This is an area that seems to be largely ignored in the teaching of Jazz, while at the same time one of the most essential components of “swing.”
There is a pedagogy called Eurythmics pioneered by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, which was taken up by the composer Carl Orff, and is now sporadically present in the American music education system largely through the efforts of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association (AOSA). Their method offers positive, integrative musical experiences to children through the use of rhythm and song in ensembles. These methods expose the student to the fun of music-making, largely through the use of rhythm and dynamics, enabling to get the students feeling the music through the motion it takes to make it.
There is a lot of misinformation, confusion, and toxic pedagogy with regard to swing, accents, phrasing, and how they work together. Two of the most abused and misunderstood concepts are “laying back” and “back-phrasing,” and we will touch on these as we go along. Swing depends on a constant underlying pulse, and tension and release against the underlying pulse (pulling against the tempo) is a parameter available to the performer; however, there is vast opportunity to create tension and release within the pulse – without “violating the tempo stream” – that is much more powerful and effective. The problem comes when performers do the former without an understanding of the latter. The underlying substrate of swing is triplets, and there are many things that can be done, many traditions of development with triplets; different groupings, accent patterns, overlays, and offsets of the triplet stream.
The greatest horn players I’ve heard can “lock in” a rhythm section with a few notes; Clark Terry and Houston Person come immediately to mind, although there are many greats – Miles, Wayne, Trane, Freddie, Frank Sinatra, etc. etc.; where they put the rhythm is where it is supposed to be; right with the rhythm section (or, sometimes, where they intend the rhythm section to be playing it!). Their playing sounds free and “laid back” because of their ability to recompose the rhythm with the use of devices such as eighth note triplets offset by a triplet eighth note, or a series of quarter notes with a similar offset, or many other possible rhythmic devices.
[graphic ex 33: melody with offsets
There are rich traditions in rhythm that have been passed down orally; musicians with “ears” or “talent” seem to soak some of these principles up by osmosis. Playing rhythmically and using dynamic contrast can be great fun for the player, and rhythmic expressiveness is a hallmark of dynamic performance that should be a point of strong focus.
The Substrate of Swing
There is an underlying structure to swing:
[graphic ex 34: swing substrate
There are traditional accent locations in the substrate, as you can see above.
Whenever there is an accent, there is an increased investment of energy in the playing of it. For natural contrast, accents are usually followed by un-accented material, requiring a different touch and investment of energy. There is some “recovery time” required; the player needs to restrain himself and “let go” following the creation of the accent; this contrast between the investment of energy and the subsequent “letting go” creates “feel,” and transmits very directly into the listener.
Every jazz drummer has a characteristic and individual “ride beat” (although there are some who have the capacity to vary their beat according to the style). The characteristic “feel” comes from:
1. Which notes are accented? Some accent all the downbeats; some accent two and four; some accent the triplet upbeats; this parameter is also a factor in the style of a particular period.
2. Whether the accent pattern is regular or varied; some play the exact same feel all the time; some styles depend on a certain array of accents, but the better drummers know how to “break it up” and create phrasing with the construction of their ride beat, in any style.
3. How hard the accent is hit
4. How quick is the recovery time? How close is the triplet upbeat to the following downbeat?
These are all factors that come together in an individual and create an individual style. The greatest musicians are aware of all these parameters and are able to come up with an appropriate “feel” for a particular band. Everybody in the band needs to have some awareness of these parameters; when a band is not playing together, it is usually from inflexibility, lack of awareness, or disagreements on this issue. Some drummers believe – or have been taught – that they are “the time-keeper,” and will not accommodate any other feel. Some people learn a particular style, and are not aware how that style may be related to others, or what the elements of the style of those around them might be. The ability to accommodate differences in style (and inflexible and didactic drummers!) is vital indeed for a bass player.
There are also horn players and singers who have not learned the fundamentals of rhythm, and are not aware of their responsibility to become one with the rhythm section. Although they might believe they are making a powerful statement, or getting a lot of “feeling,” if they are abusing the tempo stream, they are making the audience – and the rhythm section’s – skin crawl. Back-phrasing must NOT be another word for “dragging the tempo!” Back-phrasing should be: The active re-composition of the melody by affirmatively performing alternative rhythms within the rhythmic stream.