Friday, February 27, 2015

That stumbling feeling

Ah, rhythm! Possibly the most primitive element of music. It's there even if you don't want to: just listen to your heartbeat and your breathing. Anyone can relate to it, even if they cannot produce it consciously. It's in some of the most memorable moments in the history of music, from the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth, to Fats Domino "I'm Walkin'", Steve Reich's "Clapping Music", or what Art Blakey does on Thelonious Monk's original "Straight, No Chaser".

Rhythm may also be considered the unifying feature for a lot of contemporary music (so much so that in Denmark they have a "Rhythmic Music Conservatory" encompassing exactly that). In jazz it's such a central element that I wouldn't know where to begin.

There's a small feature that appears frequently, though, which is the playing "in three" over a four-beat rhythm. Sounds complicated? You just have to check out what this early Brad Mehldau trio does here from 0:25 onwards, and you'll get it immediately

Brad Mehldau Trio: "Anthropology" (1993)

Jorge Rossy beats his snare drum on every third beat. The contrast with the underlying 4-beat is what gives that stumbling feeling. Somewhere, many years ago (so many I can't recall where) I read that this was the basis of swing. Not quite, but it does appear a lot in jazz.

(Add. 2017.09.04: This seems to be just an update of an old device called "secondary rag". From the LoC website, this is "a simple, repeated, three-note motif that gives the listener a temporary off-center feeling by imposing an even pulse of three over a series of duple measures." This goes back as far the mid-19th century. For anyone interested in this subject, Dr. Mathilde Zagala's research is worth seeking out.)

Miles Davis's quintet does exactly the same here, from 0:24 onwards.

Miles Davis Quintet: "Oleo" (1961)

Exactly the same thing, but done with the hi-hat. Like much of this kind of standard jazz stuff, it sounds like it originated with Miles's classic quintet. However, here's an almost contemporary example by that eccentric that was clarinetist Tony Scott, with none other than Bill Evans on piano (playing some early modal jazz too). The "3 on 4" begins at 4:14, after the drums solo. Here, the drummer, Lennie McBrowne, does it with the bass drum.

Tony Scott: "Aeolian Drinkin' Song" (1956)

Being a rhythm music, it's only natural that jazz musicians have played around with the beat. A lot of now forgotten experimentation went on in the 1940s, and this is just one example of it, and not just superimposing three on four. Listen to the passage from 2:31 onwards.

Woody Herman's rhythm section: "Four Men on a Horse" (1946)

Piano (Tony Aless) and guitar (Billy Bauer) play in 4, while bass (Chubby Jackson) and drums (Don Lamond) play in 3. It sounds "weird" because whereas Jackson and Lamond play a usual number of bars (12) even if in 3, Aless and Bauer play 9 (an unusual number) in their meter. Because they play the same number of beats (9 x 4 = 12 x 3 = 36) they begin and end together. This is the sort of explanation that takes way more time to read (let alone write) and comprehend, than simply listen and "get" it, but that's the magic of music. If you have time, listen to the whole track for some more rhythmic silliness. And note how Jackson calls in the rest of the band (3:44).

So, this 3-over-4 thing has a longer history than perhaps anticipated. However, there's an even earlier example that is the more spectacular because it's a whole big band doing it, in 1936. And it's none other than Benny Goodman's. Listen to the passage from 0:11 onwards:

Benny Goodman: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" (1936)

Here the saxes are the ones playing in 3 over the band's 4, and the contrast is even more marked than in previous, more modern examples. And talking about "modern", consider the minor gap between what the Goodman boys do there, and this Led Zeppelin tune...

I leave you now with a slightly different play on rhythm, from a very conventional combo, the Oscar Peterson trio, in its first months with Ed Thigpen on drums. This is the opening track of The Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson, where they swing the hell out of Gershwin's "Liza". But watch out after the break (quote of Ellington's "Raincheck" included) at 2:31

Oscar Peterson Trio: "Liza" (1959)

Thigpen seems to be playing in three, but when Peterson comes back it all sounds like they're playing in 6/8. In any case, it does sound great, as if the rhythm walked in longer steps.

Hope you enjoyed that. You can also listen to all that music on Spotify.

PS: Credit where it's due, so thanks to Allen Lowe, for including Benny Goodman's track in his history of jazz (That Devilin' Tune), which I can't recommend enough for a great, somehow synchronic, history of jazz from 1895 to 1951. All 36 CDs of it.

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