Monday, June 01, 2020

Listening: Art Blakey groove number

Let's do some more guided listening. Here's Art Blakey playing a little Quincy Jones groove arrangement with a nine piece ensemble: Plenty, Plenty Soul, from the Milt Jackson album of the same title. The form is 12-bar blues. I'm surprised to see that it's 9 1/2 minutes long; it feels like a little four minute radio number.

Put on the headphones and give this at least three close listens:

It's a clean, understated performance, with none of Blakey's trademark ferocity. At no point do you feel he's playing louder to compete with the five horns. I might say it's a professional performance, meaning he's playing it like a hired studio drummer, rather than like a featured show performer, which is more the vibe of his Jazz Messengers stuff. That's not to suggest that his playing there is “unprofessional.”

He plays a backbeat most of the time; it's deeply grooving but not at all loud. Most of the time he's playing the little shuffle pick up before it. He's playing a strong (not loud!) quarter pulse with the cymbal rhythm, typically with a dotted-8th/16th rhythm. The snare drum rhythm has a similar, very tight timing— it's not a triplet. You can hear at the points where he does play triplets in a fill, it's a very different rhythm from the main groove of the piece. No doubt he's playing quarter notes or half notes on the bass drum through most of this, but you never hear it except where he's making a deliberate accent or punctuation, or on the tutti sections.

There's some air between the bass (played by Percy Heath) and the drums. Generally sounds like the attack of the ride cymbal is a little ahead of the bass, and the snare drum is behind everything— playing the shuffle rhythm the way he does is a way of getting that behind-the-beat feel with it. At some points it sounds to me like the bass is more on the front of the beat. Your ears can fool you. It's worth it to give a very close listen to the timing of the major events on this track— everything is not perfectly squared off. That's not a flaw.

Blakey does a double time groove a few times— after 5:00 for example.

Mostly he does it with a straight 2 and 4 on the snare drum— no extra little shuffle note. He often comes in with that in the last two bars of the chorus. He may double times just those two bars, or continue it through the complete following chorus, or he may goes back to regular time on the turnaround— bar 9 of the form. Where things happen in the form is important information for playing blues. We're not just punctuating randomly.

There is no bebop-type comping activity at all. Instead he makes big statements here and there; usually at the end of a solo, leading into the next solo. He may do his crescendoing press roll, a Blakey trademark, or triplets on the tom toms. At the end of the trombone solo he does a pitch bend thing on a tom tom.

His playing on the arranged passages is simple, with simple one or two note set ups for the horn kicks; he'll keep playing the 2 and 4 until the end, when he hits the big figure in unison with the horns. He does a ruff on the toms/bass drum during the horn fall at the end of the short ensemble interlude passages— he lands on the 1 of the second bar of the new chorus with that.

At first I thought he was using two cymbals— but I think he's using one 20" sizzle cymbal and varying his playing area and touch. Listen closely to it— there is no more classic jazz sound than that, and it's very similar to the Cymbal & Gong cymbals [PLUG PLUG PLUG— tb]. The accent sound at 2:00 is exactly the explosive crash sound we look for in a ride cymbal. People call this a “dark” sound, but it's more accurate to call it complex; there are trebly elements to it.

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