|That's the idea.|
Real vs. simulated
Generic playalong collections, like the popular Groove Essentials series, are fine for getting together the very basics of a style, or for getting a general sense of your readiness for the professional world. You get clean recordings which closely resemble music in a variety of (mostly) common styles, as they might be played by the best American musicians. But don't mistake them for the real act of making music, despite their similarity to it: to me they are a gutted, abstracted form of playing. They're missing the actual things you're supposed to be playing in support of, the real impetus for most of what you play: a melody, and a lead voice.
Compare the experience of playing along with some of our previous pop transcriptions: God, Anticipation, or Beauty And The Beast, with that of any of the rock/pop entries from GE— here's one:
What is missing from the naked rhythm tracks should be obvious. On the actual records, the rhythm section parts are only one element of what the drummers are playing off of; they are equally focused on what is happening in the melody; their parts are intimately connected with it, and closely track its dynamics, and overall arc. You only get the barest shadow of that with the playalongs. Being able to play convincingly to a generic rhythm track— to play blind, essentially— is a real skill, but it is not the main thing.
Much more of this after the break:
Your playalong collections are generally recorded in an afternoon by American jazz or studio musicians, who, no matter how good they are, cannot be on-the-spot models of authenticity in every single offered style. In the case of, say, New Orleans music, or Brazilian music, or Afro-Cuban music, you are really better off going to the original source. This is no criticism of this drummer, or of Igoe's musicians, but the difference between this
is vast, even if it doesn't much sound like it at first. It is easy to miss the boat, and end up with a very “white” American samba with the former, and almost impossible with the latter. One of the first things you notice when you replace the generics with recordings of actual Brazilian musicians, is that all of the players know the samba rhythms, and their parts are all based on them. It's very difficult to force an inauthentic pattern on the music. And Brazilian rhythmic expression is a very particular, subtle thing, and you need to put yourself in its presence whether you can recognize it yet or not— you do that by selecting recordings made by the real cats from that place, who do that music eight hours a day, every day. The same holds true with music of other places and cultures.
Part of being a musician is knowing tunes and knowing recordings, and in playing along with generic studio pop/rock backing track number 16, you are not working on that. You can of course always do that another time, but there is so much to learn in music, you need those little practice multipliers. In working on your medium swing by playing along with Dear Old Stockholm from Miles Davis's Round About Midnight, you will be learning a famous tune, arrangement, arrangement elements, and performance which all other good players will be familiar with, at the same time as you are working on your Jim Chapin coordination patterns, or whatever. Playing with Ella Fitzgerald's songbook recordings is a great idea, because you have the added element of getting the lyrics— and often the verses— which makes learning the tunes easier, and gives you a deeper knowledge of them.
Don't always be obvious.
Everybody wants to rock out pretending to be Elvin playing Afro-Blue with Coltrane, but that may not be the best actual thing to play along with. It's often better to pick things you don't have an agenda with, things that are not obvious “drum” records— things that will induce you to play off of the music, rather than just wail. This is another good reason to use the Ella, or other vocalist's recordings.
It's not always going to work.
A lot of jazz recordings— particularly the faster tempos— are difficult or impossible to play along with productively; often what the players are doing rhythmically will combine in a funny way that makes it really hard to stay them. It may be a great record, but if you find yourself struggling keeping with a particular track, it may be a sign you need to pick something else. Of course, it may just mean you don't have your stuff together with this style yet, but often this is where the tidiness of a dedicated playalong recording may come in handy.