Rhythm Man (Do Not Disturb)


Mel Martin

The title of this article is taken from a composition I wrote and dedicated to the late Dizzy Gillespie. He once said to me that he may miss notes on occasion but never rhythm. This left a profound impression on me and has caused me to do much serious consideration of the role of rhythm, particularly in jazz. He is the single musician, other than the great jazz drummers, who most personifies the use of personal rhythmic drive to form the basis of his compositions and improvisations. I would have to also put Sonny Rollins in this category. Rhythm is clearly not just the domain of rhythm sections and percussionists. Each and every player in a jazz group must develop a strong personal sense of rhythm. The concept of having the drummer "keep time" for the rest of the band is a fallacy. If the players each have a strong internal pulse as well as a great metric sense to their playing, then the only thing left to do is to synchronize those pulses. We each have a heartbeat, a rhythm to our walk and to our lives. We speak in rhythm as well as tap out rhythms with our pencils, fingers and feet. As children we banged on pots and pans and some actually went on to become drummers or dancers while the rest of us wish we could have. But it is this fascination with the power of rhythm that separates the great players from the not so great. Without rhythm, music turns to Jello. It just sits there in a formless state. Therefore, the stronger the sense of rhythm, the stronger the musical statement.

There are many rhythms used throughout the world, both in the indigenous musics of the world and the more thought out, cerebral forms. I would like to talk about what I know the best and that is jazz rhythm which is different and unique unto itself although many forms of rhythm can be integrated with it. It can be initially identified by the element of swing.

There are many interpretations of this but it is the element of the backbeat as played by the high hat on beats two and four that is essential to swing. The soloist must internalize this feeling so that his playing will also have a strong feeling of swing. Without this, there cannot be a true jazz feel. How can a person who does not play drums go about developing this? The best place to start would be by playing drums or percussion. The idea of physically expressing rhythm on a different instrument than the one you normally play can only enhance your ability to express rhythm on your main instrument. This is known as "grafting". This, in part, explains why so many tenor players are good drummers although I am sure this phenomenon is not limited to the tenor saxophone. Another way is to play with a great jazz drummer as much as possible. This is why Art Blakey was able to turn out such stellar musicians as well as Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and the many great drummers who never got any recognition. There is a saying that a band is no better than it's drummer. This is true in many genres of music and particularly so in jazz. We don't just improvise melodies and chord changes but rhythmic structures as well. In order to do that, we need the solid framework of interchange with a great and sure rhythmatist, ie; the drummer. The key here is interchange where ideas are passed around and a true dialog can be sustained with the drums. In a jazz quartet, there should be a four way dialog, but it is the concept of rhythm that unites everything. There must also be a compatible harmonic and melodic dialog going on as well, but rhythm is dominant.

The most important aspect of playing is phrasing. Phrasing is directly linked to the rhythmic structures that are improvised. You can hear musical phrasing and breathing in the playing of the great drummers as well as the great soloists. The phrase is a rhythmic structure as well as a melodic statement. When initiated by someone in the group, a clear signal is sent that a response, namely the last two bars, is called for and the whole group is directed toward that moment which may launch a newfound concentration of swing. It also works as a focal point for the audience. The name Bebop is, in fact, a rhythmic structure and an identifiable element of that genre. Titles of tunes such as Oo-Bop-Sh'bam, Diddy-Wa- Diddy and Oop-Pa-A-Da convey an explicit rhythmic structure. Lester Young's early recordings with Count Basie displayed a sense of rhythm on the saxophone that was unprecedented and influenced generations of musicians to come. In fact the rhythmic sophistication of that band was a precedent for the next generation of so called modernists. Bebop was actually more evolutionary than revolutionary. The element of swing was never obliterated for the sake of speed and complex harmonic changes. They just changed the way it was swung. The early recordings of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie swung hard and, in fact, utilized many so called swing era musicians. If you listen to the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, you will hear the rhythm section plodding along, although with great drive, and Armstrong taking a break that would be light years ahead in terms of rhythmic concept. Roy Eldridge extended that concept, then Dizzy Gillespie took what Roy did and extended it even further. Charlie Parker took an entire summer to learn all of Lester Young's recorded solos which gave him the basis to develop his own strikingly individual style. Max Roach used to yell at the pianist Duke Jordan not to be deceived by Parker's ability to turn the beat inside out. He would caution him by explaining that Bird had a "drummer in his pocket." This is a key concept. All players must have a "drummer in their pocket ". Perhaps this where the saying "in the pocket" came from. Dizzy Gillespie has stated that "Charlie Parker articulated our music." The word articulate has a definite rhythmic component and is the key method that rhythm is added to melody by horn players. However, the actual placement of notes must be conceived in advance just as melodic and harmonic ideas are.

The derivation of jazz rhythm as well as all other natural forms of rhythmic music comes from Africa. There has been much written on this subject and these roots can be clearly heard in the many recordings from various parts of the African continent that I don't wish to dwell on this aspect. Instead, I would like to offer the concept that music consists of three universes: the universe of rhythm, the universe of melody and the universe of harmony, essentially in that order of importance. One could possibly add the universe of language to this, but instrumentalists seldom deal with this aspect although it is closely tied into the universes of rhythm and melody. Each universe has an infinite depth that can be explored by the composer and improviser but rhythm must be first but not necessarily at the expense of the others. Music must have melody and harmony represents the sign posts for melodic structure and improvisation. The old joke about the drummer "being the person that gets to hang out with the musicians" only rings true with drummers that tend to only think about their instrument first and the music second which, unfortunately does happen a little too often. Thelonious Monk once said "don't play your instrument, play the music." There are many drummers who also play horns, keyboards, compose and generally think in musical terms first and foremost and I know other instrumentalists that think in technical terms more than musical so all generalizations are false which, of course, is a generalization. I think that all musicians should explore the three universes in as much depth as possible in order to maintain a true perspective of music.

There are three elements that need to be understood in order to deal with jazz rhythm. The first thing that needs to be developed is a clear and definite metrical sense. This is a mathematical concept that relates to the exact distance between beats. This does not have anything to do with swing or rhythmic structure but steadiness of the perception of time. It is essential for all musicians to develop this ability. Unshakeable time is a trademark of all the great jazz players. The second element is pulse. We all have one, namely our heart beat. Pulse is an internal phenomenon while meter is an external one. These two elements need to be linked in order to function in the rhythmic universe. The pulse of jazz is also linked to the element of swing. Why is it some musicians swing so hard that they could "swing you into ill health" and some "couldn't swing if you hung 'em." It has to do with the strength of their pulse. In other words, the jazz pulse must be internalized so thoroughly that the soloist would swing just as hard with or without the rhythm section. In a group context, the pulse must be shared which accounts in part for the "magic" chemistry that some groups display. When all members of the group lock in on that special feeling, the impact is overwhelmingly strong. In the context of a big band, this is geometrically true. It is the responsibility of each individual musician to foster the strength of their pulse. Finally, it is the use of rhythmic structures or simply, rhythm, that distinguishes the great jazz improvisers. To conceive and execute rhythm is as demanding a task as conceiving and executing melodic structures and harmonic structures. This is what improvisation is about. When done creatively and with swing, the result can be a memorable solo that people would want to hear over and over and that could be analyzed and dissected. Once the concept of rhythmic play is mastered, then it is a relatively simple matter to use that as a framework for melodic and harmonic development.

Most jazz rhythms, although complex in nature, utilize a relatively simple base. The commonly used time signatures are 4/4, by far the most common, 3/4, 6/4, 6/8 and occasionally 5/4 and 7/4. But what about the many other possibilities? Musicians such as Don Ellis, Billy Cobham, John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Denny Zeitlin, Dave Brubeck and, I'm sure others, have explored and utilized what are referred to as "odd times". These are not peculiar but, rather, uneven numbers. They only seem peculiar because most musicians have never taken the time to study and internalize the many opportunities to expand their rhythmic horizons. It's akin to playing music in only three or four keys. If the musician doesn't take the time to learn to play in all twelve keys, he is limiting himself. As the musician learns other aspects of the rhythmic universe, the more his overall sense of rhythm is expanded. Most jazz takes place in the common meters simply because it's too difficult to teach others how to play and swing in odd and unusual meters. Within these confines the truly inventive rhythmatist can invent cross-rhythms that can be superimposed upon the conventional rhythmic structures. Billy Cobham, Mike Clark, George Marsh, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes are good examples of drummers who commonly do this in both acoustic jazz and electric "fusion" ensembles. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane are good examples of non-drummers who also do this.

During the late 'seventies I led a band called Listen and we studied at great length all the unusual meters, in fact, all of the possible combinations. The drummer in the group was George Marsh who had compiled pages and pages of rhythmic studies which we would investigate at every rehearsal. We would spend hours starting with 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4 and on up through 15/8, 27/8/ and/ some I can't even remember. Most of this is derived through simple mathematical configurations but many of them truly swing. There are also many ways that rhythms can be crossed or superimposed such as the second line which is crossing five against the fifteen much as 2/4 is commonly superimposed against 3/4. Why accept these limitations? Many folk musics throughout the world commonly use five, seven, nine, eleven and other meters to form their compositions and are done so naturally, without the intellectual approach that is commonly employed in Western music. There are specific ways in which the player can sense these odd structures but much work must be done before this can take place much as the beginner needs to learn to count before being able to actually play music. Indian music also fosters an advanced sense of rhythm. The great Tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain can play and improvise in any time signature and delves into many styles of music and can even play a jazz ride beat on the tablas and make it swing.

I asked my good friend, the great jazz drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey who plays with me in Bebop & Beyond to define his personal view of the essence of jazz rhythm. His answer was simple and surprising. He said dynamics, for him, form the essence. In other words dynamics include how phrases are accented, loud beats, soft beats, etc. and how melodic phrases are conceived. He told me that dynamics MAKE the rhythmic feel. Can the drummer maintain a strong pulse or feel at a soft volume as well as a loud volume and all levels in between? That would be the ultimate test for a drummer. One of the reasons some drummers play loud is a fear of losing the pulse and meter or fear of the unknown. Of course, the drums are the instrument in the band that controls the dynamics but who controls the drummer? If he's truly listening he will apply his instrument to whatever the musical situation requires. Donald Bailey is a true master of this. I think other instrumentalists have a fear of the unknown as well and rhythm may be more unknown to them than melody or harmony. One of the best ways for a soloist to be sure his rhythm is correct is to count in "two" on one and three but feel the upbeats on two and four. This way assures the player that they will always know where the "one" is. Some are taught to tap their feet on two and four and this is also valid but counting in two allows the player to hear the phrasing as it's going down. When the music gets rhythmically adventurous, this has proven to be the surest method of keeping it together.

The subject of rhythm is an infinite study and I think that every musician should delve into it with as much devotion as all the other aspects of music. It can only help your overall musicianship. If I'm going to deal with other musicians in a band, it would be best if I could talk to them in the language of their instruments so I have made a study of these things. The most important point for a jazz improviser is to develop a sense of rhythmic accurateness and flexibility combined with a strong, swinging pulse that can be played and felt at all dynamic levels. When this is accomplished, the player will experience a newfound sense of direction and security in their playing. This cannot be underestimated for it supplies the glue that keeps the music together.

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