Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How to really play jazz drums

I received this question by email:

I wondered if I might trouble you with a small query about a video I recently watched: It's called 'How To (Really) Play Jazz Drums' and it's presented by a guy who does a channel on more advanced playing (you know, Guilliana, Nate Smith and others). It struck me as an odd way to develop a jazz vocabulary, and I wondered what you take is on this? Is learning how to 'really' play Jazz is through the filter of hip hop?! 
He's not a massive fan of the syncopation method (it seems), and his videos are pretty popular. Is this a worrying trend, or a valid gateway?

I think I've watched one of this drummer's videos before (can't find his name, just many repetitions of the 80/20 Drummer trademark)— the only biographical info I found states that he was a student of John Riley's, and that he lives in New York. I'll watch the video and state any observations as they come up. The presentation is pretty meta, so you have to have been playing the music for several years to know what he's talking about. I like that for myself, because I hate sitting through a lot of re-explanation of basic things, but novices might be lost or misled.

Learning to play swing
Good: He says swing is a way of playing 8th notes. As you know, it makes me angry when people say “it's triplets” and move on. Not angry, but I don't like it as an explanation of swing.
OK/questionable: He says the way to learn to play swing rhythm is to play along with hip hop. It's not a bad exercise, but usually the first suggestion would be that you play and listen to jazz music.

“Bottom up”
He suggests that jazz is usually thought of as “top down” playing, by which I assume he means that it is ride cymbal-driven, or hands-driven. So when  he says bottom up, he apparently means playing in a bass drum-driven way, like in backbeat-oriented styles. It's a good exercise, not so good as your primary concept. It takes some musicianship to pull it off in a way that doesn't sound like a funk or rock drummer trying to play jazz, and that doesn't draw some pointed questions from the more experienced musicians you play with.

The hihat conversation
The presentation about the hihat doesn't cut it for me— I need a little more to work with by way of explanation. I can see what he's doing, but his job is to explain it. He says conversation the way other people use interaction, or coordination, or independence, which is a good idea. The words you choose matter, and conversation suggests a more musical way of thinking than independence does.

How he plays the drums
With all of this talk about jazz drumming, but no talk about jazz music, you want to check if you're ending up in the right place. He has a nice touch, has a command over the instrument, plays things that are stylistically “correct”, and probably sounds great playing with a band. In his demonstrations I'm not hearing what I consider a jazz musician's phrasing, which is going to be oriented around four measure or longer phrases. Basically, if I'm not able to hear Bye Bye Blackbird— a blues, something— as a backdrop to what you play, it sounds wrong to me.

Not a great title
At the 8 1/2 minute mark, it occurs to me we're not really talking about jazz here— he's more sketching out some ways of doing creative independence, with, it happens, a swing feel. “Jazzy” hip hop, maybe.

The feel
Hmm, all we get here is “practice with the metronome on the swing & of 2/4.” Not a bad suggestion, but I'd think that subject would merit a fuller treatment.

Objectively what he's done is sketch out some ways of practicing hip hop with a jazz-like feel; so the title's no good. You can't have a jazz video without some kind of reference to jazz music, and the common practice of it. He's clearly educated, and able to play, but what I'm hearing feels curiously detached from the tradition. Normally jazz musicians make references to that stuff without even thinking about it, so it makes me wonder to what extent it's part of his background in a serious way at all, or what's going on here. Overall not a bad sketchpad for alternative ways of practicing a jazz feel, and coordination, not good as a primary concept. B-


Allan said...

Thanks for the viewpoints Todd. They certainly resonate with me - I couldn't deny his level of playing, but it did seem strange that the 'secret' to 'nailing' modern Jazz comping was by listening to Jayz (not Jazz!). There is a second video to this where he goes into uptempo playing... a similar thing, but just, um, faster.

Todd Bishop said...

No problem, thanks for writing! I'm just trying to figure out what it is I'm missing in a lot of very capable younger players. I think the balance is off between school and field learning-- they're mostly learning in school, and maybe not doing the quantity and variety of gigs people used to do. Anyway, I need to take a look at his other videos— I'm sure there's worthwhile stuff in there, even if I'm not 100% on board with everything.

natesmith124 said...

Hey folks flattered to have my lesson mentioned/reposted! I suspect there's not too much distance between Todd's and my philosophies, but thought I'd chime to clarify a bit. Because of the space limitations of the comment field, I posted my complete response here:)

Todd Bishop said...

Hi Nate- Thanks for checking in, and for your work with your site. I hope I didn't write anything harsh! If I did, please chalk it up to not not enough context-- not knowing your background or your broader body of work. I'll link to your response in the body of the piece, and write my own response if it seems like I should, because conversation is good. Keep up the good work, man.