A bunch of nice drum chants in 7/4 popped into my head while I was hiking around Powerscourt Waterfall last week. So today I’ll show various applications for them, and talk about a basic force in syncopation: maximally even rhythms.
Here I’m singing one of my drum chants while improvising over “Like Someone In Love” (one repetition of the chant per bar of the original song). The chant uses the grouping 2 3 3 3 3.
What’s fun about this is that it really exposed weaknesses in my rhythmic conception. I noticed I was playing notes without knowing exactly where they were placed. Normally I would rely on my foot tapping to get back in time. But now that I was busy singing the drum chant, these vague notes made the whole thing collapse. To avoid this, I had to clearly imagine phrases before they were played, and also rely much more on my muscle memory to let my fingers solve the problems. Both of these techniques required a lot of relaxation and focus. I’ll be trying this again for sure.
Here I took the shape of the drum chant – its rhythm and use of a high and low tone – and turned it into a bassline consisting of two moving guide tones through the A sections of “What Is This Thing Called Love”. The grouping this time is 3 2 2.
In the B section of “What Is This Thing Called Love” I use a grouping of 3 2 2 2 3 2 (or 5 4 5) as a variation. I made that into a chant of its own.
Then I turned that into a bassline and used it for some slow metronome practice, in different placements.
Finally, I took the distinctive “short short short long” part of the previous rhythm…
… and arranged it three times across two bars of 7.
The long notes (the Ls) now mark out a large-scale grouping of 9 10 9. There’s an important similarity between the last few drum chants: they all split 7 beats into three “maximally even” parts.
With 7 beats, the maximally even grouping is 3 2 2 (or a mode of that such as 2 3 2).
With 14 beats (or 7 beats divided into 8th notes), the maximally even grouping is 5 4 5 (or a mode).
With 28 beats (or 7 beats divided into 16th notes, or 14 beats divided into 8th notes), the maximally even division is 9 10 9 (or a mode).
Maximally even divisions are crucial in syncopation: 12/8 clave, for instance, is a maximally even division of 12 notes into 5 parts (2 3 2 2 3). For that matter, the major scale itself is a maximally even division of 12 chromatic notes into 7 parts (2 2 1 2 2 2 1). The principle is that the “odd ones out”, e.g. the 1s in the major scale, should be spread as far as possible away from each other. So a 2 2 1 1 2 2 2 scale wouldn’t be maximally even because the 1s are beside each other. For an example of a maximally even rhythmic division in 4/4 swing, check out the vamps in my band’s version of I Remember You. Stream it here.
To develop my 9 10 9 drum chant, I smoothly subdivided the 9s and 10s to make a cymbal pattern (3 3 3) (3 4 3) (3 3 3).
As you can hear, it sounds very much like a simple triplet pattern, with a barely noticeable skip:
Then I wanted to add a cowbell but realised it would need a three-armed drummer. So I turned the rhythm of the original chant into a blues scale bassline (much like the one I used for the metronome practice above), with drums playing a “long seven” kick pulse and the cymbal and bell parts.
Here’s a video of me smiling smugly as I play all the parts:
Hope you enjoyed that. Let me know if you’ve any thoughts or if anything should’ve been presented differently. And merry Christmas to those of you celebrating it!
Two years ago I read Gerhard Kubik’sAfrica and the Blues, and immediately liked how he explains blues melody. His emphasis on timbre (which for today’s purposes I’ll define as the distribution of overtones in a note) echoed Vijay Iyer, as well as my own experience. I’ll go through Kubik’s approach today using my own examples.
I did my master research last year on this song. It doesn’t fit the typical explanations of blues melody: the minor pentatonic scale and the related six-note “blues scale”. Devil Got My Woman uses strong 5th and 6th tones (E and B) which aren’t in those scales.
Gerhard Kubik, an expert on African music, has perspectives other than Western harmony and melody. He claims that blues uses “timbre-harmony”.
I’ll do some lazy binary thinking for a moment to explain this concept, by comparing (timbre-harmonic) blues with (tonal) classical music.
In tonal music, harmony is considered separate from timbre. A chord or progression of chords is judged to be the same no matter what instrumental tone quality is used. The undeniable effects of tone quality are considered technicalities within the crafts of arranging and instrumentation (e.g. the “low interval limit”).
In timbre-harmonic music, there is no such distinction – the presence of overtones in the field of sounds, and the effects created when played chords resemble an overtone series, are a part of harmonic expression. Changes in timbre are potentially as meaningful as playing different notes. Chord tones may be employed more for their acoustic resonance than for voice-leading or functionality.
In tonal music, there is a fine gradient of dissonance leading towards the stability of triads. However, in timbral music, higher overtones such as the 7th, 9th and 11th may be heard as stable parts of a chord, while the general acceptance of (multiple) overtone series means that semitones or tones are less likely to be heard as clashing, and more likely to be “tasty”, desireable phenomena. Compare the typical highly altered final chord of a jazz piece, or the final chord of a traditional blues with its stylised b7th, with the triad closing a classical piece.
(Once more, this kind of binary comparison is lazy thinking. As counter-examples, African-American Scott Joplin used tonality; European Claude Debussy used timbralism. Composers like Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Darcy James Argue among many others have brought great sophistication to music that bridges both approaches.)
How does Kubik explain blues melody from his timbre-harmonic perspective? Well, the overtone series of the tonic note can explain the major 3rd, 5th, b7th and 9th (2nd)…
… but not the 4th and b3rd. These are a crucial part of blues melody, as in the Fs and Gs in Skip James’s “Cherry Ball Blues”:
How can these notes be explained? Kubik’s insight was that blues melody combines the overtones of the tonic note with the overtones of the fourth degree (IV, the subdominant).
Kubik posits that around the 1890s, African-descended musicians familiar with pentatonic field hollers, West African use of the overtone series, and European chord progressions on guitar, synthesised these into a new melodic and harmonic system. I and IV chords could be used to accompany minor pentatonic melodies. Cultural retentions of timbre-harmony strongly influenced guitar and vocal technique. Knowledge of the interference between the overtone series (where two tones are close, e.g. the 7th harmonic of IV, F and the 5th harmonic of I, F#) led to variations of pitch around the 3rd, 5th and 7th.
We’re still far from a full explanation, though. What about the use of bends and melisma? Kubik ascribes this to an “Arabic/Islamic influence in the western and central Sudanic belt” of Africa. I would add that guitar and vocal bends have a strong timbral effect: they change the distribution of overtones, and they can be used to “tune into” pleasing resonances. (A basic example is Skip James swooping up to the tonic note at the start of “Cherry Ball Blues”.) Sliding while modulating a sung vowel can strongly emphasise a particular harmonic. These techniques help explain the near-supernatural blend of voice and guitar in Skip James’ music. (Which characteristically uses “heterophony” to achieve this: the guitar doubling, with variations but in the same register, the vocal.)
This is getting pretty technical. Before we finish let’s see if Kubik’s concept shines any light on Skip James’s vocal lines.
The first bar of “Devil Got My Woman”‘s melody uses strong E notes (in the key of D). We might be tempted to call these the 9th harmonic of D. In context, though, they sound more like the 5th of a blues scale built off A, the dominant degree (V). This use of a full V blues scale over V7 chords is found in other blues musicians (Stevie Ray Vaughan, quite beautifully, for example).
Things get subtle here…. So, the normal, tonic blues scale uses notes from I harmonics and IV harmonics, and can be played over both I7 and IV7 chords. Notably, when the chord switches from I7 to IV7, this is not usually a trigger for transposing the whole melodic/scale structure up a fourth. However, when the chord is V7 (actually a V-7 in this and some other Skip James numbers), the scale does often transpose up a 5th.
(Tones and root notes regularly bleed between different chords in Skip James’ work. Here, differences between chords are less important than in tonal music – though still present. Analysis like mine eventually finds its limits in this cloudiness. Kubik uses the term “timbre-harmonic cluster” instead of “chord” to hint at this more suggestive than definitive role.)
In the melisma I’ve notated with a quintuplet, above, Skip James switches from the b3rd-3rd pitch area of an A blues scale to the 5th and 6th of a D blues scale – i.e. the IV part of the D blues scale. Then we get notes from the I series with ornamentations.
“Cherry Ball Blues” is simpler. We have a crystal clear laying out of the tonic note, then notes from the IV series, resolving to I series notes at the signature b3rd to 3rd (F to F#) bend. Again, a resolution from IV to I sounds. Then we can clearly see the switch from the I7 part of the D blues scale to an A blues scale in the move from F# to a G and A – made even clearer with the A pentatonic descent to a C to C# bend, b3rd to 3rd of A (IV series to I series of A).
“Cherry Ball” also uses b5ths. Kubik explains this note by including some higher harmonics in his system.
I’ve mentioned the tunings of notes this time. When I was first thinking through this stuff years ago, I was attracted by the “secret notes” with non-equal-tempered tunings. Now I’m kind of cautious. Skip James approaches many notes with a quick upwards slide of a fourth – the opposite of microtonal precision. In the flexible pitch areas caused by intersecting overtones, he chooses his tunings freely and almost always bends to and from them. So for me, those intonations are only important if they have a musical effect – say like Sonny Boy Williamson II’s unbelievably good flat 7th in his final chorus here:
I hope you got something out of this perspective on blues melody. I’m hoping to tackle how timbre-harmony applies to chords in Part 2. The stacked-overtone-series concept opened my mind on a lot of things. For instance, how both the b3rd-6th and 3rd-b7th tritones sound bluesy, but don’t work in a single chord. It’s also a good explanation of the power of bends such as b3rd-3rd, b5th-4th, and 6th-b7th.
To sign off, a final speculation. Steve Coleman calls attention to the “negative dominant” resolutions used in bebop, where IV-6 and bVI-6 melodies are used over V7 to I progressions. He calls them “alternate paths” or “invisible paths” (particularly when they are used in chains). Could the IV7 to I7 sound of blues melody be an earlier type of alternate path? That is, a way to resolve to the tonic, with cadential force, but disregarding the V7 to I resolution? I’m curious if these rule-breaking harmonic approaches could relate to a general African-American aesthetic of misdirection, trickery and evasion which crops up in folk tales (Signifyin’ Monkey, Br’er Rabbit), dance (the moonwalk) and sport (basketball moves).
Anyway! Comment if you like it, hate it, or if you have any blues thoughts of your own!
Oh, and, I had some things I want to say about the racist power imbalances involved in the categorisation of “country blues”, the fetishisation of unschooled part-time musicians like Skip James, and my position as a European analysing blues from records…. but I actually had too much I wanted to write so it will have to wait for another post!
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.
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.
This is interesting because it reminds me of the highly swinging comping patterns pianists use, for example Wynton Kelly on Freddie Freeloader.
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.
I found patterns at the one-bar scale, among the most common of which were:
The pattern in Billie’s Bounce could also be interpreted as a grouping of 3 3 2, which is an archetypal syncopation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Making loops is a useful skill for musicians, whether for practising, making demos or producing. The basics are easy, but here are some handy extra techniques I’ve picked up.
Often, I’m sampling a repeated riff from a live performance. As it’s repetitive, I can usually see a resemblance between the start and end points. In this example, I visually identify the equivalent point (before the three large oscillations) on the kick drum hits at the start and end.
Sometimes I can get a nicer loop by not matching equivalent hits. In this example, the beat has a heavy laid-back feel.
I can add to that by ending of my loop some milliseconds later (I could also put the start point early). This delays the start of the loop every time it cycles around, adding to the drama the drummer creates there.
There are no rules about whether to add or remove time, it’s personal taste. Here, the expressive grooving/microtiming allows space for interpretations.
There’s one technique that gives a lot of extra options: sample a segment but start and end on a different beat than beat 1. (Even though the finished loop will start on beat 1). This is useful e.g. when an unwanted noise from the bar before spills over beat 1 of the groove.
In this example, I played a wrong note at the very end of the two-bar pattern.
The answer is to shift my loop points a half-beat earlier, so I miss out on the mistake and replace it with the equivalent half-beat of material from before my original loop.
The final step would be to cut and paste so that what should be beat 1 comes at the start of the loop.
In the example above, I was careless and left a click at the end of the loop. After checking back, I saw that I had caught the start of a snare hit by accident – fixable by shifting my end point. But these glitches can also come from mismatches in sound pressure level – where the loop ends at a different volume to its beginning.
The solution is to fade in the first few milliseconds and fade out the last few milliseconds.
Any techniques of your own? Problems you’re trying to solve? Or better ways to do what I’m doing? Please comment!
[All music examples by permission of Dylan Lynch and Max Zaska, with whom I’ve been jamming to brainstorm a brand-new recording project.]
The Planet (from Gang Starr’s 1994 release Hard To Earn) is about achieving success, a coming-of-age story about moving away from home to the big city. In this post I want to look at how the rhyming and beats deepen this theme and possibly connect it with older black cultural traditions.
The song starts strikingly: a two-bar blues-rock sample loops a few times and then fades to silence. No development, no transition. I think producer DJ Premier is foregrounding the in-the-moment “how” of the music, its feel and texture. We’re forced to notice the laid-back drums, swooping grainy vocals and seamless looping. Execution over content, as in James Brown’s catchphrase “doin’ it”. This aesthetic of continual process informs the title of Gang Starr’s 1992 album Daily Operation, and Miles Davis’ classics Steamin’, Cookin’ and Workin’.
Any intro is a place to set out from. This loop of Taj Mahal’s “The Cuckoo” provides a multi-faceted opening mood. It’s got attitude. The snare drum feels “in the pocket” – funky. The singer strains to hit high and low blues notes – effort. The lyrical snippet is “in the cold” – hardship. It sounds like downhome blues – old-fashioned.
After the fadeout, Premier’s main beat kicks. To make these beats, Premier interpreted brief written sketches from the vocalist. In this case, he worked off the song title, and the note “My reason for me moving from Boston to Brooklyn”. Head-nodding and physically driving, the resulting beat feels toilsome. That’s due to the dragging shuffle of the drums against a chugging organ (stabbing 1/8th notes at 84bpm). The bass emphasises a syncopated rhythmic snarl-up around every beat 3 that further pulls us back. (The same construction as the pattern from Funky Drummer) A lead guitar fragment provides a sonic link to the intro, while sitting way back on the beat. All this conveys physical effort – while the pitch-shifted snares evoke the metal clangs of hard labour. (Workin’.)
Guru picks up on the heavy drums with his vocal entry, calling back to jive and rock’n’roll: “Boom bash dash, I had to break I had to get away”. This verse is skilful storytelling – check the emotional kick of these slightly unexpected juxtapositions: “Kissed my mother, gave my pops a pound/Then he hugged me, and then he turned around” (sentimental, cool, sincere, cold). Throughout the verse Guru trickily shifts point of view. The final phrases “last of my loot” and “if I stay I’ll go crazy” reinforce the urgency of the opening line and the conflict driving the plot.
The song’s chorus is an incredibly dense field of references. I’ll take them at a run. The first line states the main theme. “I’m gonna make it goddamnit/Out in B R double-O K lyn, The Planet/They never fake it just slam it/Out in B R O O K lyn The Planet.” Guru spells out his adopted home town in a traditional technique, forming a tasty rhythm. The song title comes up carrying paradoxical meanings: Brooklyn is of world-wide renown, or Brooklyn is just a tiny part of the whole world, or Brooklyn is a world unto itself, or Brooklyn represents the planet and all human existence. Multiplicity of meanings is central to Signifyin(g).
Premier’s scratching in the chorus goes deep. His first scratch is a rap fragment of Divine Force’s “Holy War“, with the words “From Medina that is Brooklyn”. Medina is a holy city in Islam, a religion Guru sympathised with. So Premier’s sample suggests a spiritual side to the material struggle. Next he cuts a Brooklyn-repping line from an earlier Gang Starr release – a characteristic gesture of continuity and riffing on tropes. Finally, we get a clue as to the song title: a line from MC Lyte’s “Lyte As A Rock“, “And now, directly from the planet [of Brooklyn]”. The last two words are cut off, a coded reference that would’ve been harder to break before whosampled.com.
The second verse tells of more hardship, “sick and tired”, “paying all these fucked up dues”, “I wasn’t happy”, “East New York is no joke”. The narrator is struggling to succeed. Standard rap tropes appear: nostalgia and boasting of multiple girlfriends. The last line before the chorus connects work with ambition: “Seconds away from just quitting/But fuck it I’ll maintain, one day I’ll be hitting.”
In the final, tense verse, the narrator achieves some independence, “I got my own place in Bed Stuy”, creating a simple three-act structure. More placenames, “Malcolm X Boulevard and Gates avenue”, show Gang Starr’s dedication to their particular locality. Against that, remember that this is a song about moving away from home, with a title emphasising universality. I think this shows the “creative tension between locality and dissemination, rootedness and displacement” that characterises the Atlantic African diaspora, according to Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic“.
We’re getting near the end! Verse three mentions haircuts, deals, dates, getting high… everyday reality in Guru’s Brooklyn. It has one of (I think) only two uses of the word “bitch” on this album: “Then I stepped, cause I found out about her rep/And I ain’t going out being no bitch’s pet”. I could say that the speaker is expressing anger at being humiliated, and that the woman in question is referred to indirectly (he’s not speaking to her), but all the same I don’t like it. However, it’s a world away from Snoop Dogg or LL Cool J. (The other “bitch” is in a threat addressed to a man, on “Suckaz Need Bodyguards”.)
The last four lines are masterful. Once again, the mother character signifies emotion, and once again this emotion is used as a springboard for powerful images. “Sometimes I used to miss my moms/Gunshots in the twilight, people fighting every night”. The unexpectedly naive rhyme scheme adds poignancy to the young man’s fear. And now we get to the master-level stuff. The unusual off-beat “-ight” rhymes continue, but their meaning is flipped from fearful darkness to security – “be aight” – and then the creative activity that brings Guru security: “writing”. “But I’ma be aight still/Cause I’ma keep writing shit and perfecting my skills.” Achieving success (security) is tied to the underlying theme – work. Meanwhile the end-rhymes return with: “still” and “skills”, representing as clear as day the theme of continual process. The dual images of “gunshots” and “fighting” are paralleled with “writing” and “perfecting” – implying that hip hop can replace violence with creativity. And slang evokes the black street culture that has upheld the entire story. It’s so good it brings tears to my eyes!
After one more chorus, Premier quickly strips back the beat, revealing the sampled elements in a last processual gesture, and leaves the song title echoing.
“The Planet” is the most heartfelt track on the album. For me, it’s an incredible demonstration of how to embody values in music. Gang Starr leave no doubt that they’re “doin’ it”. And as a final thought to chew on, the story of escaping hardship by moving to the city to be your own master seems to me a reflection of the whole history of secular black music.
Thanks for reading my first proper post, please comment, especially if you can correct or improve it somehow. “Stay tuned“!
Okay time to get this off the ground. This will be a blog about my favourite music, and about ideas for composing and improvising. I noticed long ago almost all my favourite music is linked to African-American traditions. But there are complexities around being a white Irishman writing about “black music”.
So, some quick disclaimers. There are other musicians and experts who know more than me about everything I’ll talk about. (I play and compose, and have a masters in Jazz Bass from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.) My interest in African-American culture fits in a long lineage of contacts and appropriations that range from the naive to the problematic. But good things can come out of this lineage, e.g. the writing of Jeff Titon., or the music of Alan Wilson. So I’ll aim high and try to be critical, “Be alert and beware.”
Comment if you have any suggestions, or anything else to say.
Onto the good stuff.
After having so much fun with my band’s blog (Glitchpuke) and with summer 2015 stretching ahead of me now that I’ve finished my Master of Music in jazz bass in the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, I’m registering this name for either a personal blog or the chronicle of a new band called Drum Chant… time will tell! The Glitchpuke blog will continue to focus on the activities of my favourite subversive free improv trio.