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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Time No Changes - Three Masters

I've just been watching, (or maybe 'wallowing in' would be a better description), a video on Youtube taken from a concert by Jack DeJohnette's "Parallel Realities" band, from 1988 (I think). This particular section features a piano solo by Herbie Hancock with Dave Holland and DeJohnette, playing a fast swing "Time No Changes" piano solo -- the piece is Dave's "Shadow Dance". This clip demonstrates a mastery of this way of playing that is quite extraordinary.

Of course Time No Changes is something that's been around for a long time, and Herbie Hancock, along with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, was in the Miles Davis band that introduced it to the wider jazz world. And Dave and Jack were also pioneers of this kind of playing in the subsequent Davis band. So all three have been doing this for a long time, and it shows!

One of the things I think that's really interesting about this clip is its demonstration of the fact that this way of playing is not so common any more. There are very few young bands who use this concept -- swinging yet open, creating a sense of structure even though there is none -- in their music. And even where there is usage of Time No Changes, the feel is very different to the one demonstrated here by these three masters.

I think the key to how good this feels is primarily centred around the time feel of Holland and DeJohnette. Jack's cymbal time is incredibly "springy" -- this time feel on the cymbal seems directly connected to the Tony Williams feel of the 1960s. What's interesting about Jack is that he combines the springy directness of Tony's playing, with the loose limbed polyrhythmic approach of Elvin Jones. The time feel is coming from Tony, but the conceptual approach is closer to Elvin. So while the cymbal time bounces the quarter note along, there is a much broader feel to the overall time due to Jack's avoidance of an obvious "one", and the multilayered polyrhythms he overlays on top of the time feel.

Dave's feel is perfectly suited to playing with Jack -- he also has a very springy quarter note feel, with many embellishments in the line. This matches Jack's cymbal feel perfectly, and Dave's ability to create a sense of tonality in what is essentially a chromatic piece adds to the ability of the pair to create a spontaneous form that is both elusive yet seemingly evident.

As a rhythm section player myself I can attest that this is incredibly difficult to do -- the feeling of forward momentum that Dave and Jackie achieve is extraordinary, particularly when you consider that form and structure are being created spontaneously. And the way they play together not only functions as a great timekeeping device and swing engine, but is almost a parallel solo to what's going on on top. It's what could be described as a "walking solo" -- both players achieve such a concentration of energy that it moves beyond a simple accompaniment role and enters into the realms of a joint solo statement in and of itself.

The key to its uniqueness is in its looseness. There is never any doubt where the beat is, and it feels like there is no doubt where the one is, yet the time feel is in fluid motion throughout -- 'ones' appear and disappear, tonalities emerge and become submerged. I think Jack and Dave are unparalleled in their ability to deliver this extraordinary balancing act between complete freedom and suggestion of structure.

If I try to think of a younger bass and drum team who play Time No Changes, Jeff 'Tain' Watts springs to mind, in combination with several bassists. There is no doubt that Watts is a contemporary drum master, but his time feel and approach to the beat is more cut and dried than Jack's -- the polyrhythms and modulations he uses are more structured than that of his predecessor. When you align this more structured approach with the simpler quarter note approach of the bassists coming out of the Marsalis School, (for want of a better description of these players) you get a very different feel to that created by Jack and Dave. It's swinging and burning - of that there is no doubt - but it doesn't have the fluidity and extraordinary ability to morph the time feel and sense of structure while maintaining a powerful forward motion. To my mind what Jack and Dave do is equally as powerful and swinging as anything produced by the post-Marsalis rhythm section approach, but is infinitely more subtle.

And then there's Herbie -- it's impossible to think of anybody more perfectly suited to playing over Jack and Dave's rhythmic magic carpet than Herbie. His ability to create ambiguous harmonic landscapes that seemed to be both inside and yet defy conventional tonality, adds the perfect final touch to the rhythmic legerdemaine of the bass and drums. He too creates structure as he goes, drawing the listener into an implied tonality only to confound expectations with the next chord or the next melodic line. And all of this contained within the forward motion delivered by one of the most swinging right hands ever heard in jazz piano.

At one point in the solo the trio creates so much power and forward motion you can hear audience members yelling and screaming. When you can get an audience yelling and screaming while you're playing completely chromatic music with no predetermined structure then you're really on to something! Check it out - you can see it Here

(And for example of Elvin's influence on Jack, listen to the opening solo by Jack in the first part of the tune -- you can see it Here)


  1. There's no such thing as a "time feel" when playing drums.

  2. Well, I think to have whatever argument you're making taken seriously, you'll have to do better than just making a sweeping statement backed up by no argument, no evidence to support your statement, nor any empirical data. This blog is about the serious discussion of music, so if you want to follow up by expanding on your statement and making your point seriously then please do so - I'll be interested to hear what you have to say. Otherwise, might I suggest Youtube as being a a better home for one-line opinions?