In this final-for-now post on playing in 5/4 I want to talk about a few stray issues, and things that you may observe happening, or happening to you. This is a work in progress for me, so I'm sure we'll be getting deeper into it in the future.
The two measure phrase.
Part of the challenge of playing in 5 is not just surviving it yourself, but also managing the other musicians' lack of confidence. You may find yourself stating a lot of downbeats, and notice that leaving it out for even one measure can be a fairly big leap into the void for a lot of people. So two measures seems to be the basic phrase unit. Think of suspending stating the downbeat for longer phrases as the domain of expert odd-meter players and of well-rehearsed bands.
Playing "off the riff."
That's not the right usage of that word, but that's how that advice is often phrased. It's the usual intuitive way of approaching odd meters; just following the rhythmic vamp of the particular tune/arrangement you're playing, without thinking too much about what the time signature is. It seems to me to be basically a survival technique when you haven't done much homework in the meter in question. It will tend to cause you to play somewhat squarely (which is usually adequate), and you'll be prone to getting lost when you-- or the other musicians-- try to stretch a little.
Blowing past the downbeat.
One of the big problems when improvising in 5, particularly in the 3+2 form, where it's very easy to get comfy, feel like you've nailed it, and loosen up your playing only to accidentally lapse into 3+3, putting your next downbeat on the rest of the band's beat 2. And then you're dead.
Continued after the break:
Lost in the 5.
Part of what makes playing outside of the 2+3/3+2 box difficult is the lack of usual strong and weak beats-- OK, there are the strong beats on 1 and 3 (in 2+3) or 1 and 4 (in 3+2), but as sophisticated cats we're trying to deemphasize those, right? We certainly don't play them strongly in 4/4. In trying to play through them, each measure can begin to feel like an odd-sized box of jumbled quartet notes.
Combining feet parts in 3/4+2/4 with cymbal parts in 2/4+3/4 struck me as a major element of Humphrey's method, and has been for me one of the keys to being able to play freely in 5-- and the solution to the two previous problems. This isn't done just for the sake of playing extra-fancy junk; its effect has been to eliminate those surprise "gah, what beat am I on" moments that are particularly a problem when improvising. That was what I observed in my own playing-- how it accomplishes that is a little mysterious to me.
"There is no finding God in 5/4."
- Kenny Werner
Learning to play in this meter has been uniquely challenging for a player like me; in the past I've generally been at my best playing in familiar settings without a lot of conscious thought. I've traditionally preferred playing from an interpreted melodic line-- the Ted Reed way-- and that is the one thing I have not found a place for yet in my practicing in 5/4. Here the practice methods are more traditionally pattern-oriented, with the actual playing requiring more consistent awareness. Those methods have helped me begin to grasp the unique shape of the measure, and to acquire the type of concentration required, which has begun to allow me to access to the things I know well in 4/4 and 3/4. I haven't come anywhere near exhausting the materials I've presented here, but my playing in 5 has improved tremendously compared to the actual time I've spent with it. And God knows it's not because I'm any kind of genius. A lot can be achieved with a moderate but consistent effort.