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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Unusual Subdivision in Jazz Improvisation - a Step By Step Guide

Finding a way to use unusual subdivisions in an effective way in jazz is challenging. Especially if you're using the traditional jazz language of swing over changes. And if you're trying to do this, it's important that you should be doing this for musical reasons - i.e these subdivisions are being used for expressive purposes, rather than it being some kind of science project - a trap many fall into. The reason I use these kinds of unusual subdivisions in improvising is because they feel different to the more conventional subdivisions  - not better by the way, just different. No subdivision is of itself better than any other - it's how they're used that gives them their value.

Bearing that important point in mind, it is true to say that using 5s (quintuplets), or 7s (septuplets), or indeed triplets in unusual groupings (4s or 5s for example), does give a different feel to the music. And this is the reason why they are worth exploring and incorporating into your language - they can give you a greater variety of expressive possibilities if used creatively.

So this is the aesthetic and musical reason for exploring this world. The challenge is then how to work with these unusual groupings and to make them sound, and indeed be organic.

The first step is to just get used to the different subdivisions and, like most things in music, the best way to do this is to be able to 'sing' them. By sing I mean recite them, over a fixed pulse. The best way to do this in my opinion, is to use Konnekol - the South Indian rhythmic solfege system, where syllables represent numbers.


The system is very simple - it consists of five syllables, each one representing a number:

Ta = 1
Taka = 2
Takita = 3
Takadimi  = 4
Tadigenaka - 5

All other numbers are created using combinations of these syllables, for example 7 could be Takadimi/Takita, or 9 could be Taka/Takita/Takadimi

In this first video, I divide the clapped beat from 1 up to 9, and back down again. This a great exercise on its own, as it really shows you how accurate you are with regular subdivisions such as 4 or 3, as well as the more unusual ones

So once you're comfortable with that, (and be honest with yourself on this - this kind of thing usually takes weeks to become second nature, and patience is definitely a virtue in this instance!), you can look at putting it on your instrument in some way. And a good way to do that is to combine scale practice with rhythm practice

Combining Scale and Rhythm Practice

In this next video I combine playing a scale (in this case Bb Dorian Minor) with using different subdivisions - 1 through 8 over a slow metronome beat in 4/4. In this case I am playing up to the 11th, so each subdivision needs to be played a set number of times in order to align the beginning of each new subdivision with the downbeat of the bar. Apart from being a good exercise for your subdivisions, this is a good rhythmic relationship exercise too, as you have to hear how the pattern relates to the 4/4 cycle

Once you can do that accurately and comfortably, I would suggest trying to play and improvise over a static chord or scale (a major key is fine for this), using different subdivisions. Maybe set up a drum groove in a sequencer, (or use an app such as the great Drumgenius). Once you're comfortable with that, you can move on to playing over changes.

Using Different and Unusual Subdivisions Over Swinging Changes

Using unusual rhythmic devices for improvising becomes a completely different animal when played over changes, and in the swing idiom. It's definitely more challenging - that's probably why so many avoid it. In suggesting you try this I'm assuming two things: 1) You're comfortable playing over changes in a conventional setting (if not you've got some basic work to do before trying this!), and 2) You really have practiced the earlier exercises and they are second nature to you.

So, assuming that, what I'm doing here is using four different subdivisions over four choruses of the great standard 'Alone Together':

1st Chorus: Behind the beat - a classic feel from the jazz tradition, but one that requires great rhythmic control to bring off successfully - it must be behind the beat, but must not slow down!

2nd Chorus: Quintuplets - 5 over 2. These really have the feel of lazy triplets

3rd Chorus: Sextuplets - 6 over 2. Not such an unusual subdivision in itself, but when they're regrouped into groups of four as they are here, then they take on a very different feeling.

4th Chorus: Septuplets - 7 over 2. These have the feel of 8th note triplets after a lot of coffee

So these then are some possibilities for jazz improvisation using unusual subdivisions. Of course in the video I am exaggerating them for demonstration purposes, I would not play a whole chorus with any one subdivision in the real world! But I think they have great expressive possibilities and when you get them in your ear and under your fingers they definitely open up some new and exciting vistas for the improviser. 

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Salt, Sugar, Fat: Food, Music and Things We Like

There's an artist whose music I believe to be hugely overrated - definitely a case of recognition deserving of wider talent - but who is very popular with a certain section of the listening population. Although a newcomer to his music would probably hear nothing remarkable in the heard-a-thousand-times chord progressions, simple melodies and stock song forms that make up his oeuvre, he has nevertheless built a mythology around himself, a mythology that suggests his music represents some kind of deep genius, despite this same music providing no evidence to back this up. But because he has been deified by lazy critics, by people who believe lazy critics, and by nostalgia buffs, it's a given that if you express an opinion suggesting that said artist is not at all the genius he is made out to be, you will receive blowback. And I have, many times. Most recently it was pointed out to me by a defender of this god-like artist, that if I was right, and he wasn't very good, then how come so many people liked him?

I have a one-word riposte whenever I'm presented with that line of argument - McDonalds

The idea that the popularity of something must have a direct correlation with the quality of that something, is an idea that not only doesn't hold water, but leaks like a sieve. McDonalds - the fast food chain that the word ubiquitous could have been created to describe - is the biggest individual retail seller of cooked food in the world. It trounces everyone else in terms of the sheer volume of food it sells, and the popularity of its brand. But even the people who eat McDonalds would be unlikely to argue that it is the greatest food in the world. It is mass produced, has no variation, is made to a formula, and requires no culinary input from the individual sellers working in the McDonald's restaurants that sell the food. So why is this mass produced, bland food so popular all over the world?

Salt, Sugar, Fat.

Human beings are hardwired to like salt, sugar and fat, and Mc Donalds' food is loaded with all three. We have a fairly primal positive response to all three of those food elements, and food that is high in salt, sugar or fat content is an easy sell for the purveyor. One or more of these constituents is an integral part of all processed food in general and that, along with the ease of mass production, (and the concomitant cheapness that goes with that mass production), explains the popularity of such food, despite it having no nuance, subtlety or variety. Eating such food provides an instant hit to receptors that are primed to welcome them.

There is a correlation to this in the music world, certain musical constituents that evoke an almost immediate response in most people. These responses and why they have this effect on people is extensively detailed in 'The Music Instinct (how music works and why we can't live without it)' by Phillip Ball, a wonderful book that goes into evolutionary history, psychology and many other aspects of how we're wired towards certain musical responses and resist others.

In the book Ball shows how there are musical elements that could be described as being the equivalents to salt, sugar and fat - consonance, repetition, simplicity and predictability. He shows how popular melodies are nearly always contained within the intervallic scope of a fifth, contain ascending and descending scale steps, have very little dissonance and are structurally simple. Now even a limited observation of very popular music can see that simplicity and predictability are the stock in trade of this genre, but what Ball shows is how these elements are not just the product of taste, but have evolutionary origins - in other words we are hot-wired to respond to these things, in the same way that we are to the food elements mentioned earlier. You'd really have to read the book in order to get a fuller explanation of these musical responses, but it's fascinating to read for example how wide interval leaps are generally not positively responded to by most people, and Ball shows how very few hit songs have had any wider intervallic leap than a major sixth, and how intervals such as the tritone or minor sixth, (which flirt with dissonance), are rare in popular music.

So the obvious lesson from this is that the more you load your music with the elements that fire the receptors in the average listener, and keep away from the elements that are not universally appreciated, the more likely it is that your music will be popular with large numbers of people. In fact, the analogy that can be made between global commercial fast food and global commercial pop music are very striking.

As an example, I'm going to take the third paragraph of this post and repeat it, but replace salt, sugar and fat, with consonance, simplicity and predictability, and replace the word food with music, and McDonald's with commercial pop music -

Human beings are hardwired to like consonance, simplicity and predictability, and commercial pop music is loaded with all three. We have a fairly primal positive response to all three of those music elements, and music that is high in consonance, simplicity and predictability is an easy sell for the purveyor. One or more of these constituents is an integral part of all commercial pop music in general and that, along with the ease of mass production, (and the concomitant cheapness that goes with that mass production), explains the popularity of such music, despite it having no nuance, subtlety or variety. Hearing such music provides an instant hit to receptors that are primed to welcome them. 

The music of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Spice Girls, Ed Sheeran etc. are all loaded to the gunwales with enough musically consonant saccharine to give you diabetes, are as predictable as night following day, and are devoid of all but the most simple structures. In fact their music meets all the criteria for attaining the kind of mass following that they have. Of course there can be other factors in play in deciding why a listener might choose one over the other, but the bottom line with all their music is that they follow the simple recipe of consonance, simplicity and predictability, that guarantees they will alienate as few listeners as possible.

Thankfully there are people who don't want to eat a diet completely comprised of sugar, salt and fat, and there are people who want more from music than constant consonance and bland predictability. I was lucky enough to be brought up on a nuanced musical diet, and in the same way that someone is brought up eating a wide range of foods, it has remained with me for the rest of my life. I do enjoy sugar, salt and fat in food, and I do enjoy consonance in music and simplicity, but in both food and music, those naturally endearing elements have to be balanced, contrasted, and even contradicted by different elements at various times. Sometimes those elements have to be absent for a considerable time in order for them to be all the more welcome when they do return.

And to be fair to the artist I mentioned at the beginning, he's not the musical equivalent of McDonald's. More like a Domino's Pizza perhaps.....