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«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»

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Playing in four bar phrases and eight bar phrases is certainly an important part of being able to play on a song form and sounding melodic, especially if there’s a specific structure to the composition that one is required to play over. If the composer or the leader of the band wants you to play a drum solo and wants you to play on the form, being able to play phrases in eight, four, six bar or whatever bar phrases, I think that requires a little bit of homework…it’s all about being able to put together phrases that are comprised of a certain number of defined bars.87 For Drummond, the overall expression and organization of one’s solo ideas on the drum set over a defined framework is important. This is accomplished by learning how to express one’s ideas on the drum set into specific bar lengths, logically corresponding with the bar structure of the composition being played. As far as Drummond is concerned, this attention to structural detail in terms of a drum solo greatly contributes to creating a melodic sensibility as a drum soloist.

Similar to Drummond’s comments and John Riley’s earlier assertion in Chapter Two with regard to using melody to develop an internal reference point, the same holds true while improvising a solo statement on the drums as well. Bob Moses emphasizes this approach in his book Drum


The answer lies in the mastery of internal hearing – learning to hold a very simple framework in your mind and concentrate on that while your body and your hands are moving organically.88 This idea of using melody to develop a musical framework reveals itself not only in the context as being an accompanist but as a soloist as well. This idea of using melody to develop one’s “internal hearing” will be further be discussed and alluded to over the course of this paper.

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3.4 LINEAR DRUMMING Lewis Nash used the term “linear drumming” in his assessment of a melodic drumming concept to describe his own approach to soloing. In his opinion the drum set has fundamental melodic limitations as an instrument and, for him, the actual term “Melodic Drumming” can be perhaps a

bit misleading:

I often term what is described as melodic drumming as being “linear drumming,” linear in the sense of playing a melodic line because of our inability to play as many notes, as many pitches. I mean we do have the capability of expressing a lot of pitches by bending the tension of the drumhead and doing all kinds of things like using different sizes and pitches of drums. But we don’t have the same ability to play melody the same way that horn or piano players would do. So, I choose the term linear to define this way of playing melodic lines on the drum set.89 Because Nash acknowledges what he feels are the drum set’s inherent limitations, he instead prefers to use the term “Linear Drumming” as opposed to “Melodic Drumming” to describe his

approach to the drums in this sense. As he further explained:

I take issue with the term “Melodic Drumming” conceptually because we do have a limited number of melody even possible when you’re playing the drums. You know we don’t have eighty-eight keys, we don’t have the capability of playing scales the way that other instruments can. So our melodic possibilities, strictly speaking, are limited from the beginning.90 As Nash explains, pure melody cannot be expressed on the drum set due to what he sees as its inherent limitations as an instrument. However, that is not to say he doesn’t feel that he can’t express his ideas in a musical way that at least implies melody. Elaborating on this idea of playing in a “linear” fashion as opposed to a purely “melodic” one, Nash describes how he

achieves this:

I try to play in clear musical phrases and even though they may not necessarily always be even eight bar or four bar phrases, they could be odd-bar or metrically uneven phrases or whatever, but they are intentional phrases.91 Nash (2011) Ibid Ibid The key to Nash’s approach is that not only are his ideas organized into specific phrase lengths, but his ideas are played with a specific organized, musical “intention.” Similarly, Bob Gullotti also described melodic drumming in terms of being “linear” in nature. It was initially in these terms during his interview that he described his impressions of several other drummers (specifically: Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers and Billy Higgins) and what he felt made

them sound melodic when they improvised:

To me they are really playing lines. When I say lines I mean melodic lines and clear ideas, something that you could almost sing. I listen for the shape of their playing and how it relates to the tune and phrasing. The ideas have a clear beginning, middle and an end to them.92 This comment is consistent with that of Nash’s in that they both refer to the organization and phrasing of drum ideas as being “linear” in nature. This is also similar to John Riley, Ralph Peterson Jr. and Matt Wilson’s ideas in that they all refer to the idea of playing clear ideas on the drums and the inherent sing-ability of an idea, which in turn creates a melodic sensibility.

Gullotti also implied the importance of relating one’s ideas to the overall framework of the composition, an idea that was also emphasized by Billy Drummond and by Lewis Nash. For all these drummers, an important consideration of playing from a melodic perspective as a drum soloist comes from the overall clarity and organization of one’s ideas on the drum set.

Gullotti (2011)


Ari Hoenig, recognized as one the current masters of the melodic jazz drum solo, emphasized his use of melodic structure while improvising.93 He described several approaches to using the melody itself and the overall form of the piece as frameworks with which he can create musical drum solos. As was the case with other interview subjects, he claims to always have the melody of the piece in his mind, while he is playing, allowing him to use it as a reference point for any

improvising or accompanying:

I always hear the melody of the song and I’m always really sort of singing it to myself while I’m playing even when I’m soloing, comping or playing time. To me it’s the melody and also the harmony of the song as well that’s the focus.94 Using the melody as a reference point allows Hoenig to organize his improvised ideas on the drum set specifically according to the phrasing structure of the piece. This provides a departure point and foundation for further musical expression on the drums.

This is a theme, consistently referred to by numerous other drummers as well.95 As a further example, Michael Carvin also commented that he’s always thinking of the melody when playing,

and that doing so allows his hands to “flow” or play freely:

Once I get into it, the only thing that I try to do is maintain the melody but separate my mind from my body. So I’m maintaining the melody but I’m letting my hands flow. And that is something that you can develop if you really learn your rudiments. Because your rudiments will free you up…when you build your solo: always maintain the melody and have fun with it. But always study the twenty-six rudiments.96 Hoenig’s specific approach to playing melodically by changing the pitches of the drums will be more thoroughly examined in Chapter Five.

Hoenig (2012) Refer back to Chapter Two for further discussions of the use of melody as a reference point Carvin (2014) Carvin implies that by consciously, yet silently, maintaining and internalizing a melody (a theme previously introduced by John Riley), a drummer with proper technical facility (in this case, Carvin refers to the 26 Standard American Snare Drum Rudiments) can effectively play a musical drum solo. As Carvin points out: “…your rudiments will free you up.”97 The assertion is that if one has developed a high level of technical proficiency then this allows one to focus on other musical areas of concern. While the rudiments represent the basic building blocks of a drummer’s vocabulary, the attention to organizing them in the larger context of a musical composition then becomes the focus.

The overall idea of maintaining the form of a composition while soloing, as previously stated, is a common practice amongst jazz drummers. Carvin’s idea also represents an overall important meeting juncture between a conceptual approach (i.e. thinking of a melody or structure) and a technical one (i.e. the use of snare drum rudiments or other drum-specific rhythmic patterns) as well.

Continuing with Ari Hoenig’s approach, when asked if he favors melody over harmony while internalizing a composition and how he balances the two, Hoenig, in particular, replied that he actually uses both. Depending on the situation, he will use either one or the other to differing

degrees. As he further described after demonstrating a drum solo over a 32 bar, AABA form:

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It’s pretty much close to half and half. Usually I hear the melody first and foremost. But in this case, we played a rhythm changes98 song so I was actually hearing the changes a little stronger than a melody because there are so many melodies played over rhythm changes. I could use the melody as my guide but in general I like to hear the harmony pretty strongly as well.99 Hoenig also made an important comment that since many melodies are often written over the same form, or harmonic changes, knowledge of the actual melodies takes on an even greater meaning. For Hoenig, even if the form, the number of bars, or even the actual harmony is identical, the melody is what makes that particular piece of music distinct. Furthermore, Hoenig surmises that different melodies will influence a different musical outcome, even if it used the

same form or harmonic structure:

The changes [harmony] might be the same but the melody itself is different and so then the way that I would solo would be different because the melody is different.100 Hoenig further elaborated that specific attention to not only the form of a composition, but also its actual melodic construction, can yield an interesting and practical guide for effective drum set improvisation. For example, he will sometimes pay attention to the phrasing of the original

melodic material and reflect parts of that structure in his own improvising:

Sometimes when I solo I can play the same phrasing of the melody. The way you might analyze a song…I’ll figure out not only what the song form is but I’ll try and dig even deeper into analyzing the melody of the song and how it really works over the form;

where it speeds up and where it slows down.101 While this approach relies on a certain degree of rhythmic mimicry of the original melody, Hoenig is more concerned with accenting what he considers to be only the important parts of the original melodic phrase while framing them with his own improvised lines. It is not an attempt to replicate the entire rhythm of the original melodic structure, but rather only its most distinctive The term “Rhythm Changes” refers to the harmonic changes to George Gershwin’s influential composition “I Got Rhythm” (1930) on which further jazz compositions (known as “contrafacts”) were often based, over the course of jazz history.

Hoenig (2012) Ibid Ibid parts. For example, these parts of a given melodic phrase might be considered to be accents at the end of a cadence or a repeated motif.

As Hoenig and others have stated, it is the intentional overall phrasing and organization of one’s ideas into larger phrases, matched according to the composition he is improvising over, that can give his playing a sense of melody. He also gives consideration to the construction of the original melody and will sometimes develop his own phrases according to those parameters, in varying degrees.

Furthermore, Hoenig described how he draws heavily on other techniques of melodic soloing as well, by means of intentionally organizing his ideas in a specific way. For example, he claims that the idea of repetition can be used effectively. He offers that repeating ideas and then playing contrasting material can really appeal to the average listener. He further described this approach

and how repetition can represent an important part of playing melodically:

Melodic playing to me, at least in general, kind of implies some kind of repetition in there. That’s not the absolute definition of being melodic but the repetition is what draws people in. Their ears perk up a little bit when they recognize something that’s already been played or something they’ve already heard before at some point in time. That’s what draws them in. If they are just hearing different sounds constantly, then it’s just not going to click in somebody’s brain. There’s nothing to latch onto…Through repetition I want to give them a “hook,” something they can remember and essentially sing-a-long.102 While Hoenig acknowledges the importance of repetition in creating a memorable performance, in practice he also describes how he would demonstrate this in the context of a standard AABA

form and that the key to making this effective lies in remembering his initial thematic material:

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The way I would think about it, there would be a specific theme I would play for the two A sections. That theme is then repeated and the B section would be something contrasting. Then the final A section would come back to the original theme. The hardest thing, for me, is remembering what I played for the first two A sections and being able to repeat it again for the last A section.103 While this represents a simple, yet effective, approach to soloing over an AABA form in a thematic way, Hoenig acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily the only way he can improvise over such a form. However, he stresses that it is an effective approach because it offers a sense of

contrast that is easy for the average listener to relate to. As he elaborated:

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