Mr. P.C.

I  transcribed this oft-played track because I was curious what notes bassist Paul Chambers plays over the long stretches of minor chords. I also wondered what he played under the rhythm section hits in the statements of the melody. I was in for a few surprises on this one! Let the analysis begin…

(You can read my transcription here.)

“Mr. P.C.” is a super common jam session tune, and in jams I’ve always heard bass players double the C Bb C hook from the melody. In this original recording, we definitely hear the piano emphasise these hits, with C- G- C- triads as correctly indicated in the New Real Book 2 chart (bars 3, 7, 11).

Real Book 2 Cropped
The commonly-used New Real Book 2 chart

But Chambers doesn’t play the rhythm or chords – instead he walks, ending up with an Eb or an A underneath the melody’s Bb. (In fact, he walks steady quarter notes for the entire 7 minutes of the tune – no syncopations until the ending phrase. There’s a relentlessness that I admire in that musical decision.)

The presentation of the head melody at the start of Mr. P.C., played by Coltrane and Chambers (piano and drums not transcribed). Note Chambers ignoring the hits in bars 3, 7, 15 and 19.

One thing that stuck out was the harmony Chambers implies with his lines. In bar 2 of every 12-bar chorus, he outlines a fast IV- V7 or II-7b5 V7 (same thing with different root note) progression. Tommy Flanagan generally plays at least the V7 of that progression also.

So, whatever about what people play in jam sessions today, the basic chord progression implied by bass and piano in the original recording is like:

This still isn’t what the piano actually plays – Tommy Flanagan keeps up a stream of comping stabs with voice movement at the twice-a-bar rate, in the syncopated rhythmic shapes which Ethan Iverson has called “clave sentences” (referring I suppose to their dynamic balance and their ability to close off/demarcate phrases), which is the standard bop/post-bop piano sound of course.

So, the chords in the chart represent how musicians would describe the tune to each other in words, even though that description only a skeleton for the idiomatically correct performance (which involves those denser, improvised chord movements). The skeletal chord progression is what Vijay Iyer would call, quoting Paul Gilroy, a “radically unfinished form”, requiring improvisation to become complete in the moment of performance.

Anyway, I’m all out of piano knowledge, so back to Chambers’ bass-playing. Continuing a trend towards strictness and simplicity, his V7 chords are typically outlined with an unaltered triad or with this distinctive shape and its variation:

V7 Lines.png
Chambers doesn’t use altered tones on his V7 chords (even though Flanagan freely uses a #5 alteration). Chambers also doesn’t use the tritone substitution of the V7 – there are almost no Dbs in his whole performance (and those that occur are an idiomatic descent from IV-, not dominant cadences). Finally, he almost never doubles up his quarter notes, i.e. playing a tone twice in a row.

Paul Chambers is renowned to this day for his sense of swing. The jazz critic Martin Williams once wrote that “a handy explanation of ‘swing’ might be ‘any two successive notes played by Paul Chambers’. One aspect of this, which was pointed out to us in my undergrad days by bassist and educator Ronan Guilfoyle, is that Chambers often plays ahead of the beat. In Mr. P.C. this extends to actually pushing the tempo after John Coltrane’s solo finishes at 3:20. I think this was to compensate for two things: the tempo had sagged a little, and also the exit of the sax caused a drop in intensity.

This transcription (which you can read in full here) reminded me that formal exactness isn’t generally what makes improvised music great – what works in the moment and in the social reality of the band is just as important. For example Chambers’ F note in bar 85 (at the top of the form) is an odd choice, unless we note that Coltrane was wailing on an F note at that moment (1:18) and Chambers was reacting to it.

Another thing that the Williams quote indirectly points towards: “any two successive notes” in Chambers’ lines are never just “any two” notes, but follow a flawless sense of harmonic function, melody, and directionality/momentum.

The melody of the line is smooth and melodic and catchy. There’s controlled chromaticism with clear targets. (The area between the C above the staff and the F above that, in this and other performances I’ve checked out, receives quite a bit of wandering chromaticism on the G string, but I think this is a conscious tension-creating effect that perhaps exploits a potential for melodic connection with the soloist when in the bass’ medium-high register.) The technique of having the same note on beat 1 and beat 4 is often used to provide propulsion (because it makes explicit the tendency for stepwise movement of successive “beat 1s”) and gentle syncopation (it functions as a perceptual accent of beats 1 and 4). Maintaining a direction of movement is privileged, without compromising on the need for chord tones on the strong beats 1 and 3. Inversions are used to maintain smoothness. (Although deeper use of inversions is found in Chambers’ major-key performances that go through more chords and circle-of-fifths movement).

Pretty importantly, the use of that V7 chord in bar 2 of each chorus keeps things very grounded. Out of 32 choruses where bar 3 is played by the bass (leaving out 4 choruses where he stops for drum trades), Chambers plays a C root 25 times (otherwise an Eb) on beat 1 of the bar. So, the question I started out with, what does Chambers play on long stretches of minor chords, will have to wait till I finish my transcription of “So What”, the tune Chambers wrote specifically to feature long minor chords. “Mr. P.C.”, as originally played, instead uses basic cadences spelled out quite strictly, to maintain momentum bar-by-bar.

I once wrote in my practice diary about “this weird feeling that Paul Chambers is playing blues on his bass all the time, with intonation, chromatic circling, and repeated ideas.” Of course, this song is itself a blues number, but that feeling for me exudes from all of Chambers’ performances. I would describe it as a dank, slippery, urgent quality. It’s a kind of hidden blues aesthetic – the note choices are not stereotypically bluesy, but Chambers’ style feeds off aspects of blues – raw chromatic approach, chromatic fill-in patterns, and not always prioritising intonation (for example in this performance, many of the C tonic notes are flat – probably just the A string is out of tune, but if anything it fits with the feel of the performance, I think).

One thing, however, about Chambers’ playing definitely fits with an old-school or blues approach, and that is his very comfortable relationship with repetition.

A Comfortable Relationship with Repetition

The main discovery for me in this transcription was how much Chambers repeats lines. To illustrate it, I augmented my transcription with a cheery colour-coded guide to his most-used two-bar (and one single-bar) patterns. Here goes:

Mr. P.C. 1 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 2 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 3 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 4 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 5 Labelled WalkupMr. P.C. 6 Labelled Walkup
These are only his most common repeated figures – there are others I haven’t mapped out. We could speculate as to reasons for this high degree of repetition:

  • the tempo is too fast be constantly thinking of new lines that still function well
  • it’s a minor key which, for acoustic reasons, is harmonically weaker and therefore restricts the use of inversion and reharmonisation
  • it might have just been Chambers’ aesthetic to “play good stuff”, a phrase I heard on the bandstand from my friend and colleague, the drummer Dominic Mullan. As I understood it, to “play good stuff” is to limit one’s desire to be expressive or showy, in favour of things that you know will be effective, thus creating headspace for groove and spiritual energy.

A couple more thoughts on repetition… it seems clear that Chambers often repeats material in two consecutive choruses, i.e. reusing what was recently under his fingers. Choruses 2 and 3, or 9 and 10 demonstrate this. Also, I think when he moves away from repetition, it’s to do with interacting with the soloist. For example, the end of Coltrane’s solo (which I think is quite clearly emotionally/dynamically telegraphed) inspires Chambers to push himself – this being after all a tune that Coltrane named in dedication to Paul Chambers – so we get the beautiful little melody of bars 204-207 (3:10), with no reused material.

Mellow Melody

Another impression I’ve picked up from studying Chambers, though it would take deeper study to really demonstrate it, is that he is strongly attuned to the soloist most of the time, and this often affects his line, for example that F tone he plays with Coltrane that I mentioned earlier. (One cool, and indeed telepathic example is the spontaneous harmonised blues lick (along with the trumpet) at 2:43 in the album version of “So What”).

Nearly time to wrap up here… some quick methodological notes on the highlighted visualisation of Chambers’ repetitions… I chose 2 bars as a minimum unit because at this fairly fast tempo I think it’s the unit that Chambers is working in conceptually. Sometimes I’ve used the highlighting for repetitions that are not exact but instead diverge somewhere… I’ve made a shorter highlight (say 7 rather than 8 beats) to acknowledge this. In all cases where I used the highlighting, I believe that an overall prototype has been reused even if one note is different.

I had a last issue to discuss, but this article is already long and has also been sitting on my hard drive for too many months. But you might like to comment regarding this question: should we as players copy P.C.’s style today? (Thanks to my pal and great bass player Damian Evans for this thought.)

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.

Encountering Some Trad

For the first time in my life I’ve been checking out some Irish traditional music. It’s something I know sweet nothing about. (Meaning you get a mercifully brief post today.)

So far I’ve really enjoyed it. I thought I’d give my jazz/bluesman’s thoughts on a couple of pieces I’ve worked on.

This all ties in with the awesome book I reviewed recently, van der Merwe’s Origins Of The Popular Style. After reading it I’m primed to find unexpected resemblances between Irish and African-American music. Van der Merwe opened my mind to how constant and complex interchanges between African, British and Irish cultures were the backdrop for the development of blues in the US. That book also put me in the mood for simple, modal melodies.

The first thing I liked about trad was that it’s dance music played with “metronomic” pulse, i.e. without the expressive tempo alterations of Western classical music. So, it grooves.

As well as that, I heard time feels that were triplet-based and exploited the flexibility of triplets. In jazz, a “swing 8ths” jazz feel can encompass placements of the off-beat varying from almost in the middle of the beat to right at the end. In a similarly physical way (by physical I mean deriving from the movements of playing the instrument), the different phrases of this piece lean differently against the steady beat, depending on how complex a figure is being fit into each beat (2 or 3 notes, or much more when trills and ornaments are used):

At this slow tempo, the piece has a ceremonial and martial feel befitting the title. The fanfare-like phrase at 0:20-0:25, and the overall use of a mixolydian mode, evokes “natural horn” instruments that can only play overtones of a single note.

(The King of Laois referred to, by the way, is the Irish nobleman Rory O’Moore who, after the violent destruction of his clan, led a rebellion against the English Crown in 1641.)

The mixolydian mode, distinguished from a major scale by its use of a flattened seventh note, is common in Irish trad. That flattened seventh, and in particular its use as a plaintive high note is common to blues, English folk song and Irish trad. You can hear it a 0:58 in this pretty tune by famous 70s Irish folk band Planxty.

Notice how the accompanying chord is an F, bVII in the key of G major. The chord after is a C, the IV of the key, with an A melody note. The chord progression F C gives a more “modal” feeling than the other possibility, G7 C, which would be strongly “functional”.

I’m honestly completely ignorant as to the history of chordal accompaniment in this tradition. Nowadays it’s part of the standard trad session format. But it’s clear that the melodies are by far more important, and they’re what has come down the centuries. Not all of them are modal, though. This awesome little piece is clearly harmonically oriented.

Tying back to what I said earlier, again there are varieties of triplet feel: compare the percussive start of the phrase at 0:33 with the smoother triplet at 0:35. The former has the first two notes shortened and the third lengthened, while the latter is more rhythmically even. I won’t start pontificating about a style I’m ignorant of, but these kinds of subtleties clearly add to the lilt and groove of the tune. Nicely played, anonymous Youtube whistle guy.

But I was talking about harmony. The second strain at 0:22, for instance, sketches a clear I V I V harmony. Interestingly the cell outlining the first V chord starts with B, the 6th of the key and the 9th of the implied A7 (or A9) chord. Another interesting implication is the II- we hear from the low E at 0:07. Very simple stuff, of course. But clearly the writer understood basic chord progressions and upper structures. I can’t find info on Google but I’ve heard this tune is 200 years old.

It sounds silly to say, but in a way this music reminds me of bebop! Not in its mood or texture, but in its construction from blocks (typically either arpeggios or diatonic cells like 3 4 3 1 or 6 5 6 8), use of interspersed triplets and sixteenths (often generated by turns/trills) and outlining of syncopations by accenting notes (for example a high note) within a steady stream of swung notes.

Also, the “fractal” aspect that Steve Coleman finds in Charlie Parker’s music, whereby strongly melodic movements are found at different levels of scale, is present here: the first note of each bar could be isolated into a completely coherent melody of its own.

I enjoyed discovering these tunes. These days, I feel I’m homing in on my preferred melodic style after many, many years of believing that I would discover it in some advanced harmonic concept. Actually, it’s been under my nose all this time: I like modal melodies and melodies with simple, strong harmonic implications. This kind of thing, say:

Somehow, the idea that I should try write or work with the sort of melodies I enjoy or naturally sing has taken a long time to filter into my head! I think it’s almost impossible to go through jazz education without acquiring a prejudice in favour of complex or systematic melodies (i.e. derived from symmetry, synthetic scales, bitonality, or what-have-you). But at the end of the day, only your inner melodic ear – the part that responds natively to melody – can tell you what sounds good.

I’m not writing jazz at the moment, but I think when I return to it I’ll have a much stronger idea of what materials to work with than ever before.

Anyway! Hope you enjoyed my naive dip into Irish trad. Here I am trying to play “Pat Ward’s Jig”. I was pleased to find that all the hours I’ve spent in my life noodling blues lines meant that I was able to approximate some of the beautiful ornaments that characterise this style. (Of course, this is trifling compared to the art of a trad musician who has studied an entire system and aesthetic of ornamentation.)

And here’s the proper version I based mine on.

See you next time! Please comment if you’ve any thoughts, whether about Irish music or about developing and discovering your own melodic style.

Independence and Improvising

Today I’m returning to some ideas from this piece. I look at how the ability to play two or more different parts at the same time, known as independence, might help with jazz soloing. My overall theme is the gestural side of improvisation – the movements we make on our instruments.

This is kind of opposed to the common harmonic/melodic idea of soloing which could be paraphrased as “consciously select notes to create new melodies that you can imagine singing.” The gestural approach is instead about letting your hands choose the notes for you.

This is fraught with the danger of playing stuff you didn’t mean to, as most students know too well. Why even investigate it?

Musical motion is, first and foremost, audible human motion.

Many sophisticated musical concepts develop as an extension of physical activities, such as walking, strumming, hitting, cutting, scratching […].

Those are some awesome quotes from Vijay Iyer’s “Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation”. They suggest that how musicians move around their instrument is a lot of what we enjoy in the African-American traditions of improvising.

For example, check out Jimmie Vaughan’s on a slow blues by the Fabulous Thunderbirds. (Vaughan and his brother Stevie Ray Vaughan immersed themselves in Dallas’ black music scene from their early teens. I think it shows in their music.)

I love the faint off-mic vocalisations that answer the solo at 0:03, 0:17 and 0:43 – someone was digging it!

Vaughan’s note choices are unremarkable. He expresses himself via time feel and a sophisticated repertoire of hand movements: bends, hesitations, vibrato, etc. His touch is phenomenal, for instance, the unexpectedly soft and gentle notes deftly placed in the middle of phrases at 0:07 and 0:11. (A tenderness befitting a track called “Full-Time Lover”. Check out the live versions on Youtube.)

Let’s move onto some jazz. Charlie Parker used much more sophisticated harmony than a blues guitarist. But I believe he similarly formed his improvisations by chaining together gestures – not guitar bends and pull-offs, but small cells, arpeggios and mordents. As we’ll see in his solo on “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”.

Solo Extract.png
Example of cell in bar 3, filling out the phrase and voice-leading smoothly

The harmony implied by this cell is the negative dominant resolution IV- to VI-, occurring 2 beats later (i.e. displaced) from where it would typically happen in a “Parker Blues” progression. But more important than the harmonic side, is the melodic strength and the effortlessly smooth insertion into a long fluid line.

My way of practising towards this gestural playing is to count the beats in the bar aloud as I play.

As I mentioned in my other post, this feels like untangling the melody from the lingual part of the mind. Anything not fully internalised will disturb the count, revealing how well you’ve learnt something.

This video shows a work in progress; the tempo is a good deal slower than Parker’s and I haven’t got Parker’s microtiming. This is a serious omission because his laid-back feel is a massive part of his artistry. But I’m still working towards being able to lay back while counting. The tendency is for the count to drag along with the notes.

This reminds me of a general question. When laying back consistently, should your foot tap the original pulse ahead of the laid-back playing? My current philosophy, considering drummers’ and pianists’ ability to have different microtiming in different limbs, is that it should. What do you think?

I want to have a quick look at some of the ways Parker uses those cells I mentioned. I think I’ll write a post about it after I study it properly.

In his head melody, solo, and in the head melody of “Blues For Alice”, Parker uses a 1 2 4 5 cell in bar 5 or 6 of the blues form – in each case, it resolves to a strong b3 tone.


Examples 2.png
1st two examples from “Relaxin’ At Camarillo”, 3rd from “Blues For Alice” (transposed to C)

This resolution shows that the cell has a powerful inherent directionality – it wants to go somewhere. The idea of knitting together a solo from rhythmic elaborations of these elementally simple and strong melodies, is beautiful to me. Other examples are: 1 2 3 4; #1 2 3 4; 2 3 4 5; and major seventh and minor seventh arpeggios.

Parker’s use of cells means there is subtle re-use of material from the head in his solo. In his second and last chorus, he starts a chromatic descent with 4 3, the signature notes of the melody’s first phrase. Bar 8 in the solos and head uses the cell 2 3 4 5. And the distinctive blues scale finish to the head melody is reflected in two strong affirmations of the tonic in the last two bars of both solo choruses.

Let’s move on to something I didn’t tackle in my last article on independence: improvising!

There are a few cool things that emerge from applying the counting exercise to improv. For one, it forces phrases not only to interact with the beat at all times, but particularly to finish with a strongly defined rhythm.

Secondly, the only way to avoid tripping up the count is to chain together familiar shapes. If I start thinking of particular notes or rhythmic details, I lose it. But thinking strictly in shapes (that have a set melody and rhythm) allows the imagination to make choices instantly about what sound to go for, opening up possibilities for forward planning and complex composite phrases. I suspect that high-level jazz players might have something like this in their heads when they play, and be able to sustain it without interruptions.

In this little solo, I try to use this internalised shape (taken from Parker’s 2nd solo chorus), which, if I didn’t have it in muscle memory, would certainly trip me up:

Solo Lick

Gesture-based playing can sound quite annoying, i.e. when someone busts the same lick for the third time that didn’t sound appropriate the first time. This is the danger I talked about at the start of the post. But I now believe the gestural approach is not the problem (because many of the greatest jazz players obviously made use of it). It’s the lack of awareness: not knowing what licks you use repeatedly or not checking that it’s actually an attractive melody.

Thanks for reading!

Vinnie Colaiuta
Vinnie Colaiuta’s take on independence


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!

Blue Monk

Today’s post is about the blues tracks on Thelonious Monk’s most famous album, Monk’s Dream. Though recorded on different days, they’re placed one after the other on the release, and actually sound almost like one piece that changes tempo mid-way. I want to investigate how these seemingly unambitious performances (built mostly from traditional vocabulary) form a powerful artistic statement.

Transcribed by Steve Lacy in 1960

One quote on this list of Monk’s advice to musicians, is “Don’t play those weird notes, play the melody!” And in “Five Spot Blues”, the first track I’ll look at, Monk does just this. His solo (which I’ll discuss more later) uses versions of this lick:


… around 15 times before going back to the theme, which is itself entirely built from 7 repetitions of the lick.

One really important thing about this lick, is that it is a finger pattern as much as a melody. The grace note or flam or crushed note (or whatever you want to name it) is a physical effect that’s kept in a player’s muscle memory. Effects like that are completely central to blues, but also bebop (e.g. Charlie Parker’s mordents). Vijay Iyer is the guy to read on this topic of “embodied” and “situated” knowledge: knowledge that only comes out when you touch your instrument.

Not only does Monk keep coming back to this lick in his improvisation, but even he even uses it to accompany the first solo, by tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

Five 1
Melody lick as answering phrase in bars 6, 7, 9 & 10

Why does Monk re-use the phrase so much? Obviously we can’t be sure. But my reaction to these two tracks is that Monk has an aesthetic of slow, smooth transitions happening behind the surface level of swinging rhythms and phrases. I intentionally call it transition, not static repetition or elaboration. There is strong directionality in these performances. Both tracks purposefully develop in texture and interaction (as we’ll see in a second).

Why might Monk favour such slow evolutions of density and rhythm? I suspect it’s a way to maintain the focus of his band and keep everyone on the same vibe. For example, the whole first chorus (1:45-2:02) of his solo on “Five Spot Blues” explores the original finger pattern for ten bars until the drummer’s rhythms settle down.

Notice how Dunlop’s syncopated hits in the first few bars give way to an almost cartoonishly simple quarter note pulse on the snare starting on bar 6 (1:52)… and only by bar 11 are things focused enough for Monk to move away from the lick and play a different phrase (1:59). Dunlop seems to acknowledge the theme of releasing tension with the kick-and-hat-splash hit that ends his snare quarter notes, and also with the roll at the end of the chorus, a standard punctuating gesture often used to end a solo – so it’s as if the first chorus of Monk’s improvisation is actually still winding down the sax solo.

(I didn’t try transcribe this… another aspect of finger/muscle/physical patterns is that they put the spotlight on microtiming. The result is that Monk’s rhythms here are close to unnotateable. They come from physical sensations and from the possibility of stretching out the pattern in time by modulating the gesture that produces it.)

Track 4 on the album, “Bolivar Blues”, shows how Monk moulds these slow transitions around the 12-bar blues form. Each 12-bar chorus, or even pair of choruses, has a distinctive texture:

Piano theme 1x
0:22 Theme 2x
1:06 Solo against trill 2x
1:50 Preaching against low chords
2:12 Preaching w/ lead line from piano
2:35 bluesy vocab featuring double time and eighth-note triplets 3x
3:37 Double time cool-down (3:49 voice movement)
3:58 Exuberant blues ideas (4:08 hint of quarter note triplets)
4:19 Quarter-note triplets 2x
5:00 Cluster chords 2x
5:41 Bass movement with a lot of space
6:01 Timbral harmonisations of bass movement
6:22 Timbral harmonisation of head
6:42 Head on sax 2x

A little more subtly, not only is the 12-bar form used as a building block, but the point of rest in bar 12 is used as an area to cue or connect to the following chorus.

0:39 & 1:01 The bass switches to 4 notes per bar for the end of each head

1:48 The sax plays a strong, bright swingy line, cueing the piano to take a back seat in the 3rd solo chorus

2:09 after a declamatory, preaching statement that resolved the blues form conclusively, there’s careful silence on beat 1 of bar 12 before Rouse takes up the mantle again with another bluesy shout

2:31 Rouse very clearly signals a switch to double time, and Dunlop plays some at the same time, which hints that this was a standard tactic for the band

2:53 Rouse plays a strong dark lick similar to his sign-off in “Five Spot Blues”, outlining a bII. Like at 2:09, this isn’t a cue but a confident inhabiting of the crucial bar 12

3:12 After a double time flurry, Rouse cues a switch of vibe with downhome riffing on the familiar blues scale

3:35 Rouse’s double time sign-off triggers Monk’s entire next chorus

4:58 Not a cue, but you can hear Frankie Dunlop struggle a bit with the time after he has heroically resisted the pull of Monk’s quarter-note triplets for two choruses… he is switching back into normal comping mode (instead of resisting) and he slips a tiny bit

5:26 This connection emerges not in bar 12 but just before bar 5… Monk brings in a bass-register movement that will develop into a riff of its own at 5:41

The importance of the final bar is actually just one instance of the importance of “weak bars” in jazz and other African-American music. I think I mentioned recently, that, as an enormous generalisation, African phrasing tends to target the downbeat, while European phrasing begins on the downbeat. This is perhaps why even-numbered bars in a form often get used for call and answer, breaks and cues/communication.

See how Monk’s melody for “Five Spot Blues” leaves bars 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 open for drum comments.


(That’s from this cool site…

To finish, here’s Charlie Rouse’s whole solo on “Five Spot” with a sketch of the drum and piano parts. Try reading along to see their interaction!

Five 1Five 4Five 3.pngFive 2.png

6 Bassline Strategies

I had the privilege recently of writing bass grooves for two awesome bands, Zaska and Mescalito. When I pondered over the lines I’d composed, I noticed certain techniques recurring. Today, I’ll briefly explain each technique. Plus I’ll link to a nice example of it in the reggae, funk, jazz or hip hop repertoire.

(If you want to hear the actual lines I wrote, come see Mescalito on March 24th in the Opium Rooms supporting Vernon Jane, or on April 14th in Sweeney’s, or see Zaska’s single release on April 23rd in the Sugar Club!)

1. Space

Silence can be one of the most attractive features of a cyclical bass groove. A gap, whether for half a beat or a full bar or more, lets other parts emerge, particularly drum hits. (Cutting off a bass note right on a snare backbeat is a cliche example.)

A short gap works as punctuation, giving the groove more of a shape, and therefore, it seems to me, more physical catchiness/danceability. For example, the “Stalag” riddim (which you may know as the groove for Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), here underpinning Tenor Saw‘s hit “Ring The Alarm”…


Strat 1 Stalag.png
The “Stalag” bassline

Here’s another awesome 1-beat-ish gap in a reggae groove (beat 3 in the 2nd bar):



Strat 2 Sly & Robbie
Robbie Shakespeare’s line on “Computer Malfunction”

Longer spaces have a call-and-answer effect, as in this afrobeat groove…


Strat 3 Soffry.png
Leaving space for call-and-response (I’m not certain that this is really where the 1 is, by the way…)

2. Funky Melodic Cells

Like any other musical part, a strong bassline should be melodic. In a funky context, though, the tendency is usually towards blues melody rather than diatonicism. Out of the pool of blues notes I discussed a while back, a few 3- or 4-note cells emerge that are by far the strongest for constructing basslines. For example, 1 2 b3, 1 6 b7, 5 6 8 9, and the definitive cell for funk basslines, 1 5 b7. A catchy hook (i.e. with an intriguing rhythm) made from one of these cells can easily be a strong enough bassline to carry a tune.


Strat 4 Holland.png
The opening bass riff on “Not For Nothing” uses the 1 6 b7 cell


Strat 12 Hunter
The basic groove (coming in around 0:32) played by Hunter on 8-string guitar, using the 1 5 b7 cell

Here’s an example of a hook-y bassline built off the 1 2 b3 cell followed by a sequenced, retrograded version (that is, the first three notes are then transposed up a fifth and reversed in order).


Strat 5 ACR
Slap riff from A Certain Ratio’s “Waterline” (0:21)

More important than the motivic derivation, though, is the space in every 2nd bar which is used for call-and-response (in the form of improvised fills). Check out that nasty double-tracked slap sound too.


Another important aspect of that line is the clear direction of movement – up and then down, quite simply. A clear, uncomplicated contour like that strengthens the riff. For instance, the ascending bassline off the classic Scofield/Metheny collaboration…

Strat 6 Swallow.png
The A section groove for “Everybody’s Party”, with an ascending contour in each bar

As an aside, I would bet that this groove and the Dave Holland groove were both originally notated using 8th notes where I have 16th notes. Jazz musicians like reading 8th notes. It’s purely a notation decision with little or no musical impact, but I think 16ths are a more accurate reflection.

Octave Jumps

Steve Swallow’s bassline ascends a minor pentatonic scale before jumping from the b7 (Eb) back down to the root (F). We can imagine a variation of the where the scalar ascent continued, so instead of a jump down a minor 7th we would have a step-wise movement to the higher F:

Strat 7 No Displacement
Steve Swallow’s groove without the octave displacement at bar 2

The played line uses octave displacement of what would otherwise be step-wise movement. Another example of this is Marcus Miller’s nifty elaboration of the classic “Red Baron” groove (composed originally by Billy Cobham).


Strat 8 MIller.png
Octave displacement of step-wise movement

The Meters’ “Funky Miracle”, here sampled by DJ Premier for an early Gang Starr track, features both a (pentatonic) stepwise melody and then its octave displacement.


Strat 9 Meters
Octave displacement of expected high Ab

Even simpler than octave displacement of step-wise movement, is a plain leap of an octave. This James Brown sample (1973’s “Blind Man Can See It”) has a downwards octave leap to the tonic note:

Strat 10 Brown
Sampled bassline used in “Funky Technician”

(Note also the clear contour and the use of space, albeit with the note ringing out rather than silence.)

Here’s an upwards octave leap from the IV note. (Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns’ “Four Play”, sampled by DJ Premier.)

Strat 11 Wesley.png
What a rugged groove! Premier’s sub-bass and scratching helps of course.

5. Circularity Via Pick-Up

Emphasising the cyclic nature of a groove creates a hypnotic, trancy effect. One way is to use a phrase that starts before beat one. I read somewhere that landing on, rather than starting from, the downbeat is a characteristic of African-derived music. That’s surely a huge generalisation, but it does tie in well to how bebop improvisation and alternate paths are based on directionality towards target chords.

Starting basslines on a pickup in this way is not a very common technique, but here’s a nice example:


Strat 13 Headhunters.png
Paul Jackson’s line on “God Make Me Funky” (drops around 0:50)

6. Circularity Via Dynamic Balance

This is a concept I picked up from Steve Coleman’s writings, but I’m not at all qualified to say much about it. As I see it, it’s a characteristic of African-derived rhythms such as clave… basically, the quality of having points of rest alternating with points of tension in a syncopated rhythmic cycle, producing forward motion (“dynamic”) and also a self-contained, universal circularity (“balance”). Hmmm, my prose is not really up to the task here! Anyway, do we find clave-like rhythms in the funk repertoire? Of course we do, in these classic basslines:


Gonna sign off here! Hope you picked up some groove wisdom from all of that. Like, follow and share!

History Of A Passing Chord

Today I’m investigating variations of a parallel chord movement targeting bar 9 of a 12-bar blues: III- bIII- II-. I think it’s been somewhat written out of history. Although I am just a bass player, I’ll talk a bit about harmonisations of the movement, and finally look at some melodic inventions over it.

I’ll start with Satchmo. “West End Blues” (1928) is harmonically old-fashioned by our standards, with two bars of V7 at bars 9 and 10. Although there are hints of the III- bIII- II- movement at 1:10 and 1:46, it only emerges fully in Earl Hine’s piano chorus (1:59). From bar 8 of an Eb blues he plays:


Although he plays some extra weird bass notes (like E to F#), we can discern a chord progression: I VII7/#II II-, very similar to the better-known I bIIIo7 II-. How does this relate to my III- bIII- II-? They all share this parallel shift of a minor 3rd:

Passing 1 3rds.png
In the key of C

Does this mean anything? Well, I suggest you play just that minor 3rd shift in that spot (last 2 beats or last 4 beats before bar 9) of a blues. It sounds extremely bluesy and, as best I can express it, world-weary. Voice-leading-wise, it can land on the 1st and b3rd of a II- but equally the 5th and b7th of a V7. It’s parallel movement, which, as I suggest in this post, harks back to blues’ basis in overtones, which always move in parallel.


More evidence, please! you demand. Let’s look at recordings from two Delta bluesmen.

Skip James uses the chromatic minor 3rds in “Yola My Blues Away” (1931). This amazing song is in his characteristic open D minor tuning. It’s an unusual elaboration of a 12-bar blues, with a V7 on bar 2 and a bVI on bar 6. In the lyrics verses, the V7 is substituted by a bVII targeted with our parallel minor 3rds, e.g. at 0:35 after “in the morning”.

Passing 2 Skip
We’re getting away from my theme here, but out of interest… Skip James’ “Special Rider” uses a similar coloration but with a V root note. I think Skip James used this combined V- and bVII sound as a single modal area with vocal melody influenced by both I and V blues scales, not easily translatable to Western or jazz harmony.

In Robert Johnson’s slicker, almost pop idiom, we also find III bIII II, in his case as a bassline targeting a standard V7 on bar 9. (“Malted Milk” was recorded in 1937.) Actually, it’s not a bassline – the tune mostly doesn’t use bass notes – but rather a single-line movement to the 5th of a V7 which then uses a low open A string as a strong bass note. You can perhaps see what I mean better if I notate it:

Passing 3 Johnson
Okay so we’ve seen the movement in early jazz and early(ish) blues. What about performers straddling that border? Nat King Cole’s lovely “Easy Listening Blues” (1944) is a great jazzy instrumental blues, that features the III bIII II movement from piano, bass and guitar – but at different speeds, leading to clashes.

Check out 2:16 – the guitar and bass imply the movement over the last two beats of the bar, but Cole gives two beats of the bar to III- and bIII- respectively (using some syncopation). A similar thing happens in the first chorus between bass and piano at 0:23. Are the clashes a bad thing? Not at all in my opinion. We’re merely seeing the dominance of directionality – as long as the paths converge on the same goal, it’s fine to use different paths or the same path at different speeds. The moments of tension are a consequence of three players navigating the form together, and contribute to the blue feeling of the piece. Note as well that Cole plays |II-7 V7|II7 V7 |, similar to Earl Hines’ progression, with a tasty inner voice movement to #4 during the II7.

Charles Brown’s classic “Driftin’ Blues” (1945) is harmonically simpler. Here the whole band agrees on a one-chord-per-beat III- bIII- movement targeting II-, for example at 1:46, in the 2nd chorus of guitar solo. Even soloist Johnny Moore outlines the movement. He superimposes some really hip clusters in the rest of the song, for example the descending idea at 2:09, or this outside, but very bluesy, superimposition of 9th chord upper structures on top of the bass’s III bIII II movement.

Passing 4 Charles
Top staff chord symbols show guitar’s implied harmony, bottom staff piano/bass’s implied harmony

Note the trickiness: the chromatic movement seems like it will land on A9, not the usual chord but one with a strong blues identity and also somewhat related to the expected F#-7 subdominant (A6)… in any case, instead of A9 the third chord leaps to form the upper structure of an F-6!

Moore also uses the exact same basic descending minor 3rds idea we’ve been finding all along as an approach to an implied V-7 (II chord of IV) in bar 4 of the blues form, at 1:30.

Both of these performances, as well navigating the form with elegance, navigate the idioms of jazz and blues with ease. Nat King Cole uses grace notes and drone notes to create blues effects in the lead while using sophisticated harmony below. Charles Brown contrasts simple minor pentatonic fills with Johnny Moore’s hipper guitar (which still depends strongly on ultimately African-influenced parallelism/timbralism)!

Okay I want to finish now with some classic Charlie Parker blues to show how the III- bIII- II- movement worked in bebop. Our first example has Dizzy Gillespie playing a literal A-7 Ab-7 G-7 every single time on bar 9 of the form! The bass player gets it after the first chorus.

Finally, a composition whose progression is now named after Parker… but we know now that the A-7 to Ab-7 to G-7 movement has a long history. Parker takes the III- bIII- II- progression that we’ve previously seen at the rate of two beats or one beat per chord, and gives four beats to each chord. (On the recording, they’re not played as II Vs by the pianist).


Passing 8 BFA Chords.png
Harmonic sketch of “Blues For Alice”

Check Parker’s melody in the head and in the first two choruses of his solo on bars 7-8:


He doesn’t sequence downwards or baldly state the chords. His solutions are far more melodic, guided by diatonic-ish intervals and simple guide tone movements. To my ear, the one in the head seems to imply a negative dominant resolution to V (so, Ab- to C), the next one implies a negative dominant resolution to II- (A- C- to G-) and the next a different minor 3rd colour switch from A- to A major (or F#-) before settling as an Ab-9.

I’d love to hear about your own ways of navigating the blues form! Sorry for the late post and see you next weekend!

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!

Post-Dubstep Aesthetics

I’m taking a stylistic leap today to look at David Kennedy aka Ramadanman aka Pearson Sound, a visionary UK dubstep/house producer who came up around 2010.

His music shares the obsessions of this blog: timbre and syncopated rhythm. But obviously it’s quite removed from Delta blues or bebop where I’ve previously found those qualities. Kennedy doesn’t focus much on the overtones of a human voice or guitar string, but rather on digitally manipulated drum sounds. He’s not turning syncopations into improvisational melodies, but rather layered, interlocking drum parts.

So, today I’ll explore the techniques (sampling and digital effects) and structuring of Kennedy’s 2011 track, Don’t Change For Me. Then I’ll argue that the concepts he uses – emotional distance, physicality, coolness via disguised or seemingly thrown-away emotional peaks – connect deeply to African Diaspora aesthetics found in blues, hip hop and jazz. Kennedy is a white Englishman in his 20s, but has a long-time fascination with New York hip hop as well as black London-based artists like Dizzee Rascal and LTJ Bukem, representatives of a British Afro-Carribean musical lineage rooted in Jamaica.

Kennedy’s sound is built from chopped up from vocal and drum performances. In both cases the sampling process leaves obvious traces. The vocals become lyrically unintelligible. The drum sounds are highly coloured by the loud cymbal and resonating drum kit in the original break, whose tones remain in the chopped kick and snare hits. This is the classic sound of jungle music. The most-used sample in jungle is the ‘Amen’ break, but “Don’t Change…” uses one of the ‘Think’ breaks from Lyn Collins’ “Think“. (Thanks to Chris Guilfoyle aka Exit Introvert for his knowledge!)

Further colouration comes from pitch shifting the samples. At 0:56 all the drum sounds are subjected to a cool upwards pitch bend, and I think all the vocal samples (starting at 1:38) are sped up a bit.

Kennedy’s main sound-sculpting tool is a foundational technique of dance music: resonant filtering. He often uses it to create transitions, for instance at 1:36 where the drums are muffled for the vocal entry, or during the fade-out where different layers each get their own low-pass filter settings (so that, e.g. the snares are much more dampened than the hats at 4:50). A very clear musical use of different filter settings is the intro to Kennedy’s “Quivver“. Or, in his awesome “Blimey“, a high-pass filter with ascending cut-off frequency is used as a structural gesture to clear away the beat at 3:13. I use the word “gesture” because filter manipulations don’t have musical information like a melody or drum groove does – instead their meaning is in where, when and how they are used, just like pointing or waving your hand.

Kennedy has made a signature sound out of combining filtering and delays. The knocking, clacking percussion in “Don’t Change…” from 0:05 is, I suspect, made by filtering delayed echoes of the original high hat pulse; at 0:53 the snare hit is echoed in sixteenths with a descending filter cut-off frequency; at 4:50 a two-note snare drum rhythm echoes every 3 sixteenth notes while its filter resonance is manipulated to provide a timbral lead line for the outro. Both “Blanked“and “Untitled” start off with this signature combination of delay and filtering.

Like those songs, “Don’t Change For Me” uses delays to generate rhythms. At 0:28 a crunchy drum/cymbal sample is echoed in quarter notes, and at 0:46 a slap-back delay creates a flammed effect on the drums (as if each hit is quickly played twice). Together, the pitch shifts, delays and filter manipulations give a rather “live” feeling of a human consciousness influencing the music moment to moment.

The song’s is structured around layered drum loops at 137bpm. Each is quite simple, but they come together in pleasing ways. For example, the kick and cymbals are first apart, then together, then apart, in the first two bars.

2-Bar Drums Groupings

This two-bar length is the basic breath/cycle of the groove, with off-beat energy in the middle always resolving to the fat distorted kick sound on beat 1. The snares in the second bar form groups of 3 that target both the and of 3 (a classic snare placement in drum’n’bass) and the next bar’s distorted-kick downbeat. The overall groove is lurching and staggering, floating in the space between those downbeats – which I guess is how people would dance to it.

Kennedy is actually creating simulated physicalities: his percussion sounds simulate drums of various sizes and constructions; the occasional reverbs (e.g. 0:14 on the cymbals, or 1:10 on the snare) simulate reverberant rooms; the syncopated rhythms and their shuffly, intricate interplay simulate funky human movement. An acoustic virtual reality of morphing spaces and objects, for people to dance through. There is an intentional lack of melodic or lyrical content. The music is purposely incomplete unless the listener engages their body or at least their kinesthetic imagination. (Vijay Iyer is my inspiration for this idea.)

As well as making variations with filters etc., Kennedy avoids predictability with an elegant technique: the different parts have varying, (though all square) loop lengths:
2-bar cymbal and snare patterns, a 4-bar chord progression, an 8-bar vocal melody and kick drum pattern, and a 16-bar sub bass pattern.

Chords 1
The chord progression (approximate voicings) of “Don’t Change For Me”. The quarter note melody is barely audible but I’m pretty sure it’s in there.
Vocal melody.png
The chopped-vocals melody of “Don’t Change For Me”.

The kicks and sub bass patterns are created by slight variations between two halves – most obviously, the dotted-quarter-note sub bass in bar 15 which provides a satisfying release to the whole form.

16-bar drums
The 16-bar drum and sub bass form.

This 16-bar unit is used for almost all the sections: drums intro (0:42), chords (1:10), vocals (1:38), vocals w/ richer chords (2:06), bridge (2:36), vocals w/ “goblet drum-ish” percussion (3:04), etc. The only exceptions are some added bars at 2:34 and 4:00.

So we’ve looked at structure and techniques. Now for some aesthetics.

First thing to note is the coexistence of polished, abstract aspects with much rawer, more intense ones. This contrast is laid out in the intro, where clinical cymbal sounds undergo digital processing until suddenly distorted bass and slippery jungle snares kick in. Or at 2:36, soulful, bluesy vocal fragments are suddenly contrasted with an abstract rhythmic arpeggio pattern. Or, sonically, compare the wildness of the sub bass’ thudding triplets or groaning long notes to the airy, clean synth and reverb effects.

Questlove characterised black cool as “intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession”. We’ve noted rawness contained within polished structures in “Don’t Change…”. Kennedy ensures that when that intensity is glimpsed, it appears almost unintentional. One example is the sub bass pattern’s seeming arbitrariness. It’s almost like someone messing around, matching some kick drum hits and not others. (See the transcription above.) “Engagement masquerading as… disengagement”, in Questlove’s phrase. Then it strikes suddenly in bar 15 (remember this is meant to be heard on an enormous sound system). This pretend casualness giving way to maximum intensity is apparent in basketball ankle-breakers, for instance. David Kennedy uses it for the peak moment of “Don’t Change For Me” at 2:30-2:36.

All the hottest elements of tune are juxtaposed here: the dotted-quarters sub-bass variation, the sweet blues-scale trill that ends every 8 bars of vocals, and a once-off extra melody. This added melody slips in under the radar at 2:27 because Kennedy has already been adding octave-doubled notes to the chord sequence since 2:06 (they sound kind of like synth strings). He has got us used to the sound of adding voices, so we barely notice when the new, pretty tones appear at 2:27.

Chords Rich
Chord progression with extra line. Note the presence of seconds e.g. G-A in the first bar – the new line forms rather jazzy chord extensions. Again, approximate voicings.

But the really nice bit is at 2:34. Kennedy breaks his 16-bar drum/harmony pattern for an unexpected 1-bar break, which very simply continues the groups of six in the snares for three beats, then ends with a distorted bass thud on beat 4.

The break (last bar).

Meanwhile the beautiful bluesy trill continues to ring out over the lush final chord. But our attention is centred on the filtered, chewy, jingling, jungle-ish timbres of the drumline. To me, the message is “This music is basically about funky drums”. This is said via the (jazz-derived) gesture of the drum break. Then, without ceremony, we’re in a kind of “B section” stripped down to a tricky, syncopated minor arpeggiation, as the trill fades.

So, a lot of beautiful things happen in this short time – a once off melody, an awesome once-off break, a breaking of the rhythmic form, the prolongation of the song’s nicest sounds – but Kennedy defuses the drama by using only predictable elements and not breaking the flow (or introducing new information) in any of the lines. He’s pretending not to be doing much of anything. I think that’s precisely the camouflaging of one’s engagement that Questlove identified.

The vocals also have this camouflaged quality. Just as Kennedy’s drum timbres hark back nostalgically to jungle and rave, so the vocals are heavy with both soulful inflections and processing that recall emotive UK garage and house vocals. (The pitched-up sound contributes to this.) Kennedy mitigates this sentimentality by cutting the vocals up and using the bits as rhythmic stabs, so that the lyrics are unintelligible and the overwrought inflections appear in robotic stutters. Once again, raw emotion is contained by mechanical structures.

What’s the end result of all this? For me, it’s a deeply original style exhibiting technical mastery – but more importantly, this music both grooves (get on your feet and listen again if you don’t believe me) and has the emotional sophistication of nostalgic sounds affectionately subjected to ironic distancing, minimising and masking.

That’s all I’ve got today! Hope you liked this swerve into contemporary club grooves. Would really appreciate feedback on this one as I’m definitely not an expert in electronic music. Sorry for the late post and see you next Friday.