Monday, August 27, 2012

Piano: the other percussion instrument

Yes, this blog is about music for drummers. The operative word is music, and one of the grand instruments of music is the piano. So much so that in some music schools anyone entering a percussion program must prove their proficiency on a piano before getting accepted.

Before you go off on a rant about daft motherfuckers who talk about everything but drums in a blog ostensibly about drummers you may be interested in knowing that the likes of Art Blakey was a pianist before he was a drummer, and a multitude of drummers, such as Ed Thigpen were and are outstanding pianists. The truth be known, one hundred years ago pianos were essential in many households and were the center of family and neighborhood entertainment before being nudged out by radio. Moreover, musicians such as Charles Mingus and Bix Beiderbecke - virtuosos on their own instruments - were sufficiently talented on piano to record records and albums as pianists. A side note of interest is Dizzy Gillespie, another virtuoso pianist as well as trumpter, was also very proficient as a drummer. So proficient in fact that he gave Art Blakey drum lessons that dramatically improved Blakey's playing and transition from pianist to drummer.

The bottom line is even if you never become proficient as a pianist (or even touch one), studying some of the greats is an effective way to improve your skills as a drummer. One only need listen to many of the pianists in Jazz Piano History to appreciate the complex rhythms the greats managed while still paying attention to melody and harmony. We drummers have it easy in comparison.

On the other hand, as musicians we need to understand not only rhythm, which is a given, but also melody and harmony.

I am not implying that you must learn music theory because many solid drummers have managed to become successful without the theoretical training. I am saying that you, as a musician, should be aware of what is happening musically when you are supporting the music and your fellow musicians. Hence the following, simplified introduction to some of the things of which you should be aware.

Melody, in the most simplistic terms, is rhythm plus pitch. We drummers can actually contribute to the melody since we play rhythms and our instrument has various pitches. Pitches within a certain range are notes. Consider Drum Workshop drums, which have the musical pitch written on the inside of each shell; i.e., C#.

Those pitches are limited and somewhat fixed for each instrument, depending on your touch. Despite some inherent limitations, they will allow us to integrate with the other musicians and take some responsibility for the melody. This is partially addressed in this post. Studying drummers is not as effective as studying pianists if you want to bring your musicianship to the next level.

Harmony, in simplistic terms, is the relationship between and among simultaneous notes. Watch a guitarist or pianist hold down strings (or keys) in a pattern to form chords. There are musical rules that govern how chords are interrelated. Those rules also govern how they progress to the next chord, and how that chord fits into a musical structure. For our purposes, think of chords as either consonant or dissonant. A consonant chord fits into the structure (for lack of a better way of describing it) while a dissonant chord does not seem to fit.

Placed in the context of drumming, a pattern on a tom tuned to a certain pitch that complements a chordal structure played by a pianist or guitarist would be consonant. An unexpected cymbal crash placed at the same point would be dissonant. It may or may not be inappropriate, depending on why it was used. It it was used to mark a transition to another phrase it would support the music.

Do you need to know all of this to be a good drummer? Not necessarily, but you need to be aware of it if you want to be a part of the music instead of just playing time - something a backing track or rhythm box can do. Back to my original contention: studying piano or critically listening to pianists will significantly improve your skills as a drummer, and more importantly, will aid in your becoming a musician who plays drums (there is a distinction.)

As I said, the piano is a fundamental musical instrument, and is part of the foundation of ragtime, which was a key ingredient of jazz and the music it spawned, including rock. In fact, the first four tracks on the first disc in Jazz Piano History are Scott Joplin piano rolls from 1899. The media is grouped into five sets of four discs, each focused on milestones in the evolution and maturation of jazz, the role piano played, and the masters of each era or milestone.

Here is what the set contains:

Disc 1 is devoted to ragtime, with examples ranging from the Scott Joplin piano rolls to Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, with other pianists both obscure and a few cited as unknown. There are some good examples of syncopation in this group, and the early work of Eubie Blake and James P. Johnson is sophisticated in rhythm, melody and harmony. In other words, well worth studying despite the fact that it is nearly a century old. Here is an example from this disc:

Disc 2 is Harlem Stride, with the inventors well represented: James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and Fats Waller, as well as those who were heavily influenced by them like Duke Ellington, and even Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams pieces. Notice how much more sophisticated, rhythmically and harmonically this is compared to ragtime. An example:

Here is one more example with an explanation of what James P. Johnson is doing:

Disc 3 through 5 focus on blues and boogie woogie with some of the giants: Cow Cow Davenport, Meade Lux Lewis, Jimmy Yancey, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and others. Here are two excellent examples:

Discs 6 and 7 are interesting because they are divided both by race and city. 6 is Chicago Black and 7 is Chicago & New York White. Earl Hines and Jelly Roll Morton dominate disc 6, with additional tracks by Jimmy Blythe, Clarence Jones and Alex Hill. Disc 7 is more diverse with a lot of tracks by Joe Sullivan and Jess Stacey, but also Bud freeman, Art Hodes and others. One treat is by Bix Beiderbecke, mainly known for his cornet contributions to jazz, but a great pianist in his own right. His "In a Mist" is included and is well worth studying and is provided in this clip:

And an example of Earl Hines around the same time he recorded Hot Fives and Hot Sevens with Louis Armstrong:

In fact, let's drill down into a song from the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. This song represents a major turning point in jazz, and the video explains what is happening, including what Hines is doing:

Discs 8 through 10 are devoted to swing, and is dominated by Teddy Wilson (an extremely important figure in Swing and other jazz sub genres), Earl Hines, Art Tatum and a plethora of other well- and lesser-known names. Here are some excellent examples:

Disc 11, Kansas City, has the usual suspects: Basie, Jay McShann, Mary Lou Williams (who was Monk's and Bud Powell's mentors among others), and Pete Johnson.

Disc 12 was something of a letdown. It is focused on bebop and rightfully includes a good number of Bud Powell tracks, but only a few for Monk. Al Haig, John Lewis and Dodo Marmarosa are represented along with a few others. However, I cannot resist the temptation of using some of Bud Powell's and Monk's later work as an examples. In the near future I will be doing a post exclusively about each that will dip back into earlier earlier work. Please pay close attention to what the drummers are doing in each of these clips. It's very obvious that they are aware of melody and harmony (and dynamics):

Disc 13 is titled Modern Jazz, with Lennie Tristano and John Lewis getting most of the tracks. For an example of Tristano see Bird & Lennie: a study in great music and great drummers, which includes video clips. Here is a clip of John Lewis with one of my favorite groups, The Modern Jazz Quartet. Connie Kay, the drummer, is one of my influences:

Disc 14 is Cool with Dave Brumeck, Hampton Hawes and Russ Freeman providing most of the examples.

Disc 15, West Coast, is misnamed. For example it has more than a few Monk tracks, which are strictly New York pieces, and I never associated Horace Silver or Richie Powell - two predominately East Coast musicians - with West Coast jazz either. Still, the tracks are wonderful so I shouldn't be quibbling about how they are labeled. A little Horace Silver is in order for an example. Also the late Richie Powell who perished in the car crash with Clifford Brown. Richie was Bud's brother.

The remaining four discs contain some of the giants of jazz piano and are my favorite discs from the set. Among those amply represented are Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Hank Jones, Kenny Drew, Bobby Timmons, Cedar Walton, Gene Harris, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. Among this august group are other, less mainstream - but excellent - examples too.

If this set is too comprehensive for your needs or tastes, you may want to check out Jazz Piano Masters instead.

It is more focused on a later period and strictly jazz, cutting out any examples of ragtime and stride. See my review to determine if that set is right for you.

This post covered a lot of ground on one hand, and has barely scratched the surface on the other. Know that you do not have to learn music theory, including digging into melody and harmony to learn from listening to pianists. If you have a rudimentary grasp of the concepts, then awareness of what the musicians you are supporting are doing will follow. If you achieve awareness then you will be a better drummer.

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