Sunday, May 27, 2012

Scholar's corner: Elvin Jones plays the ride cymbal

We'll see how long this new feature lasts. I've been coming across a good number of scholarly works online, most of them not worth sharing-- in fact, I have a draft of a long post collecting some analyses of swing interpretation, which I somewhat unfairly gave the working title "The Mother Lode of Suck." I wasn't trying to be mean; it just seemed like a natural fit.

But here's a good one we'll be seeing more of: a 225-page Master's thesis by Canadian drummer Barry Elmes, titled ELVIN JONES: DEFINING HIS ESSENTIAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO JAZZ. There's a lot of good analysis in it, and his writing is more accessible than you might expect, and I encourage you to visit his site and download the complete pdf. Here is a part of his discussion of Elvin's use of the ride cymbal:

"Listening to Jones perform (on his recordings and in person) one is struck almost immediately by the prominence of his ride cymbal. In terms of balance within the ensemble, it seems to be consistently in the foreground of the music, clearly audible at all times regardless of the dynamics of the rest of the band. Jones made sure of this, often resorting to using the butt-end of the stick for more power when necessary. Jones has commented on his use of the ride cymbal:

I always try to sustain some kind of continuity with the cymbal. That’s where the consistency really is, because we no longer use a strong 4/4 bass beat, or that rigid, up-and-down, 2 and 4 on the hi-hat. So the emphasis is on the consistency of the tempo and, of course, on the continuity of that cymbal. That provides what would be the clave [the central pulse] in a Latin orchestra. 

The listener’s attention is fixed, not just by the volume of his ride cymbal, by what he chooses to play on it. Instead of the usual statement of quarter-beat pulse or the common ride cymbal pattern, Jones offers a line comprised of eighth-note phrases that feature both rhythmic and dynamic variation. These phrases are rhythmically designed in the same fashion as those of a melodic soloist: using eighth notes and/or quarter notes, placed on downbeats and/or upbeats. In the absence of pitch capability, Jones infers a certain musicality to his phrases by accenting over a much wider dynamic range than is heard in the drumming of his contemporaries or predecessors."

Continued after the break:

"To a large degree, Jones expresses his phrases primarily, but not exclusively, on the ride cymbal. The other components of the drum set are employed in two distinct ways: 1. To express certain key, accented beats of the phrase. Jones often assigns such vital beats to the snare or bass drum; 2. To support the phrase by creating a full background rhythm, at a lower volume than the phrase itself, using beats from the eighth-note triplet grid.

The prominent role of the ride cymbal in Jones’s drumming follows from a historical precedent. By the time he began learning to play the drums in a jazz context (in the 1940s) the employment of the ride cymbal as the primary component for expressing the pulse had already been well established and was the foundation of the bop style. [...] However, unlike bop stylists, where the role of the ride cymbal and hi-hat is distinct from that of the other drum set components, Jones used the entire set to express his phrases. He certainly conceives of the drum set as one instrument:

It is one instrument, and I would hasten to say that I take that as the basis for my whole approach to the drums. It is a single musical instrument of several components. Naturally, you’ve got tom-toms scattered around, and the snare drum is in front of you, and the bass drum is down there, and you have cymbals at different levels. But all in all, just as a piano is one instrument, a drumset is one instrument.  

The rhythmic variation in Jones’s improvised cymbal line seems to turn ‘time-keeping’ into a more musical enterprise for both drummer and other band members. The function of Jones’s ride cymbal goes far beyond delineating pulse for the band, and in so doing gives more flexibility to the soloist and other supporting instruments. Jones’s phrases usually contain three-beat figures and occasionally five-beat figures, often tied over bar lines, thereby removing the compartmentalization of rhythm into individual bar-long units.

This latter phenomenon often occurs in the more traditional jazz drumming styles where rudiments [...] play a larger role. By formulating his phrases in a minimum length of two bars, Jones remains consistent with other rhythm based musics embraced by jazz players, such as Brazilian and Cuban music, where the rhythmic patterns are also two bars in length. Two-bar phrases also seem to be the minimum size required to resolve Jones’s rhythmic statements of call and response.


In addition to the rhythmic variation evident in Jones’s cymbal line, an additional feature is the overall increase in dynamic range. Conventional bop cymbal playing exhibits minimal changes in volume, as a means to promote steady expression of the pulse. Generally, all quarter beats (pulse beats) are played at one volume and all skip beats (upbeats) are played at a second volume, usually softer than the quarter beats. The
goal of most bop drummers is to have a dynamically consistent sound on the ride cymbal. By contrast, Jones used accents within the cymbal line to give extra power to upbeats, giving a feeling of forward momentum to the rhythm and adding more colour to his cymbal playing. Beyond these aspects, Jones has commented on the importance of cymbal tonalities:

Take, for example, the subtleties of the cymbals; there are endless possibilities for changing the color and tone of music through the cymbal tone range. And you can apply rhythmic patterns of tone on, say, just two 20 inch cymbals—there are no two cymbals that sound alike."

Get the complete pdf.
Visit Barry Elmes's site.


Anonymous said...

When I heard Elvin Jones live back in a small club in the early 70's, he seemed to keep the ride cymbal at a moderate/loud roar, and the rest of the set was percolating loudly underneath. I KNOW I read a story in some book where David Crosby felt "pinned" against the wall by Jones' sonic onslaught.

Anonymous said...

Just came across your "Mother Lode of Suck" comment. Brilliant. #MLOS

Todd Bishop said...

Thanks, anon-- I probably should've left that out of the post, but I was too pleased with my own cleverness... maybe the hashtag will catch on though...