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.
JAZZ: THE ULTIMATELY UNPROGRAMMABLE MUSICAL FORM - OR IS IT? IN THIS MONTH'S RHYTHM PROGRAMMING EXCURSION WE'LL SEE TECHNOLOGY LENDING ITSELF TO THE SPIRIT OF JAZZ.
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.
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...
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19 | Part 20 | Part 21 | Part 22 | Part 23 | Part 24 | Part 25 | Part 26 | Part 26 | Part 27 | Part 28 | Part 29 | Part 30 | Part 31 | Part 32 | Part 33 | Part 34 | Part 35
Feature by Nigel Lord