Tag: syncopation

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.

Ellington’s Interlocking Riffs

Ellington’s Interlocking Riffs

I got into the 1956 album Duke Ellington At Newport while studying for my master’s last year. It’s a standout piece of work from one of the greats of 20th century music, but what seduced me about it were a few particular things – all kind of related to each other.

First up, it swings ferociously. Secondly, it’s a feast of colourful approaches to jazz-blues harmony and melody, avoiding typical bop techniques such as extended II V progressions. Lastly, and this is what I’ll talk about today, Ellington made great use of riffs that answer and stack onto each other in a funky way.

I call it “interlocking” when two syncopated rhythms are played together, so that notes from one phrase surround notes from the other, or hit at the same time. This sound, of two rhythms weaving in and out of each other, reminds me of moving parts of a machine intermeshing.

(Not that Ellington’s music is in any way mechanical. Did you know he used to tell his drummers to play with “more sex”? Read more great quotes in Ethan Iverson’s excellent post.)

One practical application for any of these riffs, by the way, is small band comping. Few things heat up a jazz blues more than holding down a classic riff behind a solo.

For any readers with a non-jazz musical background…. I’m using “riff” with a slightly different meaning to a typical rock riff that shifts around with the chord changes. These jazz-blues riffs tend to stay fixed in the key of the piece even while the chords change beneath them, repeating 3 or 6 times in the 12-bar form with little or no change.

Okay, let’s investigate this “interlocking” thing.

Newport 0 52 Pno & Clarinet
Interlocking piano (bottom staff) and clarinet (top) riffs from “Festival Junction” off Duke Ellington At Newport

At 0:52 in the album’s first track, “Festival Junction”, a piano riff interlocks with a clarinet riff. Each has a strong identity. The 2-bar piano riff (which actually does follow the chords like a rock riff) is minimalist, three 8th notes descending two fifths, repeated three beats later. The clarinet riff lasts 4 bars, with a distinctive rhythmic shape and colourful chromatic notes, a high 9th tone, and blues b3rd ending. These interlocking riffs have a strong feeling of call and response. Both riffs have a first phrase and an answering phrase, and the piano line sounds like it’s answering each of the clarinet phrases. But that’s not the whole story. The instruments don’t just answer each other. Instead, there are varied linkages between the two parts: notes an 8th note apart, notes that are together, and notes in one part fitting between notes in the other part.

Pno Clarinet Techniques
Different ways the riffs lock together

There’s a particular funkiness in having accented notes in different parts close against each other. It pushes the musicians to accurately feel the same subdivision and microtiming. I first noticed this technique in the vocal parts in George Clinton’s “Give Up The Funk”. Check how the “we” of “Aw we” at 0:37 comes in a 16th before every other part including the main vocal.

The 2nd pair of interlocking riffs I’ll look at is 2:02. The saxes are playing a beefed up version of what was the clarinet riff. (Unfortunately, my knowledge of arranging isn’t enough to properly transcribe what’s happening – this is an incomplete sketch.) Against this, the brass plays a really funky answering line with bluesy Gbs on top.

Newport 2 02 Sax & Brass.png
Saxes on bottom staff, brass top

I really enjoy the gesture of taking the familiar (clarinet) line and kicking it up against a new riff, as if to see how it fares. For me, this is an emotion common to all groove music: unleashing a groove or element of a groove. A classic example is the hip hop snare drop. Techno also uses this feeling when a new element enters a minimal, repetitive groove. The meaning of all these gestures, for me, is something along the lines of “take that!”

What’s beautiful about how these riffs interlock, is all the ways the starts and endings of phrases relate to the opposing phrase. The sax line starts on the downbeat, one beat after the horns finish. The horn line starts an eighth note after the ending of the saxes’ first phrase, seeming to grow out of it. The saxes re-enter on a strong accent in the middle of the opposing phrase (on the and of 2), and then the horns *stop* on a strong accent in the saxes’ phrase (beat 4)! And then the horns fill out the last bar to connect us to the top of the whole shape.

Sax & Brass Techniques.png
Interrelated starts and endings of phrases

These rhythms, by the way, use the same syncopation techniques I wrote out about in this article. Check out the 2:3 clave and the groups of 3 discernible in our current example. My point is, these interlocking riffs are using normal, bread-and-butter syncopations.

Groups of 3 & Clave
Groups of 3 and a 2:3 son clave

Okay, so this album quickly goes from “beyond Kevin’s ability to transcribe” to “way beyond Kevin’s ability to transcribe”. But here’s a (very, very) rough sketch of a 3rd interlocking which also uses groups of 3. Very distinctively, in fact. Unlike the previous riffs, this is a transition and doesn’t loop. It happens at 38:40.

Newport 38 40 Groups of 3
Baritone sax on bottom staff, rest of horns above



The interlocking in bars 3-4 is on one hand, simpler than we’ve had before, because there are no overlaps, just a 3/8 cycle of two high notes and one bass note.

However, this effect is also more exotic and in-your-face than the other riffs – there’s no escaping those groups of 3 played by the entire band. It’s a strong gesture, and the note choices are gestural too: a descending line, an ascending line, and a static bassline. (Sorry about my lack of instrumentation knowledge!)

There is no end to what could be learnt from this album alone, but that’s all I can do today. Hopefully I can revisit Ellington’s music soon. If you want to read more about him, how about Darcy James Argue’s piece or Ethan Iverson’s?

Please share this post and feel free to write a comment! Let me know if I’ve mis-heard anything in the transcriptions, or if you’ve any thought on how to develop these ideas for writing or improvising. I also like feedback from the non-musicians in the house!

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 2

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 2

In the first part of this series, I defined “maximally even” rhythms. I explored what could be done with one such rhythm, the 3 3 2 grouping or “Cuban triplet”: warping it into 3:2, using different modes (different placements against the downbeat, also called rotations), and creating larger patterns from it. I also went into detail on the mathematical nature of the rhythm.


This formula gives the total amount of notes and the amount of inner groups for all the divisions I’ll discuss, including the Cuban triplet.

x = 8
8/((8/2)-1) = 8/(4-1) = 8/3 (Cuban triplet groups 8 units into 3 sections)

The satisfactory divisions obtained from this formula require x to be a multiple of 4. So today we’ll be looking at:

x = 12
Division: 12/5 (6/8 clave groups 12 units into 5 sections)

x = 16
Division: 16/7 (Partido alto groups 16 units into 7 sections)

x = 20
Division: 20/9 (20 units grouped in 9 sections)

Sorry about all the numbers. Let’s start with 12/5. It has two deceptively similar solutions, one of which, 2 2 2 3 3, is lopsided because all the short notes are clumped together (and so the long ones are too, at the end). Better to intersperse the 2s and 3s, arriving at the maximally even solution: 2 3 2 2 3.

ME 1 6 8
Sectioning 12 8th notes (two bars of 6/8 time) into 5 maximally even groups

This rhythm is known to jazz musicians as 3:2 6/8 Afro-Cuban clave. The most important word there is “clave” meaning “key” rhythm of Cuban music. This rhythm can be traced back to West Africa where it is a hugely important structure in many complex drumming/dancing/music traditions. I know nothing about these, but articles like this show how musicologists have tried to describe them. Willie Anku is an important figure in this research.


6/8 clave can be warped from a triplet to a sixteenth grid (subdivision) to create son clave and rhumba clave. That is, the relationship of the attacks to the pulse is approximated using a new subdivision of each beat. So, notes that were on the beat (beats 1 and 4) stay on the beat.

M E 2 Warp Son
Warping (similar to quantising in a MIDI program) from 6/8 clave to son clave
M E 3 Warp Rhy.png
From 6/8 clave to son clave

Rhumba clave is closer to the 6/8 original than son clave, but this is only a mathematical detail – both versions are fundamental to Cuban music, with son clave’s more stable placement of the third attack proving crucial to how it is used. Son clave and rhumba clave, by the way, are also present in West African music. They are not maximally even divisions but they keep the strength of 6/8 clave, and indeed music built off them tends to strongly reference the triplet feel of the 6/8 clave and to warp between triplets and sixteenths.

Gerhard Kubik, who I quoted extensively in my blues discussion, pointed out that the presence of rhythms such as 6/8 clave anywhere in the world indicates a connection to Africa. This is because the mathematical nature of the pattern cannot be altered without it losing its (maximally even) properties. So, unlike words, gestures, melodies, lyrics, etc., these rhythms spread between cultures without changing in any way!

Actually I’m glad I pulled out my copy of Africa and the Blues to check that, because in it Kubik lists all the rhythms I’m discussing today as unambiguously African. His name for them is “asymmetric time-line patterns” – asymmetric because each rhythm breaks into two unequal halves, e.g. 3 and 5 for Cuban triplet or 5 and 7 for 6/8 clave.

M E 4 Asy.png

Okay, here’s a riff I’m working on at the moment with my band Mescalito, which has just reunited! (First gig on March 24th in the Opium Rooms, come on down!)

After composing the riff, I discovered that it is derived from a mode of 6/8 clave (actually its bell pattern version, bembe, where the 3s are filled in with (2 1)s), modulated into 3/4 (so 3 beats of 16ths rather than 4 beats of triplets). This modulation does not affect the cyclic strength of the pattern because it still comes back to the beat at the top of each cycle. There is no polyrhythmic off-and-then-on energy.

M E Riff 1.png
The numbers show where the original 6/8 clave fits over my riff

Let’s move on quickly to the last two rhythms in the series. The maximally even division of 16/7 comes out like this:

M E 5 Part
And this is a crucial rhythm in Afro-Brazilian music. It is called partido alto and can feature as a guitar comping pattern or as a guide for bass and drum accents. I detected a rotation of partido alto in another new Mescalito riff:


M E Riff 2.png
This is rotation shifts the rhythm earlier in time by one 16th – I mark where it starts with a nifty little arrow above.

Note how using mostly only two pitches mimics the low-high/kick-snare energy of a drum line. Also, one nice thing about this riff is the placement of the lower B notes. They form a neat clave-like syncopated rhythm of their own.

Partido alto can be simplified to a grouping of 6 5 5 by hitting only some of its notes.

M E 6 (5 5 6).png
Isolating a 5 5 6 rhythm in partido alto

5 5 6 is the maximally even solution of the division 16/3 – a very important result for techno, funk and other genres that might want to spread a motif three times over a bar of 4/4 in sixteenth notes. I often use it. It’s also the distinctive comping pattern of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va”, mapping out the first of each pair of hits.

M E 7 (5 5 6).png
Chord hits for Oye Como Va


Okay, to finish today’s post, let’s look at the last one in the series. I’ve never heard anyone play this rhythm, although Gerhard Kubik mentions it. I think it carries a lot of the balance and power of the others. It’s the maximally even division of 20/9.

M E 8 Quint.png

The 20 units can accommodate different pulses – this example uses a 4 beats of quintuplets.

But 5 beats of sixteenth notes is also possible.

What have we found in all the rhythms so far? They’re asymmetric, made of a pair of 3s separated by an odd number of 2s, and we’ve seen them all in a rotation in which the only beats landed on are 1 and 4. This relates to what Steve Coleman calls “dynamic balance”. All of these rhythms have points of rest and, at the opposite “pole” of the cycle, tension.  There is an elegant alternation of rest and tension that expresses itself in the forward motion of the rhythm.

Okay better sign off soon, though there are obviously many avenues opening up from this kind of analysis. One cool idea I want to explore more myself is creating new bell patterns by simply crashing together all or part of these rhythms. The new rhythms mightn’t be maximally even but they could retain the flow of the originals even in strange time signatures.

Last thing I’ll say is a warning. This kind of analysis is incredibly reductive because it leaves out the cultural/political/social/historical meanings of these musical structures. I’m not informed enough to deal with those, and I apologise for that! Actually, I intend to study Afro-Cuban music for a project I’m envisaging, based on exploring very large, interlocking rhythmic forms. Hopefully you’ll see some of that research in future posts (writing that should motivate me to do it!).

Thanks for reading! Please follow the blog if you like it!

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 1

Maximally Even Rhythms Part 1

Today I’m investigating the simple maths behind some of the deepest rhythms of groove music!

The notes of a looped rhythm can be imagined as dividing up the loop into sections.

Not Displaced
A 1-bar cycle, 6 8th notes in length, evenly divided into 3 groups of 2 8th notes’ length each.

(There is no distinguishing feature in this cycle that makes it 6/8, by the way… unlike the rhythms we’ll be focusing on later which do have a shape. This one could equally be in 4/4 or 1/4.)

This version does the same thing, except displaced an 8th note from the pulse.


This rhythm is even. Each of its 3 parts are equal in duration (2 8th notes). But, many divisions can’t be done evenly, for example dividing 8 8th notes into 3 sections.

In arithmetic, this division would either result in a fraction 8 / 3, with the value approx. 2.667, or need a remainder: 2 remainder 2.

ME 2 Even
Fraction: 3 groups, but the length of each group does not fit the 8th note subdivision.
ME 3 Remainder
Remainder: There are now 4 groups due to the need for a remainder of 2.

The only way to have three groups of whole 8th notes in this cycle is to have different-sized groups:

ME 4 224 125
Division of 8 notes into groups of 2 2 4 or 1 2 5

Other solutions would be 1 3 4 or 3 3 2 or 1 1 6.One of these mixed-sizes solutions has special properties, though. It is “maximally even”, meaning it’s the solution most similar to equal-sized groups. For divisions, like 8/3, that can’t be done evenly, the maximally even solution requires groupings of two different sizes. In this case, groupings of 2 and 3. So the maximally even solution to dividing 8 notes into 3 groups is…


ME 5 3 3 2
3 3 2 grouping AKA Cuban triplet AKA tresillo

It makes intuitive sense that the division most similar to 2.667 2.667 2.667 would involve a mixture of 2s and 3s – the whole numbers most similar to 2.667.

Is there anything musically special about this division? Well, yes. It is used almost universally in rock, pop, and dance music. Its closeness to the even division of 3:2 can confuse, and I’ve seen student musicians write down one while meaning the other. You can often hear rock, reggae or folk bands hesitate between these two rhythms, perhaps playing something between the two. More intentionally, Afro-Cuban musicians make use of this ambiguity regularly.

These examples show it’s possible to lean or warp between rhythms containing the same amount of notes per beat or bar, even if they have different subdivisions. This is because West African cultures view rhythms as divisions, not additions.

By contrast, Middle Eastern or Indian musicians would be more likely to view a Cuban triplet rhythm as a group of 3 units, followed by 3 units, followed by 2 units. That’s called additive rhythm because, conceptually, different groupings are added on to each other to form sequences. From an additive perspective, the analogue of a Cuban triplet in a triple subdivision would be use the same sequence: group of 3 notes, a group of 3, and a group of 2:

ME 6 Karnatic Style

From the West African perspective, though, the closest thing to a Cuban triplet in a triple subdivision would be the rhythm that divides 2 beats into 3 parts:

ME 1 3 over 2

So, whereas South Indian musicians excel at playing the same sequence at different speeds against a pulse (like the first example), African and African Diaspora musicians are adept at warping rhythms into a different subdivision, creating tension between the resemblance of the rhythmic shape (same average rate of notes) and the change in the flow of the subdivision (e.g. triplets feeling more rolling/circular than 16ths).

To move on: one important thing about every “maximally even” rhythm is that they are cyclical – there is no particular start or end. Like modes of a musical scale, any note can be imagined as the start of the pattern:

ME 7 3 Variants
Modes of the Cuban triplet: 3 3 2 (original), 3 2 3, 2 3 3

But unlike modes of a scale which must have a root note, cyclical rhythms needn’t have a note on beat 1, which opens up 5 more variations:

ME 8 5 Variants
5 modes of Cuban triplet that don’t land on 1.

As I unfortunately don’t have all week to write each weekly post here, I’m gonna spend the rest of today’s piece focusing only on these rhythms. In part 2 I’ll cover maximally even rhythms over 12, 16 and 20 notes, including Afro-Cuban, African and Brazilian rhythms. For now, let’s find applications for the variations of 3 3 2, and maybe make some general observations.

All of these rhythms are short, and so when I’m composing or improvising, I find they work well as a sort of basic pulsation within the groove. In a 16th-note-based style like say techno or hip hop, one or more of these rhythms can underlie all the other rhythmic activity.

In this song that my sister happened to play as I’m writing, the underlying cell is the Cuban triplet 3 3 2, but it is developed into 2-bar patterns by substituting two rests or two quarter notes.


ME 2 Fixed
Different rhythms in “Desire” with the times they enter

The third of those 2-bar patterns has been used in countless dance and pop-dance tunes.

In these contexts, the cymbal (and usually a 4/4 kick) provides a strong skeleton of 8th notes that the syncopated rhythms can interlock with. Interlocking is, I think, another essential component of groove music. It’s a rather large topic to try and define, but I would say that when two cyclical rhythms have some notes together and other notes a 16th note apart, they will feel interlocked. Here’s an example using a riff from my rock band, Mescalito.

Methuselah Riff
Interlocking rhythms. Notes that are together are indicated by the lines.

Onto the other variants; here’s a 3 2 3 division. This might be the least common of three variants that hit the downbeat. This example is by the Ben Prevo Band, with me on bass and Dominic Mullan playing the pattern on drums. The song is Ben Prevo’s composition, “An Udder Blue”.



ME 11 Prevo
The drum pattern on “An Udder Blue”

Check out how this example is over 4 beats of swung 8ths rather than 2 beats of straight 16ths – still 8 notes in all, divided into 3 groups. It’s important to be able to recognise fundamental rhythms no matter that they might be notated differently or felt with a half- or double-time pulse, or swung. The next example is also over 4 beats.


ME 12 Wilkinson
The basic accents of the drumline in “Too Close”

The main accents in this d’n’b tune’s drumline (0:47) are the 2 3 3 grouping, in 8th notes. But the drumline as a whole is filled with many 16th notes. So, the energy of the maximally even division operates on one frame (8ths) with other rhythmic information in a denser frame (16ths). Take a moment if you like to feel how those interact in the song. To me, there’s a floatiness caused by the powerful but slow 1-bar cycle of the 2 3 3 (which suggests a half-time feeling, actually, and is used by itself to introduce half time at 1:53) mixed with the twitchy intricacy of the 16ths.

There’s a basic transformation that can be applied to all the maximally even rhythms I’ll talk about today and in part 2. I think of it as making a “bell pattern” out of the rhythm, because it is the technique used to turn 6/8 clave into bembe, the Cuban 6/8 bell pattern. However this is probably confusing use of language as all of these rhythms can be played on a bell. A proper name for this rhythm is cinquillo. Quite simply, the 3s in the rhythm are filled in to become (2 1). So 3 3 2 becomes 2 1 2 1 2. This is also a maximally even division of 8 into 5 parts.

ME 13 Bell
Turning the Cuban triplet into cinquillo.

Notice that this is only one note off from being a 3:2 son clave.

ME 14 Son in 16ths
The only note different between the bell pattern and son clave (notated in 16ths)

We’ll see more of how maximally even rhythms can be transformed into each other in part 2.


In Megadeth’s new track “The Threat Is Real”, the kick drum line at 0:59 is the same as cinquillo: 2 1 2 2 1. (The guitar chug follows this line too, with one extra note where the snare hit is.)

ME 15 Megadeth
Drumline at 0:59 of “The Threat Is Real”

I won’t try hunt up examples of all the other variants, because I think you get the idea. The main conclusions we can draw are: these rhythms can exist at half or double speed against a given pulse or subdivision; they can be warped into similar rhythms in different subdivisions (even the swung 8ths rhythm above is arguably warping, from straight 8ths into a triplet grid); they can be constituents of longer patterns like the dance-pop bassline grouping 4 4 3 3 2; and they are a very rich source because they can be spun around in all their modes, filled out and interlocked with other rhythms.

To finish, here’s a spontaneously improvised maximally even division of 8 into 3 groups – one of those that doesn’t fall on beat 1. This is from a bootleg of Mescalito playing live a few years back. I’ve included the build-up because I like how the pattern slowly asserts itself in my bassline, fully emerging at 0:48. Like the d’n’b example, this pattern is in 8ths but the rest of the band play 16ths.


ME 16 Mescalito Improv
Improvised bassline off mode of cinquillo

Thanks for reading! I think next week I’ll get back to my discussion of negative dominants and alternate paths, but stay tuned for a part 2 of this article where I’ll get into more maximally even rhythms in meters up to 5/4. As always, feel free to comment below!

Circular Rhythm

Circular Rhythm

[Edit 28/04/16 – fixed the notation of the voice-leading exercise]

A few months ago I was jamming with a trio I’m in (featuring Dylan Lynch and Max Zaska) and I improvised a riff I really liked.

It felt really inviting to play over, and Dylan coined the term “circular rhythm” for how we were freely choosing different points to accent within the cycle, not at all constrained by the barlines. I knew vaguely that this was an African-inspired approach to rhythm, and that it felt really good.

Today I’ll investigate what gives any riff or vamp this inviting, cyclical grooviness. Then I’ll look at techniques for getting very rhythmically free on the riff while still “inhabiting” it. This metaphor of the improvising musician being inside a rhythmic of harmonic form comes from Anthony Braxton’s phrase “navigating the form”.

The first nice thing about the groove is that it is compatible with two distinct divisions of the beat: 8ths (2 possible note placements per beat) or 16ths (4 possible placements).

8ths 16ths.png
2 possible underlying subdivisions

To me, these have a very different feeling, with the 8ths being smoother, more elegant, perhaps more amenable to laying back and legato playing. When soloing, I could switch between the two feelings to change the mood. Here though I just demonstrate the two one after the other.

The next nice thing I discovered is that the groove is clearly divided in groups of 3 (mostly) – a feature shared with most of the drum chants in 7 I posted about a few weeks back.

Groups 3

To come to grips with this perspective, I made a drum chant outlining the groups.

Drum Chant

…and improvised slight variations on the riff while singing it. You can see by how I’m weaving my body around that I’m feeling the rolling, triplet-ish physicality of those groups of threes! Like with those 7/4 drum chants, it was really nice to feel rhythmic independence (as drummers would call it) between my voice and hands.

A really strong technique that works nicely with this riff is rhythmic voice-leading, which I discussed already in my post on Charlie Parker’s melodies. In this video I play a bunch of different groupings that voice-lead to (i.e. land/resolve on) accents in the original riff.

Voice Leading Fixed 28 04 16
What I played in the video – groupings targeting notes of the riff

While recording that I was finding it hard to resist using two  other techniques. The first is using triplets over a 16ths groove which I do in the video below at 0:15 and 0:38. I like this because it brings out the resemblance between broken 16th rhythms and triplet rhythms – in fact, it’s really nice to “warp” between the two, playing rhythms that are in-between 16ths and triplets (0:24, 0:32). This happens a lot in both Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music.


The other technique is to just displace the notes of the riff like I do at 0:09 or 0:19. The distinctive Ab G notes at the start of the riff are great for this because they are so recogniseable even in different placements. This reminds me of something I heard Vijay Iyer say about being able to displace the downbeats of complex rhythmic forms – not letting the material master you. (Though obviously this is a bigger challenge in music as complicated as his!)

Finally, here’s a fun exercise that was my original idea for this post. To really face the 3 energy inherent in the riff, I tap every 3/8 – a “dotted quarter note” pulse – while nonetheless feeling the music in 4/4.

That’s all for today. Think I’m gonna post on Saturdays from now on, I never seem to make Friday. At some stage soon I want to talk about the political and cultural questions around being a white European studying music derived from and associated with African American communities. Also I want to interview some of the black musicians active in Dublin. But next week will probably be about lyrics.

Leave comments, on Facebook or even better here. Cheers!


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!