Thursday, March 14, 2013

Swingin' and Compin' Part 2

This cat is swingin!
I recently posted an answer to a letter from one of my former students regarding swing rhythm and rubato comping for singers/bass players. While I like to write in this forum with a certain fraction of confidence based on having a little bit of experience over the years, I also enjoy exploring other viewpoints. A few jazz celebrities posted some alternative ideas on my facebook page, and I am hoping that these folks and I are cool enough that they won't mind if I re-post their thoughts.

The original question was as follows:

Could you remind me of what you told me when we talked about where the 'swing' feel came from
when phrasing 8th-note lines? Am I correct in thinking it comes from phrasing relatively straight while playing slightly behind the beat? 

My response was as follows:
To answer your first question: yes, you are correct in a sense. The "swing" rhythm in the general "jazz in 2013" sense is straighter than the swing of 1935. My theory is that as tempos became faster in the 1940's, the somewhat "jerky" swing rhythm had no choice but to straighten out a bit. And so, when the players who would play these fast tempos played slower tempos, their rhythm became a little less jerky overall.When you compare the swing of Lester Young to the swing of , say, John Coltrane, or even Kenny Garrett, there's a noticeable difference.

I hesitate to use the phrase "behind the beat" because this kind of thing can lead to dragging. In the same way, "playing on top" can lead to rushing. It's very subtle. My advice is to play along with recordings. Even if you don't know the solo, if you at least know the tune, or even if you sort of know it, just try to tap into the rhythmic feel of whoever you like. I used to play trumpet along with Coltrane's "My Favorite Things", even though I had no idea what the chords or the melodic concept was supposed to be. 

Dave Stoler
Pianist Dave Stoler said:

My belief is that today's relative marginalization of swing as an integral part of jazz syntax was due to the growing popularity of rock in the mainstream, starting in the mid 50's... 

Mike LeDonne always has interesting things to say...

George - while I agree with what you say about swinging I always found it frustrating to "talk" about swing in terms of straight eights vs. swing 8 and where in the time to place your notes etc... That never got the message across.

Mike LeDonne
Swing is all about rhythm and I find that you have to involve your body in your playing and get more into touch. It's all about touch. In other words your arms and fingers and gravity. This is all very natural and involves dropping into the keys and never pushing. What I'll do, and I've had great success with it, is start out teaching a student to begin a phrase by dropping their hand into the first note ( a down wrist). This will create an accent. In a long line I tell them to use use "high fingers" which means keep the wrists down and lift each finger up and let it drop. At the end of the phrase pick your wrist back up and off the keyboard (an up wrist) so you release the muscles and get ready for the next phrase. We'll transcribe a solo of someone with a heavy groove in their notes like Red Garland or Sonny Clark. We go through it listening for all the tiny accents in the phrases. Sometimes they'll come every 2 notes even though it's a long line. So we mark the phrases and start using the touches very slowly and exaggeratedly. Red's 2 note phrases usually have the down wrist on the up beat and the up wrist on the downbeat. When you coordinate the touch so you can get through the whole line with these 2 note phrases you start to hear Red's swing happen. The student's able to get the same "swing" between the 8th's and the up wrists create the same spaces between the 2 note phrases which is an important part of the rhythm. The silences between the notes.

Do this on a medium blues solo. Listen for accents and place the beginning of a phrase mark there. The up wrist will come right before the next accent because the wrist has to be up before it can come down. I call it decoding touch. You can do it for any player just by listening to their accents and making adjustments to things like the length of notes. I've found that most solos are a combination of straight eighths and swinging eighths and there' s no rule as to where they come although a lot of times ascending lines will be more straight. For straight eights I usually teach my students to put a little bit of arm into each one to get more body weight in them. This would be for medium and slow tempo's. It sounds complicated but it all comes from the very natural process of dropping the weight of your arms and fingers loosely and letting gravity do it's thing. To do that you have to stay relaxed which is really the point. I find that after a few solos the student no longer has to think about all this stuff but starts to just hear it. Then they got it. I think everyone can swing, well almost. Some have more than others but more times than not - it's in there.   

Anyone who thinks this sounds interesting and would like to check it out further get in touch with me. I'd be glad to show it to you. For a nominal fee of course (shameless)

David Berkman
Of course, David Berkman then weighed in: 

The faster tempo argument doesn't really fly for me entirely. Especially when you check out how fast some of those tempos that bud played were. I mean half note = 170 is not uncommon.

I like what Jamey Haddad told me a long time ago. Every era has a certain groove. You look at old movies of cats and its in their walk and attitude. So while we can all learn by imitation as M.L.D. suggests, there may be a certain feel that varies over time, but still swings--like the difference between the way Wynton Kelly and Kenny Kirkland swing. I do think things have gotten straighter over time, and maybe that has something to do with straight 8th music influence.

But...I think the physicality is a good point--it's a kind of dance and as a player you have to spend time, in bands you can get it from others, but you have to spend time trying to make it dance yourself.

Sean Wayland
Another brilliant musician, Sean Wayland, posted something on his blog  which is also interesting:

This is in response to George Colligan's post about swinging from his blog "jazztruth". Perhaps my blog could be called " Jazz BS " or something.... 

A discussion ensued on George's facebook page involving other esteemed pianists Dave Berkman and Mike Ledonne. It's an interesting topic and to discuss "how to swing" within the confines of the internet is surely limited but it fascinates many very serious musicians so it's probably valid to try. George was mainly focused on the placement of the notes and transcribing which is surely very important. Ledonne is also keenly aware of controlling accents with your technique and he has spent a great time trying to analyze the technique of some of his favorite "swingin" pianists. Also a great idea well worth exploring. I have thought about this a lot too and experimented with both George's and Ledonne's approach. I spent a fair amount of time memorizing solos and playing them along with the recordings trying to emulate the "swing". Most of the solos where Herbie Hancock's but there where a few Wynton Kelly and Kenny Kirkland ones too. It all happened years ago but I still suggest to students that the memorize and perform Wynton Kelly's Freddie Freeloader along with the recording. 

My teacher Roger Frampton suggested that and it surely was a valuable lesson for me. I don't think you ever get to "swing" it is more of a garden of eden that you can approach. Moving to New York and playing with a lot of musicians with good time helped especially playing organ. That's probably one reason why George and Mike do such a great job rhythmically having had the experience of playing quarter notes on the bass with a great band and drummer. 

I have one thing to add which I often think about and that is that the shape/contour of your lines can make a huge difference. A piano is inherently "blurry" ( the instrument is still resonating even after you take your finger off the keys ) and at fast tempos it can be pretty hard to control articulation especially at the end of notes.  Even at very fast tempos you still have control over WHAT you play as opposed to how you play it. That's really the essence of the page of examples and questions above. Do some things inherently "swing" no matter where they are placed or accented / articulated ? I think so. I often think the mystery of the greatness in Charlie Parker is somewhere in the organisation of the contours and rhythms. His solos seem to swing even on paper. Ditto looking at John Coltrane's great Giant steps solo I often notes how he changes direction when the chords change at that generally the whole thing tends to move downwards through phrases. I suspect that some rhythms going upwards will never swing if continued for too long. 

I find all of these viewpoints fascinating. Even more fascinating is that this intellectual musing is all taking place in a public forum. It's like we are all working on our Doctoral thesis collectively out in the open. I think it's cool.


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