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Music, Music, Music

Great album + Awesome pun = Highly recommended

Great album + Awesome pun = Highly recommended

Tommy Flanagan Trio "Overseas" aka "Elvin Plays Amazing Brushes"

I didn't get hip to this album until this year when it was recommended by Jon McCaslin at FOUR ON THE FLOOR, and it has been a joy getting acquainted with it.  It is too easy to form a one-dimensional picture of Elvin Jones.  The irresistible force of his playing in the classic Coltrane quartet overshadows the many other sides of his playing.  Not that I have anything but the deepest love for that group, but it is good to hear Elvin playing in other contexts, in this case a straight-ahead piano trio featuring the great Detroit pianist Tommy Flanagan.  Elvin was a master musician, capable of adapting to fit any context in the enormous range of jazz music.  

The big highlight of this album for me is getting to hear Elvin's nasty brush playing.  In my experience Elvin is a really underrated brush player, despite the fact that his deep, rolling, triplety vocabulary works equally well with sticks or brushes.  Just listen to the track at the top ("Beats Up") for proof!   

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Elvin Jones: This Is Also What I Am Talking About

Modern Drummer Interview
 In an earlier post I focused on a video interview where Elvin explains how he would embellish a melody on the drums.  Today I wanted to continue to develop this theme of using the melody as the basis for improvisation with an excerpt of the Modern Drummer interview from July 2002.  

The interviewer in this article was the great John Riley, and the whole thing is incredible, but I want to share a particularly relevant exchange:

John Riley
Riley: When some people solo, they string together a bunch of licks.  Other people play off of the form and melody, or the last motif of the previous soloist, or the emotion of the moment.  When I listen to your soloing, I always hear an intimate relation with the melody, but with great embellishment.  What's your philosophy?

Elvin: I think the structure of the composition is very important to know and to learn.  You have to play within the context of the composition and interpret the composition in a way that the composer envisioned it.  I think about that more than anything else. 

If you are playing in a group and understand the composition, you can hear what's necessary as far as what you can do to embellish what the soloists are doing.  If you have an opportunity to play a solo, understanding the structure allows you to play a solo that references that structure. What you play makes sense that way.

Wisdom from Monk
If everybody is playing the same composition, usually it comes out pretty good.  For example, Thelonious Monk heard some fellow playing a solo once.  Monk was very sparing with his words; he didn't talk much.  Monk said, "That was a nice solo.  But it was the wrong tune." [Laughs]

Riley: So you're always singing the melody in your head?

Elvin: I hope I am.  I try to make sure that I'm in the same place as everybody else. 



That wonderful line of Monk's reveals so much about what makes a drum solo work or not.  If you evaluate your own playing, do you feel like your soloing is a natural extension of the song you are playing, or is it totally unrelated?  Being able to play your instrument is great, but if you can't make a solo connect with a song in a meaningful way, you are cut off from the life of the music.  As Elvin would put it, connecting your soloing to a song is what makes it "make sense". 

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Elvin Jones: Understanding the melody




To underscore the theme of the blog, here is one of the great masters of the instrument talking about one way he approaches soloing: "If we understand the melody, we can understand how that melody or rhythmic phrase can be developed." 

Recently I was discussing the idea of using the melody as the basis for soloing on the excellent discussion forum at Cymbalholic.  The person I was talking with had suggested that for the most part soloing has nothing to do with the melody, but is instead spontaneous composition, and that using the melody as the basis for a solo was basically corny.  I disagree with this idea, and this Elvin quote and solo clip below are perfect examples of why.

Because Elvin's solos are so rhythmically intricate people often assume that they are open solos based purely on spontaneous composition, and have no essential relationship to the melody of the song.  Although I totally understand why this would superficially seem to be the case, I think that if you listen carefully to Elvin's soloing, you can very often find a relationship to the melody.  In fact, to my ear, Elvin's solos are some of the most beautiful expressions of melodic phrasing on the drum set.

Although at times it can be difficult to hear through the density of his rhythms, the direction and feel of his soloing is often closely linked to melodic phrases.  One example of this is his solo on "Monk's Dream" from the album "Unity" by Larry Young.  Trying singing the melody along with his solo (starts at 3:50).



Did you hear how Elvin's phrasing flows with the melody?  Sometimes he hits directly on the melody, for example in the beginning when he quotes the melody, sometimes he seems to respond to it, for example when he starts to roll over the vamp on the bridge, but either way it is a beautiful, complex interaction with this particular melody.  As someone else in the conversation on Cymbalholics put it, the solo "belongs to this tune and no other".

John Riley has a great transcription of this solo in his book "Beyond Bop Drumming" which is definitely worth checking out.  Seeing the transcription can help clarify some of the extremely difficult to hear rhythmic phrasing.   

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