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melodic drumming


Philly Joe's Melodic Drumming

   Philly Joe Jones

   Philly Joe Jones

Melodic Drumming isn't new

Melodic drumming is not a new or avant-garde technique. Especially in the jazz tradition, drummers have been directly or indirectly referencing melodies for almost as long as the instrument has been around. Because the drum set is not considered a pitched instrument, many people (certainly including other drummers) don't hear the connection between what a drummer is playing and the melody.  The truth is, the way that drummers interact with the melody of a song has always been one of the fundamental elements of jazz drumming.


Philly Joe's Melodic Drumming

To help clarify my point about how inside of the tradition melodic drumming really is, I am going to use as my example Philly Joe Jones. Philly Joe is one of the most definitive and widely imitated bop drummers of all time.  For a good example of why this is the case, take a moment to listen to "Skatin'" by Wynton Kelly:

Now try listening to just the melody and then jumping immediately to Philly Joe's drum solo (starting at 3:51), you should be able hear a pretty clear connection to the melody.  If you can't, don't worry, I am going to break this down in great detail.  

Below is a rough transcription of Philly Joe's solo with the melody overlaid on top:

What Makes This Solo Melodic?

If you refer back to my earlier article on the definition of melodic drumming, you can see how Philly Joe uses the large scale element of form, as well as the small scale elements of phrasing to create tension and release in his solo just like a melody instrument would.  In this particular example, he draws these melodic elements directly from the melody of "Skatin'" itself!


First, the big picture.  Philly Joe tailors the melodic architecture or form of his solo perfectly to the form of the piece.  Overall "Skatin'" has a sort of AABB form, with the second chorus being more like AAB'C.  With just a superficial glance at the transcription provided, you can see that in the first chorus of his solo Philly Joe starts with one idea in the A sections and then moves on to a new idea in the B sections.  

Although this structure gets a little more abstract in the second chorus, he still starts with one kind of idea in the A sections and then moves on to new material in the B' and C sections.  


Next the smaller scale.  Philly Joe also uses some of the specific elements of the melody's phrases in his solo.  The three most obvious examples of this are call and response, repetition, and contour.  

Call And Response

The two opening phrases of the solo establishes a clear call and response structure just like the melody of "Skatin'".  First he plays a triplet figure on the snare drum by itself, then he plays a response on the tom toms.  Using call and response like this gives listeners a feeling of tension and release, as well as structure.  


To further emphasize the melodic intent of this solo, Philly Joe repeats the opening phrase almost verbatim in the next eight bars.  Repetition gives listeners a clear idea of the theme of the solo, as well as outlining it's structure.


Philly Joe even goes so far as to emulate the contour or direction of the melody in the opening phrase.  If you look in the transcription at bars three and seven, you can see Philly Joe matching descending and ascending motion of the melody by going from low to high on his tom toms.  

Playing Philly Joe's Solo Over The Melody

I think that the easiest way to understand the connection between Philly Joe's solo and the melody is to just hear it.  In the spirit of demonstration I recorded myself attempting this in the video to the above.  Please keep in mind, this doesn't sound...good.  That being said, I do think that it adequately demonstrates my point (incidentally this also makes for a terrific exercise if you are up for a challenge).

So What Is The Point?

If Philly Joe, the platonic form of a bebop drummer, plays a solo this brilliant with such a clear connection to the melody, then melodic drumming can not be seen as outside of the mainstream of jazz drumming.

To be clear, I don't think that Philly Joe always played with this degree of explicit reference to the melody of the song.  I do however think that melodic drumming is a hugely misunderstood and under-appreciated element of jazz drumming, and I hope that examples like this one help to clarify that point.  




Hutch! Again!

The alternate title for this post was, "Now watch Greg Hutchinson do everything better than I ever will".  Loyal readers of my blog know that I have a particular fondness for both Ray Brown and Greg Hutchinson's playing, so it should come as no surprise that I am bringing up this particular concert footage:


Hutch's solo in the first tune (starting around :57) is a tour-de-force.  A couple of elements that make this solo so great:

1.  Use of the melody
You can hear Hutch reference the melody throughout, but he really spells it out around 2:01 on the bass drum.  Besides these references to the melody, Hutch is also following the larger structure of the form, making this a melodic solo in every sense of the word. 

2.  Uptempo brushes
Hutch is one of the contemporary masters of uptempo brushes, listen to the clarity of his articulation and his really slick vocabulary throughout.  

3.  Dynamics
This solo has real dynamic variation, not always an easy thing to do when you are playing with brushes.  Listen to how far down Hutch comes around 2:42, I felt myself leaning in towards my speaker to hear more! 

4.  Band interaction
Not only does Hutch catch all the hits in the beginning of his solo, he also does a beautiful job transitioning to the half time feel at the end.  You may have also noticed how smooth his transition from brushes to sticks is at 3:10.  

Hope you are enjoying this footage as much as I am, and long live Greg Hutchinson!



Using Melody In A Solo Part 2

The advantages of using the melody in a solo
In my previous post on this idea, I discussed two of the advantages of using the melody of a tune as the basis for improvisation.  The first advantage of this approach was how it unifies the sound of the song and makes everything more cohesive, and the second advantage was how it gives you an idea to work with and respond to instead of trying to create the whole solo from nothing.  In today's post I want to discuss a third potential advantage to this kind of soloing, using the example of "Chief Crazy Horse" by Wayne Shorter above.

Pepe is the man!
Inviting people into your solo
The third potential advantage of using the melody in a solo is how it can help invite other musicians to participate in your solo.  In the example above you can hear how my bandmate, the fantastic Pepe Gonsalvez, comes back in with the bass line of the song at around :48.  This in turn sets up a cool dialogue between the two of us which gives my solo a more varied and interesting character.  Not only that, when I quote the bass line at the end of my solo, it gives the band a way to transition seamlessly back in to the head out.

Of course, you never know exactly what is going to happen when you are improvising.  But if you strive to keep the character of the melody alvie in your solos, you will help to contribute to the conditions necessary for continuous interaction with your fellow musicians.  In essence by playing this way, you give your bandmates something that they can recognize, which invites them to participate in your solo musically.

If you want people to communicate with you, you have to try to speak the same language!
I have often heard other drummers complaining that everyone always cuts out during their drum solos,  and never seem to know when to come back in.  Although I think this is often a fair complaint, instead of just seeing this as an insurmountable obstacle, try using musical vocabulary like the melody that you know your bandmates will recognize to invite them to participate.  Once you invite them into your solo by speaking a language they recognize, they will be confident enough to participate, or at the very least come back in the right spot!  As it is, often times the reason that nobody will play during a drummers solo is that it seems like what the drummer is playing  is not fundamentally related to the song.  

Try using this approach for yourself, you will be surprised by what can happen! 

The original melody



Using Melody In A Solo

The melody as the basis for improvisation
In today's post I am going to use my own playing to demonstrate one of the themes of my blog, that is using the melody as the basis for improvising a drum solo.  One of my earliest inspirations for learning to solo using the melody was Roy Haynes' great solo on "In Walked Bud" (if you haven't checked it out already, I have a post about it here).  Some specific examples of how my playing in the video above is melodic are my imitation of the opening phrases of the melody, my use of repetition and space, and finally my adherence to the structure of the form.  If you want to read more about what I mean by melodic drumming, check out the post about Max Roach here.  

Two advantages to melodic soloing
There are a lot of things I love about this approach to soloing, but my favorite part is that it integrates the drum solo into the rest of the song.  From the audiences perspective, this unifying effect can be much more engaging and interesting than a pyrotechnical drum display.  To me, playing this way also makes improvisation flow more naturally, by allowing me to focus on hearing the melody and reacting as opposed to trying to arbitrarily conjure up a solo from scratch. 

Melodies with rhythmic character
Some songs lend themselves to this approach because of their rhythmic character.  Monk and Bird are two of the best composers for drummers because their melodies have such incredibly catchy and sophisticated rhythms.  In today's posts I am playing the great Kenny Barron original "Voyage", another melody that really lends itself well to drummers.  Notice how I use the descending and then ascending opening phrases of the melody throughout my solo.

A big part of what makes a drum solo effective is it's pacing, how it's intensity rises and falls.  In my solo I tried to take advantage of this by tying the pacing to the structure of the song.  Notice how I start off slowly and leave lots of space, only really starting to build up in the last A section of the first chorus.  I then build up through the second chorus before suddenly dropping down at the start of the third chorus.  On the bridge of the third chorus I start a big climactic swell that climaxes at the bridge of the fourth chorus. Starting from such a low spot in the third chorus means that I have lots of space to grow!  From there I bring the solo back down to segue into a brief vamp into the head out. 


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Me Playing the Melody: "I've Got Rhythm"

Trying to play the actual melody
I mentioned yesterday that I just got a new recorder in the mail, and today's video is the first example of my new vastly improved audio capacity! In a conversation on the excellent drummerworld forum I brought up that I was trying to get a way from just thinking about the melody towards trying to simulate it's actual pitches.  The video above is the first example of me trying to play an actual melody, in this case (somewhat ironically) "I've Got Rhythm".

I was able to play this simulated melody by carefully tuning my drums, playing with mallets, and applying very specific amounts of pressure to the drum heads (all inspired by the incredible Ari Hoenig).  This is a real challenge for me, and it still needs a lot of work, but I think that I got the basic point across. 

What is the point of this?
In the aforementioned conversation, Todd Bishop from the excellent drum blog Cruiseshipdrummer brought up really good question.  Essentially, why bother with trying to play the melody at all.  The drums are a primarily rhythmic instrument, so why not, as he put it, "Just play your instrument?". 

I am still relatively inexperienced at trying to play the melody on the drums, so I can only speak from a limited perspective, but my basic thought is this.  The history of jazz is full of examples of people who took the approach they learned on one instrument and applied it to another, often with revolutionary results.  Two classic examples of this are Lois Armstrong singing like a trumpet player, and Paul Chambers playing horn lines on the bass.  These initially bizzare-seeming imported techniques were enormously influential, eventually becoming standard practice for those instruments.

I am not suggesting that playing the melody on the drums is going to become standard practice any time soon.  Rather, I am saying that we should not limit how we play our instruments to what people assume is possible.  As long as there is music, people will continue to find new ways to approach their instruments, and this pan-instrumental technique can yield incredibly fruitful results. 

Musical Benefits
In addition to this broader historical idea, there are also more practical musical benefits to learning to play melodies on the drums.

The first and most obvious benefit is that by forcing yourself to be accountable for the actual pitches of the melody, you will get much closer with the melody.  A deeper connection with the melody will always provide better insight into the music, regardless of whether you are playing the melody, or accomanying someone else playing the melody.  As Ari put it, "If you can't make music by yourself, you can't make music with other people". 

The second slightly less obvious benefit is that by playing the melody this way, you will get your audience to listen to you in a new way.  When I played the melody of "I've Got Rhythm" for an audience last week, I got more positive feedback than I have ever got for anything I have played before.  People love new sounds, and people love melodies, so playing this way can lead them to appreciate what you are doing on the drums much more than they ordinarily would. 

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Lewis Nash: This is also what I am talking about

This video, just like the last post about Ari Hoenig, is an example of a master drummer with a really clear melodic concept.  This time it is Lewis Nash accompanying his own singing.  Although the ability to be able to do a vocal performance of this caliber is impressive, the main point is that Lewis is really able to really hear these lines and can respond to them appropriately. 


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Blue Monk with Moeller Strokes

Soloing with Moeller Strokes over "Blue Monk"
In todays post I wanted to illustrate some applications of the Moeller stroke around the drum set in the context of the song "Blue Monk" by Thelonious Monk.  I have been developing my Moeller stroke technique for some time now using the Caravan Warmup, which I have described in detail in previous posts.  In this video I am singing and thinking of "Blue Monk" with a head-solo-head format.  In my solo I will use several applications of the Moeller around the drum set.  Try singing the melody along with my solo to stay oriented in the form.

There is plenty of potential to overuse/abuse the Moeller stroke.  But I think when you can find the right places for it, particularly at climactic points in a solo, it can be a really powerful and exciting device.  One good way to practice not overusing Moeller strokes is to video yourself soloing and to check your own playing out.  Do you sound like you are playing to much?  Then you are playing too much. 

Practice soloing in a form
Another important thing to practice is soloing in context, as the odds are you won't play many totally open solos on a gig.  Try your best to make your solo sound like it belongs to the song that it is in.  I do this by trying to sing, or at least think about the melody throughout my solo. 

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Playing the melody while trading

Here is a video of me playing "Monk's Dream" with a guitar trio.  Although there is lots of stuff that I wish I had done better in this video, I think that if you listen to the section where I am trading 8's with the guitar player (starting around 5:40) you will hear how I am trying to keep elements of the melody alive in my trading.  This is one of the ideas that I have been working hard to incorporate into my playing, so I hope that it comes across.  If you are having trouble hearing the melody, trying singing it along with the video. 

While I am definitely trying bring out some of the elements and themes of the composed song, I am also trying to keep my ears open to what is happening in the improvised song that John and Dylan (guitar and bass) are playing as well.  In other words, just because I am thinking about the original melody doesn't mean that I stop listening to what is happening.  The trick is to find a balance where you can combine both songs as seamlessly as possible.  For more on this, see the post "The two songs of jazz".

If you are looking to try to start working on this for yourself, Monk tunes are the best place to start.  There is something about how he uses rhythm in his melodies that really sticks in your head and makes it easy to translate on the drums.  Sorry about the somewhat low quality video, I think that the sound will still come across well enough. 



Ari Hoenig: For when your friends ask what melodic drumming means

Playing the Melody on the Drums
OK, so if you haven't had the pleasure of listening to Ari play a melody, here is a great place to start.  This is the most extreme/literal melodic drumming possible, an evolution of the earlier Jeff Hamilton post.  Notice how Ari makes the phrases of this thorny bop melody breath.  Also in the drum/bass solo notice the constant references back to the hits on the bridge. 

One more.  Check out how clearly the melody comes out, and how he even modulates up a half step in the final A section!  He also quotes the famous Lee Morgan solo at length and trades melodic ideas with the guitar player.  Just beautiful playing.

New Role for a Drummer
Ari has found a unique way to tap into both songs of jazz (read the post "The Two Songs of Jazz" for more on this idea which I reference frequently on this blog).  By taking complete responsibility for the pre-composed song at the top, as well as by taking the first solo and clearly shaping the song of his improvisation on the pre-composed song, he has demonstrated to a certain extent that the drums can function as a sort of melody instrument.  In any case, his playing is closer to a melody instrument than any other drummer I have ever heard.  That is not to say that I think he is the "best" drummer, or even my favorite.  But you have to respect how he uses his phenomenal technique to bring the music out, rather then just resorting to typical jazz drumming aerobics. 



The Two Songs of Jazz

This post is an explanation of the general theme of this blog, the introduction to my book "Melodic Syncopation", as well as my personal philosophy about how to learn to play jazz.  If this is super boring to you, don't worry I won't be offended.  But if you think this is idea is interesting or relevant to what you are doing, please let me know! 

Butch Warren
“Jazz is playing two songs at the same time.”
-Butch Warren
The great drummer and educator John Riley divides the artistry of drumming into four basic elements: groove, technique, musicality, and creativity.  Groove is your individual sense of time and where you place the beat, technique is your physical facility, musicality is how you respond to your musical environment, and creativity is the spark of imagination that makes every drummer as unique and identifiable as a fingerprint.  This book is not intended to be a technique primer although it has many exercises that are technically demanding.  My main purpose is to help you put your technique into musical context, uniting it with groove, musicality, and creativity and thereby improving your overall musicianship.

The importance of this holistic approach is largely explained by the quote at the top of the page from legendary jazz bassist Butch Warren.  To successfully perform jazz music, you have to be able to juggle focusing on the foundational, pre-composed song (that is the chord changes, tempo, feeling, melody, lyrics, and form), and the spontaneously created song of your improvisation.  The skill you will be developing by splitting your focus between the two songs is to be able to imagine a musical environment for yourself, and then use that musical environment as inspiration for your playing.  Rather than thinking of your playing as something isolated or that you are creating from nothing, you will instead be responding to musical impulses from your own imagination.  In essence what you can eventually achieve is playing that feels more like listening then playing.  Playing in this fashion is the ultimate meaning of “playing two songs at the same time”.

The better you are at combining these two songs, the better the music will be.  Each of the four artistic elements plays a critical role in your ability to combine the two songs of jazz.  Groove is the underlying bedrock, and without this steady foundation, the music falters.  Technique is what removes the barrier between an idea and its execution while dealing with both songs.  Musicality allows you to respond to both songs, as well as to how other musicians are dealing with both songs, flexibly and organically. And finally, creativity is the source of your own unique treatment of the songs.  Every element of drumming artistry has to be developed and integrated with the other elements in order to successfully combine the two songs of jazz into a harmonious whole.  

To develop all these artistic elements, many jazz musicians organize their technical exercises around the melodies of jazz standards.  This melodic approach to technique goes beyond simply developing physical facility.  Putting technique into a melodic context encourages the musician to maintain a steady groove, and to respond to the tension and release of the melody with musical sensitivity.  In addition to the benefits to groove and musicality, this approach plants melodies so deeply in the creative imagination, that improvising soaked in the feeling of the jazz tradition emerges.  As a result of this melodic approach and of the holistic interrelation between the four artistic elements that it cultivates, musicians are better able to seamlessly combine the two songs of jazz.  

Unfortunately, because drummers are not required by their instrument to be intimately involved with melody, often no such connection between technique and the other artistic elements exists.  Instead of using melodies as the basis for technical exercises, many drummers use arbitrary rhythms that bear little resemblance to the elegance or sophistication of a melody.  Because of this narrow focus, drummers have become notorious for a sort of athletic approach to playing that is divorced from any musical feeling.  This book works to bridge the gap between the rhythm-centric world of drummers and the melody-centric world of other musicians by organizing its rhythmic content around the melodies of jazz standards. 



Roy Haynes: Using melody in a solo

This is one of my favorite examples of a drummer using the melody in a solo.  The song is "In Walked Bud" from the album "Misterioso" by Thelonious Monk.  Roy is a master of both expressing the melody literally on the drums, and also using the character of the melody as a starting point for improvisation.  Listen to how uses the first chorus to state the melody and the second chorus as a sort of response or continuation of the melody. 

I was first made aware of this example of melodic drumming by a great article by Drori Mondlak in the May 2002 edition of "Modern Drummer".  Sadly I know of no way of getting this article which has a great transcription, if anybody knows of a way of accessing old "Modern Drummer" articles online I would love to hear it.   



Jeff Hamilton: Using melody in a solo

Here are a couple beautiful example of Jeff incorporating melodies into his soloing.  Notice how Jeff is phrasing these blues melodies like a melody instrument player, not just playing them note for note out of the real book.  There are actually two melodies tucked into this solo, can you name them?


One more.  Check out how his solo stays in the character of the song ("A Night In Tunisia").

Finally, "Sing, Sing, Sing" where Jeff not only plays the famous Krupa introduction but the melody as well.