Approaches for Big Band Rhythmic Articulation

Approaches for Big Band Rhythmic Articulation 1This month we’ll explore ways of approaching and articulating ensemble rhythms. As drummers, we obviously can’t perform note lengths with the same exactness as a horn player. We can, however, use the many long and short sounds of the kit to best match the strength and duration of specific notes and phrases

Below are common articulation markings that are found in horn parts. These symbols, which are often marked above the notes, help signify length, intensity, and emphasis within a phrase.

Staccato (.) and marcato (^) designate a short attack.

Legato (-) implies a long attack. An accent (>) can be interpreted as long or short, depending on the tempo and style of the composition. A breath mark (,) is written to signal when the horn players should collectively inhale. A release mark (-1, -2, -3, -4, etc.) is often penciled in to indicate on which beat within a measure the ensemble’s horns will stop their note.

Some arrangers include articulation markings on drum parts, while others do not. As you read any new arrangement, listen to the ensemble and try to match the lengths and releases that the horns use. Doing so will help bring a greater sense of impact and clarity to the phrases you play.

Here’s an example of a lead trumpet part illustrating common articulation markings.

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The rhythms with articulations are the target points in the line that musicians aim for when reading, and they help create a second level of accent texture. When playing this phrase, I’d resist the urge to accent every written note. I suggest this direction because of the amount of space (rests) that the composer left in the arrangement for the drums to fill up. These spaces are opportunities for you to link what just occurred to what’s coming up. (You can hear a demo of me playing this chart at and in the digital edition of this issue.)

If the part you’re reading doesn’t include articulation markings, check out the conductor’s score and write in the articulations above each note. In most cases, arrangers won’t include breath or release markings on a drum part. For this information, ask one of the lead horn players where he or she is breathing or releasing for a particular phrase.

What follows are three transcriptions that illustrate ways that the master drummers Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis, and Sonny Payne articulated phrases. Listen carefully to the original recordings before you practice the excerpts, and then try to apply each drummer’s concept to the phrases you’re interpreting.

This ensemble phrase is from “Basically Blues,” on the Buddy Rich recording Swingin’ New Big Band, Live at the Chez. As you listen and read along, pay close attention to how Buddy uses the hi-hat to accompany the band rhythms in unison. He also punctuates the horns’ whole-note release on beat 4 with a hit on the snare drum. This helps create a very crisp and clean effect with no cymbal ring carrying into the next phrase. The notated section begins at 1:17.

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“Stompin’ at the Savoy,” which appears on the Stan Kenton recording Contemporary Concepts, features Mel Lewis on drums. Lewis was given the nickname “the Tailor” by his colleagues because he could make all of the sections of an arrangement fit together perfectly. This example, which starts at 3:25, illustrates Mel’s style of articulating long and short rhythms, as well as how he often plays rhythms that run counter to the written parts being executed by the ensemble. This approach helps goose the phrases along. It also creates a reference rhythm for the band that they can feel, hear, and understand clearly. And, most important, it swings like crazy! Check it out.

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“Corner Pocket,” from the classic Count Basie recording Live at the Sands (Before Frank), features the electrifying drumming of Sonny Payne. Payne was known for playing exciting fills and for supporting band rhythms in unison with the ensemble. In this transcription, which occurs at 4:16, he leads the band into each phrase by playing spirited double-time 16th-note and 8th-note-triplet patterns, and he articulates each ensemble rhythm with his crash cymbals and bass drum.

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Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more info, visit