Soloing Over A Vamp

Tension and release in a solo over a vamp
The easiest and most effective device that you have at your disposal when soloing over a vamp is choosing when to play with the band and when to play something against what the band is playing.  This may sound like an oversimplification, but this is basically how the tension and release work in this kind of a solo.  Essentially, playing against what the band is doing produces tension that is released when you finally play something in unison. 

In the clip above notice how I would periodically release in this fashion by playing the hits of the vamp with the band.  In my experience, doing this occasionally helps keep the band together as well as the audience engaged in the music. 

Two tips
He is actually this cool.
The most important skill to develop to solo over a vamp is to try to sing or hear the vamp throughout whatever you are playing.  This idea goes back to my general philosophy of the two songs of jazz, but it is even more important in this case than in an open solo, because in this case there are literally two songs going on at the same time (your solo + the vamp = two songs).  How well you are able to interact with the vamp is directly tied to how well you can hear it in your head while you are playing.  

To practice this, try something straightforward like improvising a vamp, and then trying to sing it while you play against/with it.  You will quickly discover that this seemingly simple exercise is actual fraught with difficulty, and is something you really need to work at to develop.  

The other thing I would recommend you do is to listen to some great players soloing over a vamp.  One of the drummers I always love to listen to and draw from for this type of playing is Roy Haynes.  Check him out here with his band: 



Trading 4's: Passing Ideas

Passing Ideas

Notice how I picked up on the rhythmic phrase that the pianist played at the end of his solo and used it as the basis for mine (listen around :17)?  Passing ideas between soloists like this weaves the music into a more cohesive whole.  This technique is a great one because strengthening the connection between solos benefits both the musicians on the bandstand and the audience. 

You see?  They love it!

Musicians will feel that you are listening and responding to what they are actually doing, not just operating in your own mental space.  This in turn will give them the confidence to take more chances with the music and generate lots of positive energy. 

In my experience, audiences also love this kind of interaction on the bandstand.   Jazz is not popular music anymore, and often times audiences will not have a lot of experience listening to it, especially not live.  Passing ideas like this is a way of bringing your audience into the performance by making the connection between solos as clear as possible. 

Dont Forget About "Yes, And"

For this kind of interaction to work you need to remember the principle of

"Yes, And"

  discussed in an earlier post.  The basic gist is, when you are passing ideas don't just parrot back whatever the last person played, add something of your own to it.  In the clip above I did this by adding my own idea at the end of my phrase. 



Chopping Wood

Chopping wood is great for building energy unobtrusively
Chopping wood, meaning playing a strong rim-click on beats two and four, is an effective technique for building energy in a song while also staying out of the way.  I am particularly fond of chopping wood when more than one soloist is trading (like in the clip above starting around :52), as I find that trying to switch gears between different soloists can lead to tedious and overly complicated playing.  In my experience it is better to just play good time, build energy, and not clutter up the soloists ideas.

The Lumberjack, Sam Woodyard
General Playing Tips
In general, once you start chopping wood don't move away from it too quickly.  This is because chopping wood works best gradually and over time, and switching in and out of it too abruptly can feel herky-jerky to the other musicians and audience. 

You can do some simple bass drum comping and marking of the form while chopping wood, but don't try to do too much.  The main thing here is just the intensity of the groove, so focus on building energy and enjoy the feeling you are helping to create. 

Perhaps the greatest recorded example of chopping wood, and also a brilliant guide for learning how to use this technique, is Sam Woodyard's epic performance on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" from "Ellington At Newport 1956".  I spent a whole summer playing along with this track just to try to capture some of it's feeling, check it out:



Music, Music, Music

Ballads and calligraphy
A statement
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. 



Philly Joe-Ism

In today's post we are going to be talking about learning and applying a great four-bar phrase from Philly Joe.  You can hear this phrase twice starting at 3:51 in the recording above, which incidentally is from the album "Kelly At Midnite" that I recommend everyone check out.

Two elements that make this "Philly Joe-ism" so great
This elegant phrase has two elements that make it particularly ear-catching.  The first and most obvious is the left-handed triplet that Philly Joe builds an exciting tom melody on top of.  The second is the way he paces the phrase so that it starts out relatively uncluttered before building to a climax in the sextuplets of the fourth bar.  Here is what it looks like on the page:

Learning the phrase
1.  The most technically demanding part of this phrase is the left-handed triplet, so I would recommend getting comfortable with this by running through some "Syncopation" reading exercises with your R.H. playing the written line over the L.H. triplet.  If you want to get fancy with it you could even do short notes as hi-tom and long notes as floor-tom with your R.H.  Do this until you don't have to think about the L.H. anymore and can focus on hearing the R.H. melody. 

2.  Once that feels easy at around 130 bpm, take this phrase through the exercise I explained here.  If you go to the final third of the video I talk about trading 4's with myself while singing the melody.  I would strongly recommend doing an exercise like this with today' phrase so that you can hear it in more context.

How to apply
In a previous post I talked about Clark Terry's famous 3-step process for learning jazz: Imitation, Internalization, and Innovation.  So following this process, the next important question after you have learned and internalized this phrase (and anything else for that matter) is what do you do with it?  In other words, the end goal of learning this vocabulary is not to sound exactly like Philly Joe Jones, although striving to get as close as possible is an important part of the process. 

In the case of this particular phrase, applying the lessons you have learned is actually pretty simple.  Essentially, try keeping the L.H. triplets going and come up with your own melody based on the music that is happening in the moment.  If in addition to that you can also build momentum towards the end of the phrase, all the better!  Here is me trying to do just that:



Music, Music, Music


Quarter Notes!
Louis Hayes + Sam Jones = Unstoppable Juggernaut of Swing
As I have mentioned in a previous post on the ride cymbal beat, one of the most efficient ways of learning how to get comfortable in a particular tempo or style is to isolate your ride cymbal and play along with a great recording until your beat feels grounded.  

One of my current favorite drum/bass combinations to work on uptempo jazz is Louis Hayes and Sam Jones, heard at their driving finest in the clip above.  I have been working hard on trying to capture some of the unbelievable forward momentum of this duos quarter notes the last couple of weeks, and I have experienced noticeable improvement (still a long way to go).  If you are trying to improve your uptempo playing, I strongly recommend checking out this recording from the Cannonball Adderley "Nippon Soul". 



5/4 Dawson Exercise

This exercise was swiped!
A Swiped Single Stroke Exercise!
Today's single stroke exercise comes from a combination of two different exercises that I swiped.  The first was Todd Bishop's idea of translating "Stick Control" into 5/4.  As usual, Todd's ideas are brilliantly clear, useful, and thought-provoking all at the same time.  

I wanted to find a way to incorporate this idea into things that I was already practicing, so I thought of combining it with Alan Dawson's fabulous single stroke exercise from "The Drummers Complete Vocabulary".

The result is below, and I am happy to report that based on my time with it so far it is a great way to both work on your single strokes, and to get your hands feeling more comfortable in 5!

The Dawson Single-Stroke Exercise In 5/4
For those of you not familiar with the Dawson Single-Stroke exercise, the premise is really simple.  Using the first column of "Stick Control" alternate between playing a line and playing two measures of eighth notes in groups of four to a hand.  Always start the groups of four on the opposite hand of the one that played last on the line.  The result is a great exercise for developing your single strokes, as well as your ability to move seamlessly between rudiments.

Here is that same exercise translated into 5/4 ala Todd Bishop:

Playing tips
If you don't have this already, get it!
This exercise can be daunting at first, so definitely learn it in 4/4 before attempting this version.  Just like in the Dawson exercise, once you get through the exercise once, go back through but with a full measure of eighth notes on each hand in each line.  Once you get through that, do it one more time with two measures of eighth notes on each hand. 

It is really important to do this exercise with a metronome, preferably with the metronome playing half notes.  This will mean that you will have to play every other measure with the metronome clicking on 2 and 4.  This is hard at first, but being able to feel the half-note pulse this way in 5/4 is a really excellent ear-strengthening exercise in and of itself!

The value of this exercise is to be able to move smoothly and fluidly through these rudiments, so don't try to fly through it at first.  Play it slowly and carefully (the Dawson book recommends starting around half note=60) and focus on transitions and staying relaxed.



Food for Thought: Rules of Improv


Food For Thought

This series of posts is all about trying to approach music in a new way.  In my last post in Food for Thought, I discussed some alternate possibilities to always playing head-solo-head.  In today's post I am going try to get some inspiration from a source entirely outside of the world of music.

The Rules of Improvisation

My wife (an improv enthusiast and the source of the link to the left) and I sometimes have conversations about the similarities between improv comedy and improvised music.  So today's ideas come from these conversations as well as a somewhat unexpected source, Tina Fey's new book


The entire book is hilarious, but the thing that really caught my attention were her "rules of improvisation".  I will share these rules with you and try to highlight how these same rules apply to jazz drumming.  

1.  Always Agree

The underlying idea to this rule is that in order for improv to work, you have to "respect what your partner has created".  This builds up a foundation of trust so that a group can work together and create something.  

Our man Higgins

I think the wisdom of this rule is immediately clear to any jazz musician.  If you don't listen to and respect what your band-mates are doing, the atmosphere on the bandstand will become poisonous.  I think "respecting what your partner has created" is especially the case for drummers.  We are primarily accompanists; our job is to make a soloist sound as good as we possibly can.  A great drummer can lift the music of an entire band if they respect what the band is doing and work with it.  Conversely, a drummer with a dismissive or contrary attitude who refuses to acknowledge what is going on around them can sabotage even the best of bands.

When I think of drummers who could "always agree" and uplift a band with their beautiful attitude, Billy Higgins springs to mind.  This man was a living example of "always agreeing", and this ability of his allowed him to play a stunning range of music, from straight-ahead to avant-garde and everything in between.

2.  Not Only Say "Yes", But "Yes, And"

The principle here is essentially, "don't be afraid to contribute".  To "respect what your partner has created", doesn't mean that you slavishly parrot everything that they do.  The beauty of improv comes from the interaction of contributing members, so if you aren't adding anything you are a burden on the process.  


For some jazz drummers, there is a real temptation to just follow somebody else's lead and not take the risk of contributing something of their own.  The problem with playing it safe like this is that you place all the burden of creativity on one person, thereby drastically limiting the creative potential of the group.  All great jazz groups have members with the ability to not only feed off of each other, but to respond with unique contributions of their own.  

If you think of jazz as a conversation, just imagine a conversation where one person says something and then the other person just repeats it back to them.  Is this even really a conversation at all?  If you don't have the confidence to speak with your unique voice, you won't ever get the real pleasure of conversation which comes from a balance of listening and speaking. 

3.  Make Statements

This rule is related to the last in the sense that it about confidence and being willing to make a unique contribution.  In the world of improv it is important to not just ask questions, but to actually say something.  As Tina puts it, "Instead of saying "Where are we?" make a statement like "Here we are in Spain, Dracula."  Being willing to make statements is a risk, but it is part of the responsibility of creating something as a group. 

Of course in jazz the same dynamic applies.  If you are always waiting for someone else to take a risk or move in a particular direction by making a clear statement, you are not only reducing your own role, but also forcing other people to pick up your slack.  Have you ever played with someone who didn't seem to have anything to say and relied on you to do everything?  In my experience, playing with someone like this makes for some truly horrible music, it can feel like biking uphill.  Again, making a statement is about contributing your own voice not only because you have something to say, but because this takes some of the pressure off of everyone else.  Remember,

jazz is a group endeavor


One of my favorite risk takers in action, check out Tony Williams moving to double time unexpectedly around :50!

4.  There Are No Mistakes, Only Opportunities

This is a really powerful and liberating idea in both improv and jazz.  The key here is not that you will never play something that you didn't intend, in fact the more risks you take the more likely it is that something like this will happen.  The key is how you deal with this unintended thing. As Tina says, "In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.  And many of the world's greatest discoveries have been by accident." 

Wisdom from Miles

This rule reminds me strongly of something Miles Davis said about jazz, "It's not the note you play that's the wrong note - it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong."  The idea here is that how you frame a mistake is what makes it a mistake or not.  It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you treat the wrong note as a mistake, it will become a mistake.  If you treat it as an unexpected surprise with actual musical potential, that is what it will be. 

There are some great examples of how this attitude towards mistakes can sound in Miles' recordings, perhaps most famously his  intro to

"My Funny Valentine"

from the "Miles Davis In Concert" recording.  In the first couple of minutes there are some perilously flubbed notes, exactly the kinds of mistakes that would paralyze a lesser musician.  Rather than back off, Miles digs in and produces one of the most beautiful intros in the history of jazz.



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". 



Ludwig "Speed Master" Bass Drum Pedal

The Speed Master!
The Ludwig Speed Master
Last night on a gig I got the pleasure of playing a vintage Ludwig bass drum pedal, the "Speed Master".  My drum teacher Randy Gelispie used to rave about his old pedal, a "Speed King", which was a slightly earlier model of Ludwig pedal than the Speed Master I got to play on. 

In any case, now that I have played on one of these things I can see what all the fuss is about!  

Things that I love about this pedal
Try to feel happier than this
  1. This is hands down the most responsive pedal I have ever played on.  Every subtle foot motion translated into a reaction from the pedal that made intuitive sense.  On my current pedal (a Tama "Iron Cobra) I always feel like I am fighting extraneous motion, whereas with the Speed Master there was no fighting.  The mechanism is incredibly simple, but so well balanced and designed that there is no need for bells and whistles. 
  2. This is also probably the lightest bass drum pedal I have ever run into.  This makes it really nice for packing up and taking to gigs.  More on this later.  
  3. The fact that the base of the pedal is bright red made me feel like I was playing on a Radio Flyer. 
  4. Those of you who know me would be able to anticipate how much I would love something just for being called a "Speed Master".  I am a big time sucker for classic modern gee-whizzery of any sort.  If your product sounds like an exhibit at the Chicago Worlds Fair, I am in. 

Why is modern hardware so heavy?
Every gigging drummer I have ever talked to has asked these same questions.  Since when is heavier hardware better than light?  Why is modern hardware so much heavier than vintage hardware?  Who wants to carry this stuff to a gig?  

I have an unfounded suspicion that all this heavy, double-braced madness is a hangover from when everyone wanted to be like this:  

The simple problem is, these guys didn't have to carry their own drum sets.  Making hardware heavier does make it more stable I suppose, but speaking for myself I have never had any problem with any piece of hardware falling over or moving around too much on the gig (unless it was missing a piece or was badly designed).  Certainly if I have a choice between allegedly greater stability and easier portability I would go with the later every time. 

Speed King VS Iron Cobra
Pitting my Tama "Iron Cobra" against the "Speed Master" is a replay of the opening scene of "The Empire Strikes Back".  All those light, maneuverable, fun looking snow speeders dominating the seemingly unstoppable AT-ATs.  



The Evolution of Drumming

Drumming hasn't gotten better
One of the biggest misconceptions about drumming that I had as a young student of the instrument, was that the art of drumming has gone through a historical progression.  That is to say that over time drummers have elevated the craft of drumming, so that what people are playing today is infinitely more sophisticated and better than the great drummers of the past.  After all, I thought, back then drummers didn't even have double bass pedals, so how could they play anything like this?

Evolution doesn't mean improvement
This guy will cut you with brushes!
This is an easy and common mistake to make when you are learning about the drums, and I think the basic problem comes down to the misuse/misunderstanding of the word "evolution".  Essentially, evolution doesn't mean improvement, it means changing to adapt to changing circumstances.  In the world of biology this means that every organism that survives this process is highly adapted to one particular niche.  So fish are really good at swimming, and birds are really good at flying. 

In the world of drumming the exact same idea applies.  Great drummers of the past mastered the musical niche of their time and place. While it is true that Papa Jo never played any ferocious double pedal drum solos, it also true that he could play circles (forgive the pun) with the brushes around just about anyone alive today.

The reason for this is simple, Papa Jo had to play brushes to survive and thrive in the musical environment he lived in.  That in and of itself doesn't make Papa Jo a better or worse drummer than Thomas Lang, it just makes him different

Birds VS Fish!
Birds 1, Fish 0
To further illustrate this point, think back to the birds and fish.  Would we say that birds are better than fish or vice versa?  Don't either of those statements sound absolutely ridiculous?  Of course birds aren't better than fish, they are just different because they are adapted to completely different environments. 

Bach VS Beethoven!
Perhaps a more relevant example than birds and fish is the evolution of classical music.  If you compare the music of Beethoven and Bach you can easily hear how different their music is.  Bach's music is generally intimate and exists within a relatively restricted compositional and theoretical structure.  Beethoven's music is generally immense and exists within much broader musical structures.  Bach's music is generally written for small scale performance or church.  Beethoven's music on the other hand is written for massive symphony orchestras that featured many instruments that didn't even exist in Bach's day! 

But who is the best?
But nobody would ever say that Beethoven's music was better than Bach's, it would be foolish.  Even the question of who is "better" seems ridiculous at this point.  I am differentiating here between saying music is objectively better, and preferring one composer's music to the others.  There are certainly many people who prefer Beethoven or Bach's music, but that isn't the point here.  

Why it is important to study the great drummers of the past
Once you understand this point, that drumming hasn't gotten better but only changed, than the next step is to try to understand how drumming and music has changed over time to get to the point where it is now.  Why do we play things the way we do now?  Who were the major innovators along the way, and what did they contribute?  What can we learn from great drummers of the past that may have been forgotten or neglected?  

I haven't met or heard of a great drummer in my life so far who hasn't, to at least some degree, been a student of the history of the instrument for this exact reason.  This doesn't mean that you have to spend all your time studying outdated styles of music, or learning to reproduce some historical drummers playing.  Rather, this is all about getting perspective on the instrument.  As Tony Williams put it, 

"If you want to be expressive, you’ve got to find out what the instrument will do"



Ed Thigpen: This Is Also What I Am Talking About

Mr. Taste
Ed Thigpen is an often overlooked master drummer whose taste and musicality kept him out of the spotlight.  This (somewhat awkwardly titled) series is all about highlighting  my drumming heroes  demonstrating what I would call a melodic approach to drumming.  In the video at the top you can hear Ed playing and talking about some pretty clear examples of this kind of drumming.
  • Listen to how "Edmund" explains (around :42) his approach as trying to find ways to express himself "not only rhythmically, but musically"
  • He goes on to say that he is experimenting with ways of getting "tonal quality" from the drums and cymbals
  • During the head in (around 2:00), Ed has a couple exchanges with the pianist Billy Taylor where the drums seem to complete or extend a line that the piano starts.  
  • In Ed's solo you can hear some clear Papa Jo influence, particularly the way he plays the drums with his hands.
  • You can also hear how Ed uses the sound of the vamp as an inspiration for the beginning of his solo (especially around 2:25!).
  • As I explained in an earlier post, a melodic approach to drumming is not the same as literally quoting the melody.  Ed's drumming is melodic not only because of his incorporation of the vamp and the "tonal quality" of his playing, but because of the way he phrases and structures his solo with repetition and call and response. 
  • Listen to that bass drum starting at 3:34, YIKES! 
  • One of my favorite moments happens at the end of the solo when the piano comes back in.  Listen to how Ed moves his roll from the snare drum to the hi tom to match the pianists expanded chord, so musical!



Learning New Music

This past couple of weeks I have been deluged with new music to learn.  Below is an example, the beautiful tune "No Surprises" from an all Radiohead jazz gig put together by my friend Bobby Muncy.

All this got me thinking about one very important part of being a musician that I don't hear people discussing very much, how to learn new music.

For me, if I am burdened with having to think a lot on the band stand, the music really suffers.  There are any number of things that I could be thinking about that would interfere with my ability to listen and interact with a band in an organic way, and often they rear their ugly heads when I am playing music that is unfamiliar.  That being the case, the most important part of learning new music is to put yourself in a position where you can turn off your brain and just play.  All the strategies that I am going to recommend have that end in mind. 

I know it isn't cool, just do it.
1.  Organize
Although this may seem really obvious to many people, just getting organized can really help ease the process of learning new music.  If you have charts, put them in a binder in alphabetical order.  If you have recordings, put them on your iPod.  Make this easy on yourself and do this work when you have time so you won't be scrambling when you don't.

2.  Study what you have
If you have a recording of the music, the best place to start is to listen.  You want to focus on things like melody, form, important hits, and overall groove/vibe.  Try to get a sense for the song without going into too much detail.  It is crucial to remember that you are not trying to transcribe, or even necessarily emulate how the drummer on the recording is playing.  If you do try to do this, you will be so caught up trying to think about this on the band stand that it will trip you up. 

If no recording exists and you only have a chart, or even if a recording does exist, it is definitely worth your time to try to play the tune on the piano.  The point here is to get the song off the page and into your ear, so don't worry if your piano skills are not great, just try to make a sketch.  Hopefully you can at least plunk out the melody so that you can get it in your ear.  Once you have the melody memorized, try singing it while you practice the tune on the kit.  Practicing this way will really help you internalize the song so that can rely on your ears on the gig.

3.  Focus on the biggest challenges
One of the real keys to negotiating this process successfully is prioritizing.  If you are throwing up in your mouth a little every time you look at the giant stack of charts or recordings you just got, remember that the odds are that most of this stuff will be easy.  It is your job to find the stuff that will actually really stretch you and focus your energy on that.  This also means that you will have to deliberately not spend too much time on things that are already fun for you to play.  Sorry to be a drag, but if it is already fun, you can already do it.  Go practice something that makes you flustered.

By the way, this doesn't mean that the challenge will be the same every time, quite the contrary!  Sometimes the tunes are relatively straightforward, but the challenge is finding a way to keep them distinct mentally.  Sometimes you get sent a chart with sections in 13 (this actually just happened to me).  No matter what the challenge, your job is to anticipate what could trip you up on the gig and tackle it ahead of time.  Which leads to my next point...

4.  Communicate with the bandleader/composer
Don't forget, often times the person with the most insight into what is going to be challenging in the music is the person who wrote it or put it together.  If you want the quickest way to find what to practice, just ask!  Establishing some rapport with the bandleader/composer is a good idea anyway as it will demonstrate your commitment to the music and help them feel more at ease with you. 

5.  Don't forget to listen!
I said this in the beginning but just to emphasize the point, the reason for doing all this stuff is so that you can free your mind up to focus on listening.  Ultimately, your ability to listen is going to determine your success when playing new (or any) music, so always keep this in mind.

I would also recommend recording yourself playing the gig if you can.  Although this may not help you learn the music this time around, it will help you see what worked and what didn't work for the next time you have to learn something new. 



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!  



Winard Harper: This is also what I am talking about

This video of Winard Harper is another in a series of videos of great drummers playing and talking about the importance of melody that I have been bringing up through this blog.  The main things I wanted to highlight in the video are:
Winard at work
  • Starting around 4:33, Winard talks about the importance of learning melodies
  • More specifically (around 5:30) Winard talks about how all the great jazz drummers were "hearing melodies" when they were playing, even if they weren't producing specific pitches.  
  • Winard connects this idea of "hearing melodies" with the even more fundamental idea of "playing musically"
  • As an example of this he talks about Max Roach's playing and how he incorporates Max's ideas into his playing
  • At 6:40, Winard points out that all the great jazz drummers would even sing melody when they were playing, using the examples of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Billy Higgins
  • He goes on to talk about giving the "idea of what the melody is", and shows some great examples of how to do this by singing the melody and playing around it (starts around 7:30, uses "Now's The Time" and "All The Things You Are")
I hope you enjoy this example of Winard's beautiful playing and teaching as much as I do!



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.  

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!



The Fundamentals of Jazz Drumming Part Two

Here is the second installment of my series on the fundamentals of jazz drumming.  This time the topic is comping, and I will take you through my approach to learning how to comp.  Here is the recording used in the exercise:

For more on my approach to comping in the cracks, check out this earlier post.



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!



Shout Part 3: More Setting Up The Hits

If you read through the exercise in my last post on setting up hits, you may have noticed a reference to another exercise that dealt with this issue in greater depth.  So today I wanted to post that exercise, and here it is!

And here is the recording used in the exercise:

I am hoping that eventually I will be able to get all these exercises published in my book "Melodic Syncopation".  In the meantime, I hope these exercises help you as much as they have helped me!