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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Death of the Fast Tempo?

For various reasons I’ve been listening to lots of concerts by very good young musicians recently – mostly performance exams at my school and another. In all I’d estimate I’ve heard forty eight sets of music over the past four weeks or so. Allowing about forty minutes per set, that’s about thirty two hours of music. Thirty two hours of music played by some very high level young improvising musicians, all of whom were given carte blanche to present any kind of music they liked, in any style or genre of improvised music. During the course of these thirty two hours I heard a myriad of approaches and influences and there were many interesting things to hear. But what really struck me was that during those thirty two hours of music, presented by forty different young musicians, I heard maybe five pieces that could in any way be described as ‘fast’.

This is something I’ve noticed over recent years, the moving away (very slowly!) from the playing of fast tempos by young musicians. It’s hard to know why this is, or whether there’s one reason for it, or many reasons, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the playing of fast tempos in contemporary jazz has greatly decreased over the past fifteen years or so.

The Bebop era put fast tempos on the map – of course people had played fast before that – Art Tatum most notably, but the idea of a whole band playing at 300+BPM only became commonplace after 1940 and was the weapon of choice of the young bebop musicians when they wanted to show off their virtuosity or wanted to see off the competition. In the end it wasn’t just note choices or rhythmic feel that differentiated the swing era musicians from the post-Parker guys – it was also the sheer speed at which the newer music was often played. Most of the swing era guys couldn’t live with the pace, and they often got their retaliation in first by claiming that the music was all empty virtuosity, while the bebop guys derided the lack of ability of the older musicians to keep up.

When Hard Bop evolved in the early to mid-50s, the incredibly fast tempos of the bebop era were not as commonplace in that they didn't automatically feature, but they were still a feature of the contemporary jazz landscape as shown by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach recording of Cherokee taken at a sprightly 360BPM

Other hard bop giants also investigated breakneck tempos - Coltrane for example on 'Soft Lights and Sweet Music' and 'Countdown', Sonny Rollins on 'The Bridge' and here, even earlier, taken from 'Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders', he playes 'The Song is You' at an extraordinary 420 BPM

Heading into the 60s, Miles Davis, not someone noted for his love of fast playing though he must have experienced it many times in his years with Parker, embraced frenetic tempos when he put together the young and impetuous rhythm section of Hancock, Carter and Williams who were fearless when it came to fast tempos. Fronted by Davis and a succession of virtuoso tenor players - George Coleman, Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter - the band took a delight in live performance of playing sometimes almost impossible tempos. Four and More the group's first live album is testament to this with one blistering piece after another being played in a seemingly effortless way. 'Walkin' is a great example of this - they start at an incredibly fast tempo and then rush!

Although that other great figure of the 60s - John Coltrane - didn't revisit the fast tempos of his 'Sheets of Sound' period, the tradition remained in the music and resurfaced with a vengeance in what was then known as 'Jazz-Rock' (and is now known as fusion). Of the big four of this period - Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Chick Corea and John Mclaughlin - Corea and McLaughlin in particular regularly used very fast tempos in their pieces revelling in their virtuosity. McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra became particularly well known for this and 'One Word' from the seminal Birds of Fire album is a classic example of how well and easily they could play very fast pieces.

Into the 80s and the tradition lives on both in the performances of traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis and in more forward thinking players such as Dave Holland and Steve Coleman whose Change The Guard became an underground classic of its kind.

Then came the 90s and................... the playing of fast tempos began to slowly become less and less common as the music changed, moving largely away from the swing idiom and more into the realm of straight 8s. Of course there was still swing playing going on and there were people still playing tunes very fast, but less and less of them. And in the mid 2000s I began to notice that young musicians almost never played pieces at tempos much over 180 BPM. What they considered fast I, and colleagues of the same age, would consider to be bright medium. I know when I was young, myself and my musician friends would practice like crazy to be able to play fast, knowing it would be expected of us in certain situations. Now young musicians seem to rarely be interested in this part of the tempo spectrum.

So why did this come about? Why has the playing of tempos faster than 250 BPM become a rarity among young musicians? It could be for a number of reasons, but I think one of the main reasons is that the (non-jazz) music they like to listen to, and are influenced by, is not generally music that is played at fast tempos. In general very little rock music is played very fast and a huge amount of music even within the jazz idiom of the past 15 years, tends to be of a medium straight 8s nature. So the playing of fast tempos is just not heard much anymore and it’s hard for young musicians to have many role models for this kind of playing. The situation is probably a little different in the US than in Europe where the swing idiom, from which the very fast tempo tradition comes, is more deeply embedded in the musical culture. Though having said that, it’s arguable as to how much a piece is truly swinging when it gets above a certain speed - the sheer velocity of the notes tends to straighten the rhythms out.

I think it’s a shame to see this tradition die out in jazz for several reasons, the main one being that a whole part of the tempo range is being ignored and forgotten. For my money I get very tired of the narrow tempo range within which musicians often operate these days - tune after tune at nearly the same tempo or pretty close. And I think it’s a mistake to think that just changing the atmosphere or feel of pieces are by themselves a guarantor of variety in the listener’s ear. Of course musicians are often guilty of thinking that regular audience members hear the kind of detail they, (the musicians) do - believing that the audience will be wowed by a 7/4 meter, or a reharmonisation of a standard chord progression. Audiences rarely recognise these kinds of subtleties, but one thing they do notice are tempos – slow-fast-medium – these are things that are real to non-musicians, in the same way that loud and quiet are, and musicians need to be aware of what creates the most impact on an audience when setting out to create the architecture of a piece of music or of a set.

Another reason to play fast tempos is because it feels different! There’s a feeling you get when playing a really fast piece – a sense of onrushing excitement, like driving a fast car – that you can’t get from any other tempo. It’s very demanding, (perhaps another reason many people shy away from it), and to negotiate a piece at a very fast tempo you need to be almost thinking in slow motion while physically playing very fast – you need to perceive the space between the beats despite the fact that they are flying past. You need to be very physically and mentally relaxed to play fast and you need to combine that with stamina. (Lack of stamina may be another reason for the lack of prevalence of fast tempos too – in earlier times with the plethora of gigs that musicians played it was easier to build up your physical stamina than it is in the current scene with its shorter tours and more sporadic gigs). Playing fast is often derided as being shallow and mere display – and of course it can be. But it can also be very creative and at its best can create a sense of exhilaration that you can’t get playing at any other tempo.

As an experiment, take any 10 albums you’ve bought that have been recorded in the past 10 years, and see how many genuinely fast tunes there are on it – allowing 280 BPM as being the very lower limit of what can be considered ‘fast’. If you manage to find more than 5 pieces on those ten albums then you’re definitely listening to different music than I am – and if you do find those pieces, please let me know!

To finish, here’s Miles band in 1967 tearing up ‘Walking’ at speed. Speed thrills!


  1. I think your observation about slowing tempos in jazz is valid, but I think your explanation is awry. Young people have had metal, post-metal, screemo, etc. available to hear.

    You might turn the explanation on its side and say that musicians craving up-tempos (and acceptance by peers) would go toward metal, etc. Much of this music, btw, requires virtuosity.

  2. Well it’s true that there are genres like Speed Metal and various punk bands whose raison d’etre is the playing of fast tempos (my son used to play in one) – but these bands are not really mainstream, and don’t form the bulk of the non-jazz music that young jazz musicians are listening to. Across the wide spectrum of rock and pop music, whether it’s Indie Rock, REM, Grunge, Heavy Metal (most underlying tempos of mainstream Metal music are not actually that fast), Smashing Pumpkins, U2, White Stripes, Sting, Oasis, Nirvana etc. etc fast tempos are not common. Drum and Bass (a very popular genre among young jazz musicians), is based on a feeling of speed, but again the underlying pulse is not very fast, its the double-time feel overlaid on the ground pulse that gives it the feeling of speed. In fact, when you think about it jazz is one of the few musics that has prominently featured the playing of fast tempos as an integral part of its ethos over the years. I do think that the combination of the medium tempo music, (of all genres, jazz and non-jazz alike), being listened to by young musicians, combined by the lack of current role models for the playing of fast tempos, has had a direct effect on the tempo compression we’re hearing these days.

    Thanks for taking the time to write

  3. Hello Ronan, nice blog! The tricky thing about playing these standards is obviously to be able to keep up with the chords and come up with fast creative lines at blazing speeds, which requires an enormous amount of work and virtuosity. Another reason why fast tempos have become scarce could be that people sometimes prefer to play semi quavers at 200 over 4 chords that last 8 bars each which gives a sense of security and speed. That may be a way around playing fast.

  4. Tricky one, I would say I play slower as it's more suitable to the jazz/funk crossover that I like to play. But, Django had some killer tempos too and I love that stuff too. Fast takes practice and patience, maybe people just don't have the time or the energy? Fast is also an attitude that requires a bit of confidence to pull off.

  5. I'm gonna have to disagree with you about the influence of metal on young musicians. I work at an after-school music place called zumix and I have seen the influence of this music at work. As musicians, these kids seek out more than what is popular in the mainstream culture and get excited about music that displays more virtuosity.

    I see jazz having an attraction too, but since it's pretty far out of the sphere of their peers, the 'payback' is far greater in showing off shredding chops than shedding Bird licks.

  6. There are a few people who will still play up tempo. I think the interesting thing here is the fact that with the exception of Goldberg, all these tunes are standards and not original tunes.

    Aaron Goldberg- OAP's Blues

    Danny Grissett- Moment's Notice

    Lage Lund- You Do Something to Me from Early Songs. (This one is right on 280)

    Gilad Hekselman- Yo Mama's Blues from Words Unspoken (Also just on 280)

    Adam Rogers- Night and Day from Time and The Infinite (280 again)

  7. Great blog, Ronan. I agree with your observation and lament (well, of course as I put that Miles clip up on YouTube) but I suspect the source of the shift lies outside music altogether. Fast tempos reek of intensity and commitment, qualities that are perhaps anathema to a 'chilled' generation weaned on post-modern irony.

  8. Chris,

    The first thing that came to my head was Lund's take on 'You Do Something To Me'. Rather than being a coincidence, it more likely underlines Ronan's point about how rare it is to find such up tempo performances in recent jazz recordings.

  9. One of the fastest is this here:


    Kenny Dorham, tp; George Coleman, ts; Nelson Boyd, b; Max Roach, d; - Nola's Penthouse Sound Studios, NYC, April 11, 1958

    Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker

    The early real books show Sonny's "The Song Is You" noted in quavers (eighths notes) because they thought the half notes would be the crotchets (quarter notes).

  10. I've been musing on this lucid bit of work since I noticed it and wonder about correlations with various world folkloric musics and what draws us humans to fast.

    Is it an exhilaration metaphor..ecstatic catharsis. Sufi Asiks like Ali Akbar Cicek can get pretty fast on a Saz. Magyar Tanchaz ensembles love fast as to tamburitzen groups.

    In the Andean Altiplano Charangas can play like machine guns and then there is the layered fast of Soukous in Eastern Nigeria and Cameroon. The penny whistle guy in the Pogues was pretty breakneck too.

    Are there climate correlations, cultural temperament correlations?

    Music from cold places seems more subdued.

  11. Interesting theory Chris, but as you alluded to, Irish traditional music (not that the Pogues are anything close to traditional music) can get pretty speedy, and Ireland is not a warm place - at least climactically..........

  12. I've long had this notion derived from ancient times of the sun people and the fog/northern mist with Eire as the northernmost sun people.

    As I understand it it has a maritime climate like Seattle where the truly cold places are the continental climates, Fargo ND, for example with its extremes.

    I'm aware the Pogues were built on the traditional and I couldn't do justice to the Gaelic spellings of that brother/sister couple, Michael and Triona or the many other children of O'Carolan for a better citation but the penny whistle and fiddle at full tilt are zippy things.

  13. I don't see anyone suggesting that playing at those fast tempos is just plain harder and requires a lot of practice. Are today's teens willing to do that?

  14. I have been thinking a lot about this topic too. The bpm range is quite limited in most music these days.

    When it comes to electronic music we've got hardcore techno, speedcore and breakcore since the 1990's and these styles are basically free from any speed limits. Especially speedcore which can go up to ridiculously inhuman tempos of tens of thousands of bpm's (a beat of about 1000-1200 bpm is still recognisable by human ear before it becomes a tone though). These are more and less underground styles of music, so they are not known by most people.

    As for traditional music I would like to note that traditional shaman music in northern countries like Finland has been quite uptempo. It's present or has been present in many countries around the world, this is just from my own experience.

    And when we go even further back, Stonehenge is also quite fascinating:

  15. John Coltrane - Song Of The Underground Railroad
    Not much music like that anymore :(

  16. I'm glad jazz is slower these days. Invariably the jazz I like is slow, from Coltrane to Monk to Cher Baker and so on. I have always found the fast music IRRITATING. While I admit it's is a personal preference, I nevertheless despise the pride of being able to play fast. There is a long tradition of musical bankruptcy based on virtuosity. In classical music, Franz Liszt was the epitome of the virtuose who, lacking musical ideas, tries dazzle by playing fast. To this day, his miserable compositions remain as bad the bebop - empty and bombastic displays of virtuosity.

  17. I'm glad jazz is slower these days. Invariably the jazz I like is slow, from Coltrane to Monk to Cher Baker and so on. I have always found the fast music IRRITATING. While I admit it's is a personal preference, I nevertheless despise the pride of being able to play fast. There is a long tradition of musical bankruptcy based on virtuosity. In classical music, Franz Liszt was the epitome of the virtuose who, lacking musical ideas, tries dazzle by playing fast. To this day, his miserable compositions remain as bad the bebop - empty and bombastic displays of virtuosity.