JAZZ RHYTHM

WHAT IS JAZZ RHYTHM
When one listens to music what are the key elements that a listener responds to aside from the obvious factors of volume and intensity? Beyond the actual notes played (melody and possibly harmony depending upon the music) there are two aspects that immediately affect any listener. This is especially true in an improvised art such as jazz where the composition is secondary to the performance itself. It is also true that these two elements are central to discerning the style and musical personality of the artist. In jazz, if we were to give five saxophonists the same notes to play in the same tempo and context, why would we immediately know that player one was Sonny Rollins while the other was for example Wayne Shorter? The first impression that affects the listener is the sound emanating from the instrument. The tone that is heard is an extension of that artist’s voice and on a deeper level, their persona. This is why instrumentalists in any serious music spend so much time learning to control tone quality and sound. In the final result it is the voice of the performer through an instrument that is being heard. In jazz after tone, it is what I call “time feel” that most expresses an artist’s unique conception. The manner in which the player rhythmically phrases is to an even larger degree more revealing than the actual melodic and harmonic content. It conveys a truly physical impression to the listener which is difficult to describe in words. There are improvised traditions outside of jazz which have existed for centuries, one of the most prominent being Indian classical music. The idea of taking a melody and spontaneously creating variations within a certain rhythmical context is hardly new. One factor that separates jazz from other improvised idioms would seem to be the harmonic implications, stemming from the Western classical tradition. But as we know there are styles of jazz where harmony is either not employed or minimized to such a degree as to not be relevant. So it seems that what really distinguishes improvised traditions worldwide is the specific rhythmical context. And jazz certainly has a unique character in that respect. In the first one hundred pages of Gunther Schuller’s seminal work, “Early Jazz”, the author gives a fantastic account of how certain elements of jazz evolved and in particular tracing the development of that central aspect of jazz, “swing”. One important point Schuller makes is that in jazz, the second and fourth beat of a 4/4 measure achieves equality (some would say even primacy) with the other beats of the bar. This is in marked contrast to a large majority of familiar musical traditions, especially in the Western cultures (where for the sake of discussion 4/4 is standard) in which the first beat assumes priority over the others. He points out that this marking off of the first downbeat is for obvious reasons when the music serves the purpose of dance or marching. In any case every jazz musician knows that “two” and ”four” are the swinging beats and in fact it is the four that really swings, while the upbeat of four swings even more!! What is essential for every jazz player to realize in their playing is how pitches are linked together in a line with some sense of a rhythmical momentum. This momentum has ramifications about it, whether it is cast in a forward, aggressive manner or a relaxed, laid back sense. One way of describing this feeling is to use the word “groove” in describing rhythmic momentum. Of course pop music in the last part of the

maybe more so than what the rhythms themselves are made up of. which describe actual rhythmical constructs themselves. the effect is still the same. A note here on terminology:what are called eighth notes in jazz may also be conceptualized as triplets with a space between the first and third part of the three part division. There is a “lilt” or bounce to the music that is beyond words.. It is probably easier to point out what doesn’t swing than what does!! Note some words of caution when attempting to describe rhythm in words. What is swinging or not is to some extent a matter of taste and acclimation. (EXAMPLE 1) In order to master the subtleties of playing convincing and swinging eighth notes it is necessary to understand various aspects that play a role in their execution. “even” (connotating a smooth rather than choppy or awkward flow). the goal is still the same which is well placed eighth notes. but even among so-called experts. rhythmical augmentation and diminution. etc. In short.20th century also placed great emphasis on a groove. the feeling of swing is so personal and subjective as to seem to be beyond discussion (though there is indeed much intense discussion about what does or does not swing). be it a mazurka or an African tribal ceremonial dance. each musician must discover and practice the intricacies of execution which are idiosyncratic to their instrument. It is important to remember that though there are technical variables which are peculiar to each instrument in the actual playing of eighth notes. meaning if not necessarily stated it is implied. No matter what rhythms are employed. To return to the discussion of what I term “time feel” I am not discussing aspects of syncopation. they still serve as the underpinning of jazz time. or it can be seen as a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note. A plausible definition of a good jazz rhythmic feel should involve words like “accurate” (meaning as close as possible to the original and ongoing pulse). be they eighths. when a jazz musician sees eighth notes written on a page. I think we could generalize that a feeling of swing has a drive or momentum in balance with a feeling of relaxation and effortlessness. it is the way these rhythms are played which determine the ambiance or feel of the music. However. I would venture to say that the emotional aspect of the music is greatly affected by how rhythm is played. (s)he immediately plays the rhythm either like a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth or the above described triplet. sixteenths or whatever. That which swings to the novice versus the educated listener may be entirely different. “variable” (meaning not entirely predictable using a variety of rhythms) and of course our original word “swinging”. Eighth notes are the main denomination of jazz time. So though a pianist must for example figure out the proper finger movement to articulate eighths compared to a saxophonist’s use of the tongue striking a reed or the string player’s plucking. A musician’s groove in the jazz rhythmical language is most evident when the eighth note division is maintained. but that is a direct outgrowth of dance music and the purpose that any dance music serves. much like the penny is to the American dollar. hemiola. Although one may not play only eighth notes. Unlike harmony and melody which can be clearly seen on the page making it available to be . similar to what the clave beat is in Afro Cuban music. whether it be from the fifteenth or twenty-first century. It’s understood that from the standpoint of being an instrumentalist. For the purposes here the distinctions are not important.

In jazz of course. But besides other musical terms such as tenuto. both the articulations and accents are spontaneous and therefore open to much variability. it is nearly impossible to describe the grey area between the extremes of staccato and legato in words. In jazz. If you ask someone what comprises a good rhythmic feel and they say “phrasing”. However we can describe the elements which determine this feel. recall that two eighth notes in jazz can be more easily described as a dotted . it is very much this middle area of articulation which is crucial to the feel. either at its onset where it is most obvious or more subtly the way notes are connected together in an ongoing line. EXAMPLE 3 3-“THE SPACE BETWEEN” This is a very subtle aspect of jazz phrasing which specifically involves the length of space between the downbeat and upbeat of two eighth notes. It’s like asking what do you eat for dinner and the reply is food!! But we can divide phrasing into its specifics. etc. the effect or what I call time feel is basically beyond words. The softest articulated note in jazz is termed interchangeably a ghost. 1-ARTICULATION Put simply this means the way a note is attacked. accent. For the sake of explanation. But in my opinion it is too general a word. no matter whether it be jazz or Brazilian or whatever is from the start very difficult. Another consideration is that certain styles of jazz might invoke one form of articulation as more favorable and therefore prevalent for that particular idiom. This up and down character of dynamics/accents is extremely important to the overall rhythmic feel and is an area where individuality can be clearly discerned. PHRASING This expression is very commonly used as a general way to describe how rhythms are played. As a generalization we could say that the vast majority of articulations heard in jazz fall somewhere between staccato and legato with an incredibly vast palette of variety. John Coltrane’s articulation was more legato than the beboppers and so on. one aspect of Charlie Parker’s innovations in the 1940s was his more legato articulation in combination with a constantly changing continuum between a relaxed and aggressive beat as compared to the earlier swing or dixieland players. For example.. swallowed or muffled tone.dissected and analyzed in very specific terms. slur. Though we can describe rhythms themselves with technical terms. The use of an accent translates to a louder note which in turn obviously means what came before and after appears softer. describing a rhythmic feel. EXAMPLE 2 2-DYNAMICS This topic can be seen as a subdivision of articulation but it is important enough to be highlighted on its own. they haven’t really said anything. The terms “staccato” and “legato” are most commonly used to describe two extremes of attack from hard to soft. Another way to conceptualize articulation is as degrees of intensity in the attack of a note from light to hard. aggressive to gentle and so on.

If we conceive of a beat not as a point in time but an area or measurement of a distance. Every great individualist has his own set of nuances which are completely personal and become a sort of trademark. all depending upon tempo and other factors of course. smears. an improviser might feel compelled to play slightly in advance or behind the center of that beat. again dependent upon the instrument are vibrato. for example the ride beat cymbal pattern of drummer Elvin Jones. it is possible for a player to develop this concept further from whatever it may be at present. This is where the musician places his pulse in relation to the ongoing accompaniment. One of the pitfalls of playing in this manner is the kind of perception this could communicate to the accompanists who may be confused by what the soloist is doing. If you think of for example just the way pianists like Herbie Hancock. Because there is a reference point (or several depending upon the number of accompanists) this is a very subjective area and totally affected by the improviser’s concept in the moment. then we have an entire “space” to play with as far as available choices where one can place their down and subsequent upbeats. vocalizations. How much ahead or behind before one is rushing or dragging the beat is a judgment that can only be made at the moment. grace notes. EXAMPLE 4 4-NUANCE This is by far the most individualized aspect of time feel for it encompasses all sorts of expressive devices. Totally dependent upon the characteristics of an instrument in combination with the personality and control of the player. depending upon how one conceptualizes it. With the metronome serving as the exact center of this area at least mathematically. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea play grace notes. the great Tony Williams had an almost opposite proportion in his ride beat.eighth followed by a sixteenth or a triplet with the middle beat left out (EXAMPLE 1). This variable has a large effect upon beat placement. our heartbeat and pulse are constantly changing according to our activity. etc. the variety and uniqueness is astounding. it is through the use of nuance that the emotion of a line is felt. This is speech brought to music. Some common devices. both rhythmically and melodically. portamento. emotion. EXAMPLE 5 5-BEAT PLACEMENT One of the more subtle elements of time feel which is heard in only the best of players is beat placement. bent tones. can be varied mathematically and microscopically to reflect a whole palette of proportions between the two divisions of the beat. With this in mind. Inexperienced players might feel compelled or cannot resist . After all. nuances and inflections. On the other hand. the length of the dotted sixteenth or first two parts of the triplet or the first eighth note. Some musicians have a long duration of the downbeat than others. but this elasticity and flexibility of the beat gives a human quality to the rhythm which I feel is necessary. etc. This is the equivalent to how an actor uses his voice to express sadness or happiness inflecting the same words by tone and nuance. pure and simple. Each artist brings his own way of feeling this division to the music. how many people’s heart beat stays exactly the same from minute to minute? As we live and breathe in real life. This flexibility of beat placement musically heightens the very human quality. discussed below. For the most part this is executed unconsciously but to the extent that it can be observed and noticed. reaction to the environment.

The great Miles Davis rhythm sections at various times demonstrate different aspects of this but in particularly in the mid 1960s with Tony Williams playing on top of the beat. when he is quite on “top of the beat”. A most basic against the time rhythm is three against two (quarter note triplets) and then even further divisions of that. Ron Carter in the middle and Herbie Hancock all over. Playing this way is not for the inexperienced. Though he was so well known for his laid back time feel. The same could be said of drummer Elvin Jones. because one must have a certain amount of confidence as well as consummate skill. Miles Davis on the other hand had almost metronomic time but there are numerous examples throughout his incredibly vast career when he would play more on top (the mid 1960s) or behind the beat (the mid 1950s). with whom I had the privilege to play with for several years in the early 1970s. It seems to me that a “perfect” rhythm section is one that in a sense “agrees to disagree. but naturally a true artist will have a proclivity one way or the other and exemplify that most of the time. the greatest improvisers demonstrate a rhythmic flexibility that can be mind boggling using inventive ways of playing permutations.following the changing placement of the soloist. subdivisions and metric modulations that can go so far as to suggest another tempo against the ongoing pulse.” meaning they maintain their own integrity as to how they hear this complex issue. but they adjust according to the situation for the benefit of the whole. Sonny Rollins is one of the great examples of someone who is constantly varying his beat placement (“Sonny Moon for Two” from A Night at the Village Vanguard). at quicker tempos it sometimes felt that he was way on top of the beat. but there are examples of him playing. tempo and accompanists. It is important that the initiator of this “elasticity” be able to return to the center of the beat when necessary to relieve the tension and unify the musicians. Some of the greatest rhythm sections as far as inventiveness and excitement were concerned did not always agree as to exactly where the beat should be all the time but were skilled and open enough as far as attitude to adjust and create a positive tension which formed an open palette for the soloist. But there are multiple choices available and one can listen to the incredibly sophisticated rhythmic cycles of South Indian music for these and other advanced techniques. A world class musician should have the ability to shift his beat placement at will depending upon mood. leading to a weakened and eventually inaccurate pulse in the music. the problem is multiplied because of the number of musicians all playing time as accompanists. I call this “against the time” meaning that a polyrhythm is created by a musician playing a subdivision with such clarity and consistency that another pulse has been created. Here was a fantastic mix that was one of the highlights of the modern jazz rhythm section. material. EXAMPLE 6 ADVANCED RHYTHMICAL CONCEPTS AGAINST THE TIME Although eighth notes remain the main backbone of jazz time. This is an area where the expression “walk before you run” is appropriate. usually at a faster tempo. Once again Sonny Rollins played this way quite a bit during the first half of the 1960s on recordings titled . at least momentarily. And of course in the rhythm section. So we might say that the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was a “behind the beat player”.

patterns and so on with the metronome executing the material accurately in time. Usually these are fast noted passages and wild sounding in texture. lines. To be free but to know where you are at the same time is magical. after the basics of coordinating rhythmical movement in pulse. how are the musicians dealing with beat placement…is it constantly changing…is it the same…is it on top or bottom of the beat. noticing what I have described and more. etc? Noticing something by listening and observing can go a long way towards improving one’s actual playing. real musical change can occur. Wayne Shorter with Miles Davis in the mid 1960s demonstrated this quite a bit while in that same band Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams played fantastic sub divided rhythmic cycles. meaning in another key but with an underlying reference to the home key center. or initiate drummer type work which is beating rhythms and cycles with one hand against another and so on. there is an increased likelihood that these concepts will have a chance to register in the mind. EXAMPLE 7 OVER THE TIME A more abstract concept very much demonstrated by Eric Dolphy. But the reality is that for non-drummers. arpeggios. If a musician can learn to hear a certain way. Surely one can read rhythmical exercises and sing/play them. Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane at various periods is what I term over the time.” the Standard Sonny Rollins”. EXAMPLE 8 ACHIEVING RHYTHMIC FREEDOM Practicing rhythmical concepts in a disciplined orderly fashion is difficult compared to harmony. The ability to do this gracefully is one of the highest forms of time playing in my opinion. coupled with a positive “I can” attitude. This means that for small episodic passages the improviser creates a sense of being out of time without an obvious reference point. (the earlier the better). practicing the concepts I have described is quite ambiguous. quickly returning with a vengeance to earth. or in other words completely swinging in time. etc. further development is more of a conceptual challenge rather than only technical. Therefore the first thing to do is to learn to listen not only to the main soloist or prominent activity going on. It is the equivalent of playing truly chromatically. but the effect is of the improviser freeing himself from the ongoing pulse like a bird in flight. between the drummer’s left hand accents and off beats with the main chord player’s comping patterns and rhythmical “hits”. it is best to immediately get used to . LISTENING Because of its inherent ambiguity. METRONOME It goes without saying that at some stage of development. With repeated listening and repetition. body and ear. so a certain amount of creativity and imagination is called for. For jazz. instrumental technique.“Alfie”. but concentrate upon the entire rhythmic flow occurring in the band. Saxophonist Steve Coleman and bassist Dave Holland have delved deeply into this area in recent times. What are the relationships between the drummer’s ride beat pattern and the bassist’s quarter notes (assuming steady walking time). “Our Man in Jazz” and more. arranging. everyone must practice scales.

copy the methods and eventually use this accumulated material to enlarge and develop one’s own palette of expressive devices. which is feeling the “area” of the beat in order to get that part of the body which is responsible executing what one feels and hears. Even if it means just getting a pencil and . One must feel the beat as a rubber band—expanding and contracting at will. who was my very first mentor back in 1969 saying that for him every beat was a one.the metronome marking off the second and fourth beat of a 4/4 bar. one. At first just use simple scales. for example only the fourth beat. there is no better method for understanding what is involved than to be able to imitate a model who does it expertly. but never so far as to drag or rush the beat!! TRANSCRIPTION I have written a great deal over the years on this all important method of learning the thought patterns as they pertain to notes and harmonies (the Complete Guide to Transcription video available through Caris Music Services). You wouldn’t want to ask Jack DeJonette to please make sure that he gives you the one of the bar every eight measures!! I remember the wonderful drummer Pete La Rocca. In any case every musician should get friendly with the metronome. Great drummers are not always going to be that obvious when they are playing at the height of their creative game. or only the upbeat of three. In other words there was no four/four. This is really more of a physical exercise than just musical. The idea is that a musician can get very loose and confident in relations to feeling all four beats without being tied down to one.…. And anyway. All musicians should feel what it is like to account for every beat over the course of an entire performance. Through transcribing and exact replication of every aspect of the performance. etc. Using a playalong record can help since whatever the rhythm section feels like.it was just one. In the area of rhythmic feel it is the same for learning drums. one. After all. four. But even a casual familiarity with the drums will be revelatory. two. or the upbeat of one. But even more so in the area of nuance and time feel. The physical aspect of “riding” the cymbal and keeping the pulse is beyond description. After doing that reasonably well at tempos ranging from slow to very fast. it is possible to analyze the possibilities demonstrated on the recording. EXAMPLE 10 BE A DRUMMER Any serious musician knows that understanding and at least having a minimal amount of execution concerning the piano is mandatory for musical excellence. so you can use this as a sort of barometer to play with in order to habitualize the sensation. one. three. Once this is accomplished it can be put away forever at least in this regimented and rigid aspect. who doesn’t like playing the drums or hanging out with drummers? They are always the loosest of musicians with a sense of tradition which rivals pianists. I urge the student to use the metronome more creatively in different parts of the bar. drummers and drums are universal since the beginning of time. EXAMPLE 9 BEAT PLACEMENT After a certain degree of accuracy of pulse is established I urge the student to purposely try to play ahead and behind the beat. at the least it remains in the same place time after time. meaning accents could appear anywhere in the bar. licks or forms such as the blues that are automatically under the fingers so you can concentrate on the task at hand.

playing on the table with records. Try to make playing with a drummer a weekly activity. That is the challenge of learning an art form…the quest for something new to enlarge one’s creative palette. Afro Cuban. ATTITUDE Rhythmical confidence comes with time and experience. this is a start. but it must be sought after to develop. In other words. For example. African and the Balkan traditions. OTHER RHYTHMICALLY BASED MUSICS It goes without saying that any serious musician would be interested in other musical traditions which are heavily rhythmic. today they may work on one of them playing over the time with the other being very accurate stating the form of the tune. hearing something from another culture and imagining how it could be transformed to jazz is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable processes for encouraging and developing an individual style. Furthermore. That is how we learn about each other’s instruments and musical concerns in order to enlarge our ability to communicate with other instrumentalists in a group. excellent as far as the harmonic and melodic choices may be. Then listen back and try to understand anything that happened which was unclear. then further development in the rhythmical sense will be difficult. What is “natural” meaning intuitive and easily grasped is a great place to start. The concept of grafting an idea from a different source to one’s own home idiom is both practical and enlightening. Some suggestions are the aforementioned Indian classical music. A budding artist should desire to expand their horizons so that the possibility of finding an individual voice can occur. Jazz is in the final analysis rhythmic music and it is the responsibility of the serious artist to do research into this mysterious and powerful universal force. . but to excel one must go beyond. The two musicians should be specific as to what they want to accomplish. If a musician is only satisfied with merely playing a never ending stream of eighth notes. I urge everyone to work out with a real drummer in a duo setting.

EXAMPLES .

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