3. Practice comping using dotted quarter notes with music
By playing a simple dotted quarter note comping rhythm with your left hand, you will have a three bar phrase that uses every possible eighth note. In other words if you start on beat 1, then the next note will be on the "+" of beat 2, the following note will be on beat 4, and so on. I like this approach because it covers all the rhythmic possibilities without being too cluttered. Make sure that you are not changing the direction of your comping to accommodate your comping rhythm. Also, to make this phrase line up more clearly with the music, just add a fourth bar in which you comp freely. So basically three bars of dotted quarter note, and one bar of whatever. Focus on trying to keep your sweep sound as intact as possible and locking up with the bass player. Here is my version:
4. Comp freely with music keeping your sweeping direction steady
By the time you get to this step, you should be reasonably comfortable with the feeling of comping without changing the direction of your sweeping. The idea in this step is to practice the way you want to sound when you are actually playing with other people. In other words, try to sound good! Don't overplay or rely too much on your new technique, just use it when its appropriate. If you feel like you have to do extra thinking every time you want to comp in your awkward direction, then you probably aren't ready to use this technique in a real musical situation. It has to be easy. Also, this is a good time to try to pick up some ideas from Kenny Washington's beautiful and spare playing on this song if you haven't already. Here is my version:
Start by practicing comping in your awkward direction with just your left hand
Practice only comping in your awkward direction with music
Practice playing dotted quarter notes with music
Comp freely with music
I like to go through "Lorelei" five times in a session, focusing on whatever of these steps is giving me trouble. Just from the last several weeks of practicing like this almost every day I have noticed a significant improvement in the depth of my left hand comping. It's not quite where I would like it to be, but this exercise has really been helping.
I hope you enjoy the exercise, let me know if you have any questions.
Recently I noticed something peculiar about my comping with brushes. Depending on what rhythm I was comping, I would change my left hand sweeping pattern. As with any discussion about brushes, this sounds more complicated than it actually is. I suggest that you grab a pair of brushes and try the following experiment:
1. Play your regular brush pattern and comp on the "+" of 1 with your left hand- does that feel comfortable?
2. Try the same thing but comp on the "+" of 2- does that feel comfortable?
I have found that depending on how you hold the brush and what direction you sweep in, one of the two comping rhythms above will be significantly easier to execute than the other. For me, comping on the "+" of 1 feels totally natural while the "+" of 2 does not.
People tend to address this challenge in one of two ways, either they change their left hand sweeping pattern so that they comp the uncomfortable rhythm in a direction that is comfortable, or they just play the comping rhythm in their right hand. Often times people (myself included) just cobble together some combination of these two approaches to find something that works.
Integrating comping into your sweeping pattern
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with finding something that works and sticking with it! Recently however, I found myself feeling constrained by my brush comping. I wanted to find a way to expand my rhythmic palette to make it feel more like comping with sticks. I quickly realized that the most direct way to make my brush comping feel more like stick comping was to tackle the issue of integrating my comping into my sweeping pattern. That is to say, learning to comp in whatever direction my left hand was naturally moving in.
Those of you who are familiar with this blog know that I am a huge advocate of making every exercise as close to musical as possible. With that in mind I came up with the following system:
1. Practice only comping in your awkward direction with just your left hand
Before you do anything else with this, you have to work out the physical motion of your left hand that will achieve the comping sound you want without breaking up your sweeping. This is more challenging than it sounds. For example, I noticed that I put a little extra pressure on beats 2 and 4 in my left hand sweeping pattern. So being able to release this pressure and get my fingers to snap the brush without breaking up the sweep entirely was hard. What ended up working was thinking of the motion as the reverse of what I normally do on the "+" of 1. So if I normally snapped my fingers out on that beat, I had to try to get a similar sound by snapping my fingers in on the "+" of beat 2. Although this step can be really boring, don't skip it. Everything after this will depend on your ability to get a good comping sound in your left hand.
2. Practice only comping in your awkward direction with music
Now that your left hand is feeling at least reasonably good, it is time to get to the music. For this exercise I highly recommend the song "Lorelei" from the Bill Charlap album "Written In the Stars". Kenny Washington is playing drums on this album, and his brush sound, combined with the tempo and feel of this song, make it a perfect one to practice along with.
For this step, simply practice playing time and comping consistently in your awkward direction. For me this meant comping on the "+" of beats 2 and 4. Don't worry about referencing the song too much in your playing at this point, just focus on getting a good sound and locking up with the bass player (the fantastic Peter Washington) Here is what that will sound like with the melody:
Stay tuned for the second half of this exercise coming soon!
This is sort of the opposite end of the spectrum from the last post. To me, great ballad drumming is somewhat akin to Japanese calligraphy. In order to work, both art forms have to be approached with almost unselfconscious mastery and be defined as much by negative space as positive (check out 4:59 above for a stunning example of negative space). Here is a excerpt from the related Wikipedia article:
"For any particular piece of paper, the calligrapher has but one chance
to create with the brush. The brush strokes cannot be corrected and even
a lack of confidence will show up in the work. The calligrapher must
concentrate and be fluid in execution. The brush writes a statement
about the calligrapher at a moment in time."
Kenny Washington exemplifies this kind of mastery. Every motion he makes on this recording has a purpose, and every motion he doesn't make has a purpose as well. His playing is entirely in service of the music without even a trace of self-aggrandizement. As a listener, this kind of music gives me the feeling of being present in a particular moment and being grateful for that moment.
Ballad playing seems to be one of the most mysteriously under-discussed topics amongst drummers. If you are going to be a professional musician in nearly any genre of music, you are going to have to learn how to play a ballad whether you want to or not. So simply avoiding the topic is not an option.
Perhaps the reason this topic is avoided is because the role of the drums in a ballad tends to be particularly understated/supportive. You are not going to be the focus of attention when you are playing a ballad. However, that in no way means that what you are playing (or not playing) isn't important. On the contrary for a group to really pull off a ballad, what the drummer plays is key!
Thoughts on how to approach a ballad
Don't be this guy
The first thing that matters when you are playing a ballad is your attitude. You should never approach a piece of music as a chore. Playing music as if you are being forced to is selfish and immature. Here is a relevant quote from Art Blakey, "Music washes away the dust of every day life." Music isn't just about you and your feelings, it is also always about your audience.
For me this is not an issue, because I really love playing ballads. I am much to sentimental of a person not to get swept up in a beautiful ballad like "Sophisticated Lady" in the clip above. I see playing a ballad as a unique opportunity to play the drums romantically. You may be this kind of person as well, but regardless of your personal feelings, always remember to serve the music and the audience you are playing for.
Do be this guy
2. Play supportively
If you start with the attitude I described above, approaching a ballad as an opportunity to play romantically, then this step will follow naturally. You should always strive to fit your playing to the mood of the song, so play as quietly, slowly, and in as legato a fashion as possible. Don't try to fill every space, and only come up in volume or density of notes when the music calls for it.
This doesn't mean you that you should just play quietly and sparsely no matter what happens. If you feel like the music is increasing in intensity, go for it! Remember that loudness doesn't equal intensity. In other words, you can play quietly and with real passion. Listen to Chris Grasso's elegant piano intro, or Kriss Funn's beautiful bass solo starting around 2:03 for some examples of quiet but passionate playing.
3. Some specific ballad techniques
Nothing is more personal or subjective than brush technique, and this is particularly true in a ballad context. That being said, here are some general pointers:
-You want a full sound that still accents the rhythm, so try to use the whole snare drum. I use an outward motion almost like swimming breast stroke to accomplish this. I will try to a video on this in the near future.
-Your bass drum and hi-hat need to come way down in a ballad. Even though I normally play the hi-hat with my heel up to get a nice aggressive, "Blakey-esque" chick sound, on a ballad I almost always play with my heel down.
-Speaking of the hi-hat, you should try to incorporate comping with the hi-hat and using the hi-hat splash. The hi-hat splash is a great sound in general, but because of it's legato texture it works particularly well in a ballad. You can hear me using these throughout the video.
-Some soloists like to go to double time in their solos, some do not. In the video, Kriss stays with the original feel, whereas Chris moves to double time. I tend not to assume that a soloist wants to go to double time until I actually hear them playing some double time ideas. Some drummers launch into double time as soon as the solos start, but I have found that this can get you into trouble more often than it is worth. This can be a delicate dance, so just rely on your ears and you will be ok. You can even hear how we go briefly to a latin feel during Chris's solo at 4:43!
-Endings on ballads tend to go to rubato, so listen carefully in the last A section. The person playing the melody will generally cue the ending by slowing down. In general you want to stop playing and give the melody time to wind down before playing a nice final swell, preferably with mallets. You can watch this type of ending happen in the video for more clarity.
-Try incorporating brush "rolls" where you sweep the brush rapidly from side to side. You can hear me play a brush roll going into the bass solo at 1:59. This is a useful technique for a ballad because it can make a dramatic statement without being too loud. Check out Jeff Hamilton doing this in his brush solo at 2:28:
4. Get some ballad vocabulary
This should go without saying, but if you haven't checked some great masters of ballad playing, now is the time. Here are some recommendations to get you started:
The transition we are going to focus on in today's post is moving between brushes and sticks. This transition appears to be relatively simple and unimportant, but in reality it is very difficult to do well and makes a big difference in how the music comes across to an audience. It is exactly the sort of thing that you don't notice when it is done correctly, so many drummers make the mistake of not practicing it. You can see me do a version of this transition at 1:25 in the video above. The song is another great Bobby Muncy original "Bouncin With Joe And Dana", and the soloist is the fabulous Gene D'Andrea.
One hand at a time
The best examples of this transition are the ones that come as a complete surprise. That is to say, you don't hear the drummer switching implements, it just seems to suddenly happen. In order to do this you have to keep the forward momentum of the groove and eliminate fumbling/extraneous noise as much as possible.
In general the key to achieving both of these objectives is to switch implements one hand at a time. Notice how in the video example above I start to fill with my left hand and bass drum while reaching for the stick with my right hand. This allows me to come in neatly on the down beat of the new chorus playing time on my ride cymbal. Once I have the time established on my ride cymbal, I then reach over with my left hand to grab the other stick.
Exercise for developing this transition
Here is an exercise from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" that will get you started developing this transition:
I distinctly remember the first time I heard Kenny Washington playing uptempo brushes (the video above starting around :58). His playing absolutely terrified me. It was this same version of "In the Still of the Night" from the album "Written in the Stars" by the Bill Charlp Trio, I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan, and my first thought was, "This is physically impossible". For those of you who haven't tried to play these kinds of tempos with brushes and don't see what the big deal is, I encourage you to try playing anywhere close to this tempo for yourself.
Kenny Washington's Advice
I had the good fortune to get to hear and talk to Kenny at the Detroit Jazz Festival several years ago. He was again playing with Bill Charlap, and their set included some incredible tempos which Kenny played with brushes. After the show I asked him for advice about developing uptempo brush technique. I thought I would pass three of his pieces of advice on to you because I know lots of people struggle with this issue like I do.
1. Go to the source: Papa Jo
Kenny is a real Papa Jo aficionado, and he told me right of that the bat that his entire brush concept starts with Papa Jo. He recommended beginning by getting my hands on the Papa Jo Jones trio album "The Essential Jo Jones", and trying to get as close to his sound as possible. Here is another terrifying/inspiring example of uptempo brush mastery, this time from Papa Jo:
And here is a famous video where you can see Papa Jo's uptempo brush work (especially around 1:42):
2. Tightening and straightening out the left hand sweeping pattern
From carefully observing Kenny's playing at the festival, as well as from watching the video of clip of Papa Jo, the biggest single adjustment to my uptempo approach was tightening my left hand sweeping pattern so that it is almost just straight back and forth. Kenny plays this pattern straight up and down, and Papa Jo played it side to side, but the important thing is that both of them tighten the pattern. This tightening/straightening out of the left hand pattern correlates to what you are doing in your right hand when you go from a rounded triplet sound to a straight eighth feeling at really fast tempos.
The simple physical reality is that at these kinds of tempos, there is no time for elaborate circular sweeping patterns. That being said, notice how in both of these masters playing, you can't really hear any holes in the sweeping sound, only accents. That uninterrupted/accented sound comes from a carefully calibrated motion that allows the brush to change direction in as fluid a manner as possible.
3. No tricks!
Additionally, neither of these masters make any adjustments to their right hand spang-a-lang pattern at fast tempos other than to make the pattern straight eighth instead of triplet based. I have seen many drummers try to find ways to distribute the spang-a-lang between the right and left hand to ease the burden on the right hand. However in my personal experience, as well as in my study of Kenny and Papa Jo, there is no way to get a sound this clean and accurate with brushes without playing the spang-a-lang in the right hand just as you would with sticks. As Kenny put it, he plays the right hand spang-a-lang pattern with "No tricks".
Developing a fast brush spang-a-lang
Mastering this fast spang-a-lang with brushes can be really discouraging at first, and it is a big part of why I found the Bill Charlap recording so terrifying. The amount of practice you need to put in to develop the hand and finger control necessary to play the spang-a-lang fast with almost no bounce is intimidating to say the least.
However, in recent years I have made really significant and encouraging progress on this front by just practicing with the metronome and moving the tempo up a little bit each day. I like to set the metronome to play whole notes at fast tempos. It is much easier to hear downbeats than quarter notes, and getting into the habit of just hearing downbeats can really help you relax at fast tempos. Just remember, this is a control issue, not a strength issue, so don't try to muscle your way to a faster tempo.
I remember when I was finally able to play along with "In the Still of the Night" without breaking down after 8 measures. What a great feeling!
In my last post about Papa Jo, I discussed his use of call and response and gave you an exercise to develop some of this technique in your own playing. In today's post I am going to focus on another element that featured prominently in both the music of Papa Jo's time and his own playing, theme and variation. In the sophisticated John Kirby arrangement of "Blue Skies" from 1938 above you will hear some perfect examples of theme and variation. Listen to how Kirby changes the each A section of the tune to give it a dramatically different feel, even though the basic melody stays the same. The following exercise is from my forthcoming book "Melodic Syncopation" and is designed to help you develop theme and variation technique. My thanks to Kenny Washington who directed me to John Kirby's music.
I would strongly recommend checking out the previous Papa Jo exercise before trying this one. Just to be clear, the video at the top is the same as the written melody in the exercise. Also, I will try to post a video of me playing parts of this exercise in the near future to help show you what it should sound like.