Driver’s Seat

Energy and the Ensemble

In my last article I talked about supporting the big band, not getting in the way, and cueing or directing the band. In this article, I’ll be explaining the value of underplaying and the extreme importance of energy levels. For instance:UNDERPLAYINGI said in my first article for MD last year that sometimes a well placed rim shot in an arrangement has more impact than ten thousand notes. The prime example is Buddy Rich’s two bar silent break in Channel One Suite. It’s a perfect place for one of Bud’s incredible fills. The arrangement roars along at full speed and volume with lots of ensemble work and drum fills. Suddenly there’s a dead stop and a massive wall of total silence. This hits the listener with an impact far greater than a huge fill ever would. It’s perfectly timed and perfectly placed. And it’s extremely effective. Shelly Manne was a firm believer in silence when he played with the Stan Kenton band. Kenton liked to use sheets of sound in his arrangements. That was his particular sound. Naturally, silence in various places was and is very effective in a situation like that.

Also note the difference between the interpretation of certain Basie tunes by drummers Gus Johnson and Sonny Payne. Here’s a quick quiz: Listen to “Bleep Blop Blues” on Basie Jazz (Clef #MGC-633) and again to the same tune on Basie At Birdland (Roulette #R-52065). The first recording is loose and the drums don’t detract from the ensemble. You can hear the voicings that were written for the arrangement. It’s more band than drums. On the second, the drums kick the living whatever out of the ensemble but the voicings are almost totally lost. Now the question is, is it Gus the first time and Sonny the second? Or, is it Sonny Payne both times with more restraint the first time and more energy the second? The answer? According to Basie, it was Sonny both times. This ties in with our next tip:


The same arrangement played by two different bands and drummers will sound totally different. Example: “Ya Gotta Try” on Prime Time (Pablo #2310-797) by Basie, and the very same arrangement by Buddy’s band on Buddy Rich Plays and Plays and Plays (RCA-CPL 1-2273). Both have the same arrangement by Sammy Nestico but the interpretations are different. Basie’s is smooth and swinging; Bud’s is tight and very powerful. There’s a high energy level flowing on both versions but Buddy is more up tempo so there’s more energy flowing at all times. However, in Basie’s, I’m playing less in the way of fills and over-all punctuation to let the band breathe more. The concept fits that of the leader. Basie/band — Buddy/drums. Both are different from the other, and both are correct for that band. Both have high energy levels because the chart demands it.

Energy is extremely important when playing a ballad. One of the hardest tunes we do is “Li’l Darlin’.” The reason is, the tune has a built in drag factor. No matter what tempo it’s kicked off at, it wants to slow down. My job, and yours, is to keep that energy up and that tempo there. It’s very difficult when playing with brushes.

Another example is “Ja-Da” (Prime Time again). When we recorded it, I used sticks all the way to keep the energy and the tempo up. However, as on “Freckle Face” (see last issue) I’ve since revised my approach. The band is more relaxed with the arrangement so I’ve switched to brushes for the first ensemble, Basie solo, flute solo, and second ensemble. It’s only when we raise the volume and change the key that I switch to sticks. This gives an added lift and more color to the chart. More energy is needed when an arrangement calls for brush work. This may sound wrong but believe me, it is correct. Without that extra energy, a slow tune or a ballad will drag without your being very aware of it.

Also, on tunes where you’re using brushes, it’s always a good idea to play a stronger hi-hat. That way, no matter what the chart, the band can rely on the solid support that a strong hi-hat will give them. I’ve found the Avedis Zildjian 14-inch New Beats give me the best results. You may find that another sound is best for you.

Without energy, a chart will die a very sad death. The drummer is expected to supply energy at all times. Big band drummers have different approaches naturally; Bud is high energy all the time and so is Sonny Payne. I try to keep the level way up but also try to relax enough to let the band swing on its own. Mel Lewis has great energy without ever getting in the way of an ensemble or soloist. All the top big band drummers have incredible amounts of energy. Lou Bellson alone has enough energy to light up most of Los Angeles. It’s so important. Don’t let that chart die!

Ways to keep the energy level up in a chart? Strong hi-hat, and provide solid background support. Why use example # 1 if example #2 will fit better? And it doesn’t need to be loud to be strong with firm cues for the band and strong fills. These are only a few ways to keep the energy up, and there are many more. I will use example #2 in many arrangements when the band is swinging hard and I don’t want to overplay and drown out the ensembles or the soloist.

Sam Woodyard used this method with Duke Ellington a great deal and it almost always works. Listen to Ellington at Newport — “Crescendo and Diminuendo.”
drivers seat 5_79


Next time, we’ll discuss the importance of really learning the chart and some helpful hints on one of the most difficult of all aspects of big band drumming — phrasing. Till then, keep swinging.

Since writing this article for MD, drummer Sonny Payne has passed away. He was a friend, and I believe big band drumming has received a heavy blow with his passing. I feel a deep sense of loss as I’m sure many others do. I thank Sonny Payne for many happy hours of music, and numerous helpful tips on big band drumming. I’ll miss him.

Butch Miles