for that matter.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Todd's methods: accents to funk

This is an item for teachers, I suppose. It's good to have more than one way of teaching things. There's no reason for a student to have to struggle with something just because your preferred way of teaching is difficult for him or her right now. Find a way to teach it that they can do in the lesson, so they can take it home and practice the content.

I don't like teaching rock and funk beats in the standard Funky Primer-type format of one measure, fully written out grooves. I prefer using an interpreted method, using the regular parts of Syncopation. Some students have a hard time picking that up, so I have another way of doing it, using the accented 8th notes in Syncopation— pp. 47-49.

It's quite simple: play 8th notes on a cymbal with your right hand, add bass drum on the written accents:

I don't accent the cymbal on the written accents. And we are of course ignoring the quarter note bass drum part written in the book.

Then: add snare drum on 2 and 4 for rock:

 Then add snare on 3 for a funk feel in 2/2:

Tempo for rock should be quarter note = 60-150; for funk, half note = 50-96.

Often when teaching rock and funk, I'll avoid unisons between the snare drum and bass drum. With this method, you can go ahead and do them. It seems well-suited to working on that. But you could eliminate the bass drum whenever the snare drum is being playing if you want.

When teaching this, I'll work the students through the most normal-sounding patterns, and let them work out the rest of them on their own. For rock, that might be lines 1, 10, 11, 14, 24, 28. For funk, lines 1, 3, 8, 24, 25, 27, 28.

Students should be able to play exercises 1-28 straight through without stopping, plus the 28 bar exercise on p. 49.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Painting is a psychological game

I'm a painter as well as a musician— I work in what's generally called an abstract expressionist style. I'm not making pictures of things, I'm painting until I have something that looks like a painting.

It has become a sort of psychological game for me— I can't just lash away and come up with something keepable. I don't know how I was ever able to do that, and produce 15-20 new paintings every 12-18 months and show them. Maybe it was because I was on a deadline, or maybe my standards were just lower. Now I'm more deliberate in my process, and have become very slow at actually finishing works. I've got a studio full of probably 50-60 things in progress, and about 10-12 small things I consider finished.

Working is a continuous process of playing around, managing desperation, fear of losing something good, and using whatever acquired skill I have to improve a thing and finish it. Ideally it would be nice to have the same kind of acceptance of loss that I have with music; most of what I do on the drums is not preserved in any way. Why can't painting be the same? Do it, and if it goes away, fine.

So these are some things I think about to trick myself while working:

Is it finished now? 
Maybe it's not what you wanted, but is it something? Is it already a painting and you don't know it? Almost always the answer is no.

Unfinished painting = piece of crap
It has no value. You can't approach it like you're it's “almost finished” or “pretty good if I just...” Quit hanging onto it. There's nothing there worth preserving.

Work while the paint is wet
Oil paint dries slowly, so you have to either keep working on it, or put it away for a couple of weeks or more. Working with a wet painting is a chaotic battle against encroaching muck— paint degrades in appearance very quickly when you start mixing it up on a canvas. And working over a dry painting just kind of sucks. You're fighting the old image, and it's hard to get the new paint to blend with the old paint. Learn to be comfortable with the chaotic wet thing and to finish paintings that way.

Paint over your favorite part first
Advice from Picasso. You can't preserve your favorite thing. Other things will happen.

You can only clean it up so much 
You can improve it a little bit with some careful polishing, but at some point it stiffens up and dies. The best paintings finish open.

Take the time to get the color right
Don't just put any old crap on the canvas just because it's on your palette, and you just loaded up a brush.

Take the time to make the right mark
You can't just blindly lash at the thing. Fit the mark to what's there. Don't leave a lot of trash between the new mark and the thing it fits with.

Waste some paint
Being stingy with paint is bad. What are you saving it for? Run up your paint bill.

Mess it up 
I've taken to dragging a scraper across the canvas as I work— the whole thing or some part of it— to keep it open, and to get rid of extraneous detail. To make it not look so deliberate and nice.

Scrape it down
After awhile the canvas accumulates so much paint that your new marks just get subsumed in the muck. Maybe you used too much of a really strong color and it's permeating the canvas. Wipe the whole thing down with mineral spirits and start over.

When in doubt look more
De Kooning did ten minutes of looking for every one minute of painting. There's no timer on this thing.

When really in doubt turn the thing around and do something else
Your eye stiffens up after awhile of looking at the same damn picture. Put it away until you forget what you were trying to do with it, why you liked it, and what you were trying to preserve.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Practice loop: Oregon - Fall

New practice loop, sampled from the tune Fall, by the band Oregon. The bassist here, Glen Moore, is one of my favorite musicians in the world— look into his records with the vocalist Nancy King if you haven't. It's in 4/4, and the tempo is 160 bpm. If you're having any problem getting oriented, the loop starts on beat 1, and the accents after that are on the & of 4.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Transcription: Connie Kay - Cosmic Ray

A melodic drum solo with mallets by Connie Kay, on Cosmic Ray, from the Milt Jackson / Ray Charles album Soul Brothers. Kay is kind of a mysterious player to me, so I'm always on the lookout for anything he does where the drums are featured. The tune is a blues, but the solo is 52 bars long; in effect he plays four choruses, with a four bar tag.

It's extremely clean— everything is exactly in its place. There's very little activity with the feet, except at the beginning as he switches from sticks to mallets, and at the top of the second chorus— bar 13. It's not real exciting, but I don't know if Kay sees exciting drumming as his job. He's more about swinging the band, making the arrangement, and being an ensemble player. You feel like he was asked to play an intro and solo on the tom toms with mallets, and he's giving them that.

The tempo is a bright 234, and he doesn't really swing the 8th notes. There are five tom tom sounds here: snare drum with the snares off, the drum set high and low toms, plus a doumbek, and a large African drum. The doumbek/African drum can easily be played on the regular drum set toms; the pitches are very similar, only the timbre is different.

It sounds like Kay is playing his famous 17" A. Zildjian Medium-Heavy ride on this tune, though he doesn't really hit it during the solo.

Get the pdf

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Listening to Ray Bryant

“I used to be a free jazz drummer, now I just want to play tight arrangements.”
— me a few years ago

That's not 100% true, but I've learned a lot of respect for the craft of arranging. Slow Freight by Ray Bryant is essentially a trio record made to sound like a larger ensemble with some good arranging, and the addition of a miniature brass section with Art Farmer and Snooky Young on trumpet and flugelhorn. And the right mix— the horns are mixed 60s pop style, in the background, in one channel.

It's not the type of record musicians get excited about today, but it's extremely solid. I don't know what's up with people, if they're too hip to write things that will go over with a general audience, or if they think there's no market for it, or what. The strength here is in the tunes, the arrangements, the groove, Bryant's voice, and the great rhythm section. No extended solos, not a lot of improvisation— there is not a lot of development that isn't written into the arrangements themselves. Freddie Waits and Richard Davis aren't playing anonymously, or uncreatively— they're just playing in support of the arrangement. Davis has the big solo on the record, on Satin Doll.

Programming-wise, there's an extended dance number (Slow Freight), one jazz standard (Satin Doll), five pop arrangements— one gospel (Amen), one soul (Prodigal Son), one quasi-bossa (Fox Stalker), and two Francophone-composer tunes (If You Go Away, Apple Tree). Everything but Slow Train and Satin Doll are under five minutes long.

Throughout the record you hear Waits being strategic about using a shuffle feel, or a backbeat, or a snare drum accent on 4. Except on Slow Freight, of course— it's not intended to develop. I personally always want to have a concept when I play a shuffle. The arrangement has to support it, and help you get away from it. Or there's a strong leader whose playing just demands it. I don't like doing a jam session-style endless shuffle, just because somebody said he let's play a shuffle. It's a mediocre groove for that kind of playing, and it just ends up being restrictive.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Mel Lewis intro - One for Pat

I'm just taunting myself now— I've got this book of intros sitting around, almost completed, and I keep finding new things that should probably go in it, but I don't have the nerve to open it up and add them it because it will mean reworking the whole thing. That's probably what's going to have to happen.

Whatever. Here's a little intro by Mel Lewis, on the tune One for Pat, from Got 'Cha, Lewis's first record as leader, released in 1956. I never saw or heard the record before, I just saw it listed in Chris Smith's book on Lewis, The View From The Back Of The Band— it's out in paperback now, so there's no excuse for not buying it.

The tempo is around quarter note = 250, and it's a funny little thing— as Paul Motian said about Max Roach, “not-so-correct”: 

The main attraction is the rubadub passage from the middle of the second measure to the middle of the last measure. Just move your right hand to the tom tom in the third measure; left hand stays on teh snare drum. The hihat is played open all the way through.