Sunday, February 13, 2011

Best books - Even in the Odds by Ralph Humphrey

The classic text on odd meter playing by Zappa/Don Ellis drummer Ralph Humphrey, this book covers swing, funk, and solo patterns in 5/4, 7/4, 5/8, 7/8, and longer odd time signatures. Each meter gets a concise treatment of four or five pages focused on learning its particular terrain. The written text is also minimal but effective- the instruction "repeat each exercise until a casual swing develops" is representative. This is a welcome change from many current books which tend to include way too many exercises, and assume a lot of ignorance (and isolation from real-world sources of information) with overly detailed verbal instructions. It appears to be geared towards college students who are going to tear through it, then run out and complete the process by applying it in performance.

For a partisan (like me) of the modern, interpretive Syncopation-based method of practice (reading a single melody line and orchestrating it for the drums on the fly), the process used in this book is rather old fashioned, in the Chapin mode. This entails learning by fully written-out one measure patterns, eventually adding up to at least a practical vocabulary, if not a lot of understanding. This does work well with the subject matter, though- many of us are back in the stone age (or at least the early days of the Chapin book) when it comes to odd meters, and it's fine to be spoon fed the patterns a little bit while the shape of the meters sinks in. And this book is well-constructed in that at leads you easily into going beyond the written exercises- in a way, it seems like the pinnacle of that approach.



One unusual thing is the way the swing sections are handled- most of the coordination deals with just the feet and ride cymbal. This is actually appropriate, given that odd meters tend to use rhythmic vamps (typically supported by the bass drum) instead of walking bass lines, in which the bass drum is used more for punctuation.  The left hand is dealt with only briefly. Humphrey appears to be prioritizing in favor of getting the foundation together, and perhaps assuming that anyone using the book will have his left hand together, and be able to work it in once the foundation is solid. That has been my experience using the book, anyhow.

It's also notable that he explains the common ways  of dividing measures into 3s and 2s, but does not segregate the exercises that way, and many of the exercises will "cross"- the cymbal pattern may be 3+2, but the feet are playing 2+3. This not for any musical effect I'm aware of- it seems to be more for the purpose of loosening things up, since odd meters tend towards boxiness. 

The funk patterns have a little bit of that 70's thing going on, but that's OK; I'm becoming more of the opinion that book ideas should not be too hip. Let the student figure a few things out. It is a problem with Charles Dowd's odd meter book Thesaurus for the Jazz-Rock Drummer (renamed A Funky Thesaurus), which is more dated, with overly dense bass drum and snare drum parts. Again, we're just learning the shape of the measure, and it is left up to the student to find what works musically in performance.

The solo section also deals with a fairly narrow range of concepts- alternating accented single strokes and mixed stickings over running 8th notes, 16th notes, or triplets. While not getting too insane technically, the information in the section adds up to a good, flexible, practical improvising vocabulary. After learning it thoroughly musicians will be well set to take it much further.

Buy the book.

By the way, I do not have a relationship with Steve Weiss Music- I do not get anything for referring you to their site. Though I wouldn't mind it! They have a great selection of books I have not been able to find anywhere else, and their customer service has been good. If you purchase anything from them based on my reference, it would be lovely of you to make a note of it in your purchase order! Thanks! -tb

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