Time & Feel

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’.

bye-bye-blackbird-blog-mp34

just-friends-blog3 

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. http://thebadplus.typepad.com/dothemath/2007/02/drums_and_trump.html

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.

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