Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Few Words About Form & Drum Solos

As an improvising Jazz drummer I always appreciate the opportunity to play drum solos in different contexts and to express myself on the drums. However, one trend I've noticed is that other musicians aren't always aware of what I'm doing from a structural perspective during my solo. Undoubtedly this often translates into musicians not knowing when to come in after I'm finished soloing and a sloppy re-entry to the outhead! This is an issue that has been on my mind for awhile now and often frustrates me.

There are several issues at play here that I would like to discuss:

Now when I was younger I used to love listening to drummers Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa play these magnificent epic drum solos. I made an observation that at the end of their solos, often, they would play a recognizable rhythmic drum "cue" to bring back in the band or, in some cases, literally count (ie. shout!) to cue the bands entrance. This led me to believe that all drum solos were "open" or "free" (while perhaps still being in time) and that the solo ended at the discretion of the drummer with the band re-entering with some kind of musical or vocal cue given by the drummer. Listening to my favorite rock drummers like John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and Neil Peart reinforced this belief.

Then I heard Max Roach.

When I started to check out Max Roach's drumming on such albums as "Study in Brown" or Sonny Rollin's "Saxophone Colossus" I was immediately drawn to his musical style of drumming which, to me, provided another approach to drum soloing. But what baffled me was how Max would play these brilliant solos and then the band would enter seamlessly afterwards ! Where was the count in? Where was the drum "cue" ? Perhaps the microphone was set up in a way that we couldn't hear Max count the band back in? Maybe they spliced the band's re-entry?

Eventually I figured out that there was an EXACT relationship between the number of bars of the melody, the harmonic form and the length of a given drummer's solo. Thus the idea of playing an improvised drum solo over a number of predetermined number of bars (ie. a chorus) and in tempo took shape in my mind.

"Man, that's hard" I thought.

Well that's because it is...

From then on I was determined to become proficient at soloing over a given tune and its particular melodic/harmonic structure (ie. soloing in time and in form). This in itself is really a lifetime worth of study given the billions of tunes and forms out there (add on to that different tempos and time signatures!)

Of course Max Roach isn't the only Jazz drummer to have approached soloing like this and I think every great Jazz drummer has the ability to do this as well. It's really an important skill to have and the recorded history of Jazz drumming proves this. This isn't a knock on playing free form drum solos liberated from structure or a steady pulse, but I think you've got to be able to do it both ways. All the greats could as far as I'm concerned...so should we.

Where my problem lies is in the often inability for other musician's to follow you while you are doing this.

Unfortunately I think there is still a real misconception and ignorance that exists out there with regards to what drummers are doing and ultimately capable of when they solo. Regrettably many musicians assume that just we just hit things until we get bored and then somehow bring the band back in. Well, as far I'm concerned there's a lot more to it than that ! I can't count the number of times that I've played a drum solo over the form of a tune and purposely tried to make my phrasing clear as possible only to see other members of the band disengaged from what I'm doing. Is my playing really that uninteresting? I know for a fact that this really bugged Max as well and he would defend his music with his fists need be...So maybe the drum solo isn't the best time to check your iPhone, grab a drink or talk to that cute blonde at the bar that you've been eyeing all night?

But I think it goes both ways: certainly the musicians you are playing with have to LISTEN to what you are doing and follow along just as anyone else would their solo (ideally!) but then again, as a drummer you have to be responsible and at least provide some structural references for your fellow musicians to latch onto and a clear statement to finish your solo (think of Tony Williams' with Miles Davis on "Walkin").

Sure, it's fun to play "stump the band" or "where's one?" but ultimately when it comes time to finish your solo, FINISH your solo and offer an overall clarity to what your musical intention is. A little visual communication never hurts either! When all else fails, quote the melody and if even then nobody hears it perhaps a little polite discussion afterwards is warranted. There's nothing wrong with practicing these things as a group or talking about it either.

One thing that I often notice among really good players is how engaged they are in the music, even when they aren't playing. The next time you go see Joe Lovano play, watch how locked in he is with his drummer. I remember seeing Roy Haynes play once and the whole time Kenny Garrett just stood next to his hihat, smiling when he wasn't himself soloing. When I was studying at McGill many years ago my good friend and trombonist Bruce Pepper actually practiced listening to drummers solo (Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones in particular) to learn how to "follow along" to a drum solo by intentionally studying their vocabulary and approach to phrasing. Now that's dedication!

So I guess what I'm asking my fellow musicians out there is to pay closer attention to what your drummer is doing while he or she solos. Engage yourself in the music and don't make your drummer do all the work for you. Drummers: don't assume that the band can read your mind either. I don't believe in "babysitting" a band when it comes to soloing however improvised drum soloing is a responsibility and a privilege not necessarily a right....so don't abuse the opportunity!

Personally I use the melody of the tune I'm playing to guide me through the form rather than counting numbers of bars...so perhaps if you are working with a drummer and you don't know what's going on:

a) sing the melody to yourself while the drummer is soloing and use that as a reference point

b) if the drummer is clearly not playing in time or over the form, listen and watch carefully for the drummer's cue (if there is one!)

c) if you are still lost, ask your drummer what he or she is doing and hopefully build on that

Ultimately music and drumming with other people and for other people is all about communication. I think if we respect that fundamental aspect of making music together it can go along way to making a drummer's solo a more meaningful experience for everyone - for the drummer, the rest of the band and the audience alike.


  1. Yes! Great post. For far too many musicians, the drums exist in some kind of ghetto of their own - a ghetto in which the dark arts of the drumset are practiced. They know very little about what is arguably THE jazz instrument, and this is often shown during drum solos in the way that you describe. Drummers should be able to clearly play through form when they solo, and the other musicians should be paying attention to that form and listening to what the drummer is doing within the form – otherwise the drum solo is just some kind of aberration to the rest of the music – an interlude for the drummer let off steam and play to the gallery, rather than it being an integral part of the music. The drummer soloing through form is one of the great traditions of JAZZ drumming – the formless showing off of drum pyrotechnics belongs to the circus (Buddy Rich came up in Vaudeville) and to rock music. Musical drum soloing over form is one of the unique aspects of jazz and is a deep art.

    I think all aspirant jazz musicians – regardless of instrument – should be able to play enough piano to get through some standard changes and be able to play a good basic swing ride cymbal beat and maybe a few other basic grooves on the drums. That way you have a grasp of both the harmony AND the rhythm in a tactile way. You mention Lovano in your post – well I had the good fortune to work with Joe a few years ago and during rehearsal he sat down behind the drums and showed the drummer the kind of groove he wanted on one of his pieces. Lovano, Dave Liebman, Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker all are or were capable drummers. If those guys respect the drums that much, well then the rest of us should take note................

  2. Great post. I always like to have someone else playing along behind me if possible. Maybe the bass player is walking or the horns are playing hits on the bridge. Why shouldn't we also have the freedom of someone else keeping time for us, giving us something to play off of instead of being responsible for both the time and the gesture,