Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Plain talk about fast tempos

“Billy, can we talk?”
Henry Fonda time. I see we need to have this talk again. Everybody wants to talk about ride cymbal technique for blazing tempos. A little perspective on the subject:  

About 15 years ago a couple of friends of mine were moving to New York, and were intimidated that they would not be good enough at playing playing really fast tempos— and a list of whatever hard tunes— so we did some regular sessions to work on that. 

We concluded, after a few months of this: half note = 150-160 was manageable and playable, 165-175 was getting frenetic, above ~ 175 was getting ridiculous and we could barely keep it together. That's the approximate range of tempos on Four & More

Many people never play anything faster than about the highest traditional metronome marking: quarter note = 208. They'll say “let's burn one” and then count off ~200 bpm. Most other people rarely get much above ~ Passion Dance / Chasin' The Trane tempo— let's say quarter note = 240. 

Roy Haynes's magic tempo, around half note = 143— the approximate tempo on his famous recordings of Matrix, Have You Met Miss Jones?, Reaching Fourth, All The Things You Are— is extremely fast for most people. I think it's a tempo at which every ambitious player should be able to really kill it— I'll call that normal fast.   

A little above that, we're getting into the high range where the subdivisions are playable and sound like regular notes, fast but not hyperactive. 

At the very high end, half note = 200 is a nice round number, and John Riley mentions it in his book The Art of Bop Drumming, so a lot of  us think of that as the number to strive for as our upper limit. And it's truly absurd. You'll hear things in that vicinity on records occasionally, and usually everyone sounds bad except maybe the guy who's session it is. As fast as those 60s Miles records are, they never get that fast, and they never sound bad like that. 

But I don't know, here's Woody Herman's band playing Caldonia, the tune Riley mentioned, and they keep it together at around 400 bpm. They were a touring band, so they were doing this together every night. And the rhythm section breaks it up by laying out a couple of times, and playing some half time. Bob Leonard is on drums, watch carefully what he's actually doing. Watch what everyone does at these tempos— most often they're not playing a complete, perfectly composed bebop drum part.

More often where those numbers come up in everyday life is when people get called to play with a touring performer, who calls at least one absolute barn burner. That's where normal players get burned— normal excellent players. It's an unfair situation, because they're probably just playing with the guy the one time.  

My principled objection to insane tempos is that they're BS. Speeding something up to the point that “the beat” is really a subdivision, and you're supposed to be creative in a subdivision of that— it's BS. It's not music, it's a jazz-cultural terror weapon.  


...which is totally irrelevant when you were called to play with Godzilla and he's making you do something insane, and you have to do it because you took the gig and you're on stage and this is happening. You get no opportunity to get up and debate the merits of it. There will be no opportunity to rationally present your position that your priorities were directed at more substantive musical pursuits.

So, I'm not saying don't work on this, just keep it in perspective— who are you going to be playing with, and when. If you want to do ordinary jazz gigs and jam sessions locally, just be very good within traditional metronome range, up to about 208. As a broad rule, everyone should be able to do that. And there is a lot of work to do just learning to play well in that range. That's the point of this entire conversation.

If you're a serious college level student, be pushing that up into that Passion Dance range— sounding very good at quarter note = 250+. You may be called on to hack through something faster than that. 

If you're very ambitious about your playing, and want to play with the very best players in any region of the country, you want to be able to kill it at Roy Haynes tempo. Check out the Pat Metheny record Question & Answer, which has a lot of fast tunes on it— you want to be able to hang with everything on there. When you can do that, that's when you should be thinking about how will I survive when thrust into a super-fast situation.

In fact you'll want to be able to hang and sound good in the full Four & More spectrum— say, half note = 145-175. At least be able to survive at the upper end of that. 

The absolutely absurdly fast range... if you can do these other things, you can probably survive, somehow. I don't know if anyone has that perfectly worked out in the practice room and ready to go in a fully finished state when called upon to do it. Max Roach had to learn to do it on stage, and most of us do not get the opportunity to do that any more.  

POSTSCRIPT: Oh, when my guys got to New York nobody they played with was playing fast, either, and they were all playing ordinary tunes. 


Anonymous said...

'Jazz terror weapon' is a great term, and could otherwise be called a 'p#$£ing contest'.
Am I right in thinking that at those much higher tempos the ride pattern ceases to swing, becoming more like straight 8th notes ?

Todd Bishop said...

Not so much a "PC", more of a test...

But yes, at faster tempos, swing 8th notes even out-- depending on the player and the situation.