Elvin Jones was a driving force behind John Coltrane’s explorations in the 1960s and is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in jazz drumming. This lesson applies the principles of his style to rhythms found in the classic Ted Reed book Syncopation. Here we’ll interpret the first line of Exercise 1 (found on page 38) using Jones’ concepts, however, be sure to apply the ideas to other rhythms. Exercise 1 shows the pattern we’ll be using throughout this lesson.
Jones’ rhythmic concepts moved away from previously established swing conventions and toward a newer freedom that aligned with Coltrane’s ideas. The drummer’s rolling triplets created a circular sound and feel, and his timekeeping produced a flowing continuum where no beat felt more important than another.
Jones also often emphasized the second partial of the triplet. To illustrate that, check out this comping example from “Resolution,” which appears on Coltrane’s legendary album A Love Supreme.
Exercise 3 mimics some of those comping ideas. The feet play the rhythm from Syncopation between the hi-hat and bass drum while the left hand fills in triplets.
Jones also used the hi-hat for more of a melodic role as opposed to only keeping time. Use Exercise 4 to develop facility with the hi-hat foot. Play triplets alternating between the hands and feet while the hi-hat plays the Syncopation rhythm.
The last two exercises were inspired by Elvin’s polyrhythmic style and serve as independence challenges that will improve your triplets and strengthen your groove. Elvin often makes use of poly-metric phrasing, typically implying three over four. In Exercise 5, play the line with the bass drum while filling in triplets with the snare. Play a traditional 12/8 bembé bell pattern with the right hand.
In Exercise 6, the bass drum plays quarter notes, the right hand plays quarter-note triplets, and the hi-hat foot plays half-note triplets. Get comfortable with how the rhythms relate to each other, and then play the figures from Syncopation on the snare.
Mike Alfieri is a Brooklyn, New York–based drummer and educator. He has a bachelor’s degree in music education from the Crane School of Music and a master’s degree in jazz studies from SUNY Purchase. For more info, visit mikealfieri.net.