How Does It Feel?

How Does It Feel?

Today’s post is inspired by a sound-bite from Dave Douglas: when practising, your swing feel should “make the metronome feel good”.

I’ve tried various interpretations of this since I heard it in the Banff Centre in 2012.
(And I balance it against the opposing perspective from Matt Brewer: “All the metronome stuff has almost nothing to do with grooving”.)

One way to make the metronome feel good would be playing very precisely along with it. But there’s also the whole world of playing ahead of and behind the beat. That’s an area which can seem quite mysterious.

I wrote before how laying back behind the beat could be an audio encoding of rolling, elastic styles of body movement. A laid-back note symbolises a movement which, though you start its muscle impulse on the beat, takes a moment to propagate through the body and reach the point of impact. Or, for a more familiar example, imagine any kind of rocking or swaying dance. Different parts of your body will reach the furthest extent of a (forward, sideways or backwards) movement at slightly different times – but still feel like part of one movement.

Steve Coleman wrote about how in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, the entire band played behind the beat. (Meaning that, until he learned their time feel, Coleman repeatedly came in too early from count-ins.) Even though nobody plays it, Coleman suggests the earlier beat placement (i.e. the count-in) is the actual pulse while the played placement is “behind”.

Putting these ideas into words doesn’t of course mean that we can perform them. But thinking through all this suggested a framework: view all different beat placements as different degrees of laying back from a reference pulse.

Now we come to today’s exercise. Normally when practising with the metronome, it represents the “correct” pulse. But if I tapped my foot slightly ahead of the metronome, the tap would be the reference pulse and the metronome would be laid-back.

In this video I tried to maintain a clear flam between the metronome and my foot – this puts the snare quite exaggeratedly behind the beat. Note the “trashy” sound this creates (not entirely due to the tinny sample used). On the bass I try hit the reference downbeat along with my foot but go for the extreme laying back during the rest of the bar. Other options would be playing the whole bassline behind or alternatively playing the entire bassline with my reference foot tap while keeping the snares behind.

A quick word about what’s going on in my head… I’m conscious of the foot tap as an independence thing. I imagine a wave motion (rolling up along my back, maybe) to connect with the laid-back snare. (To me, it’s crucial that the snare doesn’t feel like a separate note to the foot tap, but more an elongated part of it.) Finally there’s a sensation, similar to keeping your balance, of maintaining the tempo.

This is a brand new exercise for me and has a ways to go. Once I have it consistent, I’d like to try all the usual practising ideas: counting aloud (with my foot taps), putting gaps in the metronome pattern to practice keeping tempo, adding fills to the bassline. I’d like to get rid of the tension that you can see in my fretting finger movements.

One criticism of this exercise occurs to me. What if, in trying to create that flam sound, I’m training my foot tap to creep ahead on beats 2 and 4? I think this has been happening a little, but I also think I can avoid it by concentrating on a relaxed, consistent physicality for the foot taps.

For comparison, here I am playing the same bassline without (intentionally!) tapping ahead of the snares. I do four rounds in straight 16ths and four in heavily swung 16ths. I think I prefer the swung 16ths of all three variations.

I heard Indonesian-Dutch drummer Chander Sardjoe say at a workshop, years ago, something along the lines of “a short cue can contain lots of information, more than you could verbalise”. He also said that the two essential rhythmic aspects of such a cue, or of any music, for him were the pulse and the “quality of the pulse”.

If microtiming devices like laying back are an encoding of styles of movement, perhaps that is how a short stretch of music can have a “quality of its pulse” that conveys so much information non-verbally.

Well, it’s a long road to achieve the rhythmic ability of a Chander Sardjoe who can perform feats like an 11 against 12 polyrhythm. But I’m glad to have, for the moment, a paradigm for practising microtiming: tapping what I consider to be the actual pulse (and getting that consistent), then working all divergences around that.

I’ll let you know how I get on. Any and all thoughts on grooving, laying back, etc. are very welcome in the comments!

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