Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why jazz

Pourquoi le jazz? The question on
everyone's lips.
An item related to our old music post last week: this is a reader question sent to Portland bassist Damien Erskine (nephew of Peter, and an outstanding musician). The questioner is an electric bassist who is into funk and fusion:

Q: I struggled with asking if I HAVE to learn trad jazz or if I SHOULD learn it, so take this question as both. And just as a disclaimer, I’m using “trad jazz” to mean the standards and the jazz being played predominantly from the ’20s to the ’60s and the styles that encompassed. 

So we're clear on terminology, “trad jazz” is a term that has come into use in recent decades, which means Dixieland, and probably would also include “Gypsy” jazz. It does not mean contemporary modern jazz of the 20s-60s, as this person implies. If you're on a gig and someone calls Dolphin Dance, and you say “I'm not into that trad stuff” or “cool, I love trad jazz” you will get a very funny look and probably never be called again.

He continues:

I’ve been led by a lot of people to think that, even if you’re into more funky fusion styles of jazz, in order to play more modern stuff proficiently you should learn to walk, transcribe, and learn standards, etc., etc. And even if you aren’t playing that kind of music the discipline and technical gains will help you as a player, which I have no doubt is true. But if I am definitely most interested in more funk/fusion type music and I rarely ever listen to traditional jazz how important do you think it is it to practice this stuff? This is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time. I’ve jumped into learning to walk and solo over standard changes but always found myself jumping out after a while because it just doesn’t relate to what I like to play and the music I hear and like to write. And I don’t listen to it that much either which makes it more difficult. 
If I had 5 hours a day to practice, this probably wouldn’t be an issue. I could fit in many different topics to practice. However, real life limits the number of hours I have to practice. So I guess this boils down to wondering if I should be spending my time in the shed on things that are really not totally related to what I like to play just for the knowledge I will gain on the instrument and for the technical and overall musical outcome it will provide. 
Maybe another way to sum it up and put it is this: Should I be learning the bass lines on Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage album to help me better play and write the type of stuff he was doing with the Headhunters, which I’m much more into musically?

The question is kind of a throwback to the 70s and 80s— the last time funk influences seemed to be eclipsing swing influences in jazz. I suppose it's easy now to forget how successful Wynton Marsalis's campaign was to re-center jazz around bebop. For decades it has been an unquestioned thing that if you're calling yourself a jazz musician in any way, shape or form, you have to be able to play bebop.

I actually don't know what the questioner here is complaining about— learning to play acoustic bass would be a much bigger commitment than just learning to play jazz on electric. Like, learn some tunes and shut up. For drummers, though, bebop is quite different stylistically from anything else we do, so maybe the question is more relevant— it involves a big commitment of time and attention.

Here's why to do it:

It's a baseline skill for professional drummers. Jazz has been dying, so they say, since the 50s, but it keeps hanging around, and there are still significant gigs available. Many of the steadiest and best paying gigs accessible to average players involve some degree of playing jazz.

There's a professional culture built around it.
Apart from gigs where you actually have to play jazz, there is a sizable cadre of professional musicians who are primarily jazz musicians, who will really only call other jazz musicians for gigs— whatever the style of music. At the very least, they're most likely to call people they already play with, which will be jazz guys.

It's what's taught in school. If you're in high school or college and wanting to play modern music, jazz is the main form in which they teach it.

Teaches you to improvise. There's a reason jazz musicians don't sweat rehearsals— indeed, it's hard to get them to rehearse at all: they have learned to sound good the first time they play something, with or without music, without ever having heard the tune before.

Teaches you to think melodically.
Not just in the Ari Hoenig sense of tapping out melodies on the drums, but in the sense of playing off of the melody of a tune, or a bass line, or a soloist. See the Syncopation-based methods I'm constantly talking about... that system was originally created in aid of playing jazz, and most teachers only know it in that context.

Teaches you to play musically. There are numerous large and small ways in which the demands of playing jazz improve your overall musicianship. Do you think I have time to think of them all and list them all for the sake of a little blog post? Sir or madam, I do not.

It's what good drummers do.
It's a very creatively rewarding and challenging field of music, which is the type of thing intelligent, ambitious players seek out. Even if, like me, you don't think you're very intelligent, you should just do what the smart people do. Imitate their actions, and in a couple of decades no one can tell the difference.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Transcription: Steve Gadd - Autumn Leaves

We should make a series out of this: “little known records where you can learn more about a drummer than from his really famous ones.” Something like that. This 70s album by Chet Baker gives you a chance to really check out Steve Gadd's jazz playing. You've heard him kill it with Chick Corea on albums like The Mad Hatter and Three Quartets, but maybe you could use an easier entry into what he's really doing. On this record the tempos are a little slower, the tunes are standards, and the drums are mixed right up front. Gadd tends to be thought of as a studio/fusion/R&B player, but he's also a great, very influential jazz drummer. There are a lot of elements to his playing that have become stylistic features of post-60s jazz drumming— his playing embodies some classic elements of newer playing the way Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones did 50s playing.

The album is She Was Too Good To Me by Chet Baker, released in 1974. The tune is Autumn Leaves, from which I've transcribed Gadd's drumming during the two choruses of Bob James's Fender Rhodes solo. Autumn Leaves is 32 bars long with an AABC form, but in this arrangement by Don Sebesky, the C section is 6 bars long plus an 8-bar tag— 14 measures. It sounds weird, but the tag just begins on the last note of the tune. They play the elongated form every time— on the head and on every chorus of the solos (sometimes arranged tags are played on the head only, or on the last chorus of solos only).

What he does owes a lot to Elvin Jones, simplified and polished, emphasizing Gadd's own deep groove. The cymbal interpretation is similar, and Gadd plays a lot of triplets in three and four way coordination. I hear a lot of Roy Haynes in Gadd's big syncopated accents on the cymbal and bass drum or cymbal and snare. Certainly there's a Tony Williams influence, but it's less obvious to me— certainly in the use of larger toms and bass drum.

The drum sound is different from a typical jazz sound through the 60s, and in the 90s and later; it's punchier, with more bottom. The tom toms are larger, with Black Dot heads tuned low, maybe with the bottom heads removed. The snare drum is tuned lower than normal for jazz, with a fat, muffled sound. Basically a straight studio pop sound for the time.

An interesting thing I'm noting on the second chorus especially is some feathering of the bass drum, mainly on the 2 and 4. There also seems to be a fair amount of playing both feet in unison. Interesting avenues for exploration if, like me, you want to add some bottom but you don't want to be playing quarter notes on the bass drum all night. The feathered bass drum is not in the transcription— everything I've included is a full, audible note.

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Our interest in old music

Is this what you want us to be, Bishop?
It occurred to me that most of the music we cover on the blog is fairly old: 20-70 years for the most part, with not a lot from the present century. It's good to be explicit on what that's about. We're not into old music for its own sake— we're not pining after the music of our youth, or some mythical golden age before we were born. It's primarily about taking in the whole modern history of our instrument, the way people in all other creative fields do. Painters don't question the value of looking at artists one, two, or five or more centuries old. Writers don't resist reading authors so old modern English hadn't even been invented yet.

In my thinking, the modern era of our instrument, the drum set, runs from roughly 1945 to 2017; about 70 years. On the blog we're most interested in the middle 40, about 1955-1995. In the mid to late 40s, the drumset became more or less standardized in its modern form, and the language of drumming evolved into what we currently use— even when playing earlier music, drummers now largely use language developed in the 40s. At that point drummers became perhaps more pure musicians— the players we like to follow had mostly lost the show drumming and Vaudeville elements that were a feature of earlier playing. And the actual style of music played then is still played today— bebop is regarded as the foundational style for jazz musicians, and it's widely taught in college. Also in the late 40s the LP format was first used to record jazz, allowing each side of a record to be more than 3 minutes long. At the same time recording technology improved fidelity to the point where engineers could record full drum sets played normally, and the drums could be heard clearly on the recording.

We are not enamored with fedoras
literally or metaphorically. 
So drumming of that period and after is easily studiable, and is directly relevant to currently-played music in an obvious way. Before that, a more archeological approach is required, and more education, to figure out what you're listening to, and why it's relevant to current drumming. We could consider the music of the teens-30s to be drumming's ancient world. The evidence is more fragmentary— the constraints of the recording technology of the time have left us with less to study. I wouldn't take that idea too far— we're still talking about a period of history within the lifetime of, for example, my grandparents (b. 1890s-1910s), and music that is still performed and still in the culture. It shouldn't be dismissed, but it's more of a challenge with regard to learning from the drumming.

Since we're into the job of playing the drums, we also are most interested in music that highlights that— a drummer playing a complete tune from beginning to end. We also like a fairly natural sound, in which we can visualize the actual performance. That's the reason we don't really get into much drumming involving a lot of electronics, or sampling, or very artificial production and processing— all increasingly prevalent since the 80s.

So what does this mean for us as artists? If we're just into music from 40-50 years ago, aren't we going to sound old fashioned? Aren't we just doing things that have been done?

Not really. Whatever is the formal history of something you play, you're playing it in the moment, in interaction with other players, in the context of a living musical event. And present drumming is heavily reliant on the drumming of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Sampling has made drumming stylistically of that period directly relevant to modern music. The actual content of modern drumming has not radically advanced; things played by, say, Tony Williams or Jack Dejohnette or Jon Christensen in the 60s or 70s are conceptually as modern as anything played since.

Once the future of men's fashion.
I consider it a creative advantage to not be too caught up in transient stylistic things, which often have not been real useful in the field (see any number of drumming trends popular on the internet), and generally do not live up to their hype longevity-wise: the Jungle thing (in the future, all tempos will be very fast), the glitch thing (mimicking an electronic form of “swinging”, which has evolved into something kind of stupid), tonal melodic playing (actually one player's signature thing), all of which have come and gone as the new future of drumming.

There have been, and continue to be many great, individualistic players working more or less within a language and concept developed in the 60s-80s. It's not a problem. Painters did not stop painting after the 1950s, by which time the frontiers of what could be done with pigment on a two-dimensional surface had been fully explored. The historical imperative to do the next most formally radical thing is exhausted, and people are free to paint what they want, drawing from the entire history of the medium.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Transcription: Jack Dejohnette - Backwoods Song

In honor of the passing of the guitarist John Abercrombie— along with Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Bill Frisell, one of the most important guitarists of the last ~45 years— here's Jack Dejohnette's playing on the opening of Backwoods Song, from the first Gateway album. Gateway was Abercrombie's trio with Dejohnette and Dave Holland. Every serious drummer needs to own all four of their records: Gateway, Gateway II, Homecoming, In The Moment.

I've transcribed the intro and head of the tune, up to the beginning of the guitar solo— probably I'll write out more of the track for a future Dejohnette transcription e-book.

There's a lot of stuff on the page, but this is pretty straightforward and playable. Play rolls, ruffs, and drags open— as 32nd note doubles. Where I've notated 32nd notes, play an alternating sticking. There are also a number of closed buzz-strokes, indicated with the z articulation. It's interesting where he plays the hihat with his foot— often when it's played sporadically like this, it seems to be happening by accident; the player is moving his foot the whole time, and occasionally some notes sound. Here Dejohnette mostly plays it during fills, not so much during the regular time feel— it's interesting to me because it suggests deliberation. I don't know if that observation will mean anything to anyone else.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Meter-within-meter: 5/8 in 4/4 rock - 01

This is something inspired by Joey Baron's playing on Bill Frisell's Child At Heart— I always come back to the same few things, and that's a particularly fertile, mainly simple, piece of drumming. Some of what he does sounds like it's derived from another meter, which leads us to what we're doing today: playing a rock beat in 5/8 in 4/4.

I'll state up front that the “metric modulation” thing currently fascinating the internet is not what we're about here. This is more about bringing a way of phrasing into your rock playing which you would not arrive at just thinking in straight 4/4.

On the page we have the basic idea in 5/8; then played twice metered in 5/4; then in 4/4 several one, two, three-measure (with an extra measure of 4/4 time at the beginning), and four-measure practice phrases, with the 5/8 pattern starting on 1, and with the 5/8 pattern on the end of the measure— the last five 8th notes of the measure. The accents are mainly for the hihat, but you can also accent the bass drum— notice that the first note of the 5/8 pattern is accented, and the last is not. It's not a terrible idea to count out loud in 4, especially on the longer practice phrases.

Practice the phrases, run them with the Child At Heart practice loop, and let this idea come into your actual playing in an organic way. You should at least hear some new phrasing possibilities even if you don't want to do this thing exactly.

Get the pdf

Friday, August 18, 2017

Figure Control - 6/4 - 02

Another page of Funk Control type exercises for use with my Stereolab/Free Design practice loop. We're calling this portion of the series Figure Control since it's not really funk, and we're basing the exercises on a specific rhythmic figure— I'm still working it out the concept. The practice variations are slightly different from the first page in 6/4, too. The tempo of the Stereolab loop is pretty cooking, so you might find a slower one to work these up.

You remember the methodology: learn each of the lettered practice exercises, and play them many times, say for one minute each. Then combine them; play every combination of patterns:

A-B, A-C, A-D, etc / B-C, B-D, B-E, etc / C-D, C-E, etc

For whatever letter exercise is first in the combination, you only have to combine it with letters that come after it. For example you don't have to practice B-A, because you already did A-B when you practiced the As.

Play each exercise in the combination one or two times; play the sequence many times:

||: A - B :||
||: A - A- B - B :||

The cymbal part in the exercises can be played on any cymbal; if an open hihat is indicated, play that exercise on the hihat. The drum parts can be played on the snare drum or moving around the drums.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Groove o' the day: Milton Nascimento - Tudo Que VocĂȘ Podia Ser

My apologies for the lack of new posts. I'm putting together a new show of my paintings— first one in 15 years— and that has been occupying most of my spare time of late. Here's a straightforward little GOTD played by one of my favorite Brazilian drummers, Robertinho Silva: Tudo Que VocĂȘ Podia Ser, on Milton Nascimento's epic Clube de Esquina album. The groove happens mainly on an instrumental break between vocal parts. The crash happens every measure.

Silva plays through one of the verses without the crash:

What the heck, since the groove is pretty easy, let's do a practice loop too. At quarter note = 99 BPM, this will be a good right hand workout. Practice it with and without the crash. Here's a link to the actual song, which you'll love.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Groove o' the day: Billy Cobham - The Dancer

Today we have a funk samba groove from Billy Cobham, playing The Dancer on Stanley Clarke's School Days— one of the biggest fusion albums of the 70s. We're actually throwing a bone to the open-handed players here, because I think Cobham was playing his left hand on the hihat on this. The break in the bass drum pattern on 4 is unusual for a samba feel; the long sound on 4 is also very 70s-fusion to me. This is a very 70s groove.

There are three tom toms here— two medium-pitched drums and a 20" or 22" gong drum. If you don't want to screw with the open-handed thing, just play your right hand on a cymbal. It's not a big deal. The groove develops somewhat during the tune, but the toms are always prioritized. There is a recurring unison on the snare and tom tom on beat 4 of the first measure, which requires a fast move from the hihat to a drum. The quick open hihat on the e of 3 of the second measure is not really a regular part of the groove— you can continue the regular hihat rhythm there if you want.