For todays post I want to talk about another one of my favorite drummers and a way that he found to interact with the melody in a tasteful way. Philly Joe is most famous for his playing with Miles Davis's first great group. One of the things that made this group so influential was Philly Joe's ability to create a rhythmic dialogue with the melody instruments. The following exercise from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" is designed to help you develop the ability to comp in the spaces of the melody or "in the cracks".
Sonny Rollins, “Tenor Madness”
Exercise #8: Playing Time with Comping “In the Cracks”
Step 1: In this exercise we are going to explore a concept called playing “in the cracks” that is another central element of Philly Joe’s highly influential comping style. Playing in the cracks means to play comping patterns only when a soloist leaves space in their solo. This technique allows the soloist to play uncluttered lines, and lends itself to conversational back and forth between the soloist and the drummer. This conversation often takes on the form and characteristics of call and response . To develop this technique, you will practice singing the melody (the call), and only playing comping patterns (the response) during rests or notes held longer than a quarter note.
Voice= The melody (link to the leadsheet below)
L.H. and R.F.= Comping in the cracks
L.F.= Jazz foot
When you are playing in the cracks, there will still be times that it will be appropriate for you to play with the melody as you can see in the example, but you have to be very selective. Try to only play melody notes that are either very punctuated, emphasized, or rhythmically significant, for example the first note of a phrase. You should avoid playing unaccented melody notes in the middle of phrase. Also, It can take time and energy to develop the ability to play something different than what you are singing, but it is an excellent way to develop the habit of always being conscious of what the soloist is doing and not interrupting it unnecessarily.
Step 2: The next step in developing in the cracks style comping vocabulary is to listen and play along with Sonny’s solo (starting around 2:10 in the track) until you can sing along with it and comp in the cracks at the same time. Try restricting your comping ideas to just playing on the “+” of 1 and 3 on the snare drum initially so that you can focus on what Sonny is playing. Once you feel comfortable singing Sonny’s solo you can start to open up more creative comping patterns.
Voice= Sonny’s Solo
L.H.= Comping on “+” of 1 and 3 in the cracks
R.F. and L.F.= Jazz feet
Don’t worry if you are not able to sing Sonny’s solo note for note, instead focus on his rhythm and phrasing. The point of this exercise is not develop your vocal performance abilities, but instead to teach you to focus intently on what the soloist is doing so that you can respond appropriately.
The key to responding appropriately is responding to a soloist fast enough to comp in the spaces that they leave in their solo. The more you learn to recognize phrasing patterns and styles of particular soloists, the better you will be at anticipating when a soloist is going to leave space for you to fill. If you get into the habit of really focusing on what a soloist is doing, you may even find yourself singing along with a soloist while they are improvising on a gig! One thing that Philly Joe and all the other great drummers in this book have in common is a seemingly superhuman ability to respond to everything a soloist does. Practicing playing in the cracks in this fashion is way for you to start to develop this ability.
For a clear example of incredibly responsive drumming just listen to Philly Joe playing with Sonny Rollins (the composer and performer of this melody) on the suggested recording. They had complimentary styles and played together beautifully, partly due to Philly Joe’s use of in the cracks style comping informed by intense focus on what Sonny Rollins was playing. Listening, transcribing, and trying to absorb Philly Joe’s comping with Sonny Rollins is one of the best ways to start developing your own in the cracks style vocabulary.
Here is a video of me playing two choruses of Step 1.