Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

The Music of the Drums

by Barry Altschul

Barry Altschul was born in New York City where he studied with Charli Persip, Sam Ulano, and Lee Konitz. He became a member of The Paul Bley Trio in 1964, and the Jazz Composer’s Guild Orchestra in 1965. In 1969 he became a member of the Cluck Corea Trio, and then the cooperative group, Circle, with Dave Holland, Chick Corea, and Anthony Braxton. After the disbanding of Circle, he started teaching in New York City while playing with Lee Konitz and occasionally freelancing. The years 1973-8 found him performing with The Anthony Braxton Quartet and The Sam Rivers Trio, exclusively. 

Currently, Barry is leading his own group as well as performing in solo, composing, and teaching privately when he is in New York. The Barry Altschul Trio consists of Ray Anderson on trombone: Mark Helias on bass and Altschul. His latest album Brahma is available on Sackville Records. Barry plays Sonor drums exclusively.

Most of the questions I get from drummers concern “technical” problems. How to develop quicker hands; more independence and/or coordination. Technique is important, but it is not the most important part of playing music. Having a concept, playing with feeling, and making the concept musical is of primary importance. Technique is just the manual skill needed to accomplish an idea. A tool that one uses to play what one hears. In my articles I will discuss ways to enhance concept. I’ll also discuss the drummer’s relationship to the other musicians on the bandstand. That is actually what playing is all about.

Concept stimulates technique, not the other way around. If you hear something you cannot play, that should stimulate you to find and develop a technique so that you can play what you hear. To develop technique for techniques sake is not musical. You may end up with great technique but if you don’t hear what to play, then most of what you have developed cannot be used.

In a five piece band, for instance, there is a sixth member who is most important. That member is the music!

You are just one of the components that make up the music. You are with other people you must listen to, relate to and respect. One of your most important musical relationships is with the bass player.

I suggest that drummers get together with the bass player and practice together. Constructively criticize each other and analyze how you play together. Remember that “analysis” is an after-the fact phenomenon. When you play together, just play! Your body and mind must act as one. You shouldn’t really think about what you are playing. Just listen to what is going on around you. This will eventually become instinctive. After the groove is established, it is necessary to keep steady time. If you sense that the time has either dragged or rushed . . . it probably has! It’s better to rush than drag but ideally you should keep the time steady.

“Time playing” can be broken down into three categories: (1) In-Time Playing. (2) Implied-Time Playing. (3) Non- Time Playing. (These will be discussed further in another article.) When playing In-Time music, it is essential to be in the same “time” zone as the bass player. The bass player and drummer must propel the band, set up the groove and swing! I’ve noticed that all musicians approach the beat differently. Some approach the beat on the bottom (i.e. Elvin Jones). This gives a laid back, loose and open feeling while maintaining the intensity and swing. Others play right on the beat (i.e. Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Art Blakey). Some approach it on top of the beat (i.e. Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette). This gives a feeling of propulsion or a leaning forward feeling. Realize where you approach the beat and where the bass player approaches the beat. Then you can really hook up. Otherwise, there will be a feeling that something’s not quite right.

Notice what your own tendency is, be aware of it, and compensate for it. I don’t like to practice with a metronome, but for those who do, I suggest putting the metronome in another room, start to play, then stop and check yourself against the metronome. Another practice idea is to play with records and see if you start to rush or drag. The best thing to do, however, is practice with the bass player. Having good, swinging, steady time is usually a natural tendency, but it is possible to develop it.

A common complaint among other musicians is that drummers play too loud. In some cases this is true. Playing soft with intensity and swing is difficult, but it is part of the music. Dynamics are very important. If you can’t hear everyone in the band at all times, it might be that you are playing too loud. A good exercise is to play with an unamplified acoustic bass player and play what you want without drowning him out! This will help develop control. If there is no bass player available, play to records at a soft volume. Don’t try to play what the drummer on the record is playing. Play as if you are the drummer. Imitation is okay when you are first learning, but it is only a first step. You must start to think for yourself. You form your own sentences when you speak; you must also form your own statements when you play.

A bass player’s responsibility is rhythm, melody and harmony—setting a chord up just right. It is also the drummer’s responsibility to know where the chord changes fall in the tune, and the song form. Knowing the names of the chords isn’t necessary, but you should know where the chords change, and when a chorus is over. Drums are a musical instrument and melody can be implied. Many drummers seem to get lost within a tune. If this happens to you, you should be able to find yourself by listening to the bass player. But, in order to know where he is, you must be familiar with the tune yourself.

Short of studying a melodic instrument, there are ways to achieve this familiarity. First, you must listen! Listen to tunes, sing them, learn the chord changes. Listen to saxophone, piano, and trumpet players. Learn to improvise around the melody of the tune by singing or whistling. Hear the chord changes while you’re improvising. A good method for accomplishing this, and one that will also help your conception and technique, is to learn a saxophone solo. Take a Lester Young solo, for example. Sing the solo away from the record. (The actual notes are not as important for the drummer as is the contour and the rhythms of the solo.) Tap the solo out on the snare drum. Then play it as if you are accompanying a band, with your right hand playing steady time, two and four on the hi-hat, and the solo between your left hand and bass drum! Interpret the sax solo as if it were a drum solo. You’ll soon start to develop a melodic approach. You’ll also become familiar with tunes and forms, and become aware of what the melodic instrumentalists are actually doing.

To imply melody, sit down at the drum set and make one sound. Then make another sound. Don’t be afraid to be unconventional in your approach to making that sound or in the sound itself. Any sound imaginable can be used if it’s used in a musical way. Do this again and again until you have explored all the sounds your set will give you. Concentrate on doing the same thing on each part of your set. A cymbal, then your snare drum, another cymbal, your bass drum. Even your stands and whatever else you use! If you want more sounds, use percussion instruments. After you’ve found your sounds, utilize them when you are playing the saxophone solo we talked about earlier. Play the contour of the sax solo with your sounds to imply the melody.

The only “notes” a drummer has are the high, low and middle pitched sounds. These must be related to in a melodic way with a drummer’s own conception. Once this is achieved, melody can be implied. Melodies are also rhythmic, so to play in a melodic way, think that way! Listen to the very melodic drumming of Max Roach. His solos are melodic/rhythmic improvisations usually based on the tune the band is playing.

A drum is just a drum. You play it, it doesn’t play you. Whatever you hear in your head can be played. No matter what your conception is, the emphasis must not be on what you play, but how you play it. No matter how complicated or simple your approach, or whether you play “inside” or “outside” music . . . it must swing! It must have feeling. It must groove. You must be hooked up with the other musicians. This hook up is a very deep communication on a spiritual level. A certain kind of E.S.P. happens on the bandstand. When everyone is in the same groove it is an uplifting experience. When the groove is happening, you’re effected emotionally, physically and spiritually. What you play will effect you intellectually, but how you play effects the rest.

I play a little differently with each soloist. Little adjustments must be made to keep or set-up the groove. Listen to everyone and be careful about being carried away by what you are doing. Your presence must be with the band at all times. If you are “carried away”, your energy, or feeling of participation leaves the band! Even when you are still playing, it feels as if you are not there. When you are playing and you start to think about something that happened at home, your energy leaves the bandstand. You are back home! It is felt by the others in the band. Your energy is not as involved as it was before.

Everyday experience is used in one’s creativity but you must be “present” at all times when you are playing. A band can only play as good as the weakest member at that moment. If you are not as involved as the others, the potential of the music will not be achieved.

So, practice intelligently, listen to the other instruments as closely as you listen to the drums, be aware of tradition, and don’t be afraid to be unconventional. If creativity and musicianship are kept at a high standard, these differences can be used to make the music more interesting and exciting.