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Monday, May 25, 2009

Where's the One!!??

This is another slightly older essay, but I think the issues raised in it are still very valid.

Where’s the 1!?

I think it's true to say that one of the biggest changes in jazz improvisation over the past 20 years has been the adoption by jazz musicians of what might be called extended rhythmic techniques – odd metre playing, the use of metric modulation, etc. The growth in what's called 'World Music' has undoubtedly had a big influence on this new development, with players taking advantage of the easy access the internet has delivered to the curious musician, allowing them to check out Balkan Music, Indian music, Arabic music etc. and to take on board the wide range of rhythmic styles, grooves, and approaches that these musics provide. The result if this is a plethora of new rhythmic styles and techniques. Jazz musicians, especially younger ones, have enthusiastically adopted this new vocabulary, particularly in the area of original composition, and a huge variety of pieces have been written involving odd metres, metric modulation and the like. In such an environment one would imagine that this new information must surely enrich the music and bring a new element to it. But while I think this is true to some extent, I also believe there is a serious problem with how this new rhythmic information is approached by soloists in particular.

In recent years, as a bassist, I've been in many situations where new music has been brought to the group by composers, involving various rhythmic devices such as those mentioned earlier. In many cases, especially where the music is brought in by horn players, we – the rhythm section – are presented with new and difficult rhythmic problems which we're expected to solve almost immediately, and without any assistance from the composer on possible ways to approach this new information. We can be presented with new difficult rhythmic music and not only do we have to play it correctly, we have to make it groove and come alive as well.

Now you might argue that this is the job of a rhythm section and if you can't stand the heat then stay out of the kitchen. But in a more conventional situation when new music is brought in there is usually a rhythmic precedent for the music – i.e. swing feel, or funk, or Brazilian, or loose straight 8's or something, and all usually in a metre of ¾ or 4/4. These are known quantities, the members of the rhythm section can apply their originality and creativity to something that has rhythmic precedent, and something which they've had a chance to develop over several years. In this new rhythmic landscape, this is not always the case.

As a bassist or drummer these days, you can be presented with a piece in 15/8 and asked to play with a Brazilian feel, or be given something with constantly changing metres and asked to do it with a reggae groove. I once saw an instruction on a piece of music that said – 'think Iranian Surf Music'!! This new rhythmic environment is very challenging for bassists and drummers in particular, and challenge is something that I believe should always be involved in an evolving music such as jazz. And of course as someone whose been heavily involved in the exploration of rhythmic possibilities for over 15 years, I'm very enthusiastic about this new rhythmic language. However the problem here as I see it is that this new rhythmic music being presented to the rhythm section by the non-rhythm section composers is often written by people who can't play it themselves, and who depend entirely on the rhythm section to make the composition musical. This not only puts an unfair stress on the rhythm section and an inordinate amount of responsibility on the bass and drums, but the musical results suffer also, since the soloists often have an inordinate dependence on the rhythm section in order to keep in the right place in the metre and form.

A typical scenario in one of these situations is that a melody instrument player brings in a new piece in an unusual meter, probably with some subdivisions specified within the meter. The horn players have the melody written out, and the rhythm section has little instruction on how to create a groove. Everyone goes to work – the horn players on playing the melody correctly, the rhythm section on trying to play both the metre correctly and finding a way to make the rhythm breathe and live. Once everyone has got the melody statement to a point where it's considered satisfactory, they move on to the solos – and this is where the real problems start in my opinion.

So often the solo form will be over one or two chords, and the soloists will just play their usual 4/4 or 3/4 stuff over the top of the rhythm with no regard for the fact that the piece is not in 4/4 or 3/4, The rhythm section are valiantly labouring to keep the metre and the form, AND make the rhythm sound good for the whole piece, while the soloists responsibility to respect the metre seems to begin and end with the melody.

There are two results arising from this. Firstly you have a situation where the horn players and the rhythm section are not playing together and there's almost no interaction. Since the soloists don't know where the '1' is and are depending on the rhythm section to provide it, they float over the top of the rhythm section playing in a world of their own, incapable of responding to information provided by the rhythm section. And since the soloists are playing almost random rhythms over this new metre, the rhythm section in turn are denied information to feed off from the soloists.

In any normal 4/4 situation in jazz of the last 50 years the interaction between rhythm section and soloist has been crucial to the development of the music as a truly collective art form. Think of any of Miles' rhythms sections, or Coltrane's classic quartet, or Bill Evans's trios – all depended on this interchange between soloist and rhythm section. But with this new situation this kind of interchange is all but eliminated. The rhythm section play together, the soloists floating on top and approximating the metre. Very often, when in this situation, I've felt like I was playing on an Aebersold Playalong recording! There being so little interaction between soloist and rhythm section we might as well have been playing in different rooms. It's almost like a throwback to the bad old fusion days of the 70s, where jazz soloists trotted out lick after lick over a pounding rock rhythm section with neither soloist or rhythm section having the slightest effect on, or interest in, what the others were playing.

The second result of this problem is that the music is BORING!! After a while it all sounds the same. Presumably the idea of playing in 7,11,15, 23 or whatever, is to introduce variety and newness into the music. But due to the constraints placed on the music by the protagonists' lack of competence in these new metres we get the opposite result. You nearly always get the same thing –

1) Complex melody

2) A series of solos over one or two basic chords with soloists floating over the top of the metre and with no interaction between rhythm section and soloists

3) Complex melody

It's dull, dull, dull! In my opinion it's pointless bringing in a piece of music that you essentially can't play. You'd be much better off sticking with 4/4 or 3/4 and playing some creative music with your colleagues than bringing in some token tune in one of these new metres where your ability to respect the measure length is restricted to the playing of the melody. Would any competent horn player, or anyone for that matter, bring in a piece based on changes they found impossible to negotiate? I don't think so. So why do it with rhythm? I would go as far as to say that bringing in a piece of music in which you completely depend on the rhythm section to make you sound competent, let alone creative, is actually dishonest. You're depending on the hard work of others in learning how to deal with this new rhythmic language to absolve you from having to do the same. No good and lasting music is ever produced in such circumstances.

I would suggest that if we're to truly explore the wealth of new musical landscapes made available to us by this new rhythmic information then we have to do the hard work necessary to be comfortable in these metres and rhythmic forms. If you like the idea of doing a tune in 15/8 then you should learn to play in 15/8 – not play your stock 4/4 stuff with ragged corrections every few bars as the rhythm section play the REAL downbeat! You should be able to play phrases that respect this metre, and the real proof of that is to use changes in the music you write in these metres and new rhythms. Get a drum machine, or sequencer, programme the rhythm in question into it, and play along with it over and over until you know where '1' is – every time. Then apply changes to the metre and use the voice leading you've learned over years of practice in that discipline.

Treat rhythm with the same respect you treated harmony and melody and make the same demands on yourself in your use of it. Don't write dull tunes with one or two chords as cover for the fact that you can't voice-lead in the new metre – learn how to voice-lead in that metre – but at home and in the practice room – not on the gig using the crutch of the rhythm section and at the expense of the music and audience. Don't bring any tunes to the rehearsal room where you demand of others something you can't do yourself. Don't try and skip the 'hard yards' - do the work, find the '1' and then rather than paying lip service to this new rhythmic vocabulary, perhaps we can hear some good, creative and new music. No more faking please!!

PS. As an example of how beautiful complex rhythms and great chords can sound when played by people who really know what they're doing have a listen to Kenny Werner's trio piece 'In Tune on the great CD 'Press Enter' (Sunnyside).

As another example of changes in odd metres with respect for voice leading you can also listen to some standards played in odd metres here This was recorded as long ago as 1993 by myself, Mike Nielsen on guitar and Conor Guilfoyle on drums. There are three pieces here - 'Night and Day played in an 11/4 swing feel, 'Love for Sale' played in an 11/8 Afro-Cuban feel and 'Summertime' played in 21/14. Notice the absence of one-chord solo forms!


  1. Hey Ronan, don't you think this problem actually stems from the fact that so many players actually don't play rhythmically in the first place? The players you mention that don't carry over into odd times would most likely not play that way in 3 or 4 anyhow. Too many horn players for example play over, not in, the rhythm section. This may be less evident in a more common time signature but be more apparent in odd time?

  2. You're absolutely right about bad time - bad time is bad time, irrespective of what metre you're playing in. And a lack of rhythmic playing will sound unconvincing in any metre. But I think there's another issue here - playing in 7 or 5 or 11 is different than in 4 or 3 because the melodic lines have different (longer or shorter) spaces to inhabit than in the more common metres. Because most people spend their musical lives in 4 or 3 they've developed ways of hearing melody that fits into these metres. When the new metre comes along these melodic strategies don't work anymore because the '1' arrives in a different place each time, causing the player to feel like they've stepped into an empty elevator shaft when they play their own '1' and then the real '1' arrives later or sooner!

    I think the proof of the fact that you have to do some work on new metres no matter how rhythmic you are can be heard in the playing of 3/4 by jazz musicians in the 50s. In the 50s 3/4 was considered a very unusual metre (Parker never recorded anything in 3/4 for example), for jazz and the early attempts at playing in 3 were usually very stilted. For me even the great Max Roach on 'Valse Hot' with Rollins sounds very stiff and you clearly hear it's not something he's used to doing. It's way behind his playing in 4/4 in terms of swing and invention, yet nobody could accuse HIM of having a poor rhythmic sense!

    I know from my own experience that although I had basically solid time in 4 and 3, I had to really work to learn how to phrase in 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and their variants. It took hours of work with a drum machine just to be really comfortable in knowing where ‘1’ was. And the proof of whether I could do it or not came when I tried to play changes in these metres. And it was this kind of hard slog work that I think these musicians that I mention in my blog are not prepared to do. They want the cachet and novelty of playing in odd metres but are not prepared to do the work necessary to obtain the skills to do so – so they just fake it and make others do the work.

    But come the revolution they’ll be the first against the wall!

  3. Ha, I like that idea! Got a few I's like to line up myself!
    I do agree that it's the 'hard slog' that isn't getting done. It takes serious work to develop an extended rhythmic language for sure. Lets hope more take the plunge and get a little dirty.