What makes a drum solo melodic?

Max is widely credited as being the first melodic drum soloist.  One question that I often get after people hear Max's soloing is, "How is that melodic"?  I think that this is actually a really good question, and goes to the heart of what this blog is all about. 

Using the architecture and phrasing of a melody

Unlike the last post about Ari Hoenig where the answer to the question is absolutely clear, since Ari literally plays the melody note for note, Max doesn't usually play melodically in this sense. Instead what he does is use the architecture and phrasing of a melody instrument to create tension and release in his solo.  For example "For Big Sid" from "Drums Unlimited":

The architecture of melody: Form

In this unaccompanied drum solo you can hear these techniques very clearly.  In terms of architecture, Max starts out with a clear statement of the theme or melody of the piece and then repeats it three times, creating two eight bar A sections.   After these A sections, he introduces some new, but thematically related material in an eight bar bridge before returning to the original theme in the final A section.  This AABA song form is a perfect example of using the architecture of a melody to structure a drum solo.  This form also has a built in sense of tension when it moves away from the familiar material of the A section on the bridge, and release when the familiar A section returns after the bridge. 

The larger structure

Max also uses the even larger structure of head-solo-head to organize the entire piece.  In other words, rather than just jumping right into improvisation, he starts and ends with a clear melody and then uses this as the basis for his improvisation. This a fundamental part of how jazz music works in that there is both tension from moving away from the comfortable/recognizable material of the head in the solos, and the release of finally coming back to that material in the final head out. 

The interior design of melody: Phrasing

If architecture is the large scale technique of playing a melodic drum solo, phrasing is the interior design, the smaller scale.  Some specific phrasing techniques that Max uses in this solo include contour, repetition, use of space,  and call and response.  By using all these techniques, Max is able to create an experience of tension and release for the listener that is similar to the experience of listening to a melodic instrument. 


Although the drum set is not a pitched instrument in the traditional sense of the word (that is that it plays frequencies we recognize as musical tones), it does have a clear order of high to low sounds (cymbals down to the bass drum).  With that idea in mind, listen to the shape that Max creates in the A section of this solo.  This simple high to low shape gives this solo a clear contour, just like a melody.  And this contour combined with the rhythm is what makes this theme so distinctive, recognizable, and melodic.        


By starting the solo with a simple statement and then repeating that statement three more times, Max is underlining that this idea is the theme of the solo.  Throughout his soloing, he is also constantly referencing this theme, never straying far enough way that the listener loses sight of it.  This is a big part of the way that Max relates the song of his improvisation to the pre-composed song or melody (see the post "The two songs of jazz" for more on this idea).  Repetition is one of the key techniques that melody instruments use to give a listener something to hold on to.  Having a theme to a solo both gives the listener the satisfaction of recognition, as well as surprise and tension when the expectation of recognition is upset.  Max uses this tension and release to draw the listener into his solo like a masterful melodic player.

Use of space

Max further emphasizes that the initial figure is the theme of the song by leaving space between each statement instead of cluttering things up with flashy fills.  This deliberate pacing also means that his solo has somewhere to go.  In other words, as he builds up the intensity and velocity of his solo, it feels as if the solo has a direction rather than just a static flood of notes.  Once this buildup reaches a climax where the notes are flying by and the tension is at its highest, it is that much more satisfying for the listener to return to the more stately pacing of the opening theme.  This is another way in which Max's soloing shares the principle of tension and release with a melody instrumentalist.  

Call and response

Call and response is the last phrasing technique that I want to highlight.  In the opening theme of the song, the call and response feeling is immediately apparent.  It is somewhat awkward to  describe, but it is definitely clear to the ear.  Listen to how the call ends high on the snare drum, and doesn't feel resolved until the response with the final two low notes on the bass drum.  The entire solo is infused with the feeling of call and response, where the call sets up an expectation or tension, and the response releases that tension.  It is a sort of question and answer structure where the questioning high note isn't resolved until the answers low, solid ending.  


So the answer to the question, "How is that melodic?" is that between his use of the large scale technique of melodic architecture, and the small scale melodic phrasing techniques I have described, Max creates tension and release in his solo just like a melodic instrumentalist would.