«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»
For many, the drummer is the focal point of an ensemble and becomes in some sense, the band’s de facto conductor within a group of musicians. Specific to this, Kenny Washington spoke to the central role that a drummer contributes to an ensemble, the arrangement and how the degree of
their musical knowledge will ultimately determine the success of the music in question. As
Well the thing is, if the drummer doesn’t know everything about the piece of music, then the band doesn’t have a chance. The band is finished before they even begin. It’s just as important for the drummer to know the melodies and what’s happening as anybody else. I say this all the time: a musical drummer is like a traffic cop on a busy street in Manhattan on Friday rush hour at five o’clock at 42nd and Broadway. That’s what a drummer does, you know. A drummer can make a not-so-good arrangement into something much more than what it really is by using his musical imagination and how he thinks overall about melody and harmony.47 For Washington, how a drummer understands the nuances of the music in question ultimately determines how effective it will be. While the drummer isn’t playing the melody per se in a given situation, they still need to understand its nuances in order to play it effectively.
Specifically, for Kenny Washington this refers to how a drummer accents certain aspects of a melodic passage and emphasizes parts of a melody or arrangement using the drum set. As he
points out, drummer Art Blakey was an accomplished master of this:
For example, a match made in heaven is Art Blakey playing any of Horace Silver’s music. If you listen to Silver’s piece “Ecaroh” (which is Horace spelled backwards) you can hear him playing the same accents as the horn players. He’s playing the same rhythms and he knows how to play what I call the “Do’s and the Dots”, in other words, the long notes and the short notes. This is the whole idea of articulation.48 He elaborated on this idea of how the concept of articulation and orchestration reveal themselves in the music. Rather than being strictly a timekeeper, Washington stresses how a good jazz drummer will also match certain rhythms of a melodic passage with the appropriate part of the
drum set, accenting certain parts of that melodic statement. As Washington describes in detail:
So you know, if the note played by the horns is like a quarter note followed by an 8th rest, then an 8th note tied to a half-note, now that quarter note is going to be short or it could be a fat quarter note. So that first quarter note, they wouldn’t play that on the ride cymbal, because the cymbal is going to ring. So it all depends upon the articulation of what the horns are playing. It could be a staccato note or it could be a fat quarter note. He’d play Washington (2011) Ibid that quarter note on the snare drum because it’s going to be short. Because the snare drum is short it doesn’t sustain but the ride cymbal does. It’s going to be a longer sound and that’s going to ring. It’s all about shorts and longs.49 As far as Washington is concerned, how a drummer orchestrates musical passages within an ensemble and how they match the articulation of those passages on the drums is considered to be melodic and a very important musical contribution to a band. This approach and the general idea of orchestration and articulation being considered melodic is an opinion shared by several other drummers as well.
Carl Allen stressed the importance of orchestration and how a drummer can enhance the music
being played by the rest of an ensemble in a similar way. He describes orchestration as:
Orchestrating is about kind of dressing up what’s happening with the melody and what’s going on around you musically. But basically you can’t orchestrate something if you don’t know what the melody is.50 Similar to Washington, Allen emphasizes not only the importance of orchestration but further describes the process in terms of how he orchestrates and articulates rhythmic ideas that are
being played by the other musicians and translates them to the drum set:
Some of the things we talk about all the time are the “shorts and longs.” When you start looking at articulation, for instance if you take a tune like “Monk’s Dream” (Thelonious Monk), you know that every note has a different length. Some notes are short; some notes are long. Now we’re talking about trying to match those articulations on the drum set and trying to figure out how we get a long note and how we get a short note from any particular part of the kit. And as we start to look at these things, we’re now talking about orchestration. We’re now talking about phrasing and articulation on the drums and this is how we transform the drums into a melodic instrument.51
According to Allen and Washington, the concept of emphasizing and orchestrating certain aspects of an accompanied melody on the drum set with the proper corresponding articulations (i.e. making the distinction between short and long articulations and playing them on what they feel to be appropriate instruments) is perceived as an important musical concept and, for them, reflects an overall melodic sensibility.
Similarly, this is also consistent with Jason Marsalis’ description of articulation as related to melody, however he described his use of articulation in the specific context of playing with a
Well, the first thing (when you’re playing with a band) is to lock up with the piano, as a rhythm section, and whatever rhythms the piano is playing. There are ways you match the piano. If he’s playing short rhythms, playing short chords, then you can use the snare drum to match that. If he’s playing long rhythms, long chords, then you can use the bass drum with the crash cymbal to match that. I’d say that all the attention to articulation in this way counts as being melodic.52 Marsalis, much like Washington and Allen, considers the role of articulation and orchestration to play an important part in their roles as accompanists within an ensemble. For Marsalis, this is important specifically when playing in a rhythm section, or when trying to properly play in sync with a pianist in an accompanying role.
While many drummers offered what they consider to be their own melodic approaches to musical accompaniment, others suggested different interpretations of melody in the context of their own approach to timekeeping. For example, Ian Froman spoke about his consideration of
melody with regards to his use of the ride cymbal:
Jackson Jr. (2011) I consider melody when I am playing because I am supporting the melody when I am playing. In a contemporary way of jazz drumming I am going to introduce the melody to my ride cymbal time playing. My right hand on the cymbal is actually going to compliment the important notes of the melody.53 Similar to the ideas of orchestration and articulation presented earlier by Kenny Washington and Carl Allen, Froman described how he reflects melodic material from the composition he is playing on the drum set, through his right hand’s rhythms on the ride cymbal. He also described how fundamentally, he considers the melody when he is playing because he recognizes his musical duty to support it. However, Froman chooses to reflect this melodic information and support by introducing it through his ride cymbal patterns. Rather than maintaining a steady, repetitive pattern on the ride cymbal, Froman (as many other drummers do) chooses to vary his patterns on the ride cymbal. What is interesting and relative to this discussion is how Froman describes these ride cymbal variations as being a means to compliment, and in essence orchestrate/articulate, what he feels are important parts of a melodic entity.
In a broader way, compared to the other drummers interviewed, Adam Nussbaum also considers the technique of orchestration to be an important part of his overall conceptual approach to accompanying on the drums. When describing how the role of orchestration factors into his own
playing, he described it as follows:
When I’m playing with other people, I’m basically orchestrating what’s going on around me: using different sounds of the drum set, different textures and different feels according to what the composition is telling me.54 Similarly, Billy Drummond was quick to point out that when discussing the concept of playing melodically, this approach to jazz drumming can simply refer to how one organizes their ideas
on the drum set in a musical way:
Froman (2011) Nussbaum (2011) And so when we say melodic, sometimes we kind of think of sing-song types of drum solos but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it is just a matter of organization and how you orchestrate around the drums when you’re playing, when you’re soloing or when you are accompanying. All the great jazz drummers have a way of orchestrating in a musical way that definitely comes from being attuned to melody and then hearing things in their head that comes off as being “melodic.”55 Overall, the themes of orchestration and articulation, while perhaps not immediately obvious to be considered melodic to the casual ear, were not only valued as being important aspects to a drummer’s musical approach but were also considered by the drummers interviewed to contribute to an overall melodic sensibility. I would argue that these applications are genuinely considered to be melodic because they represent ideas expressed on the drum set that are explicitly done so because they contribute to the overall melodic continuity of the composition being played as a whole. Furthermore, these are all concepts that exist based on having been derived from an initial consideration of a fundamental melodic awareness in the first place.
2.3 COUNTERPOINT AS MELODY While many jazz drummers described how they interpret melodic material on the drum set in terms of orchestrating and articulating their ideas on the drums, many others described the act of accompanying other soloists as being melodic in nature as well. The term “counterpoint” was consistently referred to and described as being melodic in nature and a form of melodic drumming in the context of accompaniment.
Drummond (2011) The term “counterpoint” is defined by the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as
A term first used in the 14th century, to describe the combination of simultaneously sounding musical lines according to a system of rules.56 Furthermore, The Oxford Companion to Music describes “counterpoint” as being: “…the coherent combination of distinct melodic lines in music, and the quality that best fulfills the aesthetic principle of unity in diversity.”57 In many styles of Western music the idea of counterpoint can often represent a highly strict set of rules that govern how independent musical lines interact with each other. However, in the context of jazz drumming, the idea of counterpoint is regarded in a much broader way with less restrictions or governing rules. In this discussion, counterpoint is really meant to describe the interactive process of accompaniment between a soloist and a drummer (or accompanist).
In this context of accompanying other musicians during a jazz improvisation, Dan Weiss described how adopting a sense of rhythmic counterpoint or even a sense of unity with a soloist’s
improvisations was, in his opinion, a melodic approach to the drums. Overall Weiss offered that:
Another way to approach melody on the drums is to create counter-melodies or counterpoint with the soloist. You could approach yourself as an extension of the soloist.
That’s one approach to melodic accompaniment, to make yourself try to be at one with whoever is soloing.58 New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians 2nd Edition (2001: 551) Whittal (2002: 315) Weiss (2011) Further to that, Ali Jackson Jr. also commented that for him, playing rhythmic counterpoint with a soloist was also a product of thinking and playing melodically. While elaborating on the different possibilities that he can use while accompanying someone, all these options are
somehow derived from an initial consideration of a melodic approach:
Countermelodies are an effective and interactive way of playing. They go back and forth between whoever’s improvising and soloing. There are also breaks, stop time, superimposition, rhythmic and metric modulation and different assortments of groove accompaniments. Like I could name a bunch of different ways of how to accompany someone including dynamics, polyrhythms, cross rhythms…I mean, it’s really endless.
It’s all pretty infinite really but if you start with thinking melodically then anything is possible.59 While playing contrapuntally is only one of many techniques that Jackson feels he can use as an accompanist, the key is that for Jackson, they rely on an initial consideration of melody in some form or another in order to execute them.
Further to the idea of counterpoint and overall musical interaction, drummer Peter Erskine stressed its importance in terms of his own personal interpretation of playing melodically within the context of an ensemble. For Erskine, the idea of playing literal melodies on the drums isn’t so much a priority as it is for him to provide musical commentary and contrast to the musical situation around him, specifically in the context as an accompanist. Counterpoint is an important melodic tool that Erskine uses in an ensemble situation. His conceptual approach is described as