Month: February 2016

Independence Day

Independence Day

In this short post, I’ll look at some ideas for practising rhythmic independence over a Charlie Parker melody.

“He started playing a song, he didn’t play any of the original melody but I knew which song he was playing; you could hear the whole rhythm section and everything. My father used to say the guys sounded like they had a drum in the horn, they had such strong time.” – Steve Coleman reminiscing about Sonny Stitt, from this interview.

This is a great quote, and one that started me thinking when I encountered it some months ago. It suggests that great jazz musicians imagine rhythm section parts as they play, convey that in their improvising, and that this contributes to their great time feel.

To try get to grips about how that could work, I made exercises for imagining rhythmic parts independently of a melodic line.

I chose Charlie Parker’s famous tune “Blues For Alice” as my basis. The first thing I did was count through it, 4 beats per bar. What’s nice about this is that, when you first try (and fail), you can feel very clearly what parts are tripping you up. In this melody, after the basic 8th note syncopations are internalised, the hard parts are the triplets in bars 4 and 9.

I discovered something when I first started using this exercise. Namely, that I was using my vocal imagination to perform the rhythms, making little muscle movements in my mouth as if singing the melody “boo bap a doo bap a dooby apa dapada ba”. How I discovered it was that my “1 2 3 4” count kept getting dragged into the melody rhythm, because my mouth was trying to phrase the melody.

So, even by simply counting through the tune, I tapped into another way of imagining the melody – by muscle memory and by ear. The two ways feel quite different.

When I’m using my vocal thinking to guide the melody, it feels like it’s in the front of my head, behind my nose, say, kind of blocking out other aspects. When I imagine it by how it feels in my hands and how it sounds, it feels like the melody is surrounding me, and I can connect more to the head-nod feeling of the swing pulse – and also imagine hits against the melody.

(Obviously this epiphany is not relevant to wind instruments or vocalists who have to use their mouth to play their instrument. I suspect that drummers also are used to the muscle memory mode because drummers often say they are singing the melody to themselves as they play.)

Some ways to make this more complex are to use a different length of pattern instead of 4 beats, to use syllables other than numbers, and to use a different subdivision than quarter notes. Here I am repeating ten syllables from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in swung 8ths.

Making the exercise harder like this increases the benefits. Talking in swung 8ths is particularly nice because it forced me to fully internalise and understand the triplets. Having part of my brain occupied with the spoken phrase meant I also felt as if I was supervising my hands instead of forcing them to do things. Both of these things made me feel very relaxed, physically and in terms of time feel.

However my tempo in that video isn’t as bang on as I’d like it. I worked on a different exercise to try bring together laid-back/behind-the-beat playing and strict tempo-keeping.

Although here I’m improvising on a 3-chord blues, there is a similarity to all the other exercises – I’m trying to open up what’s going on in my head, feeling the music streaming by instead of having the current line in the forefront of my attention. In particular, finding space between my tempo perception and my played phrasing. Attempting to play laid-back can disturb my pulse if I don’t have this space.

In this video, I stay conscious of how every note relates to the nearest beat, using my kinesthetic sense. This is instead of trying to somehow play in a steady stream that is just off-set from the pulse – I can’t do that yet. I have to keep track of every beat, feel it slotting in correctly, and place my laid-back notes intentionally around it.

(The feeling of the kinesthetic sense, by the way, for me is kind of imagining a bigger wind-up movement for notes I want to be laid-back, i.e. imagining swinging my arm way back to hit a drum. So the notes are late as if I had to travel further to hit them.)

Obviously there’s much further to go in that direction.

That’s all I have this week. These exercises gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to play at a higher level – relaxed and open. I’d have liked to get into improvising over spoken counts and rhythms, speaking normally while playing the melody, and other vocalising techniques. Check this cool video if you haven’t seen it already:

I’d love to hear your experiences with time feel, independence, and what goes on inside your head when you play. Follow, comment, like and share!

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 2

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 2

In the first part of this series, I defined “maximally even” rhythms. I explored what could be done with one such rhythm, the 3 3 2 grouping or “Cuban triplet”: warping it into 3:2, using different modes (different placements against the downbeat, also called rotations), and creating larger patterns from it. I also went into detail on the mathematical nature of the rhythm.


This formula gives the total amount of notes and the amount of inner groups for all the divisions I’ll discuss, including the Cuban triplet.

x = 8
8/((8/2)-1) = 8/(4-1) = 8/3 (Cuban triplet groups 8 units into 3 sections)

The satisfactory divisions obtained from this formula require x to be a multiple of 4. So today we’ll be looking at:

x = 12
Division: 12/5 (6/8 clave groups 12 units into 5 sections)

x = 16
Division: 16/7 (Partido alto groups 16 units into 7 sections)

x = 20
Division: 20/9 (20 units grouped in 9 sections)

Sorry about all the numbers. Let’s start with 12/5. It has two deceptively similar solutions, one of which, 2 2 2 3 3, is lopsided because all the short notes are clumped together (and so the long ones are too, at the end). Better to intersperse the 2s and 3s, arriving at the maximally even solution: 2 3 2 2 3.

ME 1 6 8
Sectioning 12 8th notes (two bars of 6/8 time) into 5 maximally even groups

This rhythm is known to jazz musicians as 3:2 6/8 Afro-Cuban clave. The most important word there is “clave” meaning “key” rhythm of Cuban music. This rhythm can be traced back to West Africa where it is a hugely important structure in many complex drumming/dancing/music traditions. I know nothing about these, but articles like this show how musicologists have tried to describe them. Willie Anku is an important figure in this research.


6/8 clave can be warped from a triplet to a sixteenth grid (subdivision) to create son clave and rhumba clave. That is, the relationship of the attacks to the pulse is approximated using a new subdivision of each beat. So, notes that were on the beat (beats 1 and 4) stay on the beat.

M E 2 Warp Son
Warping (similar to quantising in a MIDI program) from 6/8 clave to son clave
M E 3 Warp Rhy.png
From 6/8 clave to son clave

Rhumba clave is closer to the 6/8 original than son clave, but this is only a mathematical detail – both versions are fundamental to Cuban music, with son clave’s more stable placement of the third attack proving crucial to how it is used. Son clave and rhumba clave, by the way, are also present in West African music. They are not maximally even divisions but they keep the strength of 6/8 clave, and indeed music built off them tends to strongly reference the triplet feel of the 6/8 clave and to warp between triplets and sixteenths.

Gerhard Kubik, who I quoted extensively in my blues discussion, pointed out that the presence of rhythms such as 6/8 clave anywhere in the world indicates a connection to Africa. This is because the mathematical nature of the pattern cannot be altered without it losing its (maximally even) properties. So, unlike words, gestures, melodies, lyrics, etc., these rhythms spread between cultures without changing in any way!

Actually I’m glad I pulled out my copy of Africa and the Blues to check that, because in it Kubik lists all the rhythms I’m discussing today as unambiguously African. His name for them is “asymmetric time-line patterns” – asymmetric because each rhythm breaks into two unequal halves, e.g. 3 and 5 for Cuban triplet or 5 and 7 for 6/8 clave.

M E 4 Asy.png

Okay, here’s a riff I’m working on at the moment with my band Mescalito, which has just reunited! (First gig on March 24th in the Opium Rooms, come on down!)

After composing the riff, I discovered that it is derived from a mode of 6/8 clave (actually its bell pattern version, bembe, where the 3s are filled in with (2 1)s), modulated into 3/4 (so 3 beats of 16ths rather than 4 beats of triplets). This modulation does not affect the cyclic strength of the pattern because it still comes back to the beat at the top of each cycle. There is no polyrhythmic off-and-then-on energy.

M E Riff 1.png
The numbers show where the original 6/8 clave fits over my riff

Let’s move on quickly to the last two rhythms in the series. The maximally even division of 16/7 comes out like this:

M E 5 Part
And this is a crucial rhythm in Afro-Brazilian music. It is called partido alto and can feature as a guitar comping pattern or as a guide for bass and drum accents. I detected a rotation of partido alto in another new Mescalito riff:


M E Riff 2.png
This is rotation shifts the rhythm earlier in time by one 16th – I mark where it starts with a nifty little arrow above.

Note how using mostly only two pitches mimics the low-high/kick-snare energy of a drum line. Also, one nice thing about this riff is the placement of the lower B notes. They form a neat clave-like syncopated rhythm of their own.

Partido alto can be simplified to a grouping of 6 5 5 by hitting only some of its notes.

M E 6 (5 5 6).png
Isolating a 5 5 6 rhythm in partido alto

5 5 6 is the maximally even solution of the division 16/3 – a very important result for techno, funk and other genres that might want to spread a motif three times over a bar of 4/4 in sixteenth notes. I often use it. It’s also the distinctive comping pattern of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va”, mapping out the first of each pair of hits.

M E 7 (5 5 6).png
Chord hits for Oye Como Va


Okay, to finish today’s post, let’s look at the last one in the series. I’ve never heard anyone play this rhythm, although Gerhard Kubik mentions it. I think it carries a lot of the balance and power of the others. It’s the maximally even division of 20/9.

M E 8 Quint.png

The 20 units can accommodate different pulses – this example uses a 4 beats of quintuplets.

But 5 beats of sixteenth notes is also possible.

What have we found in all the rhythms so far? They’re asymmetric, made of a pair of 3s separated by an odd number of 2s, and we’ve seen them all in a rotation in which the only beats landed on are 1 and 4. This relates to what Steve Coleman calls “dynamic balance”. All of these rhythms have points of rest and, at the opposite “pole” of the cycle, tension.  There is an elegant alternation of rest and tension that expresses itself in the forward motion of the rhythm.

Okay better sign off soon, though there are obviously many avenues opening up from this kind of analysis. One cool idea I want to explore more myself is creating new bell patterns by simply crashing together all or part of these rhythms. The new rhythms mightn’t be maximally even but they could retain the flow of the originals even in strange time signatures.

Last thing I’ll say is a warning. This kind of analysis is incredibly reductive because it leaves out the cultural/political/social/historical meanings of these musical structures. I’m not informed enough to deal with those, and I apologise for that! Actually, I intend to study Afro-Cuban music for a project I’m envisaging, based on exploring very large, interlocking rhythmic forms. Hopefully you’ll see some of that research in future posts (writing that should motivate me to do it!).

Thanks for reading! Please follow the blog if you like it!

Enough With The Scales

Enough With The Scales

Today’s post is not research but opinion. I’ll keep it short, as I’d like it to be a starting point for discussion. You are invited to comment!

I’m going to argue that chord-scale theory, the conceptual framework used in jazz college courses world-wide, is flawed even as a teaching tool. I swallowed it whole in jazz school, and frankly I think I wasted years trying to make music according to it.

The basic idea, of matching scales to chord symbols, is useful and I’m glad I learned it early. But it can’t be your only guide. I’m with the widespread view that learning bebop is key to navigating changes. Chord-scale theory is bad at explaining what bebop and bebop-influenced players did. (Music made by people who learned chord-scale theory at jazz school, unsurprisingly, fits it better. In fairness, the theory has enabled some great music and great advances in playing.)

Is chord-scale theory a useful simplification for teaching? I believe it loses too much in return for too little understanding.

(By the way, I’m going on my memories of ensembles and courses, and books such as Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book. I may not be completely fair to them. But I’m talking about the overall results of this teaching system.)

The first thing chord-scale theory misses out on is the idea of key. Jazz until the 60s (and most of it after that) was in major or minor keys (with a lot of room to manoeuvre of course). Playing in key, whether diatonically or bluesily, is a basic element of jazz improv and melody. Yet this can’t really be expressed in terms of chord-scale theory. Sure, basic chord progressions like I IV or II V I, when explained with the theory, do yield the 7 notes of a major key. But that’s an unproductive way of restating that chords can belong to a major key.

It’s not that chord-scale advocates were against the traditional view of keys and chords. Rather, they took it as given, and tried to progress from it. Unfortunately, their supplementary ideas are taught as a complete system to beginners or rock-oriented musicians who don’t understand functional harmony.

So, in the theory, chords are reduced to signposting 7-note scales/modes – supposedly a pool of equally “valid” tones. This misses out on a lot. All the inner organisation of chords is de-emphasised. That’s a massive melodic resource thrown away. The crucial functionality of dominant chords via voice-leading resolution of their tritones becomes a vague notion of “avoid notes”. The whole lovely world of functional chord relationships within a key, as well as its developments via blues and alternate paths, is defused and obscured.

To be precise for a moment… it’s valid to try make a new system to deal with e.g. extended, suspended and altered chords. But chord-scale theory fails to look in detail at directionality, acoustic effects, or any other audible aspect of those chords.

For another example, the all-important fact that melodies inescapably suggest chord progressions (which needn’t be the accompanying chord progression), is barely glimpsed in Mark Levine’s famous textbook. I went back and checked just there.

… By the way, check out this funny quote: “Why does the blues scale – with so many “wrong” notes – sound so right when played over a blues? Your guess is as good as mine.” Cheers Mark, I’m only after spending 30 quid on your book.

His book

Sadly, this lack of specific talk on harmony means that African-American contributions may not get their due. Let me explain that. Going beyond chord-scale theory means recognising the importance of European classical concepts in jazz: tonality, chord- and non-chord tones, etc. But, observing those also forces you to observe when they don’t apply, which is often – so then you have to face African-associated forces like timbralism, pentatonicism, parallelism and alternate paths. Chord-scale theory completely flattens all this cultural/historical stuff out.

More abstractly, it doesn’t invite investigation into the underlying structures of music such as symmetry, the harmonic series and maximally even sets.

If I had to find something genuinely progressive in the theory, it’s the possibility of getting away from relating tones down to the root of a chord, and instead imagining a harmonic space to be freely divided. I like that.

Am I asking too much from a learning aid for students? Well, I think a lot of people, like I did, come to music courses without very clear ideas, searching for meaning which they sense is somewhere in the music. It’s insulting to put anything but the best ideas before anyone sincerely looking for knowledge.

I’m starting to get rather idealistic. Okay, I think chord-scale theory is popular because it is a shortcut allowing students to quickly start playing and interacting rhythmically while avoiding wrong notes, which is cool. The problem is they will probably play bad melodies.

(I did.)

What are your thoughts?

Truck on Down and Dig Me, Jack

Truck on Down and Dig Me, Jack

Today’s (tonight’s) post will be a quick one because I spent my time on another idea that didn’t work out! I’m gonna talk about Louis Jordan, one of the all-time great African-American entertainers, who (this isn’t just my opinion) doesn’t get his due in jazz circles. Specifically, I want to try investigate coded meanings in his songs and lyrics.

Louis Jordan was a famous hit-making bandleader who churned out dozens of singles in the 40s and 50s. They’re in a distinctive style, with heavy piano basslines, powerful swing/shuffle grooves, bluesy harmonised vocals, lots of blues vocabulary in general, and sax and piano solos.

Jordan’s persona as a singer is also distinctive – he is hip, ironic, and uses a lot of jive talk and witty rhymes. His music has been called proto-rap and proto-rock’n’roll, and Chuck Berry, Little Richard and James Brown were all influenced by him. I really like a lot of his music, for one thing because it grooves and has great riffs and solos, but also because of the humour and double entendres in the lyrics.

I’m going to speculate that Jordan covertly attacked white oppression in his songs. But let’s start with an obvious double entendre from 1946 just to see how he works.

So, to put it bluntly, this song is about the sexual potential of underage girls, as you may have guessed from the title. The innuendo is transparent, but by placing himself in the moralising position of warning males away from girls who are too young, Jordan somewhat lightens the effect. It’s still a creepy song by today’s standards! Not one of my favourites.

“Blue Lite Boogie” (1950) is not so bad, because Jordan plays up the humour and pathos of his persona, the guy who’s too old and uncool for a really hip party, “I was like a chaperone”. But the undercurrent of teenage sexuality can still be pieced together. The partygoers are “bobby-soxers” doing “the boogie real slow with the blue light way down low”. They are too young to drink, seeing as the police find only “ice cream and lemonade” after a raid. Plus the atmosphere of the tune is so blue it borders on the debauched! But I quite like that nasty vocal harmony.

Let’s move on to “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”. This song has been covered by the white Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel, as well as by B.B. King and James Brown! All the cover versions present it as a light-hearted number. A late version by Louis Jordan on French TV is extremely interesting for its introduction:

Important points:
– this is for a white audience
– Jordan plays up to the stereotype that black Americans like chicken. He visibly decides to switch to an exaggerated accent “And I’m sure that – you know ah lu-uv chicken.”
– he references his previous song about chickens, which could only be “This Chick’s Too Young To Fry”

I’m not well-informed enough to know a name for Jordan’s use of stereotype, but I think I recognise it. It’s an evasive maneouvre of acting out what’s expected of a black performer so as to let the white audience think they have his measure, while they actually don’t at all. And Jordan references “Too Young To Fry” which is built on innuendo, but in such a way that only someone who knew his back catalogue would understand. So, this song is getting an introduction heavy with double meaning.

What is the song about? It is sung in the persona of “us”, the “chickens”. It’s a song of protest addressed to a farmer who “shouts”, “butts in”, “stompin’ around and shakin’ the ground”, disturbing the chickens who have their own business to attend to, “We got things to do”. There are references to the farmer’s authority as manager – he does the locking up of the property – and that he menaces the chickens with a gun. A final element is that this is music for urban black people, for whom the rural countryside was a memory of even more extreme racism than they experienced in the cities.

So, I think the farmer represents terrorising white authority and the chickens black people who just want to be left alone. Interestingly, in the 70s performance, Jordan gives some genuinely disturbing shouts “oh no uh uh oh no” over the song’s ending, eyes wide as if with fear, before switching instantly to his genial smile. I’d tentatively interpret it as an angry challenge to his audience to recognise to real meaning of the song.

I have no idea if B.B. King, James Brown and Asleep At The Wheel thought about this perspective on the song. Maybe they all did.

A more light-hearted, yet more viciously ironic look at a similar theme is “Cole Slaw”. I’m certain that this song is slagging off Southern whites for their European diet and manners. It’s also an absolutely bad-ass honking horn arrangement.

The lyrics are very funny with their silly rhymes on “-aw”, yet cuttingly sarcastic, “it ain’t nothing but some cabbage raw”, “just a simple Southern treat”, “that’s good strategy without a flaw”. Frankly I think this is a simmeringly angry song. The ending confirms it, with a mocking repetition of “cole slaw” followed by dark hits on a V7 with sour bends up to its 3rd and b7th.

Okay, one more for you, which, if I’m right, is also a mocking song but with a more problematic target.

“Five Guys Named Moe” brought Jordan to the attention of white audiences and was his early breakthrough hit. It’s about a band whose members are all called “Moe” and who “came out of nowhere” to be “the talk of rhythm town”. Jordan presented this (as you see in the video) as if the “five guys named Moe” were his band. However, a quick look at Wikipedia shows that the notable Moes in the US were all Eastern European Jews. I don’t have much more to go on, but I think this song might be satirising the success of Jewish pop songwriters and musicians. The use of a moment of barbershop harmony at 0:29 is interesting. Although barbershop was probably an African-American style originally, by its 1940s revival it seems to have been coded as white. For instance, Norman Rockwell depicted it thusly in 1936:

“Sharp Harmony” by Norman Rockwell

So, Jordan was not including barbershop harmony to be hip. I have read that anti-Semitism was widespread in black communities in the first half of the 20th century, and I suspect, that, although it’s a nifty tune, “Five Guys Named Moe” might be a reflection of that. Check out Joe Jackson’s great version by the way (off his album of jump blues covers, Jumpin’ Jive, that first introduced me to Louis Jordan’s songs, featuring pumping electric bass by Graham Maby – not as swinging as the originals but an excellent effort).

To finish, a tune that I’m not really sure if I’ve figured out.

There is definitely some Signifying and double entendre going on here. For one thing, unlike his earlier hits, “Beans And Cornbread” (1949) makes references to traditional, rural black styles of work and church music. Check out the interlocking of the vocal harmony with the bluesy hollers, “I’ll be ready”. Even more countrified are the wordless vocal effects at 1:03 and 1:28. The whole outro references the call and answer of a preacher and his congregation. Jordan puts overwrought tremblings and whoops in his voice, then hams up a naive gospel ending over a corny I V I cadence. This is in contrast to the key-changing slickness of the intro. What the heck is going on?

The lyrics describe how two food items, beans and cornbread, have a fight, then “Beans” goes on a sentimental rant about how they should be friends and socialise together all the time, “Every Saturday night, we should hang out!” And a long list of foods that go together are referenced.

There’s one line that might be the key, “Beans told cornbread, it makes no difference what you think about me, but it makes a whole lot of difference what I think about you.” So, very clearly, theirs is not a friendship of equals. My tentative reading is that, basically, “Beans” represents whites who are offensively over-familiar to blacks (“Cornbread”) and who use their privileged position to insist on fraternity while ignoring injustice.

Hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. As always, please leave a comment if you have any, and also follow the blog to make sure you won’t miss my weekly posts! Till next time.