Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Animating Principle

Animating Principle: Dynamics and Articulation in swing music.

I’ve always been taught and have been teaching the triplet 8th nature of swing at least at slow to mid tempos. When swing gets quite fast, say over MM = 200, the swing 8ths definitely straighten out somewhat and the swing component is more implied with shots and accents than the actual triplet 8ths. But as long as a tempo is such that continuous triplet 8ths can be played say, in a solo, the 8ths written in duple can be swung, again, depending on the tempo.

I first learned ‘Swing’ playing in a 1958 ‘Rock’ band (The [Vancouver] Shades). We started every gig with a shuffle called ‘Honky Tonk’ by Bill Doggett. It was a slow blues shuffle and I remember instinctively accenting every ‘back’ 8th because it was essentially in a walking 12/8 time. i.e.

  >   >   >   >
1+a 2+a 3+a 4+a
    <       <

Of course 2 and 4 backbeats are being pounded out as well. It could really groove this way. The ‘back’ 8th (the ‘a’) being accented creates a power vacuum which is filled by the oncoming downbeat (any on-beat 8th etc.) which itself creates a propelling force. I think (I’m not the only one—if it’s good enough for ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie it certainly is good enough for me), that it definitely animates the time feel. I love it when drummers do an 8th triplet fill into a downbeat playing with this dynamic as it really pushes things along. As Duke Ellington said more than once when an audience of the 'unhip' would ‘clap’ in time on beats 1 and 3: “Please clap on 2 and 4 as clapping ON the beat is considered ‘Aggressive’.” That’s a bit of a joke but his point is well taken. This backbeat accent principle is also applied to the ‘back’ 8th (‘a’). It creates a lively momentum and is great to play on. Back to drummers doing triplet 8th fills—when they dooo accent the down beats "continuously" during a fill to the downbeat, they are creating this same ‘aggressive’ (ie. mostly unhip) ‘slogging’ of the beat. When that happens I think the player is begging the question! Of course there is a time and place for everything (just a little pet peeve of mine).

When applying this accenting back 8th rule of thumb, in creating 8th note lines, similar respect can be given to the swing-animation principle.

Here are some thoughts by a friend of mine, (CKM) a student of jazz piano who has the presence of mind to analyze the articulation and dynamics of a swing jazz 8th note line. This person is learning Bebop Jazz lines, style, and tunes such as T. Monk’s Straight No Chaser and has these observations about dynamics and articulations in a vibrant 8th note-type line. To this person this is a new phenomenon. I have highlighted some important words with capitals and have written the occasional aside. N.B.

I am ‘C’ in this monologue/dialogue.

It's been really different practicing recently. I am not preparing anything for lessons -- I am just trying to work on the rhythm and articulation and dynamics of all these little songs. For most of them I feel like I have got a clear idea, and even manage to play in accordance, at least on occasion, but it's very easy to slip out of it and just play it without it being ALIVE properly. When it works right it's like it's animated from within, and dances itself, But if it's not working, it's all awkward like a marionette and I have to move all the parts on purpose and they often don't coordinate perfectly.
After the last lesson I took out the left hand completely, because it distracted me from doing the right hand how I wanted to. The last couple days I've been working on putting it back, just roots, very minimal. Even that is usually too much and kills the melody. Not giving up though. Some of them are coming together a little bit. When it works right the left hand interacts with and supports the melody. A common pattern, for example, is to hit the downbeat with the left hand followed by a pick-up on the second eighth in the melody.
Another thing I'm thinking about a lot is the patterns of eighth note accenting. It's by no means just back-eighths, and I'm beginning to understand what is going on with that I think. C was marking in which eighth-notes were to be brought out, and at first it seemed kind of arbitrary, but with so many songs, I can see the same patterns over and over again in different contexts. These are the most common accent patterns I've noticed:
CKM: Back-eighths -- when nothing more important is happening to override this default. 
(C: Over-riding factors like intervallic leaps on downbeats might needed to be accented and this overrides the back 8th accent idea)
CKM: Drop-landing notes -- often the back-eighth, but not necessarily.
(C: Like the drums, accents on a piano keyboard come out best if they are ‘dropped’ on with a true release, surrendering to gravity which creates the best accented sound).
CKM: Melodic sequence -- sometimes there is an ascending or descending line that needs to be brought out, and it's not all back-eighths.
(C: An ascending or descending line might need an accent on a downbeat just to establish the meter and create a jumping off point for the next push or anticipation).
CKM: Four eighth-note series alone -- really this is just a special case of #2, with a drop-landing note 1, and then a back-eighth note 4, but it's such a common pattern I think about it by itself.
(C: The '4th' 8th-note may be held in a tie in which case there is a natural accent at work. If the 4th note is short, it can be bounced off by literally bouncing the hand off the note creating an effective accent—further to that, notes that are accented in a legato swing line should be, if possible, accented by (subtly?) flinging the weight of the arm down and catching it at the bed of the keyboard. There is another technique such as a wrist-arm relaxed twist which will create an effective accent at the end of a 4 – 8th note line.)
CKM: Destination note -- seems like the arrival point of the preceding few notes or phrase, and gets an accent regardless of what kind of eighth it is.
(C: Yes!)
CKM: I am trying to think in terms of medium-long phrases when playing, like always having something be happening dynamically. It's that aspect specifically that falls apart when I introduce the left hand. But eventually it won't. I've never really thought about Dynamics as an Inherent and Animating quality to the line before. In the olden days that I don't like to remember, dynamics were treated as cosmetic improvements that needed to be "added" once the notes were under control ("musicianship" -- worth 20% of the mark!). But That is Completely Wrong. The Dynamics and Associated Aspects are the LIFE of it.
(C. Again, thank you my friend [CKM], for your insight and clarity on the grossly underestimated area of dynamics and articulation).

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