Monday, March 13, 2023

More on playing to recordings

 As I've mentioned before, playing to recordings is the closest we can get to performing with actual live musicians. I make "playing along" a regular part of my practice, and I would like to share a few thoughts relating to that…...

1. Don't only play along to what you already do well.

This may seem obvious, but it's easy to get lured into exclusively playing with recordings with feels/tempos/forms that are comfortable. Stretch yourself! If speed is your thing, play along with slow tempos. If you usually play along with Country-Rock, learn a fusion tune etc. And more about forms….

2. Try to play with whole tunes rather than loops.

I've mentioned this before, and I don't want to step on anyone's toes around this, but I feel playing with loops never gives us the whole story. By loops I mean just taking a small section of an already existing tune and have it playing endlessly. When we do this we miss out on a lot of form. Not only the structure of the tune (AABA, 12 Bar Blues etc.) but the form of the whole performance. How do we differentiate between sections of the song like in head to solos, different solos, and last solo to out head? Does the tempo of the tune change from beginning to end? What about the relative volume of the drums at differing sections of the tune? These are important issues!

3. Try to play with contained passion.

By this I mean, always remember when you're playing with recordings your first job is to keep in sync. Your second job is to outline the shape of the tune ( see above ). It's very easy to play loud enough that you drown out the recording and get out of time. It's also easy to focus on the spectacular drumming of whoever is on the original recording and not pay attention to the form soloists etc. Additionally, getting the intensity required for the performance with less volume is a great thing to strive for.

4. Do not obsess about details

I mentioned this briefly in #3. Especially when playing with Jazz recordings, try to get the essence of the performance rather than the minutia. The feel, relative mix of your four limbs, and structural elements (see #2) are more important than playing EXACTLY what has been played. If you like, go ahead and learn exactly what was played, but realize that's a separate endeavour.

5. Play along to quantized and unquantized material.

Definitely work with material that was created with a click track, sequencers, or drum machines. In fact the art to playing loosely along with music that has some sort of machine keeping the tempo exactly the same is challenging indeed. Steve Jordan, Phil Collins, and JR Robinson are some of the players that have mastered this approach.

However, playing music that was recorded "without a net", which basically means any recordings before the 1970s, requires us to "ride the wave" of the time. When humans play music without an artificial timekeeper like a metronome, there are all sorts of little micro peaks and valleys in the time. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact this is what gives a lot of music its humanity. Even recordings that noticeably speed up or slow down are okay to play along with, as long as we're aware of this and it isn't the only way we work on keeping time.

In conclusion, let's listen to Elvin Jones on Wayne Shorter's Night Dreamer where Mr. Jones manages to keep his lovely laid back feel even though the tune also speeds up! It almost seems like he's defying gravity, but this is just one of the many things we love about Elvin! :) 

UPDATE: Todd Bishop at Cruise Ship Drummer wrote a very thoughtful post explaining his use of loops in his teaching method as well as his personal practice, and I agree with his points completely. He also mentions the limits of playing to recordings vs. live playing, which I will address as well in a future post. Thanks Todd, you rock (and swing!) 

1 comment:

  1. Great post-- you're right about missing out on form and bigger picture things when playing with short loops. With my jazz loops I get at least one complete chorus in there. Then you get the full form, plus repeated listens to one soloist-- I think there's some benefit to having it be a semi-static environment.

    My problem with whole tracks is that it's tempting to just play, when what I'm really doing is practicing drum stuff-- like focused on a particular thing. I use them more to make book practice tolerable, and more musical, rather than for big picture stuff.

    A couple of other thoughts, I'll put them in a post on my site, and link to you. But great post!