Saturday, January 07, 2012

On “feathering” the bass drum

what is this
The word refers to playing quarter notes lightly on the bass drum as part of your jazz time feel. They used to call this playing the bass drum— I never heard the term “feather” until the 90's, when it was seemingly reintroduced after being out of fashion for a couple of decades. I don't like the word. To me it suggests a stylized thing, a mannerism, with a distinct reek of “jazz ed.” When you read what people like Kenny Clarke say about it, they will say that they “played it— but very softly” or something similar. So I just say “play.” That's what I mean by play all through this post— quarter notes on the bass drum as part of the time feel.

Apart from the word itself, what bothers me the most about that way of playing itself is that it's vestigial. It's left over from the days when the bass drum was played for the same reason anything is played: to be heard. Now we're doing something to not be heard, that you still have to learn to do as well as everything else you do, that's going to make you sound bad if you don't get it to the right level of inaudible perfection. We spend a lot of time eliminating non-functional elements from our playing, and our movements when playing, and this just seems completely contrary to that.

As I said, through the swing era, drummers played the bass drum to be heard. In the 1940s bop drummers de-emphasized it dramatically, but they kept doing it because that's how they knew how to play. More modern players, without the same swing background as many of the bop drummers, began dropping it out altogether. Maybe this debate over whether to play the bass drum, and how loud, was happening as this was all developing— I suspect the justifications for feathering it came later. All of these developments happened before I was born.

When I first began playing jazz in the 1980's, drumming as I knew it was in a very post-Tony Williams state. The sense I got from the best players I was around was that playing the bass drum that way was antiquated, and that in modern playing the time feel was centered in the cymbal and hihats; the bass drum and snare drum were for comping, punctuations, for funky/Latin feels, or as part of a texture (a la Elvin Jones). Playing quarters on the bass was regarded as an unsophisticated use of the instrument, and a big turn-off when it was abused... particularly by rock drummers, for whom it was a crutch. So, I've never played the bass drum as part of my time feel, except when playing shuffles, or in  specifically very traditional swing settings.

Nevertheless: In recent years I've re-evaluated all of this somewhat, and I play more unaccented quarter notes than I used to. Understanding the traditional role of the bass drum is important, and you can only get that with a physical connection, by playing it. I rarely play a whole tune or even a whole chorus that way, but I'll put it lightly on 1 and 3 at slower tempos, or at certain points emphasizing a heavier groove. And I have some other ways of approaching it in a more modern and open way.

For example:

Alan Dawson's Syncopation long note exerciseThis is a Reed interpretation in which you play the short notes (untied 8th notes) on the snare, and the long notes (tied 8ths, quarters, and dotted quarters) on the bass drum, while keeping time with the cymbal and hihat. The way the exercises are written, you'll end up playing a lot of quarter notes on the bass drum, giving your time a nice grounded feeling, while never getting into full-on 1938 groove. For someone like me who was always trying to “hiply” emphasize the &s- this was a big change in direction.

If you're not familiar with it, here's a line of exercise from the book:

Here's how that would be played, with jazz time on the cymbal and hihat added:

Suggesting a funk feelOften a half time feel with the snare drum on three. This can be done explicitly, but I try to be subtle and non-repetitive about it, so it doesn't actually sound like a feel change, or like a funk drummer trying to play jazz:

Quasi-second line feel
In which the bass and snare split a running syncopated line:

The emphasis is on the quasi with that example that's much more partido alto than second line. The result of writing it too quickly. But you get the picture.

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