A blog about creative music and music related issues (mostly!)
Buy 'Hands' - my new recording with Dave Binney, Tom Rainey, and Chris Guilfoyle!
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Whatever Happened to Odd Metre Swing?
When I got into trying to develop my rhythmic language and technique, almost 20 years ago now, I became really interested in three areas that I saw as being natural extensions of what I was already doing – i.e. things that would and could be organically developed from my grounding in the jazz tradition: subdivision, metric modulation, and odd metre playing. Of these three techniques, some work had been done already in jazz – Tristano had done some fascinating things with regrouping of triplets as far back as the late 40s, and metric modulation had been shown to be a wonderful, if difficult, technique that could be used to create seemingly contradictory statements of where the beat was, sometimes simultaneously. The third element – odd metre playing, was by far the least explored, especially in the swing idiom.
The first guy to extensively use odd metres in jazz was probably Brubeck, he certainly was the first guy to bring it to the attention of the public and players. Brubeck studied composition in Paris with Darius Milhaud, so I’d imagine the odd metre stuff came from there – there’s no real precedent for it in jazz before that as far as I know. Then there was Don Ellis’ work in the 60’s – his big band stuff used lots of odd metres, some really unusual ones. He was a pioneer in that, but I feel, (also with Brubeck), that what was interesting was the fact that they were interested in doing it at all, not so much what they did musically – because I don’t think that much of the actual music that was produced was very interesting as music in itself. But there is an interesting Andrew Hill recording from the 60’s - ‘Judgement’ - with Elvin on it in which they play a piece in 7 called Siete Ocho and Elvin gets a good swinging groove going, although the band gets a bit shaky from time to time. Actually it’s amazing how Elvin attacks the groove, and really makes it swing, especially considering it was quite probably the first time he’d ever had to play in 7, and certainly the first time he recorded it.
But the real breakthrough with odd metres came with the fusion (or Jazz/Rock as it was known then) guys in the early 70’s – Billy Cobham with the Mahavishnu in particular – that’s an interesting one. He was an out-and-out jazz drummer (with Horace Silver among others) and then suddenly became this odd metre virtuoso. Personally I think he got a lot of that stuff from McLaughlin’s knowledge of Indian music – (though Cobham would probably rather die than admit that!), a lot of what he does is very like the way mridangam players from South India play.
After the fusion guys we’re into the 80’s with Steve Coleman and Dave Holland etc. (the Dave Holland Quintet Albums Seeds of Time and Razor's Edge are both classics in regard to rhythmic exploration), and the real breakthroughs with odd metres – the expanding rhythmic universe, (along with the Downtown scene in the 90s) starts there.
When I got into the whole rhythmic thing in the early 90s I was particularly interested in making what I already did in a jazz context work in the new rhythmic areas I was exploring. Since a lot of the music I was playing at the time was in the swing idiom I felt it to be a natural outgrowth of that to try and play odd metres in the swing idiom. And so along with my brother Conor and Mike Nielsen on guitar I got into trying to find ways to make odd metres swing – or to find ways in which one could swing when playing in an odd metre. We spent about two years on this – it was challenging, the swing feel was developed over 4/4, and that four in the bar feel is hard to achieve when you’re playing in 11! But we made real progress in it and I think we became very convincing when playing things like walking bass lines and the typical jazz cymbal beat in various different metres. The trio at that time played exclusively standards, but re-arranged everything rhythmically and harmonically. In 1993 we did an unreleased recording of standards unofficially titled ‘Fucked Up Classics’ in which every single piece was in an odd metre. It never got issued for various reasons but you can download it for free here
At that time I was convinced that what we were doing was the tip of the iceberg as far as rhythm was concerned and that it would only be a matter of time before others followed suit and we were about to witness an explosion in new rhythmic techniques. To some extent that did happen, but I have to say that almost nobody has convincingly dealt with the swing idiom in odd metres. The metric modulation thing has exploded and been heavily explored, but that’s not the case with odd metre swing. When I say swing here I’m not talking about a vague swing feel, but a real dirt under the fingernails, spang-spang-a-lang, walking ride cymbal + walking bass style swing. For sure standards are sometimes played in odd metres – Brad Mehldau has done some interesting work in this area (including a stunning live recording of All the Things) but even when you hear Mehldau’s group playing in an odd metre it doesn’t really swing as much as when they’re playing in 4/4. We really worked on that, to make sure that the swing didn’t diminish due to whatever metre we were in. Hasn’t really been done since in my opinion – not in anything I’ve heard anyway.
Maybe the reason it hasn’t been done is because it’s HARD! You have to not only figure out how to manipulate the rhythms to allow the swing feeling to flow, but you also have to make sure your melodic lines match up with the changes moving at the same rate of the metre you’ve chosen. It’s a voice-leading tightrope – a trial by fire of your rhythmic and harmonic technique. It’s much easier to cop-out by just playing over one chord and picking a straight 8 based rhythm – a cop-out that has resulted in far too much boring and quasi-faked playing over the past 10 years.
It’s not that long ago since jazz musicians couldn’t play in 3/4, and almost never did - how many 3/4 pieces did Bird record? None. But eventually jazz musicians figured out how to do it and to make it really swing. For an example of this evolution listen to Max Roach’s very stiff playing on Rollins’ Valse Hot and Elvin Jones’ loose and flowing playing on any Coltrane tune in 3/4. Within 5 years 3/4 swing had gone from stiff and unnatural to convincingly swinging. But now more than 20 years since the first explosion of interest in non-standard rhythmic techniques, odd metre swing is not that much further down the road.
If anyone reading this knows of any really convincing odd metre swing recordings please let me know, I’d be really interested in hearing it. I really enjoy playing swing in 11, 5, 7, 9 and 15 – it provides a wonderful vehicle for creativity and freshness. But there’s plenty of room for much more of this – it just needs the desire to do it and people who are prepared to put in the work. Any takers?
Thanks for visiting - this is a blog about creative music, or music related issues. Feel free to comment if you feel disposed to. but please identify yourself, even in a basic way, if you wish to respond. You can do this very simply either by creating a blogger identity, or by using some other means of letting the world know who you are! We should all be prepared to stand over our opinions and I'm a bit reluctant to post 'anonymous' comments. Also, I won't post any responses that contain 'flame'-type comments about anybody. I'm not interested in personal attacks on anybody, so please, by all means express your opinions, but keep it civil.
At the bottom of each post is a word or two to describe the subject matter (such as 'jazz' or 'rhythm')- if you enjoy a particular post click on this descriptive word to see more posts on the same type of subject
If you enjoy some of the posts here (and I hope you will!) and would be interested in being kept updated when new ones are added, just click on the 'Follow' button above this message and it's simplicity itself to be advised of any updates.