Musical Time Part 5 — Texture

This week I’ve been writing about musical time and how it is shaped.

In “Hearing Musical Time”, I discussed how a drummer’s shaping of time imbues the whole ensemble with a particular personality.  In “Hearing Musical Time Part 2 — Three Springsteen Drummers,” I compared the different sides of Bruce Springsteen brought out by drummers Vini Lopez, Boom Carter, and Max Weinberg.

In this post, I’d like to try something similar with two drummers who played with John Coltrane—Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes.  We’ll have the advantage of being able to compare them playing the exact same song, “My Favorite Things.”  In earlier posts, I’ve focused more on differences in the shape of time and suggested that evenly-kept time resembles a round wheel and uneven time-keeping resembles a more misshapen wheel.  We’ve heard how the variety of shapes creates interesting possibilities.

Here, I’d like to focus more on the texture of a drummer's timekeeping.  On these two recordings, Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes create radically different textures that make a bit impact on the ensemble.

Before listening, we should note that many of the differences between these two recordings stem from the fact that the first is studio recording and the second is a live performance (and live performances are inevitably more upbeat).  Also, each drummer is paired with a different bass player, Jones with Steve Davis and Haynes with Jimmy Garrison.  These are significant variables, not to be overlooked.

 

Example 1 — Elvin Jones

The awesome Elvin Jones via   elvinjones.net

The awesome Elvin Jones via elvinjones.net

 

The round subtleness of Elvin Jones’s swing is iconic.  As you listen, pay attention, however, to the delicate dance of his sticks on the ride cymbal and snare drum.  This delicacy allows Coltrane’s saxophone to claim the foreground.

The drumming starts to open slightly around the 2:00 mark, more so after the 8:00 mark.  But as the swing deepens and the sticks and pedals dance more, the texture remains nuanced, especially because the constancy of the ride cymbal.  The texture is wonderfully silken time, and because it doesn’t snag our ears, the drumming allows the listeners ample cognitive space to absorb the solos by Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner.

Compare that with . . . 

Example 2 — Roy Haynes

This second recording was a live recording and made almost three years after the first.  It’s also faster.  These facts may largely account for the aggressiveness of this second performance.

Nevertheless, where Elvin Jones’s timekeeping in the first recording is distinguished by the silken dance of the sticks on the ride cymbal and snare, Roy Haynes splashes the time around his entire drum kit.  He disrupts, leaves holes, creates enjambments, and sends the groove tumbling over itself.  The time keeps moving at tempo, but each turn of the wheel emphasizes a different moment within the bar.

In fact, forget the wheel; it’s as if the time keeps breaking over itself like a wave.  The rough and tumble texture of the time gives Coltrane something to fight against.  It feels as if we are watching him surf to shore, crashing through the water, swallowed by a wave and then miraculously resurfacing, swallowed again and then reemerging.

A final thought about this second recording.  Like Elvin Jones, Haynes is a master of shaping time.  Those who thrill at the busyness of his splashes around the drums without noticing the superb shape of his swing are missing something essential.  Consider how difficult it is to do all of this splashing and yet drive the groove so strongly.  As is often the case with drummers, his mastery is hidden in plain sight.

The unstoppable Roy Haynes, via  drummagazine.com

The unstoppable Roy Haynes, via drummagazine.com

 

Thank you for reading.

Musical Time Part 4 — Practice

This is the fourth post in a series on musical time and is a revised version of a piece I wrote for the English magazine Drummer.  


Whenever I walk down a hall lined with drum practice rooms, I find that what most drummers are practicing are fills and complex patterns that test their limb independence.  Hardly any of them are practicing their feel, their sense of time.  At the soda machine at the end of the hall, you may hear some of these same drummers gather to complain about how their fancy moves around the drums are unappreciated by their band mates.

Hmmm.

The following explores but one small piece of the larger question, "How might one deepen one's sense of musical time?"  I think the methods are applicable to any instrument, but as I am a drummer, I'll focus my attention there.

A quick review—Hearing the Shape and Surface of Time

 In the first post in this series, "Hearing Musical Time," I suggested how a drummer’s feel conveys a sense of musical time, its shape and texture. I proposed that you can think of feel as a spinning wheel, where the beats of the bar are points along the edge of that wheel. A drum machine, therefore, generates a feel that is perfectly round, since it positions the beats in the bar with exact evenness. We humans, however, instinctively lay some beats back and push others forward thereby distorting the shape from a perfect circle into something else, something “imperfect” but more expressive than the drum machine.  (This is not to dismiss drum machines and sequencers, which have great uses.) 

A rounder wheel shape (where the beats are more evenly spaced) provides a smoother ride, a less round shape might have more bounce, and a jagged shape might feel frenetic. Each shape has its advantages and drawbacks. In addition, surface elements such as accents, the volume balance within the kit, and the sound characteristics of the drums and cymbals can sharpen or blur the sense of the wheel shape. Together, the shape and surface of a drummer’s feel make a decisive impact on the musical mood.

Study recordings of great drum feels

The definition of “great feel” is subjective; the drumming on any song that makes you feel good in a deeply physical way can be said to have a great feel. To my ears, almost every classic hit from the canon of pop music has a great drum feel of one sort or another. If a track makes you feel good and the drumbeat is easy to play, you’ve found something worth studying.

As you listen, pay attention to the shape and texture of the feel and how they affect the mood of the track. (You can consult part one to recall how we did this with three examples.) Where does the time lay back and where does it push?  What are the particular sounds coming from the kit and how are they produced?  The more you reflect upon these questions, the more you’ll be aware of them in your own playing. If at first the answers seem elusive, don’t worry. Your hearing will develop over time. For now, try to form a mental picture of what you’re hearing and to appreciate the decisive effect that the drum feel makes on everything else, from the bass playing to the vocal performance.

Begin by studying simple beats

By studying simple beats, ones that don’t test your limb independence or speed, you can devote your attention to more elusive aspects of feel.  I wouldn't start with Clyde Stubblefield’s mind-blowing groove on “Funky Drummer.” Find something simpler so you can focus your attention on the subtleties of even the most basic grooves. 

You could easily spend a month studying the simplest kind of drum beat—“one” and “three” on the kick, “two” and “four” on the snare, and eighth notes on a closed high hat. This is the basic beat on any number of songs, including AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” The drummers on these tracks play the same beat but create three vastly different moods. The difference is in the feel, the way they shape the time and give it texture through the particular sounds they draw out of their drum kits.

Drummers obsessed with speed and complex patterns will find that this tries their patience. Alas, those same drummers are often the ones most in need of improving their feel.

With this in mind, here are some practice techniques I've used.


Play along with recordings of great feels

First, a cautionary note: Practice with earplugs, especially when practicing while listening to music through headphones. Cranking the volume on your headphones in order to overcome the volume of the drums will permanently damage your hearing! If you use headphones, find some that offer maximum isolation and keep the volume at a safe level, knowing that headphones are deceptively loud. (Even when the volume level feels safe, you can still damage your hearing, and the risk of damage increases the longer you listen.) All drummers are at risk for permanent hearing loss , so protect your ears and have regular hearing tests.

Back to the subject at hand, playing along with a recording of a great feel is immensely instructive. Play through it over and over. You may notice that your limbs begin to move in new ways. Pay attention to that! Adopt whatever postures and motions that help you to mimic the drumming on the recording.

If you have the technology to create loops, you’ll have an additional advantage because isolating a few choice measures of a great feel enables you to really get inside it. For those without the necessary technology, many hip-hop records have already done the looping for you. The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest is a favorite practice album of mine, with a variety of amazing feels.

When playing along with a recorded feel, give yourself over to it.  Relax; the feel won’t come to you by way of exertion.  After playing along for a while, you’ll begin to feel as if your body is a gyroscope that vibrates with the same feel as the record. What you’re aiming for is the illusion that you are the drummer on the recording. Attaining that illusion requires you not only to synchronize your hands and feet with the playing on the recording (thereby adopting the shape of the feel), it also requires you to pay attention to the accents, the volume balance within the kit, and the sounds of the drums themselves (thus adopting the texture, too). As you move on to another track, you’ll find you need to make changes, sometimes radical changes, even when the drumbeats and tempos of the two feels are nearly identical.

Record yourself and listen back

Use a smartphone or dictaphone to record yourself. You don’t need high fidelity, merely something that allows you to evaluate what you’re doing. Press record, and play a minute or so of whatever feel you’re working on.

Now listen back. The difference between what you thought you were playing and what the tape reveals is sobering, often depressing. Nevertheless, recording yourself and listening back offers you a perspective you wouldn’t otherwise have: the ability to hear your drumming as others do. Take heart; recording and listening to yourself can yield fast results. 

What about practicing with a metronome?

Yes, practicing with a metronome is an important part of developing one's sense of time, but let's understand the difference between playing with a metronome and playing with recordings of great feels.  A metronome tells us where our playing is vis-a-vis perfectly even time.  "Where am I pushing and where am I pulling?  Am I rushing the transition to the chorus?"  It's important to know the answers to such questions, so yes, practice with a metronome to cultivate this awareness.

What practicing with recordings of great feels does, however, is to develop our appreciation for how time might be stretched, even in the tiniest amounts.  What does it sound like and how does a particular shaping of time affect the other musicians and the listeners?  These questions require the study of exemplary feels, and practicing with recordings of those feels inscribes the insights more deeply into our playing.

Clark Terry, via  clarkterry.com

Clark Terry, via clarkterry.com

What Clark Terry said

"Won't playing along with recordings of great drum feels turn me into a copycat?"  Quite the opposite. 

Jazz great Clark Terry advised that the way one finds one's voice is to “imitate, assimilate, and innovate.”   That’s the idea here.  By imitating as precisely as possible great drum feels, you begin to assimilate the insights of the great drummers who play them.  Then you might discover that, for instance, the secret to John Bonham's fills is found in the swagger of his backbeat.  Attention to feel will make all aspects of your playing more musical, and the insights you glean from studying the feels on great recordings can become the basis for finding your own voice on the drums.

Expanding the Conversation


Players of any instrument would do well to study how their heroes shape musical time and to play or sing along to recordings made by those artists.  Imagine, for instance, what a singer might learn by teaching herself to match the phrasing of Roberta Flack's devastating performance on "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

And, for example, a drummer can learn a lot about drumming by listening to Carole King's stellar piano groove.  (I certainly did!)  The possibilities are endless but are only available to us when we acknowledge our need to study musical time and those who have mastered it.


Thank you for reading.

Musical Time Part 3 — Beyond the Drums

This is the third post in a series on hearing musical time.  In "Hearing Musical Time" and "Musical Time Part 2 — Three of Bruce's Drummers," we investigated the particular shape and texture a drummer lends to a piece of music.  

Drummers, of course, are not the only shapers of musical time.  Though the drummer's role is decisive, the entire ensemble takes part.  As you listen to a Motown track, you can hear James Jamerson's bass lines bending the shape of Benny Benjamin's backbeat. Indeed, the push and pull of the bass and drums enlivens things.  

And of course, we have thus far limited ourselves to the shape of small units, musical measures played at tempo.  Today, I offer examples of musical time unfolding over the course of an entire piece of unaccompanied music.

Joni Mitchell's guitar and vocal phrasing on "Tin Angel" contract and expand musical time.  This is an essential element of her insight.  Notice her little pauses, which might be thought of as analogous to adding a blank line or white space to a poem.  The slowed endings and beginnings of each verse help us organize the song in our mind, and the sensitivity with which these expansions and contractions are executed express the very content of the song.

Arthur Rubinstein's performances of Chopin's Nocturnes offer breathtaking examples of how musical time can be shaped.  Notice how each phrase spills out, slowly, faster, and then slowing again, giving the sense of someone moving down a path and stopping to investigate this or that before moving on.  The subtle contractions and expansions of time are what keep a listener's mind zooming in on the details and then telescoping out to take in the big picture.  His dynamics, how softly or loudly he plays, are a part of this, but notice how his interpretive insight relies on his wonderful sense of musical time.

Ella Fitzgerald's singing is beloved for many reasons—her tone, full of heart but with a touch of rasp around it; her inflection of the lyrical meaning; her sense of humor.  But her expressiveness is also apparent in her nuanced mastery of time, her intuition for where to hold back a word and by how much.  Here she is accompanied, deftly, by musicians who are letting her drive the song and then pull it back.  They provide just enough framework for her expansions and contractions of the phrases to push and pull against the ensemble.   And these small distortions of the time are what bring the words to life with devastating effect.

Master of musical time Ella Fitzgerald.  Image via allaboutjazz.com.

Master of musical time Ella Fitzgerald.  Image via allaboutjazz.com.

 

The true masters of any instrument, singers most of all, are those who have a deep grasp of musical time.  Perhaps that's because they've learned how to practice it, something we will explore in the next post.


Thank you for reading.

Musical Time Part 2 — Three of Bruce's Drummers

This is the second post in a series about hearing musical time.  In “Hearing Musical Time,” we explored the ways in which drummers shape and texture musical time.  I used the image of a wheel.  Perfectly even time, such as produced by a drum machine, might be pictured as a perfectly round wheel.  Human drummers, however, tend to push some beats forward and lay others back, which shapes the wheel differently.  The sounds of the drum set give texture to that shape, sharpening or blurring its effect on the music.

When we speak of a drummer’s feel, we are speaking of these elements.  In this post, I’d like to compare three drummers for Bruce Springsteen—Vini Lopez, Boom Carter, and Max Weinberg.  These drummers present an interesting case study because each played with Bruce during a relatively short stretch of his career, from 1973-1975, and each made profound difference on Bruce's sound.

Example 1 — Vini Lopez on "Rosalita"

Vini Lopez was the first E-Street Band drummer.  His nickname, “Mad Dog,” is an apt description of his drumming.  His wheel is anything but round.

In the first seconds of this track, you can hear how uneven the time is. The band can barely get out of the introduction together and takes about 15 seconds to settle into a groove.  He punctuates his time with lots of kick-drum beats and snare drum diddles, all of which call attention to the misshapen wheel. 

But lest anyone think this detracts from the song, Vini’s manic sense of time and the pushing and pulling it produces is essential to the track’s youthful energy!  Because of Vini, the band fishtails as it takes each turn, swerves across the median and then over to the shoulder of the road.  You can almost hear the sirens behind them.

As with any musical choice, one can’t speak in terms of right and wrong, only in terms of tradeoffs.  In terms of even versus uneven time . . . 

Notice that Vini’s time lines up perfectly with Bruce’s album title, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.  When Vini left the band, Bruce’s sound became more assured; it never sounded as wild and innocent as when Vini was behind the kit.

Example 2 — Boom Carter on "Born to Run"

“Born to Run” sounds bigger than any other song on the album of the same name, and the decisive element may be Boom Carter’s drumming.  Of the three drummers in this comparison, his time is the most even, the roundest.

Because the drum feel is rounder, we actually pay less attention to the drums and more attention to Bruce.  (Whereas, were it shaped otherwise, our ears would be drawn to the idiosyncrasies of the feel and thus the rest of the band.)  More than any other song on the album, perhaps in his entire recorded output, “Born to Run” presents an iconic Bruce.  On “Rosalita” Bruce sounds like a comer; on “Born to Run,” he comes across as star, a rebel heartthrob.  The roundness of the Boom Carter’s drum feel lets the song roll out before him like a wide-open and smoothly-paved road, and Bruce knows just what to do with it.  This is a Bruce with higher production values.  He is not so innocent anymore.

Example 3 — Max Weinberg on "Jungleland"

The drums enter at 1:50, and now we’re hearing Max Weinberg.  Max’s time is not as round as Boom Carter’s and not as wildly misshapened as Vini’s.  But Max’s feel does not lie at the midway point between those two.  He’s off to the side.  His drumming exudes a certain muscularity, a sense of sweat and effort that wonderfully evokes the struggles heard in the lyrics.  The flavor of Max’s drumming has a lot to do with Bruce’s subsequent musical identity.

Compare the clunky tension of “Jungleland” with the relative smoothness of “Born to Run,” and consider what each song might have lost had the drummers been switched.  Max’s rendering of “Born to Run” might have lacked the easy roll and widescreen hugeness that Boom brought to the song, and Boom’s rendering of “Jungleland” might have lacked the drama that Max gives it.

Finally, remember that each drummer is working with and against Bruce’s own sense of time, which is not so round.  Indeed, his singing and guitar playing, like Max’s drumming, evoke the effort-filled lives depicted in his songs.   Listen to his solo performance of “Atlantic City” and see if you don’t agree.  In the very feel of his strumming and singing, you can hear the uphill battle facing the song’s protagonist.

 

 


Thank you for reading.  The next post will consider examples of non-drummers shaping time.

Hearing Musical Time

This week, I want to explore musical time with particular focus on what musicians call feel.

The following is a revised version of a piece I wrote for the English magazine Drummer.  As this concerns listening more than playing, non-drummers may find it of interest.


When non-musicians ask me who my favorite drummers are, they are surprised to hear me list names such as Earl Young, James Gadson, and Al Jackson, of whom they've never heard, or Charlie Watts and Ringo Starr, familiar names but not regarded by these friends as maestros.  None of these drummers are known for their flash.  None of them are Buddy Rich, the name some of these friends may have been expecting me to list first.   My favorite drummers hide their mastery in plain sight.

When playing with other musicians, most of what drummers do is to play a repeating beat that shapes musical time for the ensemble and gives that time texture.  On the surface, it's a simple task, and yet the difference between the average drummer’s backbeat and that of, say, Charlie Watts, is vast.  The problem is, it's hard to talk about (which may be one reason why conversations about the best drummers quickly zero in on those with the fastest hands, a more easily grasped concept).

We need to learn how to listen to and talk about feel, which is therefore the very foundation of musical technique, especially for drummers. Drummers who develop their feel not only improve their drumming, they free the musicians around them to better express their ideas.  The right feel brings those ideas to life; the wrong feel obstructs them, which is why bands go through so many drummers.

Here is a short introduction to how I hear and think about feel.

I.  Hearing the Shape of Time

Understanding feel requires deep listening to recordings of great drumming. This listening will be most useful if you first create some mental images to help you hold on to what you hear.

Let’s start with the idea that musical time can be thought to have shape, a wheel that turns at a rate of once per measure. Thus, the beats of the bar represent points along the edge of the wheel.

Here’s where it gets interesting. A car wheel is a perfect circle, but the wheel of musical feel is not. Though drum machines and computers can shape musical time as a perfect circle (the beats spaced with exact evenness), we humans, thankfully, are not so mechanical. We space the beats unevenly, laying some beats back and pushing others forward.  If you lay back slightly on “two” and “four,” you create the sense of an ovalar wheel, one that labors to get to "two" and "four" but settles more easily into "one" and "three."  As you lay the offbeats further back, you elongate that oval. If you were to skitter about with less regularity, you'd create something more misshaped (which can be cool, too).

You needn’t have a precise grasp of this image to get the gist, which is this: Just as a car with oval wheels would move along with a certain kind of bounce, music gains a certain lilt, bounce, or shakiness depending on how the drummer shapes the wheel of musical time, again according to the spacing of the beats in the bar. Whether nearly circular, elongated, or chaotically jagged, each shape has its virtues. Sometimes a jagged wheel is best!  Though the shaping of this wheel is done unconsciously, how the drummer shapes the wheel has a decisive impact on what musical ideas the other musicians express and the mood attained by the listeners.  As you listen to the following examples, see if you can hear how the playing of simple drumbeats establishes the musical mood.

Three Examples

Let’s briefly compare the feels on three tracks: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice,” and the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” How do these three great drummers—Al Jackson, Charlie Watts, and Ringo Starr— bring these songs to life?

 

To my ear, Al Jackson’s feel has the roundest shape of the three, closest to being circular because his beats are most evenly spaced. He lays back subtly on “two” and “four,” thus stretching the wheel just a tad and giving the feel a nice pocket. The intimacy of Al Green’s vocal performance on “Let’s Stay Together” benefits from the near-roundness of Al Jackson’s feel, because the rounder the shape of time, the more expressive leeway is given to the singer. (As the wheel shape strays from roundness, the mood becomes more specific, more idiosyncratic.)  The nuance of Al Green’s vocal delivery is thus made possible by the near-roundness of Al Jackson’s time.  (Such vocal subtlety would not be possible if, for instance, a punk drummer rendered the same beat with a clunky feel.)  Still, to the extent that the shape of Jackson’s time varies slightly from perfect roundness, it points the vocal in a particular direction—something softer and relaxed.

On “Tumbling Dice,” Charlie Watts's time is less even, the most elongated shape of these three examples. The slightly more uneven feel creates a mood that is more raucous, one that invites the whole band to dig in.

Consider that the near perfect roundness of Al Jackson’s time on “Let’s Stay Together” would not produce this same effect.  The groove of “Tumbling Dice” has a bit more bite.  Part of that is how the drums are hit (see the next section on Surface) but part of this stems from the shape of the time.  Charlie Watts keeps time with an appropriately drunken herky-jerkiness that perfectly suits what the Stones have to say to the world.

The shape of Ringo’s wheel lies somewhere between the previous two examples.  Again, every difference in wheel shape reflects a tradeoff. Because his time is not so perfectly rounded as that of a session drummer like Al Jackson, Ringo’s feel takes on a more specific personality but leaves more room for interpretation than Charlie Watts does.  (Note that Lennon and McCartney are more nuanced vocalists than Jagger and Richards.  That’s not a value judgment.  Either approach is valid, but it’s worth noting the connection between vocal delivery and drumming.)  By not being so elongated as Charlie’s, Ringo’s sense of time feels more relaxed, less herky-jerky. 

And to complete the comparisons, a rounder sense of time such as Al Jackson’s might be more iconic, but it would remove the distinctive warp of Ringo's time that informs the track.  That warp helps make the Beatles convincingly psychedelic.

Of course, these are all rather crude approximations.  The shapes illustrated above are oversimplifications, but perhaps you get the point.  A drummer's sense of time makes a decisive impact on the music.  Each sense of time comes with tradeoffs, and as you apply the image of a wheel to other listening, you might hear these and other tradeoffs at work.

 II. Hearing the Surface of Time

In addition to its shape, you can think about the surface of the wheel. Just as a car rides differently on rubber tires than it would on wheels of stone, the surface of the wheel of feel has an analogous impact. Thus, as you listen, you should pay attention to such things as accents, the volume balance within the kit, and sound characteristics of the drums and cymbals. These surface elements interact with the shape of the wheel and inflect the feel accordingly.

A crucial element of Al Jackson’s feel on “Let’s Stay Together” is the doubling of the snare drum backbeats with the tom-tom. By giving emphasis to the backbeats, which are  laid back ever so delicately, the addition of the tom calls attention to the subtle stretch of the wheel shape and give the feel slightly more bounce than the snare alone might. The tom’s lower pitch also lends the feel a certain heaviness, perfect for a song about love in crisis.

The “chick-chick” of Charlie Watts’s hi-hat calls attention to the elongated shape of his feel. Imagine the same beat played with the “ding-ding” of a ride cymbal instead. Because the longer decay of a ride cymbal connects the eighth notes together, a ride cymbal would smooth the surface of the wheel and somewhat cloak its distorted shape. As it stands, the faster decay of the hi-hat leaves that shape exposed.

As for Ringo, he is an underappreciated master of touch. The resonance of his loose, chorus rimshots, for example, is crucial to the dreaminess of his feel. Were he to dig in with louder, hacking rim shots, the feel would leave behind its breeziness and take on snarl. To reproduce Ringo’s feel, one would need to reproduce his touch.


Thank you for reading.  The next post will explore these ideas further, comparing the feels of three drummers who played with the same artist.