Jazz’s Own Sweet Time

Jazz drumming has no precedent in music history. It is an original way of putting together and playing drums and cymbals, which introduced a new kind of virtuosity demanding independent coordination of all four limbs. The swinging time jazz drummers keep—whether 4/4 or not—is profound because that pulsation arrives as part of the only Western fine-art music given to melody, harmony and counterpoint in which the statement of the very meter itself, however syncopated, is a lively and thoughtful aesthetic aspect of the music.

Today there is a stereotyped idea of swing as a very narrow thing, but the fluidity of jazz time is exactly the reverse. This has misled some to believe that jazz time is metronomic. Jazz time is almost never metronomic.

Unlike the metronome, which rigidly ticks and tocks its way, jazz drumming keeps the tempo and functions as part of the highly nuanced antiphony among the players that helps define and determine the quality of the improvising. Time is played and played with. It speaks and is spoken to. Further, as any close listener knows, when a musician suddenly rises with what Ron Carter calls “the strongest beat,” that person will take over the feeling of the rhythm,and the others will go in that direction. That is part of the freedom and the power of jazz.

Anthony Braxton once said to me that Connie Kay “had 50 ways to play 4/4.” While I am not sure that 50 is an accurate number, the last time I heard Kay with the Modern Jazz Quartet, at the Carlyle Hotel, he approached 4/4 time from so many different angles, mixing shuffle grooves, gospel beats and something from the Caribbean. He did all of this while playing with so much control that the unmiked piano, vibraphone and bass were perfectly audible throughout. I have rarely heard such virtuosity.

Some young drummers are so unaware of what their predecessors have achieved that they will contemptuously dismiss playing time as “holding the listener’s hand,” when the question of how many swinging ways one can play time, or how many swinging grooves one can bring off, or how many swinging tempos one can play never comes up. Such young drummers think that there is a great achievement to ignoring all of that and playing percussive coloration, “like a symphony drummer,” as one bassist described a controversial “free” drummer to me almost 40 years ago. (Yes, people have been playing like that for 40 years. Ask Sunny Murray.)

Percussive coloration—timbre, reverberation and register—is a basic element of altering jazz time. Strokes on drums tend to have little ring; they are there and gone. With a cymbal, the stroke is the beginning of the sound, which means that the key to the ride cymbal is making that ring swing. A beat played on a closed sock cymbal is a different beat when played on an open sock—or, as Tony Williams so cleverly realized, a triplet figure played by Elvin Jones on his snare drum had a very different effect when executed on a cymbal heavy with reverberation. As for something like “white noise”—of the hissing, pitchless sort heard in electronic music—the brushes handle that, creating purely modern timbres while swinging or, as masters of ballad drumming show, singing.

The super-swinging quality of invention Al Foster brings to his understanding of these issues is audible in the varied pings as well as burrs or metallic slurs and smears he imposes on his cymbal sound through highly sophisticated touches. This approach pulls more than one tonal quality from each of his drums by attacking them from their centers to other points all the way to the rims. On Latin tunes, Foster might use a different version of that groove every chorus.

Compared to such achievements and the kinds of drama and overall effects they bring to jazz drumming, merely playing percussive coloration might be interesting—even 40 years later—but it is more than a bit "neoconservative" when one realizes that such approaches to percussion have been in concert music since Edgard Varèse wrote “Ionisation” nearly 80 years ago.

If one were to do, as one superb example, what Herlin Riley does during “Gagaku”on Wynton Marsalis’ Jump Start and Jazz (Columbia, 1996) and bring such highly unusual rhythms into the world of swinging,we would hear something fresh that—finally—builds upon the conceptions Tony Williams brought to the Blue Note avant-garde of the ’60s. That, however, would demand actual aesthetic thought, something we witness little of in an era when “advanced” almost always means either imitating European concert music or going ethnic and “inclusive.”

Originally published in November 2002

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