«MELODIC JAZZ DRUMMING by Jonathan David McCaslin A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Musical Arts ...»
I think you can attempt to emulate the specific pitches of a melody on the drum set. But for me that’s not so important. What’s important is that the shape and emotion of the line is somehow conveyed. The pitches could be totally backwards, but you can still know that I’m thinking about a specific tune. No one has ever said they couldn’t hear the melody because the pitches weren’t accurate. If the melodic shape, the intention and the implication are correct then you’re okay. So it’s just a matter of your approximating the line, not so much playing exactly the line. I think it’s possible to convey a melody without really relating to the exact pitches, it’s just more or less the direction. But even then, it doesn’t have to be the same direction; it can be the overall rhythmic shape and emotion of it.71
Riley’s assertion is that while emulating pitches on the drum set is a completely valid option, he feels that the melodic quality of the rhythms he can play on the drums is not necessarily lost when he chooses not to focus on using pitches themselves. He claims that the rhythmic nuance of the contour (described by Riley as the “melodic shape”) combined with the intention of playing something melodic allows a statement on the drums to come across and really “speak” with a melodic purpose. For example, if a given melodic structure he is trying to express changes direction in either an upwards or downwards direction, he is able to reflect that by either dynamically accenting certain parts of the phrase or even emphasizing those changes in direction by moving to a higher or lower part of the drum set, regardless of its pitch.
This proved to be a common theme among drummers when asked to describe how they felt melody factors into jazz drumming and specifically its role with regard to improvising on the drums. Often the idea of intentional, organized rhythmic phrasing was described as being the key component to playing melodically on the drum set rather than going for specific pitches.
Along those lines, during his drum set clinic and performance at PASIC (Indianapolis 2013), Ralph Peterson Jr. agreed with Riley’s opinion that going for pitches on the drum set is not, in
his opinion, necessarily the key to playing melodically:
When you go for direct pitch, something gets sacrificed. And to me that’s phrasing. And for me phrasing is more important than pitch. Because if I’m playing the proper phrasing, I can make you hear the pitches I want. Like this: [proceeds to play the jazz composition “Oleo” (composed by Sonny Rollins) on trumpet without attention to specific notes or accuracy of pitches, then proceeds to play the same melody on the snare drum]. My point is that if I play with the proper phrasing, I don’t have to play none of the notes.72 Peterson Jr. (2013) Peterson’s justification may come across as a bit convoluted and even contradictory (!) however the main point he stresses is that his overall intention and clarity of his rhythmic phrasing, in his opinion, is far more important than the actual pitches themselves.
From Riley and Peterson’s perspectives a melodic idea can be expressed on the drum set without the use of specific pitches, but rather from specific attention to the rhythmic phrasing of a musical idea.
Furthermore, this relates to Peter Erskine’s earlier comments of how the replication of direct
pitch on the drum set is not necessarily the key to playing melodically. As Erskine pointed out:
“They may play an actual melody on the drums and still be playing some really dumb stuff!”73 Furthermore, it might be possible to assume that if a musician is playing an instrument that has a collection of definite pitches, or organized scales, whatever they play will automatically be considered to have a “melodic” quality. Often the assumption is made that in order for an instrument to sound, or to be considered “melodic”, their instrument must have a proper, organized selection of pitches. This is often why people are quick to misunderstand and label the drums as a non-melodic entity74. Matt Wilson was very quick to dispel this notion and
fundamentally disagrees with this very idea:
Just because you have “notes” (i.e. pitches) it doesn’t mean you’re playing melodically. I mean, there’s saxophonists that don’t play melodically and there’s piano players that don’t play melodically…Don Cherry and Clifford Brown played melodically because they played ideas and, I think, ideas that you can sing or play back or that could even stand as melodies on their own.75 Erskine (2011) While the drum set is often referred to as an “instrument of indefinite pitch” this should not, however, classify it as an instrument without melodic potential.
Wilson (2011) For Wilson, it is not the instrument, or playing an instrument that uses pitches, that determines the melodic quality of a piece of music. Rather, it is the musician’s own personal concept and overall musical intention, imagination and creative vision that will create a melodic statement on
their instrument. As Wilson continues:
I think it’s more about that intention than anything else. I don’t even know if it is pitch. I mean, great melodies are played on the blues with one note, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all about pitches, right? It’s about the intention behind how someone plays something that gives you that feeling.76 In Wilson’s opinion, the idea of playing with a specific musical intention plays a significant role in creating an improvised melody. If playing melodically as a musical statement is a priority for a musician, according to Wilson, this will somehow reveal itself in their playing. Wilson continued with his idea of one’s overall musical intention being at the heart of playing melodically rather
than relying on the use of pitches or notes:
You know, a great melody could be a cadence on a snare drum if it’s clear, even if there’s no pitch in there. It’s all what you do with it. It’s how you hear them and how creative you can be with the material. To me melody is the intention and it’s also the shape. It’s all those things: the articulation, dynamics, the use of space and the direction of the line.
That is what draws me into hearing someone play. That is why when somebody puts on a Sonny Rollins record you go “Wow!” or if you hear Ornette Coleman, Red Garland, Miles Davis or Charlie Parker…there’s something else there than just a bunch of notes.77 Joe LaBarbera’s ideas in this regard were consistent with Matt Wilson’s in terms of how he disagreed with the overall notion that having a collection of pitches and scales at your disposal on your instrument, automatically categorizes one’s improvising as being melodic. When asked to describe examples of his own impressions of current, non-melodic drumming, LaBarbera was actually more inclined to offer his opinion of a general, overall lack of melodic attention in the
wider scope, regardless of a person’s instrument:
Honestly, I could probably find more examples of non-melodic jazz saxophone playing these days; you know I hear it all the time. One of my big gripes in jazz today, among young performers that I’m hearing on recordings, is that there’s a real lack of melodic invention going on.78 Joey Baron was also quick to suggest that the key to playing melodically lies not within the
capability or limitations of the instrument but instead within the musicality of the musician:
The instrument doesn’t determine the quality of the music. It’s the person and their perspective. Whether they are playing a tuba or classical guitar, drum set or piano, it doesn’t matter. I’ve heard incredibly unmusical piano concerts. The musical quality is always because of the player, not because of the instrument.79 So then, if many jazz drummers agree that it’s not necessary to play specific pitches on a drum set in order for their musical statement to be considered melodic (nor are instrumentalists that play other pitched instruments to be automatically considered melodic based on their choice of instruments!), what elements of playing the drums and thinking about melody lend themselves to a melodic sensibility while soloing on the drum set?
LaBarbera (2011) Baron (2011)
3.2 EXPRESSING MELODY ON THE DRUMSAs described earlier, Ingrid Monson points to a specific, basic interpretation of the concept “melodic drumming” over the course of her examination of the process of small group jazz improvisation: “When drummers speak of playing melodically, at the most basic level they are referring to melodic rhythms.”80 According to Monson, her interpretation of “melodic drumming” implies that, when doing so, a drummer is actually using the rhythm of a melody combined with the contrasting tonal and sonic choices offered by the drum set (i.e. a collection of drums tuned high to low in a contrasting fashion) to imply or create a sense of melodic construction on the drums. This melody that Monson refers to could be either a partial or complete reference to the original, existing melody of the song being played or even a completely new, improvised melodic or thematic idea.
Monson’s description (based on the idea of rhythmic imitation of melody) is certainly a basic and valid approach toward playing melodically on the drums. By exploring this approach one would undoubtedly develop a large, very practical and very musical vocabulary with which to draw from in a drum solo context. However, as we learn from the commentary and opinions of many different jazz drummers, the melodic aspects of drum soloing can actually be quite diverse.
While Erskine identified the idea of “playing songs” on the drums as being a very limited approach to dealing with melody on drums, Matt Wilson offered perhaps some of the most varied solutions to making a rhythmic idea played on the drums sound melodic. For him, the Monson (1996: 61) musical concepts of “articulation, dynamics, the use of space and the direction of the line”81 in one’s playing are what ultimately make a musical idea sound melodic (and more importantly, musical!), regardless of the instrument being played. These ideas are what Wilson referred to as “Sonic Dimensions.”82 According to Wilson, by intentionally incorporating these ideas into one’s playing (whether improvising or not) even a rhythm played on a single surface (such as a snare drum) can be played and heard in a melodic way.
At the very least, thinking of a melody on the drum set should be considered as a departure point for any improvisation. Elvin Jones describes this process and how the learning and understanding of the melody and the form of the composition in question represents the beginning of developing a drum solo. In the documentary “Elvin: Jones Different Drummer” (1986), the interviewer asks Jones: “Can you just show me a little bit how you would take the theme of the piece “Three Card Molly” and develop that into a drum solo?” Jones responds with a simple demonstration of how the melodic framework of the composition “Three Card Molly” provides
such a foundation:
First of all, we are dealing with a very uncomplicated form. This is sort of a combination of blues and standard AABA form. So if we understand the melody then we can understand how that melody or rhythmic phrase can be developed. So the melody being, in terms of rhythm [plays basic melodic phrase to “Three Card Molly” on the snare drum] Now to add some substance to it, I’ll at this time, I will play it again and I’ll add, say, the bass drum [repeats the same phrase on the snare drum with half-note pulse on the bass drum] To give it a little more emphasis I’m going to add the hi-hat to that [repeats same rhythmic phrase on the snare drum with bass drum emphasizing half-notes and the hi-hat playing beats 2 & 4 with some slight syncopated phrases] I only played the first phrase of the tune. This time I’ll add the tom toms and I’ll add the end and from there I’ll go into another whole chorus of that piece and we’ll see how that all develops.83 Wilson (2011) Ibid Gray (1986) As Jones demonstrates, using the piece “Three Card Molly” as an example, the form and the melody of a composition can be used effectively as a departure point for further creative improvisation on the drum set.
3.3 THE USE OF FORM Building on Jones’s assertion that “…if we understand the melody then we can understand how that melody or rhythmic phrase can be developed,”84 we can further explore the important influence that a melody and its form yields in terms of developing a drum solo. For many drummers, the actual overall organization of rhythmic ideas can reflect a melodic sensibility, if used properly, regardless of the rhythms themselves are derived from another melody or even played with a specific melodic intention. As Billy Drummond commented, the melodic sensibility of one’s drum soloing comes in large part from this overall organization of one’s musical ideas and how they are expressed and organized in the context of intentional, measured musical phrases:85 When a drummer is playing on a song form or the form of a particular composition, certainly in a standard type of song form, I think that paying attention to the form certainly helps a drummer sound melodic…when he is presented a composition to play and solo on, he’s soloing on the same idea and form as the other “melodic instruments” or instruments that have definite pitch as well.86 Specifically, for Drummond, this idea of organizing one’s drum ideas into specific phrase lengths and strictly adhering to the form of the composition becomes a fundamental part of playing the drums in a musically coherent way. He feels that this lends itself to being melodic.
Ibid As demonstrated earlier, this is consistent with approaches to dealing with melody as an accompanist and as a timekeeper as well.
Drummond (2011) Furthermore, according to Drummond, this comes from a specific study and the practice of
organizing one’s ideas on the drum set into specific phrase lengths: