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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?


  1. Booker Little's album Out Front has some great playing in 5/4 on "Hazy Hues," and the bridge switches to 6/4. Saxophonist Ben Schachter's playing in odd meters is some of the freest and most comfortable sounding I've ever heard. "Moment's Notice," from the album Nothingman really swings in 7/4.

    What do you think about playing in 6/4? It seems as though it's almost always approached by accenting the first and fourth beats (and thus making it feel like two bars of 3/4), but I think that it's harder, and therefore less common, to hear it played differently (like 4/4 + 2/4).

  2. Yes, I'd forgotten about the Booker Little (what else might he have done had he lived........?), so far ahead if its time in so many ways.

    Don't know Ben Schachter's playing, I'll definitely check it out.

    You're quite right about 6/4 swing, it's almost invariably played as two bars of 3. 'Search for Peace' by McCoy is interesting in that regard - a very different feel to the usual subdivision of 6/4. Come to think of it I've never really written anything that uses a clear 6/4 swing pulse - that gets added to my endless 'to do' list - thanks for the suggestions!

  3. Ellis and Hank Levy were really exploring this in the 60's and 70's, although very little of the swinging material got recorded due to the rock-orientation of Ellis's albums. Their work included stuff that was conceived almost like Count Basie-style swing in medium tempos. One 'innovation' was dividing the '3' subdivisions in half, because of the chunkyness of 2+3 or 3+2.
    - so a 5/4 feel would be 2 + 1 1/2 + 1 1/2. It gives it a lighter, more syncopated feel. Levy wrote a ton of traditional swingers in 5/4 and 7/4 in all manner of tempos, which sadly languish in obscurity.

    There's also the 12/8 variation, which is technically straight 8ths, but the feel is triplety swinging eighth notes. The archtype is "Better Git It In Your Soul". Make any of those groups of 3 into a 2, and you have an interesting 11/8. Ellis's 'Blues In Elf' is like that: 3+3+3+2. 'Upstart' is the same, and although Ellis got great pleasure from saying it was in '3 and 2/3 /4 time', there is some truth to it: the 3's feel like quarter notes.

    I totally agree that not much has been done with this in 30 years or so. In a sense, a deftly executed asymmetrical pulse is a suitable substitute for the forward momentum generated by swing. It can have a similar physical effect. But it is an important rhythmic direction that we have let wither on the vine.

  4. Thanks Russell - I don't know the Levys at all - is there anywhere one can find their music? Great to hear about undiscovered (for me) music

  5. Well, as I said Hank's music languishes in obscurity, at least in terms of commercial recordings. Almost all the Don Ellis and Stan Kenton albums he wrote on included only straight-8th pieces. If you know the album "Kenton '76", his piece "Decoupage" is in 5/4, and he wrote "Pete Is A 4-Letter Word" for Peter Erskine in fast 7/4 (Peter plays the crap out of swinging just about any meter - the best drummer for odd meters for me).

    Dozens of other tunes are on his student ensemble LPs. Decoupage got published, so lots of college & high school ensembles have it, the others are rare.

  6. Just got this very interesting response from Bill Kirchner about Hank Levy and Don Ellis - I've posted it below with Bill's permission

    Over 35 years ago, when I was in college, I acquired an LP issued by Don Ellis on his own EME label; it was called "New Rhythms," and was a play-along record. The rhythm section comprised Ellis's players of the early '70s: pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist Dave McDaniel, and drummer Ralph Humphrey. The meters on it range from jazz and rock 5/4 to 33/8, and the rhythm section burns throughout. Apparently the record was issued in tandem with a book called "The New Rhythms," which I've never seen. I wish that someone would reissue the album; I've never heard anything like it.

    As for Hank Levy, he taught at Towson State College in Maryland for many years and is now deceased. His work for Ellis is now available on Ellis CDs reissued by Pacific Jazz, Columbia, and Wounded Bird. My favorite Levy composition is "Chain Reaction" in 13/8, the centerpiece of an otherwise undistinguished Ellis album called "Connection". I used "Chain Reaction" in a 5-CD boxed set called "Big Band Renaissance" that I co-produced and annotated for Smithsonian Recordings in the 1990s. Alas, it's out-of-print, but you can still find copies occasionally.

  7. I have a copy of "The New Rhythm Book", and I remember Hank's LP of the "New Rhythms" record, which was very much like an Aebersold play-along. I have a digital rip of that record that a friend of mine made... and the rhythm section is indeed burning. The book is hardbound and is more like a textbook - it doesn't correspond to the record, despite the similar titles. It's more of an introduction to concepts in odd-meters, subdivisions and the like.

    Hank also wrote a book, called "The Time Revolution", which I believe was published through Creative World. Same kinds of things as Ellis's book, but with a lot of etudes and some tunes to play. His book came in different transpositions, but unfortunately with no recording.

    Hank's favorite tune was also "Chain Reaction", written to feature Ellis and Milcho Leviev. The 8-bar breaks of double time feel for Milcho's solos (that's dbl-x feel in 13/8!!) are electrifying. We loved playing that chart.

  8. You put your finger on it Ronan.
    Simon P from London