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Basic Training: Syncopation

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingNovember 2011 • December 1, 2011

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Melodic Syncopation Part 1


The great drummer and educator John Riley divides the artistry of drumming into four basic elements: groove, technique, musicality, and creativity.  Groove is your individual sense of time and where you place the beat; technique is your physical facility; musicality is how you respond to your musical environment; and creativity is the spark of imagination that makes every drummer as unique and identifiable as a fingerprint.

These articles are not intended to be technique primers although they are technically demanding. My main purpose is to help put technique into musical context, uniting technique with groove, musicality, and creativity and thereby improving overall musicianship.

To develop all these artistic elements, most jazz musicians organize their technical exercises around the melodies of jazz standards. This melodic approach to technique goes beyond simply developing physical facility. Putting technique into a melodic context encourages the musician to maintain a steady groove, and to respond to the tension and release of the melody with musical sensitivity. In addition to the benefits to groove and musicality, this approach plants melodies so deeply in the creative imagination, that improvising soaked in the feeling of the jazz tradition emerges. As a result of this melodic approach and of the holistic interrelation between the four artistic elements that it cultivates, musicians are better able to weave their improvisation into the fabric of the music.

Unfortunately, because drummers are not required by their instrument to be intimately involved with melody, often no such connection between technique and the other artistic elements exists. Instead of using melodies as the basis for technical exercises, many drummers use arbitrary rhythms that bear little resemblance to the elegance or sophistication of a melody. Because of this narrow focus, drummers have become notorious for a sort of athletic approach to playing that is divorced from any musical feeling. These articles work to bridge the gap between the rhythm-centric world of drummers and the melody-centric world of other musicians by organizing their rhythmic content around the melodies of jazz standards.

Each of the exercises in these articles is designed around a melody and requires you to both have the melody memorized and be able to sing it while playing. In this way, you can develop all the artistic elements and engage more deeply in the music. A recording of each melody is listed in each exercise, so if you are not familiar with the melody, find a copy of that recording and learn the melody before continuing with the exercise. The primary benefit of these exercises comes from putting technique into a musical (melodic) environment, so if you do not practice these exercises while singing the melody, you will sabotage your own development.

In addition to being designed around melodies, these exercises are each devoted to an important drummer, starting with Papa Jo. The drummers in these articles represent the evolution of jazz drumming and are all worthy of study and emulation. Each exercise will help develop an ability that corresponds to a significant element of that drummer’s sound.

Step 1: This exercise is a great way to begin working on simultaneously singing and playing the melody, while also learning about Papa Jo’s style and an important phrasing technique. Listen to the suggested recording, memorize the melody, and then sing the and play the melody on the snare drum with the snares off for a more “Latin” feel.

One of the main differences between Latin and traditional jazz is that, in general, the rhythmic feel of Latin jazz is straight eighth notes as opposed to swung eighth notes. Unlike what Papa Jo plays on the recording, be sure to sing, feel, and play this melody as straight eighth notes. Also, with your feet play beats one, the “and” of two, three, and the “and” of four with your bass drum and beats two and four with your hi-hat (Bossa feet).

Example #1 

Step 2: When you listen to the recording of this melody, notice how the piano makes a statement and then responds to that statement with the band. This musical structure is known as call and response, and it is a very potent musical technique featured in much of the music during Papa Jo’s time. In fact, Papa Jo would often use this technique in his own improvising to help create musical structure. Once you feel comfortable playing through step 1, try playing through the exercise again, but this time in the A sections improvise your own response to the piano’s call. Play your response exclusively on the snare drum while continuing to play Bossa feet.

Even though you are improvising a new rhythm, try to sing the same (or similar) notes of the response from the original. Also, stick to one improvised response throughout the form, and the next time through, improvise a new one. Try to make your response feel like a natural reaction to the response rather then trying to force rhythmic complexity. Notice that you will repeat your improvised response two times starting at measure 34 (tag ending) before returning to the original melody in the last measure.

Guide (A sections) 

R.H. and L.H.= Play two bars of the original call and two bars of improvised response using straight eighth notes 

R.F. and L.F.= Bossa feet 

Guide (B section) 

R.H. and L.H.= The melody with straight eighth notes 

R.F. and L.F.= Bossa feet

Example #2 

Playing Tips 

In addition to showcasing call and response, this melody also helps outline the form by breaking from the call and response structure on the bridge. The 32-bar AABA form of this song is one of the most common and important in jazz, so always knowing where you are in this form without needing to count is a critical skill to develop. Also, if you listen to what Papa Jo is playing in the A sections you will observe that he is playing the response note for note on the drums. The idea of playing the melody on the drums has been around for a long time!

Once you feel comfortable doing this with sticks, try it with brushes with the snares off, aiming for a clean, clear sound. Try starting on both hands to develop your weaker hand. Remember to play with a light touch, or as Papa Jo put it, “When it comes to percussion instruments, you don’t beat the drum, you play the drum” (Modern Drummer).

Suggested Recording 

Jo Jones – The Essential Jo Jones (Vanguard Records)

Andrew Hare received a music degree from Michigan State University, where he played in the school’s award-winning Big Band, as well as an array of small groups. In addition to touring Japan and the United States with the MSU Big Band, he was also selected to participate in the prestigious Jazz Aspen Academy under the guidance of Christian McBride. Hare has also had the opportunity to perform with the likes of Rodney Whitaker, Jon Faddis, Frank Morgan, and Hank Jones. Since moving to the D.C. area, Hare has been teaching at the Levine School as well as playing and recording with a number of local jazz musicians. 

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