Rock ‘N’ Jazz Clinic

The Musical Drummer

by Alan Dawson

One of the questions that has come up the most times in conversations is: “What is this about form in music? How do you know where you are? How do you approach playing with other instruments on specific tunes? What would your approach be to soloing on tunes?” And so forth. Now, obviously these are the kinds of questions to which there is certainly no one answer.

To start off with, if we’re talking about form, most of the tunes that I am dealing with here are the tunes that we speak of as “standards.” There are certain forms in which most of the standard tunes fall. Certain categories. However, we do have a lot of exceptions particularly in contemporary tunes. From the standpoint of the standards probably the most common form would be AABA. That is a form simply in which we have phrases, the first, second and fourth phrases alike. The first two phrases are AA. The next phrase, would be the B phrase. And that’s commonly referred to as the release, bridge, or channel of a tune.

How do we know how long a phrase is? Most of the tunes (there are plenty of exceptions) deal with eight bar phrases. If there’s a deviation from that, you can determine it by listening. We could make an analogy between an eight bar phrase and a sentence. Well, it would be a fairly long sentence, but you would have the feeling of a period at the end of this phrase. If we take a tune like “Satin Doll”, which most of us are pretty familiar with, we sense at the end of the first phrase the feeling of something coming to an end, like the end of an eight measure phrase. And in the case of “Satin Doll” we would have the A phrase followed by a phrase just like it. And that would take up sixteen bars, or two eight bar phrases.

Now, the B phrase would be a bit different. Very often the B phrase goes to a different key. Or, at least it’s a different melody even if it doesn’t go to a different key. You’d have the bridge or the release of the tune—the B section—and at the end of the B section, you’d have a feeling of a period also.

Then we would follow that with one more eight measure phrase, an A phrase and it would more or less have a period at the end of it.

We could make the analogy that those four, eight measure phrases and their total, (being one chorus) are equivalent to a paragraph. So we have actual phrases within the chorus just as we would have sentences within a paragraph. In a musical situation, once we have stated the melody in this form, the improvisation of the various instruments (saxophone, trumpet, etc.) continually play within the framework of this form. That is, they continue to play this AABA, AABA form. It actually might be a combination of the form, harmonic and melodic content of the tune.

How do these forms concern the drummer? By being aware of these forms, the drummer is able to accompany the various instrumentalists in a much better way by knowing exactly where he is within the framework. Typically you might have this form of AABA and have a tune in which during the melody or improvisation, you might play with a “2- beat” feeling in the A sections, and a “4- beat” feeling in the B section. In doing this, you actually create a bit of interest and a lack of monotony in accompanying the other instruments. Also, in this type of tune you might find that very often you can play some type of a quasi-Latin rhythm in the A sections and straight ahead swing in the B sections. Typical of this would be the tune “Night in Tunisia”. A sections are more or less Latin and the B sections are straight ahead.

On some of these tunes you might do this only during the melody and in others, continue this type of thing through the improvised choruses.

There are forms like ABAC. This is another very common form. An example of this form would be a tune like “On Green Dolphin Street.” That is, the first and third phrases are alike, the second and fourth phrases are different. I would like to point out that on this particular tune, the second and fourth phrases are different in spite of the fact that they both start alike. Less than 4 measures of the second and fourth phrases are similar. They change.

Typical of this tune is that in the A sections (the first and third phrases) during the melody at least, some type of a Latin, or broken rhythm is played. The second and fourth phrases are played straight ahead. This is very effective, because going from the Latin or ‘broken’ rhythm into the swing part, enhances it. This is done most of the time during the melody, but depending on the circumstances this might be continued through the improvised choruses.

What are the circumstances under which you might or might not do this? Generally, if bass, piano and drums are playing during the melody and things feel very comfortable, you or any one of the members of the rhythm section, might decide, “Hey! During this blowing part let’s be a little adventurous.” You might continue to play some type of off rhythms in the course of the improvised solos. This has been the criteria for me. If it feels comfortable and everybody seems at ease, then we can experiment a little bit. If not, then we really want to take care of business until it starts to come together. There is no set rule about this, but it is a part of playing along with other instruments. And it also carries through as a fringe benefit into the playing of solos.

Typically, you have certain tunes that lend themselves to solos because of either their rhythmic makeup or the general approach that’s used on the melody. As I mentioned in the case of “On Green Dolphin Street” you play a kind of Latin feeling in the first and third phrases and straight-ahead in the second and fourth phrases. That gives you a guide to use for playing a drum solo and keying in on the contrasting parts of the tune. The solo becomes inspirational to you and also makes a nice tie-in for the listener. And when I say the “listener”, I’m not speaking only of the audience, but also the other players. It makes it more interesting for everybody listening to be able to relate what you are playing to the tune. The other instrumentalists are able to come in at the end of your solo much easier than if you are just playing with no thought as to how the tune is constructed.

Remember that accompaniment is important. The fringe benefit is the solo! A drummer, when constructing a solo should play something that is interesting to him and to people listening, and therefore make it simpler for the other musicians to come back in.