Paul Wertico long ago established himself as a creative force. He’s a drummer with excellent technique, great feel, and a strong sense of texture and color. But he also constantly makes observations, asks questions, and comes up with unique approaches and fresh solutions.
Wertico came to widespread attention during his stint with the Pat Metheny Group, a gig that lasted from 1983 to 2001 and earned him seven Grammys. Wertico is not only a skilled performer, though, he’s a respected teacher. Based in Chicago, he’s an associate professor of jazz studies at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, and his main goal is to challenge his students’ ideas. The drummer’s new book, Turn the Beat Around, exemplifies his penchant for thinking outside the box.
And what about those observations, questions, and fresh ideas? Turn the Beat Around fully demonstrates Wertico’s predilections, with the premise being: What if the backbeat were placed on 1 and 3, rather than the usual 2 and 4? In his introduction to the book, Wertico makes the astute observation that the backbeat has developed a stronger emphasis over time. Early jazz, for instance, didn’t emphasize it as strongly as modern styles do. Similarly, rock, R&B, funk, and other forms of backbeat-driven music grew from emphasizing it to really emphasizing it. In some cases, Wertico posits, certain types of music can become overly defined by that backbeat.
So, has it always been this way? Does it have to be this way? What happens if the backbeat is not on 2 and 4? Taking a look back, we can find examples of backbeats on 1 and 3, the downbeat—or as Wertico sometimes refers to it, the “frontbeat.” Perhaps the most famous instance is Ginger Baker’s playing on Cream’s classic track “Sunshine of Your Love.” Other examples can be found as well, including future Foreigner drummer Dennis Elliott’s playing with the band If, and John Bonham’s approach to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” Tony Allen, Shelly Manne, and Roy Haynes have experimented with emphasizing 1 and 3 at times as well.
As Wertico developed this line of thinking, Turn the Beat Around began to take shape. Designed to be used in an open-ended manner, it offers exercises with quarter-note, 8th-note, 16th-note, and triplet grooves, followed by variations on snare, bass drum, and ride patterns. In this way, the exercises and concept can be approached by players at any level. In practice, these beats sound familiar yet unexpected at the same time. They might seem to reference some lost African or samba groove and bring some new interpretations to the beat.
Yet Turn the Beat Around is about more than simply the mechanics of 1 and 3. “Books should not only help you technically but also conceptually, and make you more aware of things that you might not be aware of,” Wertico says. “In writing this book I really wanted it to not just be about frontbeats but about improving drumming overall. I’ve been using it with students, and when they go back to the backbeat after working on the frontbeat, their 1 and 3 on the bass drum is so much fatter and more pronounced. The intention is not to replace everything necessarily, but to strengthen people’s time and feel, and that seems to be working.”
In essence, then, it strengthens the time, feel, and playing of the backbeat by increasing awareness of the frontbeat, while developing a new creative avenue for the player as well. “Beyond a drummer, an arranger or composer can use this concept to start thinking differently,” Wertico says. “Why does it always have to be on 2 and 4? Not only the drums [could be affected] but the way the whole rhythm might section work. You displace it, and all of a sudden you’ve got a different arrangement of something you’ve always played the same way.
“I’ve done it on some gigs now,” Wertico continues, “and the look on people’s faces is like, Wow, what is this! Musically it can work—it seems to make it a little more urgent perhaps. I’ll tell [the band] I’m going to do it up front, though. You want to make sure at first that they’re aware you’re going to do it, but it creates really interesting results.
“Expand your concept, expand your hearing,” Wertico adds. “That’s what this is about.”
Now Wertico has been involved with numerous high-level projects and released many albums as both a sideman and a leader. AfterLive, the latest release by the trio Wertico, Cain, and Gray, involves an improvised performance—“one hundred percent made up on the spot,” Paul is quick to point out. Truly open ended in their thinking, Wertico, David Cain (sax, voice, keys), and Larry Gray (bass, cello, flute) mix a range of styles and sounds both acoustic and electronic, referencing everything from art rock to free jazz. Wertico can be heard creating and navigating textures, playing with drive and spontaneity, and keeping the performance fresh—never an easy feat in completely on-the-spot composition/performance situations. “You don’t want to be boring, or vague, or just noodle,” Wertico says. “You’ve really got to come up with the goods.”
“A lot of times I’ll suggest to students to practice with a song,” Wertico explains. “It’s great to practice with a metronome, because you’re going to work with a click, but if you practice with a really good-feeling track, you’re not only working on feel, you’re also learning a song and you’re working on form.
“Find some really great tracks that groove—an Al Green track, for example—something with a really good feel, and play along with that while trying the frontbeats. Try the frontbeat, try to do fills, try to do the coordination, and then go back and play it the way Al Jackson Jr. did, normally, and see the difference in how that feels. I think it’s pretty enlightening.”
For more information on Turn the Beat Around, visit paulwertico.com.