Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All That Jazz II: Rhythm


As the great man once said, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. But what is swing? How do you tell if it's got it or not? Well, if you have to ask... If non-jazzers think of jazz rhythm, I suspect they focus on two things, exemplified by the Sonny Rollins track last time: it's played mostly on the cymbals, with the bass and snare drums used for irregular emphasis, and it involves those irregular quavers (DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da etc.). Like more or less any statement about jazz, there's some truth in that, up to a point, but only up to a point; lots of jazz records from the 1930s to the 1960s (and later ones imitating that style) feature that sort of rhythm, but plenty of others don't. Sometimes the rhythm is syncopated, sometimes it isn't; sometimes it's played on the cymbals, sometimes it's played on the bass and piano while the percussion gets to do its own thing (see nilpferd's brilliant analysis of Tony Williams' playing on Miles Smiles), sometimes it's played on broomsticks or rocks or the floor (the great Han Bennink). Sometimes it swings obviously, sometimes it doesn't obviously swing in a traditional sense.

I think Ellington is right that rhythm lies at the heart of jazz; the great stylistic changes, from ragtime and New Orleans jazz to swing, to bebop, to hard bop and post-bop, to the New Thing, to jazz rock and fusion, were all marked by new styles and conceptions of rhythm. But 'swing', I think, isn't a particular sort of rhythm so much as the right sort of rhythm, the rhythm that feels right for a particular context. Jazz is marked not by a special style but by a concern with time and timing, an interest in exploring how far things can be stretched and manipulated before they fall apart altogether. That may be a matter of a soloist interacting with the rhythm section and playing around with the beat and the chord sequence, or of the rhythm section taking centre stage rather than just providing the backing.

Duke Ellington's Orchestra explores how many different rhythmic patterns, played by different instrument sections, can be fitted into a single song without losing the underlying swing. Sarah Vaughan exemplifies the fact, known by a lot of the greatest jazz soloists, that having a great sense of rhythm frequently means not keeping to the basic beat but working around it (contrast a couple of the soloists on this track; for me, Herbie Mann's flute solo exemplifies a failure to swing). The Tomasz Stanko track, with Tony Oxley on percussion, switches the function of keeping the beat to the bass, and thinks about abandoning clear divisions between bars altogether. The Esbjorn Svensson Trio experiment with non-swinging rock rhythms; Matthew Shipp explores (with a real drummer) the influence of contemporary electronic beats.

Finally, a track that is probably too familiar to many of us, too much part of the wallpaper, too laden with images and associations - but just listen to that drummer. Dave Brubeck sticks to the same piano riff all the way through, Paul Desmond plays short phrases as a means of sticking closely to the song's structure in the face of an unfamiliar five beats to the bar, but Joe Morello merrily shifts the accent around and plays with its possibilities. The only drum solo I actually love, and it also worked brilliantly in Pleasantville...

13 comments:

goneforeign said...

Aba: I had a slight problem with the idea of swing being dominated by the rhythm section, to my mind swing is a state of mind, it's inherent in all the best musicians, it can even show up when you walk. As I thought about it a silly song came to mind, not really silly since it involves the Louis Armstrong All Stars of the 50/60's plus Bing Crosby. It's 'Now you have Jazz' from High Society. Louis and Bing combine to explain swing, it's at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFzuGvhvwL4

Japanther said...

my severe lack of jazz knowledge precludes me from contributing to this discussion effectively. But just wanted to say that i'm really enjoying the debate and loving all the jazz tunes!

For me personally, whatever genre of music i'm listening to, be it, jazz, pop, indie, hip-hop, country, punk, metal, noise, drone or alien porn-grind, i'm always looking for that twist. Just something slightly off-centre that distinguishes it from the rest of the pack. It could be a clever lyric or an interesting rhythm change or......anything! Just something that makes it a little different.
Therefore, I naturally side with the more experimental stuff, but at the moment, as i've never listened to jazz before, ALL of it seems different and interesting. Saying that, a super-smooth production and too much noodling is definitely off-putting. And i'm not a big fan of that scatting business either.

Abahachi said...

GF, I didn't intend to say that swing is all about the rhythm section; you're absolutely right that it's something that every musician needs - not sure I'd term it 'state of mind', exactly, but rather a sense of time and a feel for rhythm. I think my point was that a lot of the time - obviously my take on this is as a bass player, and jazz is an awful lot better in this respect than most forms of music - the 'rhythm section' is confined to marking out the beat and playing the chords so that the great soloist can show off his improvisation skills and sense of swing. Obviously a really swinging rhythm section can do a lot to carry a weaker soloist, just as a great soloist can rise above a plodding rhythm section. But this set-up isn't absolutely compulsory; some of my favourite tracks (Mingus, Ellington in the Blanton years) involve a more flexible division of labour, with all the musicians responsible for rhythm.

Chris said...

If I can just be a little technical here: the basis of swing is the triplet. Although the music has a four-beat cycle, commonly followed precisely by the bass ('walking' the notes), there are three sub-beats for each of the four in a bar. The common cymbal beat that uses this is on the first and third of these three beats, hence the dum, dum, da-dum, dum (the da- is the third beat of the triplet). I agree that the decision to use this rhythm is dictated by a state of mind but the mechanics only work if triplets are involved.

Abahachi said...

True up to a point, but - unhelpfully, I agree - the word 'swing' gets used in jazz to refer both to the triplet-based rhythm you describe and to a much more nebulous and ill-defined sense of a good rhythmic sense which need not involve triplets at all.

goneforeign said...

Chris: That sounds like more of your 'musical appreciation' theory. Just listen to the Louis piece that I posted, listen to the way Bing TALKS, he swings!

nilpferd said...

I think for a rhythms theme we need some Thelonius Monk - a brilliantly offbeat version of Evidence here.

Tony Williams helped define the "funky Blue Note sound"- listen to his classic, polyrhythmic style here on Cantaloupe Island.

Joe Zawinul claimed to have invented hip-hop rhythm with 1973's 125th St. Congress..And drumless rhythm was explored by many jazz groups in the fifties.. such as Jimmy Giuffre's trio, here with The train and the river

Chris said...

Sorry, gf, I can't listen to Louis as my internet connection is through a pinhole at the moment. But my 'triplet' comment is made from observation of playing the stuff, not from a course of any kind.
Aba: I'm not sure you undermine my comment; the basis of the swing feeling still originates in the triplet.

Abahachi said...

Are you saying that it's impossible to swing in straight 4/4, or that swing automatically introduces a triplet feel, if only by implication? Not sure I'm convinced by either idea. Again, I wonder if we're talking about two different ideas of 'swing': 'swing feel' definitely involves triplets at some level; whether something or someone swings or not, not necessarily.

Chris said...

Aba, please point me to something in 'straight 4/4' for me to understand what you mean. And (I) hope that I can access it!

Chris said...

gf: my access to the internet seems better, so I've just listened to Louis. The beat is exactly as I described above: straight walking 4/4 against skipping triplets. I'm not saying that's all swing is - you still have to put the emphases in the right places - but you can't have swing without that basis.

Unless Aba blows me out of the water!

goneforeign said...

Nilp: Isn't it wonderful that there was always someone there with a camera and then someone invented the internet. I love the 18 year old guy in the comments, giving thanks for being able to check Monk.

nilpferd said...

Apropos of this week's RR topic, Abahachi, you might find these liner notes to Don Ellis' 1966 album Live at Monterey interesting..
http://www.oddtimeobsessed.com/interviews/don_ellis/index.html