Friday, August 09, 2019

A balanced attitude about cymbals

Some thoughts on cymbals; sound, quality of instruments, and how that relates to playing music. We want to have nice instruments and get a great sound, but, frankly, it is not all-important. Hopefully here we'll find a balance between consumeristic cymbal fetishist and pure I-don't-give-a-damn road dog.

“Give me a cymbal and I'll play it” — Art Blakey
Some people— including some well-known players— really do not care what they play. Blakey's attitude in that quote is to wail on the thing and make it do your bidding regardless of what it sounds like. I imagine players like that don't give sound much thought, and play exactly the same way on any instrument.

I understand the attitude, to an extent. I'm mostly that way about drums. I could play anything good (and most things bad) and it wouldn't bother me. And I've had to play a lot of bad cymbals in my career— or, decent cymbals that weren't quite right for the setting— you're not quite happy with them, but you still have to play. You find a way to make music with the instrument you have. I'm not going to play badly just because a cymbal is weird. You learn how to play well while not loving your sound.

“It's the player”
A friend who studied with Danny Gottlieb got a chance to play Mel Lewis's cut up A. Zildjian, one of the more famous cymbals in jazz. He said: “I played it and it sounded like shit. Danny played it and it sounded like shit.”

Who knows, maybe it would have sounded that way if you stood next to Mel playing it in his garage.

I don't actually believe Danny Gottlieb or my friend were incapable of getting a good sound out of that cymbal. I don't believe in only particular players being able to use certain cymbals. Good players who pay attention can find the best possible sound out of any cymbal.

Most importantly: getting a good sound out of any cymbal requires a good player, playing good stuff with a good touch.

It's about what you play, and how. And when.
A cymbal is an instrument, it is not the music. Sound is important, but it is still just an envelope for the things we play. A good instrument does not make weak playing into good playing.

But they do affect what you play.
You cannot take a 22" Sound Creation Dark Ride and a 22" Bosphorus Master Turk on a piano trio gig and play them the same way. You're going to dance around with some light sticks on the Paiste; on the Bosphorus you'll spend the gig tripping out thinking you sound like Nefertiti... whether or not the audience agrees.

If you're at all guided by your ears in your playing, you're not going to be happy playing an A. Zildjian Ping Ride in a normal jazz situation. There's no good model for that kind of sound. There are some Count Basie trio records where Louis Bellson plays some heavy As, but they sound terrible. Few of us would play our best on one of those things.

Bad or mediocre cymbals put you outside the music a little bit; you have to think more about your technique, and about avoiding making the ugly sounds they have in them. The sound is always nagging you as being not quite right.

Holy Grail
To me that's a cymbal that works well as a musical instrument, that sounds like the sound in your head, that responds well to your natural personal touch, and sounds good to the other players and to the audience. And, played by a good player like you, it should be capable of an objectively beautiful sound in a traditional sense, equivalent to Charlie Haden's sound, or Paul Chambers's sound. It's not necessarily an absolutely perfect cymbal, but it's a cymbal you can have a conversation with.

This is not an advertisement
Or, it is, but I would say the same things if it wasn't. When I get excited about the cymbals I'm selling, the Cymbal & Gong cymbals, it's because they fulfill the above description so well. We can survive musically with less than perfect instruments, and should be able to, but we're supposed to be serious about our sound, and get good instruments when they're available.

No comments: