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WHAT IS JAZZ RHYTHM

When one listens to music what are the key elements that a
listener responds to aside from the o!ious factors of !olume and
intensity" #eyond the actual notes played $melody and possily
harmony dependin% upon the music& there are two aspects that
immediately a'ect any listener( This is especially true in an impro!ised
art such as )a** where the composition is secondary to the
performance itself( It is also true that these two elements are central to
discernin% the style and musical personality of the artist( In )a**+ if we
were to %i!e ,!e sa-ophonists the same notes to play in the same
tempo and conte-t+ why would we immediately know that player one
was Sonny Rollins while the other was for e-ample Wayne Shorter"
The ,rst impression that a'ects the listener is the sound
emanatin% from the instrument( The tone that is heard is an e-tension
of that artist.s !oice and on a deeper le!el+ their persona( This is why
instrumentalists in any serious music spend so much time learnin% to
control tone /uality and sound( In the ,nal result it is the !oice of the
performer throu%h an instrument that is ein% heard(
In )a** after tone+ it is what I call 0time feel1 that most
e-presses an artist.s uni/ue conception( The manner in which the
player rhythmically phrases is to an e!en lar%er de%ree more re!ealin%
than the actual melodic and harmonic content( It con!eys a truly
physical impression to the listener which is di2cult to descrie in
words(
There are impro!ised traditions outside of )a** which ha!e
e-isted for centuries+ one of the most prominent ein% Indian classical
music( The idea of takin% a melody and spontaneously creatin%
!ariations within a certain rhythmical conte-t is hardly new( 3ne factor
that separates )a** from other impro!ised idioms would seem to e the
harmonic implications+ stemmin% from the Western classical tradition(
#ut as we know there are styles of )a** where harmony is either not
employed or minimi*ed to such a de%ree as to not e rele!ant( So it
seems that what really distin%uishes impro!ised traditions worldwide is
the speci,c rhythmical conte-t( And )a** certainly has a uni/ue
character in that respect(
In the ,rst one hundred pa%es of 4unther Schuller.s seminal
work+ 05arly Ja**1+ the author %i!es a fantastic account of how certain
elements of )a** e!ol!ed and in particular tracin% the de!elopment of
that central aspect of )a**+ 0swin%1( 3ne important point Schuller
makes is that in )a**+ the second and fourth eat of a 676 measure
achie!es e/uality $some would say e!en primacy& with the other eats
of the ar( This is in marked contrast to a lar%e ma)ority of familiar
musical traditions+ especially in the Western cultures $where for the
sake of discussion 676 is standard& in which the ,rst eat assumes
priority o!er the others( He points out that this markin% o' of the ,rst
downeat is for o!ious reasons when the music ser!es the purpose of
dance or marchin%( In any case e!ery )a** musician knows that 0two1
and 1four1 are the swin%in% eats and in fact it is the four that really
swin%s+ while the upeat of four swin%s e!en more88
What is essential for e!ery )a** player to reali*e in their playin%
is how pitches are linked to%ether in a line with some sense of a
rhythmical momentum( This momentum has rami,cations aout it+
whether it is cast in a forward+ a%%ressi!e manner or a rela-ed+ laid
ack sense( 3ne way of descriin% this feelin% is to use the word
0%roo!e1 in descriin% rhythmic momentum( 3f course pop music in
the last part of the 9:th century also placed %reat emphasis on a
%roo!e+ ut that is a direct out%rowth of dance music and the purpose
that any dance music ser!es+ whether it e from the ,fteenth or
twenty;,rst century+ e it a ma*urka or an African trial ceremonial
dance( A musician.s %roo!e in the )a** rhythmical lan%ua%e is most
e!ident when the ei%hth note di!ision is maintained(
5i%hth notes are the main denomination of )a** time+ much like
the penny is to the American dollar( Althou%h one may not play only
ei%hth notes+ they still ser!e as the underpinnin% of )a** time+ similar
to what the cla!e eat is in Afro <uan music+ meanin% if not
necessarily stated it is implied( A note here on terminolo%y=what are
called ei%hth notes in )a** may also e conceptuali*ed as triplets with
a space etween the ,rst and third part of the three part di!ision+ or it
can e seen as a dotted ei%hth followed y a si-teenth note( >or the
purposes here the distinctions are not important( In short+ when a )a**
musician sees ei%hth notes written on a pa%e+ $s&he immediately plays
the rhythm either like a dotted ei%hth followed y a si-teenth or the
ao!e descried triplet( $5?AM@A5 B&
In order to master the sutleties of playin% con!incin% and
swin%in% ei%hth notes it is necessary to understand !arious aspects
that play a role in their e-ecution( It is important to rememer that
thou%h there are technical !ariales which are peculiar to each
instrument in the actual playin% of ei%hth notes+ the e'ect is still the
same( So thou%h a pianist must for e-ample ,%ure out the proper
,n%er mo!ement to articulate ei%hths compared to a sa-ophonist.s use
of the ton%ue strikin% a reed or the strin% player.s pluckin%+ the %oal is
still the same which is well placed ei%hth notes( It.s understood that
from the standpoint of ein% an instrumentalist+ each musician must
disco!er and practice the intricacies of e-ecution which are
idiosyncratic to their instrument(
To return to the discussion of what I term 0time feel1 I am not
discussin% aspects of syncopation+ rhythmical au%mentation and
diminution+ hemiola+ etc(+ which descrie actual rhythmical constructs
themsel!es( Co matter what rhythms are employed+ e they ei%hths+
si-teenths or whate!er+ it is the way these rhythms are played which
determine the amiance or feel of the music( I would !enture to say
that the emotional aspect of the music is %reatly a'ected y how
rhythm is played+ maye more so than what the rhythms themsel!es
are made up of( A plausile de,nition of a %ood )a** rhythmic feel
should in!ol!e words like 0accurate1 $meanin% as close as possile to
the ori%inal and on%oin% pulse&+ 0e!en1 $connotatin% a smooth rather
than choppy or awkward Dow&+ 0!ariale1 $meanin% not entirely
predictale usin% a !ariety of rhythms& and of course our ori%inal word
0swin%in%1(
What is swin%in% or not is to some e-tent a matter of taste and
acclimation( That which swin%s to the no!ice !ersus the educated
listener may e entirely di'erent+ ut e!en amon% so;called e-perts+
the feelin% of swin% is so personal and su)ecti!e as to seem to e
eyond discussion $thou%h there is indeed much intense discussion
aout what does or does not swin%&( Howe!er+ I think we could
%enerali*e that a feelin% of swin% has a dri!e or momentum in alance
with a feelin% of rela-ation and e'ortlessness( There is a 0lilt1 or
ounce to the music that is eyond words( It is proaly easier to point
out what doesn.t swin% than what does88
Cote some words of caution when attemptin% to descrie
rhythm in words( Enlike harmony and melody which can e clearly
seen on the pa%e makin% it a!ailale to e dissected and analy*ed in
!ery speci,c terms+ descriin% a rhythmic feel+ no matter whether it e
)a** or #ra*ilian or whate!er is from the start !ery di2cult( Thou%h we
can descrie rhythms themsel!es with technical terms+ the e'ect or
what I call time feel is asically eyond words( Howe!er we can
descrie the elements which determine this feel(
@HRASIC4
This e-pression is !ery commonly used as a %eneral way to
descrie how rhythms are played( #ut in my opinion it is too %eneral a
word( If you ask someone what comprises a %ood rhythmic feel and
they say 0phrasin%1+ they ha!en.t really said anythin%( It.s like askin%
what do you eat for dinner and the reply is food88 #ut we can di!ide
phrasin% into its speci,cs(
B;ARTI<EAATI3C
@ut simply this means the way a note is attacked+ either at its
onset where it is most o!ious or more sutly the way notes are
connected to%ether in an on%oin% line( The terms 0staccato1 and
0le%ato1 are most commonly used to descrie two e-tremes of attack
from hard to soft( #ut esides other musical terms such as tenuto+ slur+
accent+ etc(+ it is nearly impossile to descrie the %rey area etween
the e-tremes of staccato and le%ato in words( In )a**+ it is !ery much
this middle area of articulation which is crucial to the feel( Another way
to conceptuali*e articulation is as de%rees of intensity in the attack of a
note from li%ht to hard+ a%%ressi!e to %entle and so on( Another
consideration is that certain styles of )a** mi%ht in!oke one form of
articulation as more fa!orale and therefore pre!alent for that
particular idiom( >or e-ample+ one aspect of <harlie @arker.s
inno!ations in the BF6:s was his more le%ato articulation in
comination with a constantly chan%in% continuum etween a rela-ed
and a%%ressi!e eat as compared to the earlier swin% or di-ieland
players( John <oltrane.s articulation was more le%ato than the
eoppers and so on( As a %enerali*ation we could say that the !ast
ma)ority of articulations heard in )a** fall somewhere etween staccato
and le%ato with an incredily !ast palette of !ariety( 5?AM@A5 9
9;GYCAMI<S
This topic can e seen as a sudi!ision of articulation ut it is
important enou%h to e hi%hli%hted on its own( The use of an accent
translates to a louder note which in turn o!iously means what came
efore and after appears softer( The softest articulated note in )a** is
termed interchan%ealy a %host+ swallowed or muHed tone( This up
and down character of dynamics7accents is e-tremely important to the
o!erall rhythmic feel and is an area where indi!iduality can e clearly
discerned( In )a** of course+ oth the articulations and accents are
spontaneous and therefore open to much !ariaility( 5?AM@A5 I
I;0TH5 S@A<5 #5TW55C1
This is a !ery sutle aspect of )a** phrasin% which speci,cally
in!ol!es the len%th of space etween the downeat and upeat of two
ei%hth notes( >or the sake of e-planation+ recall that two ei%hth notes in
)a** can e more easily descried as a dotted ei%hth followed y a
si-teenth or a triplet with the middle eat left out $5?AM@A5 B&( With
this in mind+ the len%th of the dotted si-teenth or ,rst two parts of the
triplet or the ,rst ei%hth note+ dependin% upon how one conceptuali*es
it+ can e !aried mathematically and microscopically to reDect a whole
palette of proportions etween the two di!isions of the eat( Some
musicians ha!e a lon% duration of the downeat than others+ for
e-ample the ride eat cymal pattern of drummer 5l!in Jones( 3n the
other hand+ the %reat Tony Williams had an almost opposite proportion
in his ride eat+ all dependin% upon tempo and other factors of course(
5ach artist rin%s his own way of feelin% this di!ision to the music( This
!ariale has a lar%e e'ect upon eat placement+ discussed elow(
5?AM@A5 6
6;CEAC<5
This is y far the most indi!iduali*ed aspect of time feel for it
encompasses all sorts of e-pressi!e de!ices+ nuances and inDections(
Totally dependent upon the characteristics of an instrument in
comination with the personality and control of the player+ it is throu%h
the use of nuance that the emotion of a line is felt+ oth rhythmically
and melodically( This is the e/ui!alent to how an actor uses his !oice to
e-press sadness or happiness inDectin% the same words y tone and
nuance( This is speech rou%ht to music+ pure and simple( Some
common de!ices+ a%ain dependent upon the instrument are !irato+
smears+ portamento+ %race notes+ ent tones+ !ocali*ations+ etc( 5!ery
%reat indi!idualist has his own set of nuances which are completely
personal and ecome a sort of trademark( If you think of for e-ample
)ust the way pianists like Herie Hancock+ Jeith Jarrett and <hick <orea
play %race notes+ the !ariety and uni/ueness is astoundin%( 5?AM@A5 K
K;#5AT @AA<5M5CT
3ne of the more sutle elements of time feel which is heard in
only the est of players is eat placement( This is where the musician
places his pulse in relation to the on%oin% accompaniment( #ecause
there is a reference point $or se!eral dependin% upon the numer of
accompanists& this is a !ery su)ecti!e area and totally a'ected y the
impro!iser.s concept in the moment( >or the most part this is e-ecuted
unconsciously ut to the e-tent that it can e oser!ed and noticed+ it
is possile for a player to de!elop this concept further from whate!er it
may e at present( If we concei!e of a eat not as a point in time ut
an area or measurement of a distance+ then we ha!e an entire 0space1
to play with as far as a!ailale choices where one can place their down
and suse/uent upeats( With the metronome ser!in% as the e-act
center of this area at least mathematically+ an impro!iser mi%ht feel
compelled to play sli%htly in ad!ance or ehind the center of that eat(
How much ahead or ehind efore one is rushin% or dra%%in% the eat
is a )ud%ment that can only e made at the moment+ ut this elasticity
and De-iility of the eat %i!es a human /uality to the rhythm which I
feel is necessary( After all+ how many people.s heart eat stays e-actly
the same from minute to minute" As we li!e and reathe in real life+
our hearteat and pulse are constantly chan%in% accordin% to our
acti!ity+ emotion+ reaction to the en!ironment+ etc( This De-iility of
eat placement musically hei%htens the !ery human /uality( 3ne of the
pitfalls of playin% in this manner is the kind of perception this could
communicate to the accompanists who may e confused y what the
soloist is doin%( Ine-perienced players mi%ht feel compelled or cannot
resist followin% the chan%in% placement of the soloist+ leadin% to a
weakened and e!entually inaccurate pulse in the music( It is important
that the initiator of this 0elasticity1 e ale to return to the center of
the eat when necessary to relie!e the tension and unify the
musicians+ at least momentarily( @layin% this way is not for the
ine-perienced+ ecause one must ha!e a certain amount of con,dence
as well as consummate skill( This is an area where the e-pression
0walk efore you run1 is appropriate(
A world class musician should ha!e the aility to shift his eat
placement at will dependin% upon mood+ material+ tempo and
accompanists+ ut naturally a true artist will ha!e a procli!ity one way
or the other and e-emplify that most of the time( So we mi%ht say that
the tenor sa-ophonist Ge-ter 4ordon was a 0ehind the eat player1+
ut there are e-amples of him playin%+ usually at a faster tempo+ when
he is /uite on 0top of the eat1( The same could e said of drummer
5l!in Jones+ with whom I had the pri!ile%e to play with for se!eral years
in the early BFL:s( Thou%h he was so well known for his laid ack time
feel+ at /uicker tempos it sometimes felt that he was way on top of the
eat( Miles Ga!is on the other hand had almost metronomic time ut
there are numerous e-amples throu%hout his incredily !ast career
when he would play more on top $the mid BFM:s& or ehind the eat
$the mid BFK:s&( Sonny Rollins is one of the %reat e-amples of
someone who is constantly !aryin% his eat placement $0Sonny Moon
for Two1 from A Ci%ht at the Nilla%e Nan%uard&(
And of course in the rhythm section+ the prolem is multiplied
ecause of the numer of musicians all playin% time as accompanists(
Some of the %reatest rhythm sections as far as in!enti!eness and
e-citement were concerned did not always a%ree as to e-actly where
the eat should e all the time ut were skilled and open enou%h as far
as attitude to ad)ust and create a positi!e tension which formed an
open palette for the soloist( The %reat Miles Ga!is rhythm sections at
!arious times demonstrate di'erent aspects of this ut in particularly
in the mid BFM:s with Tony Williams playin% on top of the eat+ Ron
<arter in the middle and Herie Hancock all o!er( Here was a fantastic
mi- that was one of the hi%hli%hts of the modern )a** rhythm section( It
seems to me that a 0perfect1 rhythm section is one that in a sense
0a%rees to disa%ree+1 meanin% they maintain their own inte%rity as to
how they hear this comple- issue+ ut they ad)ust accordin% to the
situation for the ene,t of the whole( 5?AM@A5 M
AGNAC<5G RHYTHMI<AA <3C<5@TS
A4AICST TH5 TIM5
Althou%h ei%hth notes remain the main ackone of )a** time+
the %reatest impro!isers demonstrate a rhythmic De-iility that can e
mind o%%lin% usin% in!enti!e ways of playin% permutations+
sudi!isions and metric modulations that can %o so far as to su%%est
another tempo a%ainst the on%oin% pulse( I call this 0a%ainst the time1
meanin% that a polyrhythm is created y a musician playin% a
sudi!ision with such clarity and consistency that another pulse has
een created( A most asic a%ainst the time rhythm is three a%ainst
two $/uarter note triplets& and then e!en further di!isions of that( #ut
there are multiple choices a!ailale and one can listen to the incredily
sophisticated rhythmic cycles of South Indian music for these and
other ad!anced techni/ues( 3nce a%ain Sonny Rollins played this way
/uite a it durin% the ,rst half of the BFM:s on recordin%s titled
0Al,e1+1 the Standard Sonny Rollins1+ 03ur Man in Ja**1 and more(
Wayne Shorter with Miles Ga!is in the mid BFM:s demonstrated this
/uite a it while in that same and Herie Hancock and Tony Williams
played fantastic su di!ided rhythmic cycles( Sa-ophonist Ste!e
<oleman and assist Ga!e Holland ha!e del!ed deeply into this area in
recent times( 5?AM@A5 L
3N5R TH5 TIM5
A more astract concept !ery much demonstrated y 5ric
Golphy+ 3rnette <oleman and John <oltrane at !arious periods is what I
term o!er the time( This means that for small episodic passa%es the
impro!iser creates a sense of ein% out of time without an o!ious
reference point( Esually these are fast noted passa%es and wild
soundin% in te-ture+ ut the e'ect is of the impro!iser freein% himself
from the on%oin% pulse like a ird in Di%ht+ /uickly returnin% with a
!en%eance to earth+ or in other words completely swin%in% in time( The
aility to do this %racefully is one of the hi%hest forms of time playin%
in my opinion( To e free ut to know where you are at the same time
is ma%ical( It is the e/ui!alent of playin% truly chromatically+ meanin%
in another key ut with an underlyin% reference to the home key
center( 5?AM@A5 O
A<HI5NIC4 RHYTHMI< >R55G3M
@racticin% rhythmical concepts in a disciplined orderly fashion is
di2cult compared to harmony+ instrumental techni/ue+ arran%in%+ etc(
Surely one can read rhythmical e-ercises and sin%7play them+ or
initiate drummer type work which is eatin% rhythms and cycles with
one hand a%ainst another and so on( #ut the reality is that for non;
drummers+ practicin% the concepts I ha!e descried is /uite
ami%uous+ so a certain amount of creati!ity and ima%ination is called
for(
AIST5CIC4
#ecause of its inherent ami%uity+ after the asics of
coordinatin% rhythmical mo!ement in pulse+ further de!elopment is
more of a conceptual challen%e rather than only technical( If a
musician can learn to hear a certain way+ noticin% what I ha!e
descried and more+ there is an increased likelihood that these
concepts will ha!e a chance to re%ister in the mind+ ody and ear( With
repeated listenin% and repetition+ coupled with a positi!e 0I can1
attitude+ real musical chan%e can occur( Therefore the ,rst thin% to do
is to learn to listen not only to the main soloist or prominent acti!ity
%oin% on+ ut concentrate upon the entire rhythmic Dow occurrin% in
the and( What are the relationships etween the drummer.s ride eat
pattern and the assist.s /uarter notes $assumin% steady walkin%
time&P etween the drummer.s left hand accents and o' eats with the
main chord player.s compin% patterns and rhythmical 0hits1P how are
the musicians dealin% with eat placementQis it constantly chan%in%Q
is it the sameQis it on top or ottom of the eat+ etc" Coticin%
somethin% y listenin% and oser!in% can %o a lon% way towards
impro!in% one.s actual playin%(
M5TR3C3M5
It %oes without sayin% that at some sta%e of de!elopment+ $the
earlier the etter&+ e!eryone must practice scales+ arpe%%ios+ lines+
patterns and so on with the metronome e-ecutin% the material
accurately in time( >or )a**+ it is est to immediately %et used to the
metronome markin% o' the second and fourth eat of a 676 ar( After
doin% that reasonaly well at tempos ran%in% from slow to !ery fast+ I
ur%e the student to use the metronome more creati!ely in di'erent
parts of the ar+ for e-ample only the fourth eat+ or only the upeat of
three+ or the upeat of one+ etc( The idea is that a musician can %et
!ery loose and con,dent in relations to feelin% all four eats without
ein% tied down to one+ two+ three+ four( 4reat drummers are not
always %oin% to e that o!ious when they are playin% at the hei%ht of
their creati!e %ame( You wouldn.t want to ask Jack GeJonette to please
make sure that he %i!es you the one of the ar e!ery ei%ht measures88
I rememer the wonderful drummer @ete Aa Rocca+ who was my !ery
,rst mentor ack in BFMF sayin% that for him e!ery eat was a one( In
other words there was no four7four(Q(it was )ust one+ one+ one+ one+
meanin% accents could appear anywhere in the ar( In any case e!ery
musician should %et friendly with the metronome( 3nce this is
accomplished it can e put away fore!er at least in this re%imented
and ri%id aspect( 5?AM@A5 F
#5AT @AA<5M5CT
After a certain de%ree of accuracy of pulse is estalished I ur%e
the student to purposely try to play ahead and ehind the eat( At ,rst
)ust use simple scales+ licks or forms such as the lues that are
automatically under the ,n%ers so you can concentrate on the task at
hand+ which is feelin% the 0area1 of the eat in order to %et that part of
the ody which is responsile e-ecutin% what one feels and hears(
Esin% a playalon% record can help since whate!er the rhythm section
feels like+ at the least it remains in the same place time after time+ so
you can use this as a sort of arometer to play with in order to
haituali*e the sensation( This is really more of a physical e-ercise
than )ust musical( 3ne must feel the eat as a ruer andRe-pandin%
and contractin% at will+ ut ne!er so far as to dra% or rush the eat88
TRACS<RI@TI3C
I ha!e written a %reat deal o!er the years on this all important
method of learnin% the thou%ht patterns as they pertain to notes and
harmonies $the <omplete 4uide to Transcription !ideo a!ailale
throu%h <aris Music Ser!ices&( #ut e!en more so in the area of nuance
and time feel+ there is no etter method for understandin% what is
in!ol!ed than to e ale to imitate a model who does it e-pertly(
Throu%h transcriin% and e-act replication of e!ery aspect of the
performance+ it is possile to analy*e the possiilities demonstrated on
the recordin%+ copy the methods and e!entually use this accumulated
material to enlar%e and de!elop one.s own palette of e-pressi!e
de!ices( 5?AM@A5 B:
#5 A GREMM5R
Any serious musician knows that understandin% and at least
ha!in% a minimal amount of e-ecution concernin% the piano is
mandatory for musical e-cellence( In the area of rhythmic feel it is the
same for learnin% drums( All musicians should feel what it is like to
account for e!ery eat o!er the course of an entire performance( The
physical aspect of 0ridin%1 the cymal and keepin% the pulse is eyond
description( #ut e!en a casual familiarity with the drums will e
re!elatory( And anyway+ who doesn.t like playin% the drums or han%in%
out with drummers" They are always the loosest of musicians with a
sense of tradition which ri!als pianists( After all+ drummers and drums
are uni!ersal since the e%innin% of time( 5!en if it means )ust %ettin%
a pencil and playin% on the tale with records+ this is a start(
>urthermore+ I ur%e e!eryone to work out with a real drummer in a duo
settin%( Try to make playin% with a drummer a weekly acti!ity( The two
musicians should e speci,c as to what they want to accomplish( >or
e-ample+ today they may work on one of them playin% o!er the time
with the other ein% !ery accurate statin% the form of the tune( Then
listen ack and try to understand anythin% that happened which was
unclear( That is how we learn aout each other.s instruments and
musical concerns in order to enlar%e our aility to communicate with
other instrumentalists in a %roup(
3TH5R RHYTHMI<AAAY #AS5G MESI<S
It %oes without sayin% that any serious musician would e
interested in other musical traditions which are hea!ily rhythmic( Some
su%%estions are the aforementioned Indian classical music+ Afro <uan+
African and the #alkan traditions( The concept of %raftin% an idea from
a di'erent source to one.s own home idiom is oth practical and
enli%htenin%( In other words+ hearin% somethin% from another culture
and ima%inin% how it could e transformed to )a** is one of the most
rewardin% and en)oyale processes for encoura%in% and de!elopin% an
indi!idual style(
ATTITEG5
Rhythmical con,dence comes with time and e-perience+ ut it
must e sou%ht after to de!elop( If a musician is only satis,ed with
merely playin% a ne!er endin% stream of ei%hth notes+ e-cellent as far
as the harmonic and melodic choices may e+ then further
de!elopment in the rhythmical sense will e di2cult( What is 0natural1
meanin% intuiti!e and easily %rasped is a %reat place to start+ ut to
e-cel one must %o eyond( A uddin% artist should desire to e-pand
their hori*ons so that the possiility of ,ndin% an indi!idual !oice can
occur( That is the challen%e of learnin% an art formQthe /uest for
somethin% new to enlar%e one.s creati!e palette( Ja** is in the ,nal
analysis rhythmic music and it is the responsiility of the serious artist
to do research into this mysterious and powerful uni!ersal force(