Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Large ensembles and their issues

Hey folks,
First off I would like to tell you about a really fun experience I had recently. I was playing in Windsor with Ron Davis, Mike Downes, and the Windsor symphony. Now, any drummers who have worked with an orchestra knows that these situations can be quite fraught, but our experiences playing with Windsor (as well as Thunder Bay) have been great, and I think I can offer some reasons why.

1. The conductor/musical director. Windsor's conductor, John Morris Russell, really knows about all kinds of music, especially styles with a rhythm section that don't use the pulse so much as a means of expression. What I mean is, most of the music I play, once the tempo is set up it rarely (in theory, anyway) changes. In fact, I've always maintained that most drummers could learn a lot from playing rubato more often.

Another thing about John is he's secure enough in what he's doing that he doesn't feel he has to control every second of the time. This has been a very contentious issue for me in the past. The thing is, most drum set players function like a conductor in any band they play in. John trusts me, therefore I am quite willing to cede to him when it's needed as well.

2. The orchestra itself. In the last 20 years or so, I have found that more and more musicians playing in symphonies are very aware of the sort of music with bass and drums and the sort adjustments they might have to make. I find the time feel is much better, they really understand swing feels etc.

On another note about the orchestra, the bassist and I were situated right in the middle of the ensemble, with the strings in front of us and the percussion behind us. Ron was up at the front, where I have been in the past but when I'm that far up all I can hear are the strings, usually.
The percussion section was great and my proximity to them made me feel like I was a functioning part of the section. The timpanist, Jean-Norman Iadeluca was right behind me! He's easily the best timpanist I ever heard, let alone played with, but the other two in the section, Julian Jean, and Timothy Francom, were very strong and easy to play with as well.

Here's a pic of my perc. homies and myself:

They were also great to hang out with and I learned a lot from them.
I would certainly suggest to anyone who has a chance to get orchestral experience. It can't help but change your playing for the better!

Okay, on to a slightly more common animal that the aspiring jazz drummer runs into, the Big Band. This is an area where I see very talented small group players fail to make the necessary adjustments to play with this type of ensemble effectively.

Let's look at some general principles regarding big bands. (And by big bands I tend to mean more traditional settings. The Kenny Wheeler/ Maria Schneider etc. bands are situations where you will find exceptions to these loose "rules" more often.)

1. It's got to groove, above all else.

It's easy to get bogged down by reading a chart and let that affect the time feel, but your first priority is to the time feel in conjunction with the rest of the rhythm section. It's much better to dump all over the reading and be grooving than the other way around.

2. Keep your place in the phrase and the bar.

Again, even if you don't read that well, if you can feel a 4 or 8 bar phrase and keep your place in 4/4 no matter what happens, you have a good chance of starting and ending in the same place in the tune as the rest of the band, and that itself will cover a multitude of sins in between! Practice sight reading on your own without stopping. This will get you used to the "damn the torpedos" approach needed to keep your place in the chart, even if you're making a lot of reading mistakes.
Of course, if you are a lousy reader, if you can even get to the point where you can recognize more quarter note and 8th note figures, you are covering a lot of the material you'll have to read.

3. Clarity is the name of the game.

This is something I hear quite often. Vague, indistinct stuff that doesn't help the band. You want to play set ups and fills leading to accurate rhythmic figures that leave no doubt, even to the the 4th trombone player that has crummy time and never plays with drums any other time, where the figure is supposed to be. If I play something so "hip" that the band clams all over the ensemble figures, who looks like a moron in that case? Yes, the man staring at me from the mirror. I sometimes think of a large ensemble as a semi trailer truck I'm driving down a foggy road at night. The truck can't stop on a dime, can it? So I need to give the band warning of potential "hazards" in the music. I also need to take on more of a leadership role as far as keeping the time than I would in the case of the little sports car that is small group playing.

4. As soon as there are 3 or more horn players in the band, you have to be very vigilant about the tempo!

As opposed to playing in a small group, where there can be an on going "meeting of the minds" and mutual consensus about the time, there will be occasions when you feel like you aren't playing with some sections of the band. This is unavoidable, so get used to it! (It also can create a cool sort of tension sometimes when you are used to it.)
My great friend and compatriot Mike Downes, who was on the symphony gigs I mentioned earlier, was once on a gig with the great lead trumpet player Arnie Chycoski. Arnie probably had more big band experience that most people on the planet, so at one point, Mike told Arnie that the time felt funny and asked him advice on what to do. Arnie's response was telling. He replied. "Of course the time is funny, it's a big band!"
What I'm getting at is that sometimes we as drummers sometimes have to be a bit more adamant (more like stubborn) about the time and insist the tempo be maintained!

5. The roles of the components of the drumset are much more prescribed than in small group playing.

This is again an area where I see good small group players fall down when playing with a large ensemble. Here I'll go through what generally happens with the roles of the drumset components in a big band setting. (Found an exception? Good! It proves you've been doing some listening!)

Ride Cymbal- Generally the main voice in most time keeping. Even if you're playing a Rock chart, you're generally more likely to play more ride than hi-hat because it blends better with the horns.

Crash cymbals- Tends to be played with either the bass drum or snare drum to reinforce long articulations.

Hi-hat- Ridden on during two feel stuff, soft ensemble sections, quiet bossa passages.
w/foot it is almost always on 2 and 4 in this environment. This is another thing I see a lot. Don't muck around with your hi-hat on odd parts of the bar or splash it if you're playing a Basie style chart. it's not stylistic and lessens clarity!

Snare drum- plays short figures on it's own (or with ride backing) for short sounds (especially sounds good with higher brass) or with the cymbal (see above) for long sounds. Can also be used to play backbeats, which for many shout sections is completely appropriate.

Bass drum- Can be used for light four on the bass drum "feathering". You can get away with this a bit louder than with a small group but beware, this is a very easy way to incur the wrath of the bass player! Also used for short (or long with cymbal) figures, especially with low brass.

Toms- Almost always used only for filling. Rarely used for figures unless we're trying to imitate some sort of ascending or descending tonal pattern. Floor tom also for timekeeping in "Krupa-like" situations.

It's interesting, between the more direct approach one tends to use and the very clear roles of the parts of the drumset, I tend to find big band drumming sometimes closer to Rock drumming than small group Jazz playing.

In closing, I'd like to mention that my attitude towards Big Band playing has changed a lot over the years. I saw it as sort of hip when I was younger to tend to underestimate the skill needed to drive a Big Band, and saw small group as "where the action was". I now see both styles as slightly different disciplines that call on different parts of my personality, and I enjoy both. If I "tapped into my ego" with a trio the way I do in a big band, I'd be out on my ear pretty fast. Conversely, if I approached a large ensemble like a small group, I would sound wimpy, vague, and undecided. Again, try to get big band experience, even if it isn't your favorite music at the moment, and watch your confidence, dynamic range, and rhythmic strength grow by leaps and bounds!

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