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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Talking Dog Syndrome

As someone who’s been involved in the exploration of rhythm over the past 20 years, I’m aware that great strides have been made in the development of new rhythmic techniques and their inclusion in jazz and improvised music. Yet listening recently to some music which clearly has adopted some of the newer rhythmic techniques and advances in perception of the use of rhythm, I’ve been struck by, in terms of how they approach their music, how different the aims of the musicians seems to be from what my aims were in exploring new rhythmic techniques, and in how different their aim seems to be from one of the main developmental and historical streams of jazz music.

This stream is the one in which the structural elements of the pieces are obscured by the way the performers play over and with these elements. This tradition goes back a long way in jazz, for example in how the beautiful legato phrasing of Lester Young arcs over the harmony and the bar lines of the very traditional structures which were the vehicles for his solos. His lines create round curves over the sharp angles over the four and eight bar forms. Charlie Parker and the bebop pioneers took this even further — Parker’s use of substitution and chromaticism obscured the conventional harmonic patterns and song forms on which the bebop melodies were based. The drummers in these groups (Max Roach in particular), added further to the legerdemain by superimposing polyrhythms over the four-square structures.

In the 1960s this approach to improvising on form took a quantum leap forward, particularly in the music of Coltrane’s Quartet and the various Miles quintets of the period. Coltrane’s “Chasing the Trane” is a classic example, where Coltrane constantly moves away from and back towards the blues form, while Elvin adds to the stretching of the structure by his use of rhythmic counterpoint and the avoidance of an explicit ‘one’ for chorus after chorus.

But the zenith of this abstraction of form can be heard on Miles’ “Live At The Plugged Nickel” where the band take some of the hoariest chestnuts in the jazz repertoire to the outer limits of structure, testing their pliability to the utmost. Despite the very abstract approach taken to these pieces, the forms are respected at all times, the musicians using these now invisible landmarks as guides for the most extended of excursions.

I’ve always been attracted to this way of playing, it’s always seemed to me to be on a very high level both technically and creatively. To be able to twist and bend the boundaries of the form without ever losing it demands the highest musicianship allied to an extraordinary sense of form. The people who have the ability to do this have always seemed to me to be improvising artists of the first rank. Jim Hall describes this way of thinking as similar to a game of tennis — you can hit the ball from any direction and at any speed, and you must be able to think on your feet because you don’t know which direction the ball is going to come at you from. But you must at all times be aware of the structure of the tennis court and you must always get the ball back into the apposite square. I think this is a very good analogy for improvising within form while using your creativity to obscure that form.

Part of the weaponry in the arsenal of the kinds of musicians who take on the challenge of being creative within form is undoubtedly one of rhythmic sophistication. You can hear this in Lester Young and Charlie Parker, in Lee Konitz (check out “Motion”!), in Jim Hall, in Wayne Shorter, in Herbie Hancock, in Jack DeJohnette etc etc Rhythm was a major piece of technical equipment that facilitated the loosening of the bonds of form, so one would imagine that with the new rhythmic techniques that have come into jazz in the past 20 years — odd meter playing, metric modulation, multiple polyrhythms etc — that this approach to playing outside yet within the form would have reached another level. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

Instead, it seems to me that often a new explicit statement of the form seems to have appeared. Rather than having the form be something that is invisible — a guiding structure that only the musicians are aware of — the new orthodoxy seems to be to create music that is not only rhythmically complex but is explicitly so — wearing its mathematical heart on its sleeve so to speak. Pieces are played with mathematical precision, and having achieved the technical wherewithal to deal with these new complex rhythms a lot of musicians seem to be happy to leave it at that. They seem to be proud to be able to play five over three, for example, as if the act of achieving an accurate representation of this is an end in itself. The fives and the threes are rigidly marked off and flagged, as if the musicians want to display the nuts and bolts of their achievement to an admiring crowd. It’s a reversal of the other tradition i mentioned — rather than have the form act as a kind of internalised guiding principle, the form of the piece in this more recent approach is used as a kind of exoskeleton that is worn proudly by the musicians as they negotiate the treacherous twists and turns of their rhythmic high wire act.

However to me there’s an element of the “talking dog” syndrome about this — where it isn’t so much what the dog said as the fact that it could talk at all that was amazing. Sometimes this music has that feeling to my ears, it’s as if the achievement of the accurate reproduction of complex rhythm is seen as an end in itself rather than the springboard to discover something new and creative. Of course to be able to stretch and bend already complex structures such as metric modulation and odd metres is a huge challenge, but then again the stretching of form has always been difficult and is not for the creatively faint-hearted. So to have the technique to undertake complex rhythmic negotiations but not to wish to take this any further than a basic laying out of these rhythms seems to me that the very least artistically questionable.

I don’t wish to get into a naming names scenario — I think there is quite enough name-calling on YouTube as it is! However I can take an example from outside of the jazz and improvised music tradition as a kind of a Uber example of what I’m talking about. The band Meshuggah are famed for their use of complex rhythm in their music. Meshuggah are not a jazz group or in the jazz tradition in any way - I think the genre to which they belong (or founded possibly) is known as “Math Metal” - though no doubt some Comic Book Guy pedant can set me straight on that if I got it wrong. Anyway, what they do is often admired by jazz musicians who themselves are into complex rhythmic music. But not by me — I admire their musicianship and metric sophistication, but I find that once you strip away the accurate performance of their involved riffs, you’re not really left with anything. On a subjective level I can’t take the “Cookie Monster” vocals, (which in fairness are probably not meant to appeal to someone such as me), but on an objective level I find their music to be no more than a demonstration of an ability to play instruments technically well, play in time and count numbers. Meshuggah are very much to my mind a classic example of ’Boy’s Music’ and unfortunately I find quite a lot of that ‘boys music’ mentality in some of the more contemporary uses of complex rhythm in improvised music. Accuracy and “correctness” are everything — to perform some complex rhythmic feat correctly seems in and of itself to be enough.

But it needn’t be this way. I’m not writing this post from the standpoint that some jazz musicians take, where they believe that complex rhythms and new rhythmic techniques have no place in jazz and are just a way of showing off. I’m an advocate of rhythmic exploration and the development of new improvising strategies through rhythmic means. But I do believe the ultimate goal of such exploration should be the creation of music that sounds organic and natural, and is expressive and not afraid to be lyrical if the music calls for that. And I don’t believe that the mere demonstration of rhythmic technique is of any value in itself.

Fortunately there are many examples are just how great the wedding of complex rhythm with a creative mind can be. For anyone interested in such things, I would point you in the direction of such music as Drew Gress’ ‘’Seven Black Butterflies’’ band, where his writing for the quintet and the blending of the rhythm section with the soloists is seamlessly achieved, despite the complexity of the rhythmic underpinning of the music. Or to Kenny Werner’s beautiful ’In Tune’, a lyrical piano trio piece whose melodicism disguises the constantly shifting meters underneath. I myself have been very conscious of trying to use the new rhythmic language for a more organic sounding result, most recently with my group Métier on pieces such as ’Cascade’, a very complex piece which I nevertheless tried to imbue with lyrical qualities.

I know the genie is out of the bottle as far as rhythm in jazz is concerned – it’s never going back to the pre-odd metre/metric modulation/multiple polyrhythm days – which is neither a good or a bad thing in itself. What IS important is that we use the opportunity given to us by this new information to tell new stories and explore new ways to tell old stories. But in the telling of these stories if we’re going to have a talking dog as a narrator, let’s not just be happy that he can talk at all, let’s give him a few decent lines as well...............


  1. Great post, Ronan. I've had two interesting conversations on this very topic recently. The first was with pianist Vijay Iyer. We talked about the very complex metric and rhythmic formulas that underlie many of his tunes, and have led them to be often labeled "math jazz." I asked him whether it was necessary that the audience understand the math to appreciate the music. I don't want to paraphrase his answer, so I'll just say that my interview with him will be available on Wednesday at

    My other recent conversation on this topic was with drummer Jared Schonig. Jared made the interesting comment that, "Even if the audience doesn't know what you're doing, they should feel like YOU do." In other words, the complex rhythms and meters shouldn't draw attention to themselves. Rather, they should be serving the music and supporting the group. I'm probably not explaining all this very well. Jared did it much better.

    Finally, I'll say that I've always been a fan of prog rock as practiced by Yes, old Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, etc. For me, half the fun of that music (which was played exactly the same way every time), was being aware of the complex time signatures. It was like a secret language that fans could speak.

    Thanks as always for the insightful writing.

    Jason Crane
    The Jazz Session

  2. Thanks for the comment Jason - I was a big King Crimson fan in my misspent youth! I look forward to reading the interview with Vijay


  3. Hi Ronan: The interview is now online for your listening pleasure:

  4. hey ronan. andres from argentina here.

    i like the fact that you've been listening to meshuggah. i understand that you are not much into metal, i guess they are a hard listen for most people, even for some metal-heads.

    i think they amazing, always exploring new territory on each new record. i love those guys... my favorite metal band ever.

    about the "math jazz" thang... check out this brazilian guy called Marcelo Coelho... he is insane!

  5. Thanks Andrés - Marcelo is a good friend of mine!