Friday, November 23, 2012

Swing Issues

I was listening to some recent recordings and I noticed an inconsistency in my swing. And more pronounced when I shift to playing Rock, Funk, Latin and then back to swing. So clearly, there was something that was making me lose the swing feel.

I had to go back to my original lessons to analyze what I was hearing which seemed like timing issues or stiffness in the sound. A friend on the Piano Forum said I didn't sound "pro". He's right of course and some of it can be attributed to rushing.

Anyway, I figured it out in the last couple of weeks, I've been practicing and I'm beginning to feel that I can maintain the swing consistently now. The issue seems to be a misunderstanding I had about some of my old lessons.

As originally explained to me by several of my recent jazz teachers (and consistently), swing (at least the more modern variety), is about accenting offbeats and not about long-short-long-short. OK I got that. So I play straight and it was not sounding right. It sounds ok in Latin but not in swing.

In some prior blog, I noted that I took my teacher's recording and studied the waveforms. And I saw that the offbeat landed 100% EXACTLY on the 3 of the triplet feel. Always. Without fail. I was so focused on where the downbeat eighth landed that I neglected to pay attention to the fixed location of the offbeat. This is the only way it can swing, I realized.

I listen to Brad Mehldau and even when playing straight, he perfectly times his phrases so that things landed on the 3 of the triplet. This is the absolute secret to swing that no one has ever explained. In case there was doubt, I went back to my teacher before to verify this. And upon deep thought, he realized what I was saying was true though he does it by feel. At least I managed to find a way to articulate the technique. Now I might remind readers that my teacher is a world class jazz musician. He's a real player. The perfection of where his eighths land is truly amazing to see on a waveform. This is why most average players don't sound as clean.

I realized that it doesn't matter where my downbeat lands (as long as I stay fairly consistent). The downbeat position is dependent on whether you want to play straight or hard swing and this is a taste preference as well as a tempo thing. For example YOU HAVE TO have a hard swing (long-short) at slow tempos like 100bpm. At 150bpm, you are not obliged to have any lilt in the eighths as long as you land that offbeat on the proper part of the beat.

In practice, I found that all I have to do is start all my offbeats just a hair before the quarter note (3 of the triplet eighth). I just have to feel that, The marker is the quarter note beat. That's what was missing, which was where to anchor the offbeat to. It's the quarter note.

Once I figured this out, my playing became more consistent. Then I can stretch or shorten the downbeat eighth to either land on the downbeat (very hard swing) or slightly delayed (straight). In practice, no one really plays to land an eighth on a downbeat. It's always slightly delayed. So when listening to good swing, there ought to be no notes landing exactly on a beat.

Thus to summarize:

I had to play an accented off beat EXACTLY at the 3 of the triplet eighth position.
I had to drag the downbeat slightly but this is more flexible and changes the mood.

In contrast, when playing Latin, I have to play EXACTLY on the straight subdivisions. Perfectly straight like classical. This is one of the most difficult things to perfect in jazz is to know how to control your articulation.  This is a recent realization so we'll see how I sound in the next few gigs coming up. At least in practice recordings, it's really sounding better.

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