Some Of My Best Friends Are Syncopations

Recognising the rhythmic shapes in syncopated music is not a skill that I’ve heard talked about much. I only became aware of it in the last year or so – before that, I only consciously did it with repeated riffs or drum patterns. Now I’ve started applying it to melodies, improvised lines and rapping.

Today I’ll write about using this perspective on some iconic Charlie Parker melodies. These (basic) analyses were first used in a workshop I gave for for The Jazzlab. This post is massively inspired by Steve Coleman’s incredibly knowledgeable discussion of Charlie Parker’s music.

Parker’s melodies were like prototype improvisations and have many of the same features as his solos. They’re incredibly rhythmically vital. I boiled them down to their rhythmic skeletons by isolating the accents – highest notes, lowest notes, isolated notes, and notes beginning and ending phrases.

Anthro Start Reduction Cropped
Isolating the accents of the opening phrase of Anthropology

This is a simple thing to do, although there are always multiple possible interpretations.  I soon noticed that in many places, the melodies reduce down to about one accent per half-bar.

 

Anthro Bridge Blocks of 4 Cropped
The accents in the bridge of Anthropology are either on beats 1 or 3, or anticipating or delaying those beats

This is interesting because it reminds me of the highly swinging comping patterns pianists use, for example Wynton Kelly on Freddie Freeloader.

Freddie Freeloader Piano Cropped
Comping rhythms from 2:14 on Freddie Freeloader (1st two trumpet choruses)

Of course, Freddie Freeloader is less than half the tempo of Anthropology. But I think that just illustrates how swing stays structurally similar at a wide scale of tempos. And I think this half-bar level of rhythmic activity is essential to swing, together with 8th note lead lines and quarter note walking bass. It’s also a fantastic way to see the ebb and flow of rest and dynamism, i.e. on- and off-beat energy. For example, in the first A of Charlie Parker’s Confirmation, the first off-beat creates motion which then receives emphasis (“Confirmation”?) from three on-the-beat hits, but resists the strong resting point of bar 3 by anticipating it. The rest of the A section is mostly unresolved, creating a strong desire for the downbeat which comes at the top of the 2nd A section.

 

 

Confirmation A
1st A section of Confirmation

I found patterns at the one-bar scale, among the most common of which were:

 

3 3 Pattern
From bars 2, 6, 15, 22 & 30 of Confirmation
3 5 Pattern
From bars 9 & 10 of Billie’s Bounce

The pattern in Billie’s Bounce could also be interpreted as a grouping of 3 3 2, which is an archetypal syncopation.

 

3 3 2
3 3 2 grouping

I like using the name “Cuban triplet” for it, but it is found pretty much everywhere – cakewalk to heavy metal, reggaeton to rock’n’roll. All of these one-bar syncopations could be described as the interaction of groups of 3 with a one-bar frame.

 

At the two-bar scale there are a bunch of lovely patterns. Many of these are at the exact same half-bar level of rhythmic activity that I talked about, but viewing them in a 2-bar frame makes them more recogniseable. Drummers and pianists use these 2-bar shapes as comping cliches.

Last A of Confirmation Cropped
The last A section of Confirmation starts with this rhythm

 

 

 

 

3-4 of Anthropology
Bars 3-4 of Anthropology use this rhythm

I suspect the 2-bar frame is a more meaningful division in swing than the single bar. One really important thing about two-bar syncopations is that they often resemble claves. The rhythm above is close to a 2:3 rhumba clave, while bars 5-6 of Relaxin’ At Camarillo resemble a 2:3 son clave.

5-6 of Relaxin' Cropped
From bars 5-6 of Relaxin’ At Camarillo

These examples are within a note or two of replicating a clave. However, Steve Coleman points out that very many of Charlie Parker’s phrasings using groups of 3 have a clave-like energy of shifting yet balanced accents, even if they don’t immediately resemble the classic Afro-Cuban rhythms.

I’ll finish with quick examples of two more phenomena that Coleman identified in Parker’s music.

The first is rhythmic voice-leading. This, like voice-leading in tonal music, is a way of smoothly connecting one point with another. It involves using repeated identical groupings to target a particular rhythmic placement.

5-7 Billie's Bounce Cropped
Rhythmic voice-leading in bars 5-7 of Billie’s Bounce

Here, groups of 2 target the anticipation of bar 6, then groups of 3 target beat 2 of bar 7. Groups of 4, 5, etc. can also be used. However, this is not the same concept as polyrhythm, polymetre or modulation (though these also use repeated groupings). The crucial difference is that the groupings do not set up an independent layer, but a path from one point to another. They have directionality. I feel this distinction wasn’t conveyed when I learnt about groupings in jazz school.

Finally, Charlie Parker’s melodies use palindromic energy. This is a huge topic, full of beauty, but I’ll just give some quick examples of sequences of groupings that are the same going backwards or forwards.

Anthropology 4 bars
Palindromic accents at the start of Anthropology: 4 3 4 3 3 3 4 3 4
Confirmation Start Palindrome
Palindromic accents at the start of Confirmation: 4 4 3 3 4 3 3 4 4

I hope you found something interesting in this post, and maybe got another perspective on syncopated rhythm. I think this way of seeing/feeling underlying structures is incredibly powerful for improvising, composing and analysing. Again, please comment!

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5 thoughts on “Some Of My Best Friends Are Syncopations

  1. Thanks for posting this kevin, found it really interesting. I’d never really approached thinking about melodies in that way, with underlying syncopated rhythms before, or with palindromes, definitely going to explore/analyse more melodies in that way of thinking and try work it into playing over tunes

    Like

  2. Very interesting and clear intro to Coleman’s analysis, which is dense and takes significant effort to digest. I can’t help but feel that his ideas of symmetry are a little bit fitting the material to the theory, but I’d love to read more about this concept of rhythmic voice-leading.
    It’s something that can sound very natural and logical particularly in new Orleans rhythms comprised of 2s and 3s, which swing phrasing developed from, I guess. Great stuff!

    Like

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