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!

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