Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Analyzing Swing in Modern Jazz - Part 1

I was trying to solve a problem for myself. How do I keep a swing feel at a faster tempo when I'm playing straight eighths? This discovery is the result of that thought process. Below is an analysis of a typical jazz beat and I'm showing two bars in each example. The analysis of swing for me starts with understanding the beat subdivisions.

The result of this little process was very illuminating. I've tried to explain this in words before but it never came out clearly because I didn't really think it out. Thanks to our drummer friends on the Jazz Advanced Thread, I finally got to thinking about this like a drummer. Step 1 was to watch a lot of Peter Erskine instructional videos on Jazz drumming on Youtube. And that got me thinking.

So here's the progression of the thought process...

A. Quarter Note Pulse
|x x x x |x x x x |

B. Eighth Notes - if played Straight
|x x x x x x x   |x x x x x x x   |

C. Straight Eighths - Translated to 24/8
I'm translating this to 24/8 - so I can demonstrate a point. So shown below, the 8th notes played straight starts on 1 of each triplet

|Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx |Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx Xxx |

D. Triplet Feel - Shown in 24/8The drummer plays a ride cymbal pattern which sets the swing groove and often heard as 'Ding-a-Ding'. This is the pattern shown below. Beginning pianists make the mistake of playing this same rhythm as the drummer and the swing doesn't breath. It sounds mechanical and hokey. Many pianists will play a less extreme version of this with the offbeat 8th note being played in between the 1st and 2nd note of the triplet.

|Xxx xXx Xxx xXx Xxx xXx Xxx xXx |Xxx xXx Xxx xXx Xxx xXx Xxx xXx |

This pattern of 8th note pairs is also shown in music notation as Dotted Eighth + 16th (instead of a pair of Eighths). When jazz is notated, this swing is not notated and is instead just stated as 'Swing'.

In case you're wondering, the 24/8 may not visually make sense since swing is often thought of as 12/8 as in this format.
|Xx X Xx X Xx X Xx X |Xx X Xx X Xx X Xx X |
E. Alternate Drag the Beat Feel Playing Straight Eighths
Modern jazz pianists take more from the horn players when doing swing. I was taught this by feel but didn't know why it worked. I can hear it everywhere. This style of playing is the modern interpretation of swing. Eighths are played fairly straight (even lengths). But the beat is dragged slightly.

|xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx |xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx xXx |

Now look at section E above. Observe that the offbeat 8th matches the swing eighth of the Triplet feel swing in D. In other words, the offbeat 8th is played on the '-A-' of the Ding-A-Ding ride cymbal pattern.

Observe also that the downbeat eighths are dragged. They don't start on 1 of the triplet. You might think this is called 'swung' as well but it isn't. That's because swing occurs on the offbeat.

So the effect of dragging the beat while playing straight eighths is that you in effect cause a swing feel. I hear this playing of the drag a lot when I listen to Herbie Hancock. He's my best piano example of this since I can hear him adjust the drag so there's a little more to the placement than the exact Ding-A-Ding.

Practically every Horn Bebop player drags straight eighths like this from what my ear tells me. Dizzy, Bird, Coltrane, Rollins but it's hard to explain on the piano since we have a more percussive attack.

Now here's why this analysis come about. I was listening to my jam recordings and whenever the tune gets a little more uptempo, I start sounding more and more mechanical. Now you can't really do a shuffle beat at a fast tempo. At 200bpm for example, it's classical music evenness.

So how do I fix my swing? At a higher tempo, one has to accept that the eighths will be even as very few have the technique to maintain a hard swing and keep a groove. Besides it doesn't sound good.

I was taught swing by accenting the downbeats. But even accenting downbeats is not possible at 200bpm.

The answer apparently, is to drag the beat. As shown above, without further thought, dragging the beat will swing.

How to do this in practice, especially since I'm supposed to play a tune at 200bpm on Monday? I played a drum track on my iRealBook app at 200bpm and thought about it. It's pretty hard to synchronize to the offbeat 8th (the 'A' in Ding-A-Ding on ride cymbal). As it is it's going so fast that I can only sync to the quarter notes.

The solution: think of each note I play as Uh-Gah Uh-Gah Uh-Gah. Two sounds but very close together. I got this idea from Erskine since he made this sound as his internal subdivision guide. Then I think of the Gah as the top of the beat. But I hit the key on the Uh. This seems to give me a good practice point for maintaining a drag at a higher tempo.

Now there's a point where I can possibly hear this (250bpm and above?). But I think this is highly applicable in the 150-200bpm range where I typically play straight eighths.

BTW - typical of the straight eighth playing style is to accent the offbeats. But as you go past 170bpm, even that is pretty hard to do. Also, you can't really play straight eighths below 140bpm. You'll have to get closer to triplet feel.

But the secret to understanding this is in using a finer subdivision.

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