Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Understanding Time

by Alan S. Kinsey

A drummer’s time is probably the single most important factor in deciding whether a group is pushed apart or pulled together. It is necessary to understand that time is a musical feeling. This feeling can be played three different ways: as a trailing edge, as a leading edge, or at dead center. It is important to note that the basic tempo of any musical piece is not to be changed, though the feeling of that tempo may be adjusted for varied situations. Let’s take a close-up look at each one individually.

Trailing Edge (see example #1)

Trailing edge can be defined as behind the basic time feeling. This can be achieved by playing hard accents on the counts of two and four in each measure, as in the Stripper, or a shout chorus in big band. In today’s disco music a groove is sometimes established by using the large tom within time. Low sounds tend to generate a heavy or slower feel. This idea is also used when a soloist or section of instruments tend to rush the time.

Example 1.

Jazz Drummers Workshop 1

Leading Edge (see example #2)

Leading edge can be defined as ahead of the basic time feeling. This can be achieved by changing the relationship of the notes within the time measure as illustrated. Light or high sounds give the best results (bell of cymbal or snare drum) as opposed to low sounds as in the trailing edge. A well played cha-cha is usually played with cowbell (high sound) on leading edge. This idea is used when a soloist or section tends to drag the tempo.

Example 2.
Jazz Drummers Workshop 2


Dead Center (see example #3)

Dead center can be defined as right with the basic time feeling. This can be achieved by “getting the time together” with the use of compound strokes (not flams) on the counts of two and four in the measure. This idea swings the most of the three. Count Basie’s rhythm section, in particular, is a prime example of playing dead center and swinging.

Example 3.
Jazz Drummers Workshop 3

The most important thing to remember is to listen to the group of musicians around you. Listening to them will give you the information you need to play and make the band swing. A big band can be a most challenging situation from a time feeling standpoint. Brass sections have a tendency to rush; sax sections a tendency to drag. Play accordingly on section passages. Ensemble passages need a strong time feeling throughout. Listening, and being aware that timing is crucial and the time feeling flexible, can go a long way to understanding time.

The following discography should be helpful for drummers desiring further elaboration of the material discussed above.

1 . Supersax Plays Bird on Capitol Records with Jack Hanna on drums. BeBop. Listen for leading edge on sax ensemble; more dead center on Candoli’s solo.

2. Buddy Rich — Swingin’ New Big Band on Liberty Records. Basically Blues. Listen for leading edge (sock cymbal) on sax ensemble; dead center, heavy playing on ensemble passage borders on trailing edge.

3. Billy Joel’s single on Columbia Records, Just the Way You Are. Listen for the use of tom and bass drum to create groove (trailing edge).

4. Santana — Festival on Columbia Label with Gaylord Birch on drums. Let the Children Play. Listen for leading edge (cowbell) throughout tune. Reach Up — Listen for trailing edge. Accented 2 and 4 by drummer sets up groove.

5. Count Basie — I Told You So on Pablo Label with Butch Miles on drums. Sweet Pea. Listen for dead center. Freddie Green lays into time feel, keeps it dead center and swinging.

Any Basie album is a study in musicians listening to each other to make the specific tune swing. Listen to Miles Davis, Freddie Green, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, listening to each other. Listen and learn.