Exercises created from the transcription process

I am continuing with the transcription but have added some extra exercises to my practice.  The first exercise is as follows:

A jazz standard melody is sung while playing specific rhythmic figures on the drum-kit.  This exercise is an expansion to an exercise I practised with a collegue which was shown to us by Barak Schmool.  It is performed by singing a 2 bar rhythmic phrase and clapping at specific points in the bar.  Initially, we clapped at specified points within each beat – on the “and” of each beat for example  –  which would enable us to hear how that point of each beat feels against the underlying phrase.  Gradually, clapped phrases become more and more complex:  For example,  clapping the first two 1/16th note beats, then repeating this phrase on every 3rd 1/16th (see notaional fig.3).  This particular figure creates a polyrhtyhmic effect by giving the impression of a meter worth 3 beats in length, played over the underlying 2 bar phrase in 5/4.  By practicing this, I found that gradually I was able to hear how the clapped phrase “fitted-in” with the 2 bar rhythmic phrase.

I have taken the basic concept of this exercise and applied it as an exercise to improve improvising on the drum-kit.  As with the transcription of “Juju” the melody is sung while improvising on the drum kit.  At the beginning of this process I sang the melody while playing specifc rhythmic figures on the kit.  This process allows me to hear how these particular figures affect and shape the melody.  After spending some time with these figures, I then begin to improvise while singing the melody.  On recordings I made on April 19th (recording link no. 1), I can be heard improvising over the melody of Juju.  I went around the melody numerous times but was getting frustrated as the time was quite often unsteady with the metronome.  After thirty odd attempts, I altered my approach slightly:  My priority was to sing the melody accurately and merely allow my hands and feet to, in a sense, strike the drums as they wished with little or no intervention from any conscious thought; when I could feel any tension in my arms or had a conscious thought where I would, effectively, tell my hands to force a phrase into a space, I stopped playing and concentrated on continuing to sing the melody accurately.  The effectiveness of this was immediate:  Time-Feel was relaxed yet clear and was more accurate with the metronome; there was a logic to the phrasing rather than it feeling overly complicated and unnecessarily complex.

As I have continued practicing in this way, I have found that by approaching soloing and accompaniment in this way, phrases refer and relate to either a melodic structure during solo or to the musical lines being improvised by other musicians in the case of accompaniment.  Phrases are shaping the melodic structure that I am singing.  What seems to be like a knock-on effect is that I am not playing “chops” at all and seem to be much more relaxed when I’m playing.

A very important observation to note is how often I push phrases onto the kit:  moments of tension or even judgement of a solo “so far”, are dealt with by pushing my hands and feet to force a phrase.  By singing the underlying structure, I am free to take my hands away at moments like this but still keep a sense of melodic structure, pulse and form and it enables me to hear how phrases played on the kit are shaping and unfolding with the melodic structure.  Often the phrases seem very simple with little or no “chops” being played and in order to continue with an improvisation in this way, I find I am required to completely turn off my inner critic.

This approach definitely requires more practice time and I am very enthusiastic about where it is going to lead to.

A revelation…

Well, the last week has been a mini-revelation in relation to my MMus project and the Elvin Jones solo I have been transcribing and learning.  As I had alluded to in my last post, I hit a wall when I discovered that the transcription I had almost completed did not work out evenly over the form of the tune.  When I listened to it at its original speed, the solo seemed to work out evenly over the melody and the form so I had to conclude that the error arose from the way I was approaching the transcription:  by notating Elvin’s phrasing in relation to a strict pulse, the transcription was not working out evenly which means that the solo is not metronomic.  It became necessary to rewrite it but with a very distinct and important change to my approach:  although by using transcription software I can hear the solo at a slower speed and work out exactly what is being played in relation to a strict pulse, this will not necessarily give me an accurate description of what Elvin (may have) intended.  To create a clearer picture of what Elvin played, I needed to ensure that I compared the slower version of the solo with the solo at its original speed and make choices – or educated guesses to be more precise – as to where I think a note or phrase should be placed; in this way I can more accurately depict a phrase’s rhythmic affect on the time and/or a melody line.

For me, what is most interesting and important about all of this is that the solo is not metronomic:  Elvin is not “trying” to stay within the boundaries of a strict pulse but he is shaping and playing around a melody – or strictly speaking, the rhythmic structure of a melody.  I can identify with the former approach in that I often think of performing as “trying to stay within the boundaries of a pulse” possibly because of how I think about the role of a drummer in an ensemble and what the fundamentals of being a drummer are:  I must not lose the time.  Although this last statement is absolutely true, in light of the discovery made through doing the Elvin transcription, it does not mean that my phrasing must be metronomic.

As I continued to rewrite the transcription I found that I could hear familiar phrases – in the sense that they are familiar and commonly used jazz drumming phrases – but they were being played over odd numbers of beats.  For example in bars 16 and 17, Elvin plays a familiar phrase but I have notated it as a septuplet over two beats.  I am familiar with the sound of this phrase but I have only ever thought of it as a sextuplet with the last note of the phrase landing on a downbeat.  This is not to say that Elvin has consciously opted to play this phrase as a septuplet over a perceived space of time; more that he has unconsciously adapted the phrase to shape this perceived space of time.  With phrases played in this way, the performer is required to hear how a particular shape is affecting the time and to be able to “feel” its rhythmic affect and respond without ever losing a sense of where the time is.  What is inferred by this is that the performer has the skill to keep track of a permanent structure such as a pulse or -as this non-metronomic approach suggests to me – the rhythmic structure of a melody.  A melody already has a shape and an intrinsic motion to it:  It  has ups and downs, phrases that expand and contract which can create a sensation of acceleration or deceleration and within all of the rhythmic shapes that are present in a melody, there is a regular pulse.  As any performer knows, in order to learn a melody and keep a sense of a regular pulse as you perform it, it is necessary to learn the rhythmic shape of each phrase and learn them with accuracy and precision.

This discovery dramatically alters how I approach performance in general and more specifically, the execution of phrases:  I do not necessarily have to be able to play a particular sextuplet phrase, for example, precisely as I have practiced it but rather allow my hands and feet to play and in turn, hear how the phrasing coming from the drum-kit is shaping the rhythmic sound of a permanent structure such as a melody or even something similar to an Afro-Cuban clave.  In order to do this, I need to be able to accurately sing this permanent structure and hear how everything that is being played is affecting it without losing track of it.  This, I believe, is how Elvin has approached this solo:  He is allowing his hands and feet to play what they know and listening to how their phrases are shaping the rhythmic structure of the melody.  In bar 22, I had to notate the phrase Elvin plays as a 21 tuplet; I think it is safe to say that Elvin did not preconceive this phrase and subsequently execute it accurately but rather “felt” a rhythmic shape and adapted it to his underlying structure.

This has been a kind of revelation for me and really gives me much more freedom in performance and I am excited about what I can do with this new found perspective.

Practice Entry

I started the day today by listening to some recordings of me playing about a month ago.  On one of the recordings, I can hear a light snare drum on the last eighth note triplet of each beat.  It is unconscious because I was unaware I was doing it but I remember Dave Wickins, one of my drum tutors, made me aware of it last year; I had not really noticed it until today.  An incessant shuffle is present on the recording that has the effect of weighing the time down.  It is a bad habit, serves no musical purpose and is merely a manifestation of my nervousness when performing.  When I was rehearsing with some people today, I noticed when I started to do it and was able to stop.

From the recordings I also heard how I am forcing ideas out which tend to distract from the soloist rather than support it and comp with it.  Some ideas are rushed and there is a general edginess to my playing which makes the time feel uncomfortable.  The rushed phrasing sounds sounds like I am over-compensating and throwing in random phrases in an attempt to ensure I am contributing in a creative way.  Of course, I know when listening to music including listening back to myself that the most musical way I can contribute when playing is to play with clear time, “comp” the soloists and be an accompanist.  Again, I think it is nervousness that cause me to perform in this way.

In my practice session today, I concentrated on relaxing and focusing on the time by singing the melody of “Have you met Miss Jones”  and playing the kit as I sing.  With the recordings I had listened to in mind, I focused on relaxing; more specifically, I wasn’t trying to force any phrases and allowed my hands and feet to move while I concentrated on singing an accurate melody.  After doing this for a while, I really felt like I was making a better sound and the time was more relaxed.  I wasn’t judging and subsequently over-compensating for my contribution as I played .

The Elvin solo was proving difficult for the last few days.  Yesterday, I spent about ten hours trying to figure out two bars; I am not completely sure whether the solo is even over the form  although when I listened to it at tempo this morning, it sounded like it works out evenly with the form of the tune.  I think I need to focus the study on the multiple meters concept primarily in that it is the development of this concept that will give my playing the dynamism I hear in many of my favorite drummers.  I need to get several examples of several drummers and show how they use this concept; I need to show what methods I am employing to develop this concept so that it becomes a part of my sound.  The lesson Horacio “El Negro” Hernandes gives for developing clave would serve as a good example of how the 3 over 2 concept is applied to an underlying rhythmic structure:  By practicing clave in this way, it becomes possible to hear the rhythmic structure from the duple and the triple meter at the same time.  I could apply this to what I am doing by practicing a melody while playing a duple or a triple meter in order to hear how the melodic structure relates to both meters.  In this way, I am learning to hear the melody from many rhythmic perspectives at the same time and can react to that structure from any of these perspectives.

When rehearsing today, I relaxed more and made sure to take care of the time.  Often this meant playing much more simply and not over-complicating.  It felt like I was playing too simply at times but began to think that it is this lack of faith in simplicity that are often mine, and the time’s, undoing.  Rather than trying to complete or finish “fills”, I thought of playing simple answers and responses to the soloists with my priority being to clearly state the time and not to encroach on the solos; I let my hands and feet play what they played in a relaxed way and focused on locking-in with the bass player and concentrating on the time.

More tomorrow…

Some useful things learned today

I didn’t get any work done on the solo today but I did have the privilege of playing in a lesson with guitarist, Phil Robson.  Fillipe – a guitarist also studying at Trinity – had organised a band to play for one of his lessons with Phil.  Phil had some really interesting things to say about time-keeping.  The point that stood out the most for me was what he said about really stating the time and your intentions to the point that you sometimes, and possibly a lot of the time, need to over-state what you play:  if, for example, I play some kind of “Triplet” sub-division phrase, I need to really over-state it and make it really clear that I’m doing that.  Almost immediately I felt like I was playing far less tenuously and in so doing, my time and phrasing sounded much clearer; the other players had something more solid to latch on to.  This approach ties in well with what I noticed when watching New York drummer, Pete Zimmer a few weeks ago:  There was real conviction and intention with everything he did and, to use the analogy, he “over-stated” what he was doing.

After we played again, Phil made the point that a lot of the time the problems with playing are just psychological and not technical.  This was most definitely proved once I had altered my approach based on the points Phil made as explained above.  For me and probably for many musicians, nerves get in the way and playing becomes an issue with confidence.  The idea of over-stating something gives musical phrases clarity and in a way, it tackles any confidence issues by forcing you to only consider “over-stating” a phrase; I am distracted by the over-statement of a phrase from thinking too much about a phrase’s….validity or worth and other out-of-place considerations.

Fillipe made a very good point that you have to “manage” yourself and not to get carried away; say, if a really burning tune is called, that the aim is not to “burn” at the beginning, even though the first thought that springs to mind is, “I have to really burn here!”, but to play with clarity, conviction and often simplicity and allow the groove to settle and allow musical ideas to grow from a solid base.

Going to rip it up on that Elvin solo tomorrow.  I took a jazz voyage around you-tube last night and watched, among other things, Brian Blade playing with Kenny Garrett and he sounded like Elvin – lots of Elvin chops!  The clip is taken from 1991 when he was 21.  He sounds absolutely incredibe, of course.  He sounds quite different in the clip to how he sounds now, in my humble opinion and definitely has more of his own thing going on now.

“African Influence on the Music of the Americas” by R.A. Waterman…

This week, I have been mostly reading an essay written in the 1960’s called “African Influence on the music of the Americas” by Richard A. Waterman.  Part of the essay compares European folk song with African tribal song with an explanation of the pervasive use of “Multiple meter” in much of African music compared to this concept being virtually “unknown in European song…”.

Waterman isolates five main traits of African music that also serve as differences between African and European musical traditions:  Dominance of percussion, Polymeter, what Waterman refers to as “Off-beat phrasing of melodic accents”, Overlapping call-and-response patterns and a “metronome sense”.

“Metronome sense” according to Waterman is a prerequisite for being able to listen and to play music of African origin.  According to Waterman, it is assumed that audience members and performers alike have there own sense of a pulse during a performance.  Each individual’s subjective sense of pulse is reinforced when rhythms being played around them align with where the individual has predicted the next beat in a cycle falls.  In European music, however, Waterman asserts that the beats of a cycle are explicitly played at all times; the music must directly display the pulse in order for it to be sensed.  This can restrict the rhythmic complexity of the music when compared to African music because unlike European music, African music assumes the skill of being able to sense an implicit pulse and hear how that pulse is affected by polyrhythms being played around it.

His explanation of “Off-beat phrasing of melodic accents” is interesting in that he coined this cumbersome phrase in favor of the term “syncopation”.  He expands on this subject explaining how single tied notes across bar lines, for example, and notes played around the down-beats correlate to what European musical traditions refer to as “syncopation”.  His expansion on the subject posits the perception of melodic lines played on off-beats in relation to a root pulse can be interpreted as on-the-beat in another related meter.

For me, this African originated perception of “syncopation” is critical in being able to improvise:  In the practice room, I am no longer trying to learn how to mathematically – and therefore, intellectually – divide the beats of the pulse but I am getting used to feeling how a phrase or a even a melody feel  against several different but related meters at the same time.  Rather than my previous – and possibly misguided – perception of rhythm as it is applied to improvising as being the process by which regular beats are divided, my perception of rhythm in improvising is better explained as:  how a phrase sung or played affects my subjective experience of time.

Didn’t get any work done on the solo today or yesterday so have to get stuck in tomorrow.

Day 2….

I have been working on the Elvin Jones solo from the tune “Juju” for several weeks.  The transcription was started as I have started other transcriptions in the past.  But I noticed a distinct difference in learning this  solo when I began to sing the melody of the tune as I played each part so, for example, when learning the first bar, I continued to sing the melody notes for the first bar very accurately as I repeated the solo line of the first bar.  This had an almost immediate effect on how I was interpreting the musical line of the solo in that it became clear that many of the notes and phrases in the solo are phrasing with, around and in response to the melody.  As I continued work on the solo over the following few weeks I found that the more I adhere to singing the melody accurately, the greater a sense of intricate structure I get from the solo. So far, through my experience of applying this concept in a very precise manner, I feel like I am playing the tune when I solo rather than just chops and licks.  Having a sense of rhythmic counter-point as opposed to using a stock list of licks that I try to string together is, to me, much more interesting and worthwhile.  Also, when playing some standards with a group yesterday, I felt that I was communicating something much more concrete and clear to the other band members (of course it is quite possible that they didn’t have a clue what was going on during my solos and it is very possible that I am full of it!).

I met with my project supervisor to discuss how I was doing with the project.  He has pointed some possible pitfalls of the direction I am taking in that I have to be to careful not to do anything to narrow.  The transcription of the Elvin solo is no doubt, a worthwhile exercise and will improve my musicianship but I need to think carefully about what I will be presenting come the 28th of May.  It may be the case that although some of the things I am thinking about Elvin’s approach may have been true and will probably help to develop my own concepts on improvising, my theories are just that:  my theories.  I could try to talk to some people who played with Elvin but even then, any theories would be based an educated conjecture and would not suffice for a Masters level dissertation.  As Nick Weldon, my project supervisor pointed out, the two of us could have a great time talking about how much we admire Elvin’s playing and even begin to mythologize what he did, but this might only serve to compound the problem of developing my own tenuously grounded theories and basing my dissertation on them.

My original proposal for the project was “Developing Inner Pulse and Time-Feel” and after giving that a little thought today, it might serve me better as a subject rather than “I did a transcription of Elvin Jones and learned to sing the melody as I played it”.  It would probably give me broader scope on which to base my research and give a clearer, more concise path forward.

With all of that said, whenever I finish a practice session where I have been applying the concept mentioned above (and explained in the previous post) it really feels like it works!

My First Post – Jazz Project

Well, here goes!  This is my first post on my new blog.   My reason for starting this blog was originally (and still is at the moment) to document my studies for a project I am doing for an MMus at Trinity College of Music, London.  I intend to keep a daily diary of a study I am doing into Elvin Jones for a final disertation.

Specifically, I am using a transcription of an Elvin solo as a means to learn some concepts he used in his playing.  The solo comes from the Wayne Shorter tune “Juju” from the 1964 album, “Juju”.  My overall aims and objectives are to develop/internalise into my own playing, two fundamental components of Elvin’s playing (a subjective viewpoint, naturally!) that he could not only use and execute but was able to take to a level that made his playing rhythmically complex and dynamic yet universally comprehensible and with a clear adherence to the music he was playing and the musicians he was playing with.

These two components are:

1) Soloing as an accurate rhythmic counter-point to a melody that the performer/drummer sings while soloing.

2) Playing with reference to a compound meter:  A compound meter means not only playing with reference to a cycle of 4 beats in a bar (4/4), for example, but also referring to a quarter note triplet which creates 6 beats within the same space or bar.  This is commonly referred to as 3 over 2 or, a meter of 3 played over a meter of 2.  Any multiples of these two numbers can be used so, musical phrases can, in theory, be played using 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 etc. beat cycles or, when referring to the “3” of the compound meter, musical phrases can be played using 3, 6, 9, 12, 18 etc. beat cycles.  Any phrases referring to the “2” component of the compound meter tend to have a “straight” feel and phrases referring to the “3” side of the meter tend to have a “swing” feel.

In my opinion, Elvin had a highly developed sense of this concept to the point that it is often ambiguous as to which component of the compound meter a musical phrase refers.  This concept is common in some West African music and  music of African origin, where the stresses of a musical line are altered depending on which meter the listener is referring.  A stretching and contracting effect is created on the time-feel, a tension as musical lines intertwine and pull away from each other and a release when musical line meet at the same point.

I think that these skills contributed greatly to Elvin’s seemingly inerring time-feel and his ability to communicate clearly and with great precision and expertise with other members of an improvising ensemble.

During the course of my studies at Trinity, I have been shown some methods for developing good time and rhythmic sense by one of the founding members of the F-ire collective in London, Barak Schmool.  These methods are, as I understand them, similar to how Afro-Cuban musicians learn music – although, it is not exclusive to Afro-Cuban music – in that they do not learn a melody alone, they learn a melody in conjunction with the “clave” and a pulse.

Barak explains this concept as the “Three Layers”.   These Three Layers refer to the following:

  1. a pulse or beat
  2. a rhythmic structure such as a “clave” used in Afro-Cuban music
  3. a melody

What is fundamental to this concept is that musical lines played in performance, in pariticular by improvising musicians, are not only referring to an underlying pulse but also to an underlying rhythmic structure.

I have spent a comparatively brief amount of time developing and applying this concept in my own playing by practising and applying methods that Barak has taught me.  These methods involve using your body to “internalise” the “layers”.  As Barak explains, good time does not come from tapping your feet and watching a metronome.  It is essential that the body is used to physically experience the “Three Layers”.  This involves (while standing up):

  • Moving your feet with the pulse:  the right heel comes down on beat 1, the left heel comes down on beat 2, right heel on 3, left heel on 4 and so on.  Simply put, the feet move with the pulse which is an expression of one of the “layers”
  • Clapping a rhythmic structure with the hands while moving the feet with the pulse.  This is an expression of the second “layer”.
  • Singing a melody.  This is an expression of the third “layer”.

It is vital that all layers are played with accuracy.  The rhythmic structure clapped with the hands must not be allowed to falter.  This ensures that eventually, the performer is able to sing the melody and hear how it relates to and even communicates with the underlying rhythmic structure.  A rhythmic counter-point begins to emerge rather than simply a melody with an inherent pulse.

Different roles in an ensemble must apply this concept in a way that is suitable to their instrument and their role within the group.  For singers, the way explained above is suitable.  For rhythm section players such as drummers, percussionists bass players and piano players, the roles must be swapped around.  For a rhythm section performer, a rhythmic pattern is sung and a melody or an improvised pattern are clapped with the hands while the pulse is still expressed with the feet.  This can then be applied when playing instruments so, for a drummer, a rhythmic pattern is sung and an improvised and rhythmic counter-point line is played on the drums.

Armed with this knowledge, when I listened to the Wayne Shorter tune “Juju” and sang the melody along with Elvin’s drum solo, I began to hear much more detail in what Elvin was playing.  To my ears, Elvin is playing the melody ALL THE TIME!  The phrasing in the solo is often complex and is masterfully executed but when you add the structure of the melody, the solo takes on another level and Elvin’s level of mastery is displayed.  This is a similar skill to the rhythm section players I talked about earlier and I believe is something that many great jazz musicians have or had.

Paul F. Berliner explains in his book Thinking in Jazz that:

…the sanctified church was commonly the training ground for absorbing essential rhythmic features of African American music.  In its vibrant musical setting, congregants learned to keep their bearings with respect to meter and “stress” amid a complex, ever changing scheme of rhythmic counterpoint.

He goes on to quote the late, great Dizzy Gillespie:

[The] sanctified church had a deep significance for me, musically.  I first learned the meaning of rhythm there and all about how music could transport people spiritually….They used to keep at least four different rhythms going, and as the congregation joined in, the number of rhythms would increase with foot stomping, hand clapping , and people catching the spirit and jumping up and down on the wooden floor, which also resounded like a drum……The sanctified church’s rhythm got to me as it did to anyone else who came near the place.”

I am using the Elvin transcription as a means to learn and to apply the skill of being able to sing a melody and to improvise accurately with it.  Using this Elvin solo will enable me to experience how this skill was applied by Elvin in such a masterful way.

Daily posts on my progress and thoughts on this will ensue.

I would love to hear from anybody who wants to share any thoughts on this subject.  If anybody has anything to say or share about drumming or rhythm or music, I’d love to hear it.