Monday, March 4, 2013

Swingin' and Compin'

 One of my former students in Winnipeg recently wrote to me with a few questions:

Hi there George,

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?


Also, how did you practice comping, say rubato sections with a singer or for bass players? I am curious because this is something that comes up often; I find transcribing very helpful in this area (I have begun transcribing Herbie Hancock from the "Four and More" concerts like you had mentioned before) and was wondering if there is anything else you found helpful or useful.

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.

In regards to rubato comping, I guess transcribing would be helpful for voicings and orchestration. However, the most important thing with rubato comping is your ability to follow the vocalist. And it might not just be following; you might have to lead at times. Whatever it is, it can be a give and take. It's hard because, although playing in time is a challenge, playing without time can even be more of a challenge.

My advice would be to find a vocalist with whom you can develop a rapport. Get together and work on some ballads, or any tune which can work in a rubato setting. Maybe you can discuss how it feels to either follow her phrasing, or how it feels to follow each other. The pianist/vocalist relationship, or really any duo setting, is more intimate than other settings. So it might take a little time to see what works and what doesn't. When I worked with vocalist Vanessa Rubin, it took years to truly refine our duo playing. We had been playing Michel LeGrand's "The Summer Knows" for quite awhile, and when we finally got around to recording it, our rendition was light years from when we first started trying to play it. I mostly followed Vanessa, but there were times when she was waiting for me, and all of that subtlety had to be negotiated.

I was looking for a good example of vocal and piano rubato. All I could find in this moment was "Poor Butterfly" with Sarah Vaughn. The verse of the tune is rubato, and regardless of whether or not it's the best example of what I'm talking about, it's an excuse to listen to the magnificent Sarah Vaughn. I'll look for some better youtube examples in the meantime.

I hope this answered your question. Keep them coming!

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