Saturday, January 07, 2012

On "feathering" the bass drum

Umm... no.
Let's start with the word itself- you probably know what it 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 reintroduced after being out of fashion for a couple of decades. I hesitate to use the word because it suggests a stylized thing, a mannerism- for me it has the reek of "jazz ed". When you read what people like Kenny Clarke say about it, they will usually say that they "played it- but very softly" or something similar. So I just say "play."

The reason it was originally played is because that's just what a drum part was in American music: bass drum on the strong beats (or on all four beats, as the four feel became more popular) and the snare emphasizing the weak beats and embellishing. As the acoustic bass replaced the tuba in jazz bands, the musical justification of giving support to the bass became more important- there was no satisfactory means of amplification for that instrument until the 1960's. Still, the trend from the 1940's through the 60's was to de-emphasize and to finally to practically eliminate the four-on-the-floor bass drum.

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 wasn't regarded as a real sophisticated use of the instrument, and was also a big turn-off when it was abused- particularly by rock drummers- for whom it was a crutch, crudely stomping out the quarter notes while playing all of their flashy stuff only with their hands. 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.

Read on, much more after the break:

More recently, I've re-evaluated that somewhat and more unaccented quarter notes have found their way into my playing. I think that understanding the traditional role of the bass drum is important, and you do that by making the connection physically- by playing it. I still rarely play many measures of running quarter notes on the bass; more frequently I'll put it lightly on 1 and 3 at slower tempos, or use it in the time feel in a variety of different ways, but going for something (hopefully) more open/modern.

Here are some examples of approaches I take to incorporating the bass drum in to my time playing without going completely trad-jazz:

- Alan Dawson's Syncopation long note exercise. This 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 thump thump thump territory. For someone like me who was always trying to "play hip"- always emphasizing 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 (along with jazz time on the cymbal and hihat):

- Suggesting a funk feel; often 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:

OK, that's pretty quasi; much more partido alto than second line. That's what I get for writing my examples in a hurry. But you get the picture.

- A riff. That's a 1-4 measure repeating figure, usually played as a background. The tunes C Jam Blues and Bags' Groove each are examples of a four-measure riff played over a blues to make the melody of the tune.

Riffs are more in the family of comping than of time keeping, but a denser line than I have given here can begin to be interpreted that way.

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