Some Of My Best Friends Are Syncopations

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.

Anthro Start Reduction Cropped
Isolating the accents of the opening phrase of Anthropology

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.

 

Anthro Bridge Blocks of 4 Cropped
The accents in the bridge of Anthropology are either on beats 1 or 3, or anticipating or delaying those beats

This is interesting because it reminds me of the highly swinging comping patterns pianists use, for example Wynton Kelly on Freddie Freeloader.

Freddie Freeloader Piano Cropped
Comping rhythms from 2:14 on Freddie Freeloader (1st two trumpet choruses)

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.

 

 

Confirmation A
1st A section of Confirmation

I found patterns at the one-bar scale, among the most common of which were:

 

3 3 Pattern
From bars 2, 6, 15, 22 & 30 of Confirmation
3 5 Pattern
From bars 9 & 10 of Billie’s Bounce

The pattern in Billie’s Bounce could also be interpreted as a grouping of 3 3 2, which is an archetypal syncopation.

 

3 3 2
3 3 2 grouping

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.

Last A of Confirmation Cropped
The last A section of Confirmation starts with this rhythm

 

 

 

 

3-4 of Anthropology
Bars 3-4 of Anthropology use this rhythm

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.

5-6 of Relaxin' Cropped
From bars 5-6 of Relaxin’ At Camarillo

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.

5-7 Billie's Bounce Cropped
Rhythmic voice-leading in bars 5-7 of Billie’s Bounce

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.

Anthropology 4 bars
Palindromic accents at the start of Anthropology: 4 3 4 3 3 3 4 3 4
Confirmation Start Palindrome
Palindromic accents at the start of Confirmation: 4 4 3 3 4 3 3 4 4

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!

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Loop The Loop

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.

Zoom Button
Zoom in!

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.

Matching
This amount of zoom is nice for identifying the waveform of a single hit

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.

Laid Back 2
Original & delayed end point

 

 

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.

8th Note Back
Shifting back by half a beat

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.

Zero Point
After a fade-out and a fade-in, the loop now ends and starts at zero

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.]

How To Make It Big

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“!

Intent

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.

Take It Personal

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.