Recently I watched a clip on Youtube of the great contemporary jazz guitarist Adam Rogers playing ‘Have you met Miss Jones’. He was playing it as part of a masterclass and demonstrating how he uses superimposition of scales as an improvisational device. It is of course, as one would expect of Rogers, brilliantly played and executed, with a flawless technique, and real clarity of sound. However, I couldn’t help noticing something that I’ve noticed in the playing of a lot of contemporary jazz musicians – particularly those playing in the realm of the swing idiom these days – a preponderance of 8th notes and very little rhythmic variety.
It seems that the the evolution of the harmonic language of jazz has gone hand in hand with the simplification of the rhythmic language of its soloists. So much jazz soloing in recent years seems to be based on 8th notes, and 8th notes that are played in a series rather than broken up in any kind of interesting way or with any variety. Take the Rogers solo as an example – now I know I may be a little unfair to choose this as an example of his playing, because he was giving a masterclass and was demonstrating harmonic movement. No doubt he’d play a little differently if he’d been with a rhythm section. But the solo is over four minutes long and I think it’s fair to assume that the way he’s playing here is one he’s comfortable with and used to doing. And just because one is demonstrating harmonic stuff doesn’t mean that one can’t use rhythm in a creative way as well.
So, back to the solo – as I listened to it I was struck by how 8th note-driven the whole solo was and how based on divisions of two it was. Even where there were no 8th notes in couples, nearly everything else was based on divisions of two – quarter notes, half notes etc. And then I noticed that the person who had filmed the solo had also transcribed it and had given a link to the transcription, and reading this transcription (assuming it’s accurate – it seems to be, though I haven’t checked note for note), bore out the suspicion I had regarding the rhythmic uniformity of the solo. In the whole eight choruses - eight pages of transcription, over four minutes of playing – Rogers only uses a subdivision of anything other than two, four times – and this is a subdivision of three – i.e. triplets. In other words, triplets are only used four times in the whole solo. All of this sophisticated harmonic language is supported by a pretty basic rhythmic language. Technically it’s brilliant, harmonically it’s brilliant, rhythmically it’s dull.
You can check it out for yourself – You can see the performance here
And the transcription here
And I think this is pretty typical of a lot of soloing these days in this idiom. There seems to be little or no importance attached to rhythmic variety, it’s all 8th note, 8th note, 8th note. Why? It seems extraordinary to me that there is still little attention paid to the importance of rhythm in music. Jazz schools are particularly guilty of this and seem to place a huge emphasis on harmonic considerations and almost none on rhythm. Maybe this is because harmony lends itself better to academic forms of teaching than rhythm does – rhythm is a more abstract concept to teach and therefore is avoided. There is an avalanche of harmony books and technique books for jazz, but very very little on rhythm, which maybe explains why teachers are reluctant to tackle it (teachers love textbooks!), and why contemporary players seem to place so little importance on rhythm in their improvising.
And it’s particularly puzzling as to why this might be given there are so many great examples of sophisticated rhythmic invention by great jazz soloists in the history of the music. Armstrong, Parker, Miles, Coltrane, Rollins, Jim Hall, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock etc. etc. A quick look on Youtube revealed two fantastic examples almost immediately – one from forty four years ago, the other from three years ago – both playing in the swing idiom over standard from.
The first example is an extraordinary solo from Sonny Rollins from 1965, playing ‘Oleo’ with NHOP and Alan Dawson. This is Rollins at the height of his powers, and his famous rhythmic virtuosity is clearly to the fore during this whole performance.
The other is taken from a concert from Bill Frisell in 2006 where he plays Konitz’s ‘Subconcious-lee’ which is based on ‘What is This Thing Called Love’ - and again the sheer variety of rhythmic approaches he takes is wonderful.
Both of these solos are not only harmonically sophisticated but also rhythmically interesting. Both use swinging 8th notes, but not to the exclusion of all else. Both marry a complex rhythmic language to a highly developed harmonic language, which makes for a deeper, fuller and above all, more INTERESTING experience for the listener. Let’s please have less of the machine gun 8th notes and more rhythmic intrigue – it’d be better for everybody!