Archive for November, 2008

Time & Feel

November 17, 2008

It’s funny how things you take for granted turn out to need so much work. I was always fairly confident that I had decent time, but that was before I recorded myself regularly. I’ve started doing this recently and the results have made uncomfortable listening. They say the camera never lies but there have been times when I wish my dictaphone did. I’ve been having lessons with the great British drummer Dave Wickins and when I listen back to the recordings of them, I’m uncomfortably behind the beat ALL THE TIME. (Slightly worrying how unaware I was of this). I guess my sense of time comes from early experiences of music and in my case that’s orchestral playing, mainly of big romantic stuff. This music is great but obviously doesn’t have the same rhythmic urgency as swing. I also listened to a lot of Kenny Wheeler when I first got seriously into jazz and, once again, his phrasing is more across/behind the beat than a lot of mainstream American jazz*.

I’ve gone back and listened to how really swinging trumpet players phrase, particularly when they play the head or bebop quaver lines.

Firstly the head. Here are two great performances of trumpet players playing heads. First is Miles playing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ from the album of the same name and second Wynton Marsalis playing ‘Just Friends’ from ‘Live at Blues Alley’.



The first thing that strikes me is how the amount of rhythmic strengh provided purely by their statements of the melody is enough to swing the band on its own. They don’t rely on their rhythm sections to do this for them (which considering the rhythm sections are Philly Joe/Paul Chambers and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts/Robert Hurst is going some). It’s like the rhythm sections are adding a whole other level of swing onto the really firm basis provided by Wynton and Miles.

I think medium tempo swingers such as these tracks are particularly tricky with regards to time and feel. Faster tempos carry themselves along more automatically and ballads have a much wider beat to play with. The reason Miles and Wynton do it so well is to do with their always feeling the quaver triplet as a subdivision under the melody,  even when holding a long note. This allows them to  land the end of the phrase with surgical accuracy in the time. The ends of Miles’ and Wynton’s phrases in the heads all end perfectly. On recordings of me, the end of melodic statements often disrupt the time by being late.

Secondly, the feel of the quavers. It’s really obvious to me that Miles and Wynton are phrasing these in a way that suits the tempo of the song. People often talk about drummers having tight or loose swing, where tight swing is where the skip quaver in the ride pattern is nearer a semi-quaver (Tony Williams)  and loose is where the skip is a much fuller quaver (Elvin Jones).

N.B. Ethan Iverson has a brilliant post on Do The Math about drums and trumpet in which he talks about this exact area.

The key to why Wynton and Miles swing so hard on these tricky tempos is the placement and also the articulation of the skip quaver in their lines. Too late and the feel gets jerky and too early and the energy drops. With regards the articulation, I notice they often tongue the skip quaver to give the line a little bit more energy. On recordings of me, I often slur this note which makes the line sound fudged and sludgy. (This, on the other hand, works great for tenor players. Interesting how swing emerges from the instrument itself).

Thank you Wynton, Miles and Dave Wickins for making me aware of this!

*Kenny Wheeler is a phenomenal musician, arguably the most original and influential composer in European jazz, a completely unique trumpet player and improviser and a huge influence on a generation of musicians in both Europe and America. I am in no way disparaging his playing or claiming he doesn’t swing, merely that what I had unconsciously extrapolated from his music has become a problem in my playing. This is clearly my doing not Kenny’s.

Phrasing & Rhythmic Displacement

November 9, 2008

More and more I’m realising how fundamentally important the ability to control where you resolve your lines is. I’d assumed that choosing which quaver in a 4/4 bar you start and finish on would be easy. Yet when I come to practise it, I seem locked into resolving things in the same point each time. This is obviously something that’s conceptually very simple, yet practically pretty difficult. 

Control over points of resolution is a prerequisite for making ‘hip’ harmonic devices and outside playing work. Ever notice how a lot of  players have a lot of stuff going on yet after a few choruses it seems repetitive and loses its impact? By the end of the gig you pretty much know what they’re going to do next. This is a trap I’ve fallen into. One ‘hip’ device that I’ve spent a fair bit of time on is going outside with fourths based pentatonic lines (thank you Woody Shaw). I remember how exciting these felt to play initially and how burning I thought I sounded. After about three gigs though, I started to sense I was doing the same stuff  at the same points in a phrase. After a few more gigs I was getting seriously bored with my shit (goodness knows what the audience were thinking). I’d then move on to the next ‘hip’ device I could find, maybe diminished patterns or phrasing in fives. Cool. So I’d go through the same process-excitement, repetition and then boredom.

The reason this stuff wasn’t sounding good was that I hadn’t got the ability to move the devices around in the phrase sorted out. What I’ve only recently realised (shamefully) about the best players who use advanced harmonic or rhythmic devices in their improvising is that it’s their ability to manipulate placement that makes them sound so killing. This is particularly true of players who use a lot of exact, licks based language, Bird and Woody Shaw being two good examples. How many times do you hear Bird create real musical drama by starting or resolving one of his stock licks at an unexpected point in the bar? Somebody remarked the other day that they felt Bird didn’t relly improvise, just played licks based language. What they don’t get is that the language is just the starting point for him. Where the real intellectual and emotional work gets done (and where the real improvising happens) is in his fantastic ability to manipulate that language through all the possible points in the bar or phrase.



Initially, Monk might be a better improviser to listen to to understand manipulation. With Bird, the language can be so dazzling in itself that you don’t realise the subtleties of phrasing that support it. Monk tends to use simpler materials and is a bit more didactic in the way he manipulates them.

E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel

November 8, 2008