Sunday, January 04, 2015

“How can I understand Elvin Jones?”

This is a question that came up on the Drummerworld forum— Elvin Jones's playing is quite advanced in a way that inexperienced listeners may be slow to figure out, and that defies explanation. The way you go about understanding artists like that is by getting all the records you can find/afford with him on them, and listening to them a lot, and maybe doing some transcribing. And you see them play live, if possible. That's all anyone else ever did. Sometimes you can get some insight by talking to them, but usually not— at least not the insight you were looking for. But here are a few stylistic things that are thought of as being pretty “him”:

  • He has a strong tendency to phrase in 3/4, even when playing in 4/4. 
  • His cymbal pattern tends to emphasize the “skip” note— the note on the & of 2 and 4, in a regular jazz ride pattern.


  • That emphasis on the ride pattern, combined with the phrasing in 3/4 means his playing often has a strong pull towards a dotted-quarter note rhythm, regardless of what meter he's in. 
  • He tends to fill out the texture with the snare drum, bass drum, and sometimes hihat, to make a constant stream of triplets. 
  • He does play “triplety”, but there is also a pull towards 16th notes; so some phrases that sound like he's just playing sloppy/loose, is really the rhythmic grid shifting between triplets and 16th notes. 
  • He tends to shift his accenting around dramatically; over the course of a phrase, he'll accent in different places in the measure, in a different sequence, than a very mainstream bop player might. Here's an example, from our upcoming Book of Intros— he plays this Latin feel at the beginning of a recording of Night In Tunisia:




On the audio, you can hear him pushing accents around:





These are just tendencies; if you go in just expecting him to play “Elvin-style”, you'll find yourself being constantly surprised by him. He's a creative player, operating in the moment; these stylistic things that seem so obvious to us are not what he was thinking about as he was playing. Also, I should mention the obvious: that he was a jazz musician, so all of this stuff is in the context of playing jazz tunes, with jazz soloists. Without that basis, it's kind of meaningless.

Here's the shortest possible list of essential listening I could come up with:
John Coltrane: My Favorite Things, Impressions, Live At Birdland, Coltrane, Sun Ship
McCoy Tyner: The Real McCoy
Elvin Jones: The Ultimate


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