Wednesday, January 06, 2010

tick, tick, BOOM

This is an expanded version of the comment I left on the Greenleaf blog, more thoughts about metronomes and time. (The M-Base stuff is not on the comment):

I've done commercial work where I was playing with a click track, and at those moments I was eternally grateful for the work I'd done with a metronome. But as several people have mentioned, it's not that way in a real band, ever.

I've found this analogy useful- I think I got it from Michael Cain, the great pianist and one of my teachers. He said something to the effect of- as young players we often tend to think of the beat as a single dot, a spot to be hit (like the click of a metronome). In reality, the beat is a circle (think of a compass drawing a circle, it leaves that middle point- the metronome's "beat"- but has much wider area). The interaction that happens inside and around that circle is where time feel and groove happen. Different musicians, and different musical styles, have very different relationships to that circle, and they change over time. In "jazz", some of the most exciting rhythm sections have worked in the tension created by two or more players landing consistently at different points inside that circle.

One obvious example for me is the evolution of what used to be called "M-base" music, the music Steve Coleman and his crew has created over the last twenty-five years, and what the myriad of musicians who've played with Steve (Osby, Shane Endsley, Vijay Iyer, Cassandra Wilson, etc) continue to do. The first "M-Base drummer", Smitty Smith, is the closest thing to a human metronome I think I've ever heard- the precision of those 80s M-Base records is incredible. When Gene Lake replaced Smitty in Steve's band, and then more so when Steve started to explicitly explore Cuban music, I feel like the feel of the music changed dramatically. The grooves are no less complicated, but the feel is looser to my ears. With Smitty you get the spot at the center of the circle, with Gene you get a different spot inside the circle, maybe a little further back. (Compare "Black Science" with Smitty to "Tao of Mad Phat" with Gene to hear what I mean, and then )

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