Beats Project Post-Mortem

Beats Project Post-Mortem

I made a drum machine beat every day of last month. Was it worth it?

Well, I noticed pretty quickly I had a style: edgy, syncopated 2- or 4-bar grooves, using both sparseness and intricacy, and obsessed with attractive combinations of sounds.

(This aesthetic owes a lot to Pearson Sound. If you want to hear 2 hours of great music in that vein, check this seriously good mix.)

My big discovery during the project was the importance of assembling good sounds. (Not necessarily good sound quality, by the way. My samples were mostly lo-fi, either taken from recordings or from a fairly crude freeware softsynth, Drumsynth 2.0.)

But I realised that browsing a library of samples can be a creative act. A lot of my beats happened when I found an inspiring sound.

When choosing sounds, I sought attractive timbres: sounds that seemed in themselves funky, rich, fat, complex, nasty or otherwise satisfying. One thing I noticed repeatedly was that those sounds tended to fit in multiple categories: a thrumming kick drum could be a bass note; a metallic or noisy percussion could sound melodic.

In particular I liked:

Bell-like sounds

Bass hits (notice how the kick drum is tuned to the Ab, bVI of the minor chord stab, then another bass sound enters on the tonic note C)

Chord stabs

Conga drum-type sounds

Basically, for me, all of the above categories bleed into each other. As I’ve mentioned before, these sounds excite the ear’s ability to imagine the physical shape and materiality of a resounding object. That’s why we use physical metaphors so much: fat, big, rubbery, metallic, gummy etc.

(At least, I use them.)

I also liked:

Complex/modulating percussion sounds

Claps, shakers, cymbals, woodblocks

Playing around with these, I started noticing properly the role for deep bass and high treble sounds in balancing out the sonic spectrum.

Other techniques I used were:

Chopping recordings

Hearing melodies in the drum pitches

Using the same sample at different volumes to add depth e.g. snare ghost notes

Sparse use of one sound e.g. snare

A few days into the project, I happened to be in a pub that had background music. The drums seemed to spring out of the mix. My ear had become much more attuned percussion sounds and patterns.

There are two things I’d like to do with my newly-refined beats style. First, take some of the beats and put them in Reaper where I can apply FX and make complete songs. (But still using my drum machine to make the drumlines first – kind of like tracking the drums for a rock song before moving onto mixing.)

I’d also really like to compose for a band, but thinking as completely as possible in drum machine terms of combining sounds into rhythmic shapes. Instead of making a melody and chords, I would think of interlocking, cyclic rhythmic lines which could be bass notes, drum hits, chord stabs, vocal sounds, or combinations of those – with the choice made according to sonic balance and interest.

I may get to that in February. If so, I’ll try somehow keep the limiting simplicity of the drum machine. Having to convert files every time I wanted new samples was annoying – but it also pushed me to commit to a set of sounds, only bailing out if something really wasn’t working.

The once-a-day process was really fun. The whole point was that I could suit each day’s effort to how much time I had – a ten minute sketch or a couple of hours digging for samples.

The downside is that good ideas don’t get developed because you’ve moved onto the next thing; and also that you can get into too much of a routine and forget to be imaginative.

This month I’ll be working on learning and recording a single (pop or jazz) tune a day, but I won’t post them all online.

Anyway. My favourite beat is tied between Day 4 – British Exit (best crafted, I think) and Day 9 – Clouds In My Head (most imaginative).

The runners-up would be 13, 15 & 17.

Looks like I did my best work early in the month, doesn’t it? Next time I’ll look out for that and change something if I seem to be getting in a rut.

Last thing – how Soundcloud works. It seems to arrange for about one or two people to click on each piece you put up. After that, I think it’s the album art (and the genre you pick) that decides what gets views. Anyway it’s all single-digit stuff and much of that is spam from accounts offering “real plays” for money. The piece that got most plays was the one sampling my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska, which I posted about on Facebook. I think people clicked on it cause they were interested in that band.

Being White and Playing Black Music

Being White and Playing Black Music

A tricky one to talk about without seeming ridiculous (a great fear of mine). But since starting this blog 13 months back I’ve come upon too much good stuff not to share. I’ll take a personal approach. Hope you enjoy it!

I was thinking back over some of the most influential gigs I’ve been to in my life:
The Headhunters in the Sugar Club; Killer Joey in Liberty Hall; The Candidates at Cork Jazz; Soweto Kinch in JJ Smyth’s….

I noticed that the most magical memories from those nights were the moments when I’d shouted out in reaction to the music.

Then I noticed a similar feeling surrounding memories of mind-blowing workshops I’d seen in college. One by Frank Gratkowski (about reacting instantaneously in a free jazz context) and one by Chander Sardjoe (about picking up tempo and feel information from a very short musical cue).

And there was a similar magic about musician parties I’d been to where, at drunk o’clock in the morning, we’d end up freestyle rapping in a circle.

Okay, enough nostalgia. But did you notice the common factor in those situations?

Later, I was re-reading Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, which posits a special culture of that name uniting black people in the UK, Americas, Africa and the Caribbean.

Gilroy claims that musical¬†call and response (that was the common factor up there) creates moments of “fleetingly experienced” racial identity; “the imaginary effect of an internal racial core”, which may also be “socially reproduced by… mimesis, gesture, kinesis and costume”. “Lines between self and other are blurred and special pleasures are created as a result of the meetings and conversations that are established between one fractured, incomplete and unfinished racial self and others.”

On reading this, I immediately felt I’d discovered an explanation for my reactions at those gigs, and to recorded music. I always loved the unexpected moments of slickness in blues, hip hop, jazz or funk. Great timbre, time feel, syncopation, phrasing, etc., make the listener feel good, move their body and likely exclaim aloud. In this blog I’ve discussed such moments in the music of Monk, Sonny Boy Williamson II, The Fabulous Thunderbirds (a good example because you can hear band members making those exclamations), Muddy Waters, Big L, and so on.

(I’m being wildly subjective and general here. However a) I’m discussing big ideas in a short article, and b) the ideas themselves encourage subjective reaction because they come from a counterculture that resisted objectivity due to its association with rational scientific racial terror.)

Those moments had in common a mood or depth I found difficult to verbalise. I had to fall back on (black) slang: “bluesy, funky, hip, ill, dope, cool.”

Gilroy provided an explanation for what I’d glimpsed: within the structure of call-and-response, a listener becomes a participant, feeling part of something bigger: a style shared by evoking and tuning into body sensations and movements, spiritually and historically loaded with a consciously black identity.

…And that’s a problem. How can I be part of something black if I’m a white European?
Exploiting the identity of another less-privileged ethnicity or community is something we know to be wrong nowadays: cultural appropriation.

Which I’ve committed myself. Some merely embarrassing examples would be addressing a Nigerian taxi driver as “meng”, or giving some kind of rap hand gesture as a farewell to a girl I liked when leaving the country. (It’s best for us all if you don’t try visualise that.) A party of young white people I attended where, upon the music getting funky, someone called out “Let’s get real black in here” crosses the line to become offensive.

So how the heck can I square this? Isn’t it immoral for me to invite myself into a black communality by imitating these styles?

Let’s turn back to Gilroy’s powerful ideas for a sec.

The black Atlantic – a dispersal of consciously black culture echoing and re-echoing across the Atlantic, and also all over the New World, beginning with the slave ships. Some familiar manifestations are Afro-Cuban music and musicians in bebop, the Jamaican influences on hip hop and the US rhythm’n’blues/Jamaican reggae/UK bass lineage.

Using found objects, that is, black appropriation of white forms and reconfiguring them e.g. the English language. Blues lyrics coming from English poetry/folk music are a favourite example of mine, and tonal harmony in jazz is another basic one. By harsh necessity, black Atlantic culture was not purely African but hybridised.

As soon jazz and blues become at all widely known, they were listened to and performed by whites – more hybridisation. Many whites profited by selling black music as mainstream entertainment, obscuring its origin. This process is justifiably a massive sore point for black commentators, taking place as it did in a context of every kind of cheating of blacks. Cultural theft was committed wholesale.

Some white musicians were distinguished by unusual respect. Alan Wilson’s deep blues knowledge let him teach the aged Son House¬† his own repertoire from recordings so he could perform again. Wilson’s crowning achievement was a recording session with John Lee Hooker, during which the latter said, “I dig that kid’s harmonica. I don’t know how he follow me, but he do. You musta listened to my records all your life.”Note that it is skill at call and response, “how he follow me”, that Hooker praises.

Hooker and Wilson

(There are still question marks, though, to be raised about the band’s profiting off traditional black material.)

Jazz provides examples such as Bill Evans and Dave Lambert. These also have their complexities: their performance with black bands promoted an integrationist ideal of anti-racism that by the 60s and 70s looked inadequate. That is, those images of mixed bands seemed to be merely papering over deep, structural injustice that Africentric and African nationalist movements took a harder line on.

Having recognised that, we can examine the technical achievements. Bill Evans caught the attention of the premier black jazz theorist, George Russell, and the most influential black bandleader, Miles Davis, of his time. He could not only hold his own with the best improvisors, but brought new sounds and dynamics to Miles’ band. (Hybridisation.) He achieved this having deeply studied black greats such as Nat King Cole and Bud Powell (who he named as his greatest influence).

Dave Lambert worked in the popular jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, performing with jazz greats such as Basie, Ron Carter and Clark Terry. This film shows him vying with Jon Hendricks in a display of swinging interplay. I see and hear joy, elegance and stylistic mastery here.

Skip to 6:10 to get straight to it – check the other singers’ reactions at 6:15, 6:24, 6:32 and the trades at 6:49.

So perhaps there’s a way forward for a musician like me: a ton of work until the traditional material is mastered and sounds and feels good, leading eventually to acceptance in musical communities, cemented and ritualised by participating in call and response with good time feel. Of course, this resembles the standard narrative of how to make it in jazz. But I have a slightly better grasp now of its racial meanings. Although, as those examples show, there are always moral, political, racial complexities.

One more wrinkle before I sign off. Gilroy talks of “fragmentary racial selves” meeting in the call and response…. How did Bill Evans and Alan Wilson act out their race? (Perhaps unintentionally) they played up stereotypes of whiteness: uptight, withdrawn, unhappy. (David Ake notes something similar about Keith Jarrett.) I think these white codings may not be a negative thing – they are simply an appropriate “fragmentary racial self” for a white boy to bring to the table. So maybe I should freely represent my own nerdy European identity while doing, as skilfully and respectfully as I can, black processes.

Again, we’ve come to a jazz trope: individuality within tradition.

I’ll wrap up now, much as I’d love to delve into some political, spiritual and historical stuff raised by Gilroy’s fantastic book. In particular, I want to talk soon about the emancipatory political power in much of the music. Also how the power of tradition can be nurturing. And I’ll post soon about a composition project for January aiming to put some of this babble into action.

Thanks for reading!

Beats, Windows 98-Style

Beats, Windows 98-Style

It’s been a while since I blogged here. In the meantime I’ve been working a lot on my rock band Mescalito… but some blog ideas have been simmering in the back of my mind.

Today’s post is a quick chat about a creativity-boosting project I thought of. I’ll be making a drumloop a day, every day of December 2016 and uploading them to my Soundcloud.

I was recently producing beats for my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska. I enjoyed trying to imitate the likes of Madlib, using compressor and EQ plugins etc. to make our live performances as fat as possible. For this month’s project, though, I’ll just focus on drum programming. I’m inspired by another bandmate, Ben Prevo’s, song-a-day project where he used whatever was at hand to make a more-or-less finished product each day.

To avoid the rabbit hole of tweaking FX plugins, and for a healthy dose of nostalgia, I’ll only use software available in the year 2000!

Hammerhead Rhythm Station (Bram Bos, 2000)
Drumsynth 2.0 (Paul Kellett, 2000)

To me, these programs evoke a different world. I imagine bedroom tinkerers sharing coding techniques, knowledge of analog and digital hardware, and a love of dance music. Bram Bos’ program even displays his student email address, from a Dutch university. The last days of a smaller, less consolidated internet.

Hammerhead Intro.png
The intro screen for Hammerhead

If you had a PC back then, your music-making options were limited to MIDI sequencing, basic layering of samples, trackers – or free programs like these.

This screenshot took a bit of effort to find – it’s easy for the history of a scene like PC music software to disappear into the ether … Massiva, another program I was messing around with around the year 2000

The nicest thing about (my fantasy of) the 90s is the DIY mentality. The tools are by amateurs and rely on no-one else’s file formats or software. These guys saw a problem, coded up a solution and gave it to the world. That still happens today but you are far less likely to hear of it in the hyped and moneyed tech/startup landscape of today.

Admittedly, some of those pioneers monetised their work. Drumsynth 2 is now bundled with FL Studio.

I say “pioneers”, but the reason there was a space for pioneering, is that the professional music world had little time for PCs. PC music was a nerdy little field, obsessed with emulating “realer”, cooler sounds – a vibe you can pick up by browsing old magazines.

The presets in Drumsynth 2 do try to emulate iconic drum machines – but the little synth can’t really hack it and the noises are crude. I kind of like that though. To recap, I’m using 20-year-old free software to get a sound roughly (but not convincingly) like 40-year-old drum machines.

Having a small number of samples (20 preset, 6 custom, only 6 channels) in Hammerhead, my drum machine, forces me to listen closely to how sounds work together. No delay or reverb makes me strive for other ways of creating depth: volume differences, layered and interlocking syncopations, and expressive, varied timbres.

I’ll be pushing the software past what it was designed to do. Hammerhead does 4/4 beats in 16th notes only. By using odd numbers of bars, though, this can be got around (e.g. 5 bars of 4/4 can be 4 bars of 5/4). Similarly, the shuffle control can be abused for some beat-bending tricks, if the given 4/4 grid is disregarded.

So in a humble way this project might represent some DIY values from the hacker and demo-scenes of my idealised 90s – which were all about overcoming computational limitations.

By the way, those 4/4 grids are how I first learned rhythm, at the age of 12 or so (first in a MIDI sequencer, then in Hammerhead). Here is my first ever beat, from 2001:

And here is the first drumline of my month of beats, Windows 98-style. (Try this direct link if the soundcloud embedding doesn’t display below.)

Winding Down

Just a quick note to say, I’ve decided to stop posting regularly here after around 30 posts in 7 months!

It’s been a massive pleasure. What I had imagined would be a very nerdy, explorative blog on advanced rhythm and jazz concepts took a slightly different route. My personal tastes, and even where I am in my musical career, pushed me into investigating what are the musical forces that mean the most to me.

I ended up developing a pretty satisfying web of concepts all coming from my love of African-American music: (deep breath)

  • interlocking
  • directionality (and targeting)
  • timbralism in harmony and melody
  • physicality, kinetic metaphors and body movement
  • rhythmic independence
  • the interconnectedness of popular styles in Europe and America
  • manifesting
  • navigating cyclic forms
  • surface vs. underlying ground, displacement vs. rootedness, dissemination vs. locality
  • multiplicity and double consciousness

And more I can’t recall off the top of my head. None of these are particularly original, and I knew about them before I started Drum Chant. But, from the weekly pressure of having to demonstrate them in blog posts, they’re currently nicely active in my head. I’m confident I can apply them anytime I hear, or write, new music.

Throughout my time in jazz education, I felt that I didn’t really get what was going on and couldn’t easily create music that I liked (these feelings hindered connections with other musicians). To some degree, I think I’ve overcome that. The solution always seemed to be, putting faith in intuitions that I’d had all along.

(For my analytical personality type, “putting faith in” translates as “thinking up an ontology for”.)

Anyway, rather than keep working on these concepts, I want to find ways to apply them in the real world.

I also want to do things that push me to connect with more people, whether gigs, collaborations, or online content with a broader appeal.

Thank you for reading. I’ll probably post again, but not on any schedule! Enjoy the pieces I have up and feel free to comment on any of them.

Funky Structures

Funky Structures

The two bands I’m working with right now are both making albums this year. So I’ve been listening out for ways to structure albums. I found a lot to like in Charlie Hunter’s 2010 release, entitled Gentlemen, I Regret To Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid.

Because this album is modern I feel pretty bad linking to it on Youtube. If you dig it, buy it. My copy arrived last week and I instantly realised I wanted to blog about it.

The hook for today’s article is a term I made up, “funky structures”. By that I mean, ways of organising groove music on the medium or large scale (bigger than phrase or riff). Jazz/blues/hip hop/funk/techno etc. are built on cycles. Ideas of development, drama and narrative arc that suit European art music are not always the best explanations for those African-American-derived styles.

Layering is a technique familiar from techno and funk, where new elements are added predictably to a cycle. A canonical example would be Herbie Hancock’s 1973 version of Watermelon Man. The rather paradoxical thing about layering is that every new part adds to the groove, yet the groove is fully present in the initial, smallest texture. I’ll get back to that later.

How does Charle Hunter use it? Here is the order of added elements on the album’s first track:

(Charlie Hunter plays the basslines on this album on the bottom two strings of a custom 7-string guitar, but for convenience I’ll talk about the bass parts as a separate instrument.)

  • 0:00 Bass, 1-note stutter in staccato 8ths, and kick drum and high-hats.
  • 0:10 Drum fill introduces melody, snare and 8ths on hats
  • 0:31 Horns playing stabs
  • 0:41 Horns playing whole-note pads
  • 1:32 Ride cymbal
  • 1:54 Hocket-type texture as build into guitar solo

Or “Drop A Dime”:

  • 0:00 Bass and slow rock beat (a la Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks[LINK])
  • 0:17 Guitar melody
  • 0:55 Add answering horns melody
  • 1:19 Interlocking guitar-and-horns payoff section
  • 1:41 Long-note hits w/ drum fills, then solo

But, what exactly distinguishes this layering from increases of density in non-groove-based music? Well, first let’s investigate some other funky structures. If layering is gradually filling up space, what about emptying space?

Hunter places large gaps at the end of phrases in most of the tunes.

  • Track 1 0:18 has a one-bar space after three bars of melody – at 0:59 the same space is now filled by horns and guitar
  • Track 2 0:43 has a two-bar space for a long bass fill. The entire melody uses long notes which, particularly on a plucked (weak sustain) instrument like guitar, function a lot like space.
  • Track 3 0:18 has long note over two bars of groove after every two-bar phrase.
  • Track 4 again has half-and-half phrase-and-rest structure for the first part of its melody. Hunter fills one of the gaps with laconic chord stabs.
  • Track 6 has the same structure.

These intentional gaps in the melodies remind me of Thelonious Monk’s penchant for spaces in his themes in which the drummer can respond. On this Charlie Hunter album however, drummer Eric Kalb often maintains an unchanging beat through the spaces rather than improvising comments. Horns, guitar or bass sometimes comment instead. In all these cases, the point is to expose, and celebrate, the rhythm section.

There’s a tendency in blues for phrases to taper away, starting off high and active and ending up with smaller and smaller movements around the floor note, e.g. “I’d Rather Be The Devil”. Hunter’s melody in “Tout Ce Qui Brille Ne Pas Or”, with its wheeling descent to a rest, uses this feeling. Whether tapering, ending on a long note, or ending on a rest, the idea is to return to the ground layer – the underlying groove/harmony.

A related gesture is the breakdown. Here, instead of leaving space in the weak parts (2nd halves) of phrases, sounds are stripped out on a strong bar (start of a section). Just to be clear on terminology, we could note that this is different to a jazz “break” which is typically before the top of a form (i.e. “A Night In Tunisia”). The breakdown/stripping out of sounds is more characteristic of electronic dance music and funk.

This structure is used in tracks 1, 4, 5, 6 at the start of solos. And tracks 3 & 8 work as breakdowns within the whole album due to their trio instrumentation.

Exposure is the key to these gestures. There is a feeling of contrast, and emotional vulnerability on the part of the remaining musicians. “Tout Ce Qui Brille” at 2:32 demonstrates how this can work really well. The second note of the guitar melody rings out with a bit of buzzing, creating a unique timbral moment that is very beautiful in context – the more so for probably being accidental.

This sense of exposure mustn’t distract players from the groove. I believe this requires a mental independence – part of you must keep track of the underlying ground, whether or not anyone else is playing it.

In a breakdown, those abilities are proved by spotlighting some part previously absorbed in the group texture. Despite the changed perspective (which might radically change how the part sounds/feels subjectively, simply by focusing attention on it) musicians must smoothly maintain their simultaneous awareness of the underlying pulse versus the musical surface.

The reason, by the way, that I’m going so deeply into this topic is because I used to have difficulty navigating breaks because I didn’t know what I was trying to do. I’ve been thinking this over in order to improve my own playing.

The last specific gesture I want to mention is what could be called limited improvisation or use of routines. Quite often on this album, there is improvisation so restricted that it could be pre-written. The trumpet riff at 2:01 in “High Pockets And A Fanny Pack” probably is written because it’s repeated verbatim, but it sounds improvised when you first hear it. (I love the descent to a different harmonic level there as well.)

On “Antoine” from 1:53-2:20 there is improvisation strictly around a harmonised riff. And of course the challenge inherent in Hunter’s combined bass & guitar approach means that much of his solo vocab must have been figured out beforehand: for instance the complex key-changing double-stops line at a peak moment in the form, 4:13 in “Tout Ce Qui Brille”. This reinforces thoughts I’ve been having on the importance of familiar gestures and internalised vocab in so-called “improvisation”.

So, what’s the meaning of these structures? I shortlisted some aesthetics that I believe Charlie Hunter uses.

Process: this album celebrates process: “how it’s said” over “what is said”, just like in that hip hop track I analysed last year. Eric Kalb’s drumming is a clear illustration. There’s huge craft and a deep moment-to-moment concentration on laid-back grooving in Kalb’s playing – but little remarkable content. It’s all about “doing it”, not expressing new ideas. The high points of the drumming are either cliched fills or attractive timbres (like the opening of “Antoine”). Along with this, the album is entirely in 4/4 and almost all tracks start with a straightforward vamp intro.

Restraint: one of the key themes of the album is holding back. This can be traced back to the instrumentation (7-string guitar, drums, trumpet, trombone, trombone). All of the instruments are technically demanding and impose physical limits. This naturally leads to slow melodies, space, sparse textures and simple comping patterns.

That restraint creates tension – used to propel songs from intro to melody in tracks 4 and 5, or to create epic payoffs whether improvised or written. A great example is from 2:50 in “Drop A Dime”. Massive horns and massive drums and fierce bluesy guitar playing (whose “hold a note over changing bass” hook epitomises Hunter’s self-developed style) – but only after a build-up of more than half the album’s length.

Subverting sweet chords: Charlie Hunter has an interesting way of using sweet harmony within a mostly ruggedly-grooving context. He writes gorgeous, sophisticatedly harmonised sections for the horns, that are emotional peaks in the album. However, these moments are then wryly undercut by breakdowns to sparse grooving and improv. 0:38-0:45 in “Ode To My Honda Odyssey” is a neat example. The same effect happens a large scale from 1:17-1:44. The contrast can be a little shocking, but the overall effect is to have the best of both worlds (sweetness and funkiness), while also allowing each to comment on the other. Plus, the album’s sparseness of texture – no standard “comping instrument” like piano – is a statement in itself.

To return to layering…. It seems to me to work off the same principles as the breakdowns and spaces. That is, celebrating the unity of the continuous, all-encompassing groove that is felt equally in every instrumental combination, large and small. In African-American music (and probably a lot of other musics around the world), little distinction is made between musicians and the audience, whose vocal exclamations, finger snaps, claps, etc. – and dancing – are a valuable element in a performance. I think the joy of layering up and breaking down relates to the social feeling of a group of people entrained in the groove. Each addition or subtraction can provoke new perspectives on all the other material in a play of multiple simultaneous interpretations that are both individual and collective.

I’d better wrap up. I didn’t get around to talking about the note choices and harmony on this album which add so much to its melancholy mood – in particular, the masterful use of major-minor colour shifts. Also I would’ve liked to talk about the transparency which I think this album shares with, e.g., Thelonious Monk’s work. Well, another time.

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of this blog, as I’ve been doing it for over half a year. It has succeeded wildly in helping me figure out concepts. But I’m wondering what should my next step be, i.e., what to do with this knowledge. I’d love to write for an improvising band again, but it will take some discipline to realise these ideas.

Anyway, I’ll try do a nice technical post next week after the last few conceptual ones. See you then.

Buy the album!



This week’s post returns to the theme of music as “the sound of body movement”. I had a few different thoughts about this during the week, and then when I jammed with my band Mescalito, I noticed them influencing my playing.

Years ago I used to be guilty about not practising technique enough. But I’ve managed to change my perspective from hyper-competitiveness, into something more to do with creativity and awareness: i.e. creating improved body motions and becoming aware of details I used to miss.

So I was working on a Mescalito riff at home. I like this kind of practical work, inspired by a workshop from free jazz luminary Frank Gratkowski who said he only practised when he needed to prepare something specific for performance.

I was videoing myself and I noticed a problem in my left hand’s fretting position: the first knuckle of the index straining in towards the neck.

Left side bad, right side good

As you can see, this breaks the smooth curve from elbow to fingertips. After some work I was able to fix this at low tempos.

This is still well below the actual tempo but I’m happy that I’ve got this far – keeping that ideal shape is hard.

The properly curved hand has a much stronger grip. I got an insight from that fact that I hope I can explain to you now.

I wrote already about blues soloing being gestural and kinetic – its expressivity coming from the touch and movement style of the player. My new insight was that this aesthetic of body motion actually explains most characteristics of blues playing; and that these characteristics come from prioritising hand/grip movement over finger/digital movement. That’s why my curved grip is preferable for me – it restricts finger motion somewhat but gives strength to hand movements.

Now, guitarists in the audience are surely protesting that blues, like any other style, always uses both finger and hand movements. But let me give some examples.


  • Most blues lead uses the pentatonic scale, usually in these kind of “box pattern” fingerings (above) that have two notes per string. These melodies therefore only need two fingers, probably index and ring. That’s why Hendrix plays lead with his little finger tucked away under the fingerboard (see him switch to this technique in this video). The two fingers used are then just either ends of an overall hand shape and the overall movements tend to be a rocking of the hand as pressure is alternately applied to each end.
  • Blues vibrato and bends are performed by rocking the hand, either in the air (kind of bouncing the neck up and down) or around the point where the index finger touches the bottom of the neck.
  • Open string figures are a huge part of traditional styles like John Lee Hooker’s. Typically he trills between a fretted note (say E) and an open note (say D), as in this lovely track. The simple gesture of repeatedly tapping the E and releasing it creates the whole melody. This shaking gesture goes through multiple fingers because it’s using grip strength, even though only one finger touches the string. A similar lumping together of the fingers into a gripping unit also happens in bending and vibrato. (This doesn’t mean that there is pointless excess movement, by the way. See how economical JLH is in this live performance.)
  • And one of the deepest parts of the blues guitar tradition is of course slide guitar, in which almost all melodic movement is a perfect analogue of the hand‘s motion along the strings.

These are all common-place observations, but together they form a clear picture for me that explains a lot of what’s special about blues.

This insight inspired me to chase down interesting hand-movements when jamming with Mescalito.

I’m not claiming either of these ideas is great – but I definitely enjoyed the freedom to explore them, knowing that they’re not a cheap trick but have a valid aesthetic of their own.

A funny thing happened in the jam which I believe came partly out of my independence practice.

After twenty minutes of free improv, we started to talk over the music. (Not that we say anything very clever!) The voices sound to me like we’re in an emotionally open state, with more warmth than in a normal conversation. The way I let the bass play on without monitoring it, is from independence practice.

I’m not playing any strict rhythm, it’s true, but the point is I’m letting my hands deal with the bass while my verbal mind is elsewhere. To be precise, I remember keeping a background awareness of the “gentle ascending minor” vibe and letting my hands place it on the beat, as I thought about what I was saying.

As I finish talking (0:19)you can hear my voice get tense, probably because I’m realising that I can’t actually talk and play very well, and Murphy’s answer is tense too. Maybe we’re hearing that the music wants to go somewhere. Out of this tense moment a lovely 7/4 groove suddenly manifests, answering our worries. (Actually I play it over 9 beats first while still talking, then find the 7.)

Similarly, after we laugh about funny guitar noise at 0:28 you can first of all hear a slight deepening of emotional connection in the timbre of the instruments at 0:43, and then a 6/4 kick drum pattern manifests to interact with the 7/4 bassline. Similar to the bass, it actually starts in 8 and then goes to 6. That kind of adjustment by feel is interesting because normally the state of mind that corrects errors is too paranoid to coexist with creativity. Here we’re so relaxed we don’t get hung up on it. By the way, we would never sit down and consciously write a 6 against 7 pattern!

Well that’s a trivial example, but those transitions into creativity remind me of rapper Big L’s switch from talking to rapping, discussed in this article – and also of free jazz where group subconscious decisions transform the music without any planning, miraculously.

I hope I can get deeper into this stuff…. Allowing creativity to emerge from the subconscious while holding onto the groove.

Two related thoughts for another post:

  • those transitions often involve a threatened break in the flow – smoothly navigating breaks is a very deep tradition in jazz and hip hop
  • this kind of “spontaneous composition” is very similar to saying the right/witty/elevating thing in a group conversation where a joke won’t land unless it’s delivered in tune with the group vibe and with perfect timing

Anyway, that’s it for this week. Sorry for the late post. Hope it wasn’t too indulgent! See you soon.

And to finish, here’s Charlie Hunter demonstrating stunning levels of independence in a hard groove context.

Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

Monk’s Powerful Melodies, Part 1

I gigged some Thelonious Monk tunes last week and remembered how much I love his music. And I’m not alone… one of my bass teachers was playing an all-Monk set in Italy recently – and in the school I was in last year they run a yearly Monk-themed competition.

Today I’ve less transcription than in my last Monk article, but hopefully some nice ideas. I want to explore how Monk balances bright energy emanating from the powerful tonic triad with much darker tones, within a bluesy context.

This immediately reminds me of the binary: “rootedness-displacement” which I heard Vijay Iyer quote from Paul Gilroy. The concept is that a tension between these two properties powers much African-American culture. Some musical examples would be:

  • Time feel – a metronomic pulse is emphasised (rootedness) yet skilled players play ahead of or behind the beat (displacement)
  • Phrasing – a driving beat is made as powerful as possible, yet accents are typically off the beat. In music with underlying rhythms such as clave, many parts play against the rhythm.
  • Blues melody – there is a powerful gravity towards the tonic triad and the root, yet all the expressivity is in deviations – bends and melisma – from the tonic notes.
  • Standard jazz form – 12-bar and 32-bar cycles are an unchanging ground, which yet is constantly challenged via anticipation/delay/substitution of chord changes.

As far as I can make out (here in my white suburb in Ireland…) what’s distinctively African-American is the simultaneous multiple meanings. (The ground-surface dichotomy is from African drumming, I’ve read.) The different possibilities are present, or threaten to be present, at the same time: I7 and IV7 harmonic sounds in blues; ahead and behind the beat in a swing feel; “where beat 1 is” in a polyrhythmic techno piece. Something similar may apply in Signifyin’.

Enough of my usual vague ponderings on black culture! It’s analysis time.

I’ve played this tune since I was a teenager. You can hear why a youngster would like it – it’s extremely catchy and cool-sounding.

Well A
The A section of “Well You Needn’t”

There’s a lot going on here, including a lovely low-register chromatic comping voice (more about that in a bit) and a strong 2-bar syncopation driving the phrase structure. Note the groups of 3 in the concluding phrase.

The bridge shows Monk’s mastery of 32-bar AABA form. It repeats the groups-of-3 idea up a semitone – a seamless connection. The phrase structure (one bar riff followed by one bar rest) and harmonic idea (sequencing up a semitone) are familiar from the A section – although the harmonic rhythm is slower.

Well Bridge
Bridge from “Well You Needn’t”

The B section’s second half is brilliant. The harmonic rhythm suddenly is twice as fast as the A rather than twice as slow (symmetry), and the F to Gb up-a-semitone idea is allowed to continue its movement. This makes an exhilarating sequence of 7 chromatically connected flourishes, which (together with the first two chords of the bridge) sketch out the exact movement of the A section’s low-register counter melody… and then continue past it to land on a Cb, a tritone away from the home key.

All these connective devices create a powerful flow – and perhaps the most important single device is the well-crafted pattern of syncopated accents tying everything together. For instance, the “and of 2” note that ends the bridge melody is the only such accent in the whole piece, forming a peak before the return to A. As I wrote before, Monk is really good at balancing the forces in the final bar before returning to familiar material – the top of a 12-bar blues, or the last A of today’s 32-bar examples.

Charlie Rouse, long-time associate of Monk, also used darkness at peak moments: check the b9 at 2:30 in “Well You Needn’t” on the last bar of the bridge. (I’d love to know the history of this bluesy phrygian sound… Paul Gonsalvez features it in his famous Newport solo.)

The way Monk uses chromaticism in the “Well You Needn’t” bridge is revealing. It is a voice movement away and then towards the 5th (C) of the key. The accelerating harmonic rhythm gives a sensation of exhilarating unleashed energy. At the end there is the gesture of the descending line overshooting its C start point to reach B, a note outside the key. We’ll see this exact concept elsewhere: the momentum of a movement carrying it outside the key at the end of a section. Rouse’ b9 is an example too.

Just to connect this to some past themes and buzzwords… Monk is virtuosically “navigating the form”, he’s using the “hidden energy” trope of black cool, and his music works in metaphors of movement (accelerating, momentum), so that it has “directionality”.

Let’s have a quick look at “Monk’s Dream”, title track of the 1962 album. Now, alas, I’m far from qualified to deal with the beautiful chords that comp the melody. As Vijay Iyer puts it:

“These chord-jewels of his were palpable, physical objects. By this I mean that they took advantage of the physics of sound; they were resonant.”

I’d struggle to get even a doubtful transcription of the chords in “Monk’s Dream”, so I’ll just talk melody.

Dream A
The A Section of “Monk’s Dream”, pathetically lacking in the chords I can’t transcribe

There’s an obvious resemblance to “Well You Needn’t”: the opening tonic arpeggio and the first phrase repeated every two bars with variations.

(I love how Monk’s voicing absorbs the major 7th on beat 1 of the tune into a gorgeous timbral object, so much so that it fits seamlessly in a bluesy tonality.)

The first bars run up and down a distinctive cell that I think of as III minor pentatonic over I (E minor pentatonic over C bass). After reading Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe, I’m on the look out for the tendency to emphasise the 3rd and 6th so much that the melody outlines a VI minor or III minor modality against the I major key. “Just Friends” is a great example – the melody is mostly in the relative minor mode (including melodic minor 7 and 6).

The end of the A section involves a chromatic run taking us outside of the key – sound familiar? Like “Well You Needn’t”, the chromaticism seems to fit in between notes of the tonic triad frame. It finishes with a salient b2.

The B section is audacious. It uses the crude directionality of a melody climbing from root to octave – all over a I chord! And, apart from a #4 (part of the idiomatic blues run 3 4 #4 5), only C mixolydian notes are used. So, the only drive comes from the ascending contour and the syncopation.

Dream Bridge
Bridge melody of “Monk’s Dream”

Nothing more is required because of Monk’s adeptness with timbre and call-and-response. Drummer Frankie Dunlop neatly fills the gaps, while gorgeous chords followed by a lovely change from sustain-pedal tremolo to choked staccato tell a story in textures. Notice John Ore’s bassline reverting from 4 notes to 2 notes to the bar in the bridge’s final measure – somehow compensating a bit for the lack of cadential emphasis returning to the A section.

Well it’s nearly time to sign off (and leave some tunes to analyse another time). What did I learn?

Vijay Iyer’s article helped me sum it all up. Monk’s music feels really good pretty much all the time. He deals in groove, flow and sound. His compositions let those things happen. There’s an urgent creativity there, but it never impedes those qualities.

In my last couple of articles I’ve reflected on applying new concepts to my own music. I’ll do that again now.

First lesson: moments of the simplest, strongest possible melody – if the rhythms are hip – can and should be the opposite of corny. More subtly, they can work in an “extended blues” aesthetic that coherently incorporates major-minor ambiguity (i.e. modal interchange), symmetry, and the crunchiest dissonances. And finally, this style of melody should be used as an aid in constructing powerful large-scale shapes (again, with slick rhythm).

More generally, I had a glimpse of an idea, building on my initial investigations into independence, laying back, and gestural playing: what if every musical decision I made was by feel, by awareness of body sensations/embodied knowledge?

That’s a wide-ranging thought, and it reminds me of Vijay Iyer saying that the heritage of great jazz contains “codes for transformation: of yourself, your community, and your surroundings”.

Thanks for reading! Have a good week.