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Jeff Hamilton Style Brush Comping

Jeff's Brush Comping 

I am going to assume that if you are reading this blog you are already familiar with Jeff's incredible brush technique, as well as the video on the right where he describes his approach to brushes (and takes one of the best solos on a ballad that I have ever heard).  If you haven't yet had a chance to check out this video, I can summarize Jeff's approach as follows:

  • Strike the drum laterally instead of vertically 
  • Always keep one brush on the snare drum at all times
  • In addition to the two principles from Jeff above, I would add one more; try to keep your sweeping pattern mostly the same, don't change it to accommodate a particular rhythm.  Although Jeff doesn't talk about this in the video explicitly, I often see him model this behavior when he is playing.  

For me, this advice and Jeff's brush playing in general have been tremendously influential.  I particularly love the warm, legato sound he gets from the drum, and seek to emulate that sound in my own playing.


Andrew Hare, not an ambi-comper

Andrew Hare, not an ambi-comper

Brushes aren't sticks

In my last series of posts about brush comping, I started with the premise of getting my brushes to have more of the rhythmic freedom of my sticks.  In particular I noticed I was constrained by my comping only feeling good going in one direction (I'm not an ambi-turner!), and set about trying to change this.  Although I felt I was making some progress on my own, it wasn't until I had a lesson with my great teacher Chuck Redd that I had a real breakthrough.

Basically, brushes aren't sticks.  Specifically, trying to keep the right hand playing spang-a-lang while the left hand comps on the "+" of beats two and four sounds cluttered.  Why?  Because unlike with sticks, brushes are playing on one instrument.  When you comp on the "+" of beats two and four with sticks, it doesn't sound as redundant, because your right hand is getting a completely different sound on the cymbal than your left hand is getting on the snare drum.  With brushes you don't have this luxury, and so you have to make an adjustment to get a swinging and uncluttered sound.  

Chuck showed me a really simple solution to this problem.  Instead of playing spang-a-lang, sweep quarter notes with your right hand whenever you are comping on the "+" of beats two and four.  Playing this way you still get the sensation of continuity and swing from your right hand, and you can get a nice big hit with your left hand.  On the left is a video of me demonstrating some of this type of comping with "They Say It's Wonderful" from Chuck's terrific 2002 album "All This And Heaven Too".

 

Practical vs. Idealistic goals

Which leads me to a bigger point about setting musical goals.  For me, you always have to find a balance between what you would ideally like to achieve, and what you need to achieve in order to be a working musician.  The limiting factor of course, is time.  Especially as I get older, I find that more and more I am trying to set goals that will get me hired for gigs.  

That is not to say that setting super ambitious, really impractical goals is always a bad thing.  If Ari Hoenig had given up on playing bebop melodies on the drum set because people thought it was impractical, we never would have gotten to hear this.  And regardless of whether he is your favorite drummer, you have to admit that Ari's unique talent really opens up some new possibilities on the instrument.  

Of course, there are lots of examples like Ari's in the history of jazz.  Musicians who refused to accept what was possible or practical for whatever reason, and did things on their instrument that people had assumed was impossible.  The legend goes that when Loius Armstrong first went to Europe, other musicians kept on examining his trumpet, assuming that he was able to play so high because of some sort of trick instrument.  

That being said, you wouldn't know who Ari Hoenig, or Loius Armstrong for that matter, was if they weren't also able to do the things that got them hired for gigs in the first place!  In other words, Ari can't just play melodies on the drums all day, he also has to play good time, interact with the band, learn hits, read music, play with brushes, and do all the myriad other less glamorous things that make up a working jazz drummers stock in trade.  

So....

A practical exercise for developing Jeff's brush comping sound

This exercise was looking me right in the face from the beginning, but it took me a while to realize it.  Here is what you do:

Syncopation Pg. 33-45

  • Both hands sweep continuously back and forth in a kind of windshield wiper motion 
  • Both hands play the written line, right hand plays notes on the beat, left hand plays notes off
  • Whenever you have to play a rhythm from the written line, add a little pressure to your sweep with your fingers
  • Feet play regular jazz pattern, right foot lightly feathering on all four beats, left foot crisply closing the hihat on beats two and four

Aim for a relaxed, legato sound while still clearly delineating the written line.  As with all things brush related, this is much easier to see and hear than it is to read about, so here is a video of me playing the first four lines from pg. 34.  


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Beyond A Beat Part 1

The Grady Bossa

My teacher (the great Chuck Redd) recently introduced me to a slick new way of playing the bossa nova that he picked up from listening to Grady Tate.  You can clearly hear and see Grady's Bossa at 7:58 in the video to the right.

The basic gist of this groove is that the right hand plays a guiro-like pattern with a brush instead of the typical eighth notes.  If you listen to how Grady plays this groove here, you quickly realize that this approach to bossa nova is much more than simply a beat.  Grady plays with such command that he is able to alter the beat to fit whatever is going on in the music.  In other words, Grady's bossa is beyond a beat, it is more like a style.  

 

 

 

Here is what the basic groove looks/sounds like:

Rather than simply showing you this groove, in this series of posts I am going to take you through the process that I am using to get myself beyond just playing this idea as a beat, in the hopes that it will help you navigate this process more efficiently yourself.

Step 1: Orient your ear

This step is reasonably self-explanatory but also surprisingly easy to overlook.  You need to know what a groove is supposed to sound like in context, so find some good recordings and dive in.  I would recommend a combination of really mentally engaged listening where you are trying to actively pick apart the groove, as well as more passive listening to let the overall sound wash over you.  For the Grady bossa, the song "O Grande Amor" from the Stan Getz album "Sweet Rain" is perfect:

Step 2: Get it in your hands

This step is reasonably self-explanatory but also surprisingly easy to overlook.  You need to know what a groove is supposed to sound like in context, so find some good recordings and dive in.  I would recommend a combination of really mentally engaged listening where you are trying to actively pick apart the groove, as well as more passive listening to let the overall sound wash over you.  For the Grady bossa, the song "O Grande Amor" from the Stan Getz album "Sweet Rain" is perfect:

Step 2: Get it in your hands

This step is all about the physical feeling of the groove, mastering the technique and coordination necessary to play the groove.  One really helpful tip with this step is get a lot of this work done away from the drum set.  This will help you use your actual time at the drum set more efficiently as well as open possibilities for more flexible practice. 

To the right is an example of me practicing the Grady bossa away from the set.

Once you feel good away from the drums, it is time to work out the basic groove on the drums. Chuck has hipped me to practicing at 100 bpm, as this is a very challenging "in between" kind of tempo that tends to either rush or drag.  Check out the video of me playing at the top to hear what this sounds like at this tempo.

 

Step 3: Generalize and expand possibilities

After you have a groove firmly in your ears and hands, the next step is to expand away from the basic beat by generalizing and working on variations.  In this case, generalizing means to find what makes a beat distinctive.  For the Grady bossa, the brush sweeping the guiro pattern over a bossa foot ostinato with a cross-stick sound in the left hand is what makes it distinctive.  But you can play just about any rhythmic variation with your left hand without compromising the distinctive sound of the groove. 

In order to get at some of these rhythmic possibilities, I like to use Syncopation to experiment. 

 

 

Here is a video of me playing through the first couple of lines of page 34 in this fashion again at 100 bpm:

In the subsequent posts in this series I will discuss more steps to getting beyond a beat, so stay tuned!

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Making Weird Things Work

As promised in a previous post, here is a great example of how to escape from the sometimes monotonous head/solo/head format.  In this example of the song "Just You, Just Me", Chuck Redd (the vibes player) sets the pace by introducing a new melody halfway through the song.  This is not something that you can do lightly, and there are a number of instructive things that Chuck did to make sure that this unusual technique would work.  The following are three of these things extrapolated into general principles for making weird thing work. 

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1.  Broadcast your intentions ahead of time

Chuck introduces the new melody ("Evidence" by Thelonious Monk) a chorus ahead of time by quoting it on the bridge at 3:26.  This gives the musicians in the band a heads-up that something funky could be going on (although I still totally bungled the transition to the new melody).  Of course there is nothing wrong with actually talking about an idea before you begin the song, but that is only if you think of it ahead of time and doing this can also take some of the fun element of surprise out of the music. 


2.  Listen

This is certainly not the first time I have brought up the importance of listening, but nowhere is it more obviously important than when something outside of the box is going on.  If you are just playing on auto-pilot and you aren't engaged in what is going on in the music around you, you will totally miss any subtle hints that something strange is happening and will most likely make a mess of things.  For example, notice how quickly everyone in the band picked up on the new melody.  Even though I was shaky for a second, because I was listening I could find my way back by the second A section.  

Another great example of listening is how Chuck picks up on the phrase from Nicki's solo (5:05) and turns it into a shout chorus!  

3.  Know what works and what doesn't

Chuck knew that "Evidence" fit well over "Just You, Just Me", and that it could easily be super-imposed for that reason.  Knowing when this sort of thing will work and on what songs is a key component to pulling it off.  Essentially, you can't move between melodies successfully in this fashion without a great deal of knowledge and experience.

This video is another from a great gig from several months back featuring my teacher Chuck Redd on vibes, Chris Grasso on piano, and Nicki Parrott on bass/vocals.  For residents of the DC area, if you want to hear some great jazz check out the calender at the Mandarin Oriental.  Chris books the shows there and always does a great job!

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Brazilian Drumming For Jazz Musicians

1.  Don't be afraid to stretch

Zack Pride!

In my experience one of the biggest mistakes that drummers make when playing Brazilian music is that they get so caught up in trying to play the groove "correctly" that they forget to try to make music.  One of the really beautiful things about Brazilian music in general is how it is infused with the spirit of improvisation, so don't be afraid to experiment and go with your instincts!  

For example in the recording of "How Insensitive" at the top (with Chris Grasso on piano and Zack Pride on bass, make sure to listen with headphones), listen to how I start out with by just sketching a rhythm with my right hand during the A section of the melody, or how I go into a kind of weird Bolero on the snare drum on the vamp out.  These things aren't really textbook or correct playing, I just thought they sounded good at the time. 

Speaking of sounding good, how sick was that bass solo?!  Zack Pride  ladies and gentleman. 

2.  Check out Milton Banana

My excellent teacher Chuck Redd suggested that I check out some Milton Banana to help deepen my Brazilian concept.  I have absolutely loved learning about his music, and I highly recommend that everyone who wants to learn about Brazilian drumming make this a priority.  One thing I immediately noticed about the way Milton grooves is how he uses a strong bass drum (particularly on beats two and four) and an ever so slightly swung eighth note feel to give a strong, earthy samba feel to everything he plays.  Listen:

3.  "Brazilian Rhythms for Drumset"

If like me you have somehow gotten to this point in your life without checking out this fantastic book by Duduka da Fonsceca and Bob Weiner, there is no time like the present.  Here is a solid write up from Cruiseshipdrummer on all the relevant literature. 

Books like this can help you get a lot of essential information fast, but it is important to remember that you need lots of listening/application/experience for all of it to be useful.  

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Food For Thought: Rushing

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!

The great bassist Hassan Shakur!

Rushing isn't necessarily bad

Saying that rushing isn't necessarily bad may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I believe we need to rethink how we use this word.  Here is a simple experiment to illustrate my point: 

1.  Listen to the recording at the top (which features my great teacher Chuck Redd on Vibes, Ehud Asherie on Keys, and Hassan Shakur on Bass) straight through.  Ask yourself how it sounded and felt.  To my ear the whole things sounds pretty good, and the band is swinging throughout.

2.  Now listen again, but this time skip from the head in right to the head out.  We were definitely rushing!

Here is the thing, human beings don't really experience or play music non-linearly.  We can and should only play what feels good in the moment, and in general, what feels good in the moment isn't necessarily metronomically precise.  If we go back and analyze a recording, sometimes what felt good in the moment is essentially a gradual increase in tempo over the course of a song.  In other words, rushing.  I have found that this tendency to rush seems most powerful in a live setting. 

Another more famous example from Max Roach, try doing the same listening experiment:

Again, to my ear this recording sounds great all the way through, but man are they rushing like crazy!

Playing on top of the beat vs. Rushing

There are so many examples of classic recordings like the one above where the playing rushes, but still feels and sounds so great that labeling it as "rushing" seems completely irrelevant.  Many jazz musicians I know talk about playing on top of the beat as opposed to rushing, and I think this terminology makes a useful distinction.  Playing on top of the beat generally means playing with a sense of forward motion by slightly anticipating the quarter note pulse.  In reality, this type of playing often leads to an increase in tempo over the course of the song.  

I think that playing on top of the beat only becomes rushing (and hence a really serious problem) when it happens either so quickly or so dramatically that it disrupts the feel of the music.  In other words, a gradual increase in tempo of over the course of a song like in the examples above wouldn't really be rushing in this scheme, it would just be playing on top of the beat. 

Playing with or without metronomic precision can both produce great music

Let me make an analogy to art.  For most of the history of western art, the primary objective of the artist was to record the visible world as accurately as possible.  The attempt to translate reality onto the canvas produced some of the worlds greatest art and artists.  Look at the incredible attention to detail in this self-portrait by Rembrandt for example:

At some point, artists began to realize that there was more to art than trying to reproduce reality, that art could have other more abstract priorities.  This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that cameras were being invented, and the ability of a person to reproduce reality was being completely overshadowed by this new technology.  But regardless, this increasingly abstracted art also produced some of the worlds greatest art and artists.  Below is another self-portrait, this time by Picasso: 

Even though Picasso's and Rembrandt's paintings clearly do not have the same priorities, both produce a real emotional experience and both are masterpieces.  In a musical context, this means that a piece can have either a very strict or very loose relationship to metronomic precision and still produce a real emotional experience for audiences. 

Sorry, you still have to practice with a metronome

Although this idea would seem to suggest that I don't think practicing with a metronome is very important, this is not at all the case.  I think the skills you develop in pushing yourself to play accurately with a metronome are valuable regardless of whether you play with perfect precision on the bandstand or not.  There are lots of examples of things that you need to practice hard and then essentially forget about when you are playing, and in my opinion playing with a metronome is one such thing. 

The bottom line

There are two main points I want to emphasize:

1.  Music doesn't have to be metronomically precise to feel good.

2.  A gradual increase in tempo over the course of the song that feels good should be referred to as "playing on top of the beat", not "rushing" . 

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Food for thought: The Tyranny of Head/Solo/Head

A relentless experimenter
Why do we always play head/solo/head?
A couple of weeks ago I played a great gig with a group of musicians who got me thinking about the pervasiveness of the head/solo/head format in jazz.  Obviously there is some good reasons why this format works and I love it, but does that mean that there isn't room for anything else?  I think a lot of jazz musicians get tired of playing every song with the exact same format night after night, and I know that audiences do.  Let me give you a couple of examples of some other possibilities.

1.  Experiment with structure
One of the great inspirations for endless experimentation with the structure of a song is Duke Ellington.  Just listen to a tune like "Cottontail":


There is so much going on this song that you barely even notice that they only play the last A section on the head out!  It should be noted that experimenting with structure at this level usually takes a lot of arrangement and practice, so trying to pull something like this off on the fly may not work.  The main point is though is that jazz doesn't need to stick to the familiar to be compelling. 

2.  Introduce a new melody
Another one
During the gig I was referring to, we played the standard "Just Friends".  Everything was proceeding normally until we got about half way through the song.  At that point Chuck Redd (the vibraphonist on the gig) suddenly began playing the melody of the Monk tune "Evidence".  This was a startling twist, but it worked brilliantly and added a completely new feel to the song.

This technique of introducing a new melody (generally it has to work over the same chord changes, or at least be close) can take a song in a completely new and exciting direction.  And provided that you are playing with a good group of listening musicians, there is no reason you can't pull this off.  

3.  Start with a solo or solos
A solo introduction can also take the song in a completely new direction.  This doesn't have to be a mopey rubato piano solo either, start with the whole band wailing away for a couple of choruses before you even get to the melody.  You can even go through a whole song without playing the melody until the very end.

4.  Stick with the melody
Just today I was listening to a beautiful tune called "The Mirale" that a friend of mine Nadav Remez wrote.  Listen:


What really struck about this tune is how the band essentially sticks to the melody throughout.  With each new repetition they add layers of sound and intensity, but the melody remains.  What an inspired and refreshing approach!  

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Transitions 7: Building Momentum Throughout a Solo Section



Building Momentum Throughout a Solo Section
In one of my previous posts in the "Transitions" series I discussed some techniques for moving between soloists.  In today's post I want re-examine how to transition between soloists, this time from the larger-scale perspective of how to build momentum throughout an entire solo section.  

Chuck Redd!
If you go back and read through my earlier post, you will notice that I discuss the possibility of the "smooth transition" between soloists, carrying the energy from one solo directly into the next solo instead of trying to start building momentum afresh in each solo.  If you can do this same smooth transition through several solos, you can essentially create one large-scale climax in the entire song.  It is easy to lose sight of this bigger picture when you  are in the moment, and it takes a very sympathetic, mature, and sensitive group of musicians to really pull this off, but the results can be really thrilling. 

I had the pleasure of playing with just such a group of musicians the other night (Chuck Redd on Vibes, Chris Grasso on Piano, Nicki Parrott on Bass, and Lyle Link on Sax), and the video of the beautiful Bossa-Nova "Once I Loved" at the top is a great demonstration of how this can work. 


Two Simple Strategies:
Nicki Parrott!
As I mentioned, getting this continuous building of momentum to work involves a lot of complicated moving parts, so there are no guarantees that any one strategy will always work.  In the video above though, two simple things that I did were to change implements (from brushes to sticks) and gradually build up the dynamics.  

I start quietly with brushes during Chuck's solo, only moving to sticks once we get to Lyle's solo at 3:52.  To continue to build momentum when we get to Chris's solo (at 5:27), I stuck with sticks and started to build up the volume and energy on the cymbal.  As a result, Chris's solo, which is also the final solo of the solo section, really feels like the climax of the entire song.  In addition to being really musically exciting, this also makes the transition back into the head out feel totally natural.  

Summary
Using strategies like these (and others) to build momentum throughout a solo section is something that master drummers are doing constantly!   Hopefully this post will give you some insight into how to apply this very important technique in your own playing. 

I also wanted to say that I had a great time playing with this group, and I hope to put up some more video from the gigs soon.  I hope you all enjoy listening to the music as much as I enjoyed making it!

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