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On The Beat (Part 17)

Jazz - the final rhythm programming frontier; but if you treat jazz as an attitude (as the jazz greats all have), jazz patterns are just a state of mind away. Nigel Lord thinks cool.


BEFORE WE BEGIN, I'd better just point out that this article is only likely to be of interest to those who see no inherent contradiction in the idea of programming jazz rhythms into a drum machine. This will depend very much on whether you regard jazz as a particular style of music (or collection of styles) or as a state of mind. To me, there's little doubt that what jazz is is defined in the mind of the musician playing it and the person listening. How, and on what instruments it is produced, is of no consequence whatsoever.

Fortunately, those holding this view find themselves in the prestigious company of the likes of Miles Davis and Marcus Miller, who, in their most recent collaborations have refused to be hidebound by "traditional" jazz instruments and opted for an altogether more eclectic approach - which includes the use of electronic instruments and drum machines. On albums like Tutu and Siesta they have redirected jazz in a way that has eclipsed all the sharp young sax players with the right names on their CVs.

As an attitude, jazz sidesteps the obdurate and inflexible approach of those who would anchor it down with precise definitions. Of course, in the mix 'n' match world of contemporary music, much of what we hear of jazz takes the form of flavouring sprinkled (to the chagrin of the purists), over more commercial styles. More than one undistinguished pop song has been enlivened by a jazz guitar accompaniment or sax solo. And the recruitment of a seasoned jazz pro to add credibility to what would otherwise be a pedestrian musical performance has been a ploy adopted by pop artistes for years.

Yet seldom, if ever, is jazz allowed to influence life in the rhythm section. Even when confronted with the fluid (and quite danceable) grooves which characterise much jazz music, pop musicians cling tenaciously to the predictable rhythms they believe to be a prerequisite of a successful song. Jazz, as an influence, could provide a much needed drop of oil to the clockwork rhythm which seems to drive most popular music these days.

But I digress... The question which confronts us here is whether jazz rhythms - or rhythms which we recognise as jazz - can be reproduced by a machine. I believe they can, and have included seven varied examples in this feature to prove it. Without attempting to ape a human drummer or resorting to exotic time signatures, these patterns could be fairly said to reflect something of the free spirit of jazz whilst remaining open enough for further experimentation. You will be the ultimate judge, but I think you'll find enough ideas here to make the programming worth your while.

It's a reflection of the demands put upon the drum machine by the programming of jazz rhythms that I have finally succumbed to the inclusion of a fourth dynamic level in the patterns. This, as regulars of the series will note, has prompted a re-design of the grids, and more particularly, of the diamonds signifying the programmed beats. I've included a key to explain the design for each level and as you can see they're rather fatter than usual and consequently tend to overlap. This may mean they are a little more difficult to read when closely spaced, but wherever there's likely to be any confusion, you'll find explanations in the text.

We're back to triplet programming this month, and as usual the Beat line at the top of each grid tells you everything you need to know about the number of beats to the bar and the division of those beats into three. The instrumentation is undemanding: the bongos represent the most exotic choice of instrument, though you are free to substitute alternative voices anywhere you wish.

Notwithstanding my earlier remarks about jazz not being defined by the use of any particular instrument, I should point out that if it's your intention to create an instantly recognisable jazz feel, you'll need to choose certain instruments with care. Don't opt for a huge ambient snare sound, for example, with a pattern featuring an intricate snare drum line. Likewise, the monster bass drum voices included on a number of recent machines will be quite out of place in a pattern which relies on fast, repeated bass drum notes.

Choose your instruments sympathetically and don't be afraid to run through three or four (if you have them) before deciding which works best. All this month's examples sound pretty damn good on my machine; whether they will on yours is really a matter of trial and error: your trial and your error.

Pattern 1 is pretty conventional in jazz terms, but it's a pattern which is easy to program and is instantly recognisable as a jazz groove. Like all this month's rhythms, its flow is established by a light, triplet ride cymbal part which here is complemented by a simple open and closed hi-hat at the start of each bar. The side stick provides the main rhythmic pulse throughout the first four bars - the snare drum being used simply to define the end of each two-bar phrase.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

In the second half of the rhythm, the regular side stick pulse is removed and we're left with four bass/snare drum figures to punctuate the pattern and provide us with a series of cadences between which a bass instrument could weave its way. Programming the pattern as it stands would, of course, mean that this was repeated every four bars throughout the song, and this may not be appropriate in certain circumstances. If this is the case, restructuring the pattern so that the last four bars occur at a more opportune position in the song should present no problems, and you could also try splitting them up.

Pattern 2 reverts to more conventional use of the snare as the instrument which provides the pattern's rhythmic pulse - for at least three of the four bars. In bar four it misses its usual position on the second beat and crops up again towards the end of the bar. The effect of this is to produce a "hole" in the pattern which gives it a very distinctive feel without sacrificing its obvious adaptability.

Its heavy reliance on cymbal, hi-hat and shaker sounds does demand a certain amount of care in choosing and pitching the instruments so that their frequencies do not overlap and mask each other.

In terms of programming, Pattern 3 is easier than the previous two, but its rather peculiar structure - nine bars of 2/4 - is likely to mean any song it's married to is going to have to be written around it rather than vice versa. I'm not altogether sure how or why it works, but as you'll find for yourself, work it does, and rather effectively too.

The pattern relies on the use of two different snare voices. Preferably, one short and dry to cope with the fast, intricate strokes, the other long and more "explosive" to finish off the pattern at the end of bar nine. I've also pressed into service my much-favoured foot-closed hi-hat voice which ticks along all the way through the pattern and gives it a jazzy feel. In the absence of this instrument on your machine, you could try using a short shaker or cabasa sound, particularly if it was combined with a light closed hi-hat voice to give it a little more definition.

We're back to a straight four-bar pattern for Pattern 4, which sees the introduction of this month's "exotic" instrument: bongos. I've chosen bongos as they're one of the few instruments appropriate in a jazz context which have the necessary edge to lift them above other instruments without sounding intrusive. As you'll hear, they certainly are not restricted to use in Latin American grooves.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

I should point out that the short hi bongo figure within beat one of bar three is composed of three notes, the first two of low dynamic (level 1), the third of medium dynamic (level 2). The note on beat two of that bar, as you can see, is also of medium dynamic (level 2).

I can't really claim Pattern 5 to have any particular distinguishing features except, perhaps, the neat hi-hat figure which begins in bar five. It is, nevertheless, a surprisingly effective groove which should prove useful wherever a slightly heavier feel is called for. Provided the ride cymbal is kept high enough in the mix, preserving the jazz identity, most bass and snare drum voices could be used in this pattern. This should ensure its usefulness through a variety of contexts.

Though it sports a considerably longer instrument list than previous patterns, Pattern 6 is still fairly straightforward in terms of feel. The bongos re-emerge in a simplified version of their part in Pattern 4, and we also find a tom-tom figure in bar three which calls for the use of low, medium and high voices. I found open, more musical, sounds to be most suitable for the instruments in this setting, but whatever you choose, make sure they're kept well down in the mix. The effect should be that of a drummer just tapping the heads with his stick or brush, not of a full-scale assault across the drum kit. So bear this in mind when you're programming.

Finally, this month, we move to something rather more unconventional. Despite its 4/4 structure, Pattern 7 begins to explore the possibilities opened up by the concept of the jazz beatbox. It's a pattern composed of several interlocking themes which come together (but only just) over the course of its eight-bar structure.

(Click image for higher resolution version)

The bass and snare parts are fairly minimalist: it's how they react with the more complex hi-hat and cymbal parts which make the pattern what it is. And it's because of this that particular care should be taken over programming the correct dynamics - especially the hi-hat. Incidentally, don't let the cluster of hi bongo notes at the end of bar eight put you off. It consists simply of eight equally-spaced notes of alternate low and medium dynamics (1, 2, 1, 2) and one final higher dynamic note (level 3) to finish. This produces a short roll which leads nicely back into bar one when the pattern is set to repeat.

I constantly encourage experimentation, and if it's your intention to use any of this month's patterns within a jazz setting, you have to regard them simply as a starting point. You should-be looking to come up with as many variations of each pattern as you can, and then finding a coherent structure into which they may be slotted. So few people have bothered to investigate the possibilities presented by jazz programming that it's still an open book.

Even including the patterns I've had to hold over until next month, we have hardly begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. This is just the beginning...


Read the next part in this series:
On The Beat (Part 18)

Previous Article in this issue

AMPLE Albums

Next article in this issue

Dial 0274 For Bass

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Feb 1991


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Feature by Nigel Lord

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