Monday, January 30, 2012

Ethan Iverson interview with Billy Hart

Here's part of another great interview by the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson, this time with Billy Hart:

Miles and Tony
Tony, for his age, seemed to me more thorough in the study of the jazz tradition of drumming than anybody I’ve ever come across. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other guys. But the more I learned, the more I realized that he had somehow gotten that history together. And it is not just patterns, it’s the reason why… I guess it would be in any kind of musical tradition, certain chords or accents or whatever present an emotion that been tried and true over a length of time, which I guess “speaks” or is traditionally accurate or correct. Tony had that. It wasn’t just that he played this rhythm or pattern, it was that the pattern belonged there traditionally. A lot of people today might play a Tony Williams pattern, but they play it just because they heard it…they don’t know why or how it works.

There is that video you played me of the Miles Davis quintet with Herbie and Ron playing “Autumn Leaves.” There are some tensions in the piano and bass, and Tony responds by playing a simple shuffle on the snare and cymbal, which is kind of an advanced response to the tension.

Except that it so correct! You can see Miles is immediately influenced and affected emotionally. And then you back to Philly Joe or anybody, hear them do it, and go, “oh right.” It’s like a change of color or a heightened intensity. (As opposed to starting a tune that way---if you start a tune there, you have to stay there.)

One of the interesting things about the Miles band is that there were a lot of details about the tunes that incoming members have to learn, like the cymbal beat and piano tremolos on “All Blues.” Tony and Herbie interpreted those parts in their own way, but still they clearly knew the details.

That’s something else that Tony said. Someone asked him about getting the gig with Miles just before he was 17 years old. There must have been other good drummers, right? Tony said, “Hard to know. I’d like to ask Miles myself. I can’t say that I was better than anybody else. But I was definitely prepared for the gig. There was nothing Miles could play that I didn’t already know.”

Keep reading- important stuff about time after the break:

Time issues and the Wes Montgomery ride cymbal story
Basically, what he wanted was just what I didn’t have: more of a clear understanding, a clear direction of keeping time. I couldn’t do it. So Wes gave me a lesson that showed me that I didn’t have a clear cymbal beat. Which is how I learned how to play. [...]

What did Wes tell you? He certainly didn’t say, “Billy, could you play a clearer cymbal beat?” [Laughter.]

It happened again with Stan Getz. He did the same thing to me. It’s interesting how you learn things—I wonder how someone like Tony Williams learned it so correctly? Or how Elvin Jones learned it so correctly…well, anyway, someone had to tell me in the most embarrassing way possible, you know? But at least I learned it—or became aware of it, anyway.

Wes said to me, “Billy, what’s that you’re doin’ with your cymbal?”

And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Wes.”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Wes, I don’t know what the f--- you’re talking about.”

“OK , Billy, let me put it this way: the s--- ain’t laying.”

Now, how am I supposed to know what that means? Well, of course I did know what it meant, you know what it do you put that in words? “It’s not perfectly in sync?” Or “It’s not causing the kind of euphoria that we refer to as swinging or grooving?” Well, anyway, the way he put it was: “The s--- ain’t laying.”

Did he just tell you that just once?

No, no. Being a younger person, I wasn’t going to accept it, so I said, “OK, well, he means he wants me to play that old-fashioned, old-style-ass cymbal beat. If he wants it, f--- it, I’ll do that, but I still have my other three limbs. With my left hand and right foot I’ll still help the evolution of the planet in a positive way, without this buffoon imposing his own old-fashioned-ass ways. So, two or three months later, he says to me, “Billy, what’s that you’re doing with your left hand?” And we went through the same thing again.

With all the limbs, I suppose.

Well, I don’t think we had to deal with the high-hat. But it definitely went down with the snare drum and the bass-drum.

In keeping time, this kind of time, since the music started out as a sort of dance music, that meant the drummer was in jail, if not a slave. (A modern drummer like Nasheet Waits would consider it hard time on a chain gang.) So, it took evolution to get out of that, but once cats tried to do that, then they were really leaned on in terms of how to keep the beat. Basically, it boiled down to: “You can try some of this s---, but if the beat transfers one iota, it’s out!” Kenny Clarke told stories of how, after a while, he could look at the leader’s face—the leader wouldn’t have to say anything, he’d just start packing up his drums, ‘cause he knew he was fired. So, when you’re playing this dance music, what ends up happening is that guys begin start developing this independence in a very clear way, because the time could not waver. How it starts is with rudiments—stuff you do with your hands. After a while you play them with your hand and your foot while keeping time. As the thing evolved, the rudiments evolved too, so the s--- between the left hand and the right foot got even more complicated. There were three guys were able to take this into a very clear fruition right around when I was comin’ in. The three guys are Edgar Bateman, Donald Bailey, and, of course, Elvin Jones.

Donald Bailey was particularly important to me since I took his place with Jimmy Smith. Even if I hadn’t been that interested in this approach, I would have had to learn it to play the gig.

By the time I get to Wes, I’ve had three and a half years to work on all of this. Wes, you know, his concept of a very f---ing advanced drummer was Jimmy Cobb.


Now, Jimmy's great--one of the greatest. He's also one of my mentors. But Jimmy keeps time so that he STARES at his [right] hand and cymbal as he plays. It’s like a computer graph, where you make sure everything is in sync. Suffice to say, I didn’t quite play like that! And that was Wes’ favorite drummer, right? So there was a WIDE space between us…and I had to get it together. In one club in San Francisco the bandstand was next to the wall, and the wall was next to this glass painting that acted like a mirror. So I could sit there, and watch myself play…check out my posture. Sitting there watching myself, that’s how I learned to play Wes’ beat.

Wes never mentioned Jimmy Cobb to me, which would have been a simple thing to do, but maybe he didn’t realize Jimmy was from Washington and that I knew Jimmy’s playing. Whatever, he just said it wasn’t laying.

What about the snare and bass drum?

The snare drum, (as I understand it) relates to the treble clef of any ensemble. (The bass drum relates more to the bass clef.) That means your snare drum could be the trumpet section of a big band. It implies a certain tradition of arranging, whether it’s Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Thad Jones: it’s how you put that in the mix. That’s what Wes needed, that tradition.

One of my perceptions about Jimmy’s Cobb’s beat is that it feels kind of aggressive or even like it’s rushing.

H’mm. Well. That’s interesting.

There’s a way of playing on top of the beat which makes things happen… like Ron Carter, Tony Williams, or even Louis Hayes …it definitely works and is accurate musically. It’s a definite way of playing and it doesn’t rush. All you have to do is have that attitude. If you don’t have that attitude, it will rush. But if you know what you’re doing, it is just a way of playing. (I have really only become aware of this approach as a clear concept in the last ten years or so.)

Now, Jimmy, that’s not his real way of playing. In fact, I think that Washington, D.C. (where I’m from) has a way of producing drummers that play behind the beat. But Miles tried to get every drummer to play more on top.


Oh yeah. Definitely!

When I listen to the records I feel that Philly Joe is more laid back on the beat than Jimmy.

It’s a serious conflict if you naturally feel the beat in the front and the bass player feels it behind (or vice versa). There’s a professional way to resolve the situation that explains Philly Joe. If you’re playing behind the beat and you don’t want it to slow down, you play more upbeats. That’s where the shuffle comes in. That’s why the shuffle is valid and correct, because it resolves that situation. If you want to lay back, then you use more shuffles. There’s a certain euphoric sensuality to laying back in certain situations, but you don’t want to lose your erection. To keep it up and lay back at the same time, you shuffle—and Philly Joe was great at that.

Philly Joe’s rim click on the track “Milestones” is pretty on top—unusually so, for him. It’s as ahead as it can be and still feel good.

Well, that was probably Miles. Miles always wanted his drummers to play on top. Same with Stan Getz, even with ballads… I was very uncomfortable playing ballads with Stan Getz since it was never fast enough for him. Never! I grew up playing with Shirley Horn—you can imagine how different that was. A modern day cat who is the same way is Geri Allen. It doesn’t matter what I do. I’ll say to her, “How was that, Geri?” And she’ll say, “Oh, that was great! Except, it still feels like it is slowin’ down.”

What about McCoy Tyner?

Well, he plays on top of the beat. So, if anything, he might be the opposite. He might want you to pull him back a bit. He wants that isometric thing.

Oh, right. Like he had with Elvin, of course.


Read part 1 of Ethan Iverson's interview with Billy Hart

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