Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Approaching Standards

A Framework for Musical Practice, Part 1: Phrasing

by Steve Fidyk

Jazz musicians spend a considerable amount of practice time learning standard tunes in a variety of keys. By doing so, they become versed in the tradition, while developing a repertoire of music to be played with other musicians. Many choose to learn these songs from The Real Book, which is a compilation of dozens of lead sheets that outline the melody and chord changes, while others transcribe music from the original recordings. (Transcribing can be especially beneficial because it teaches structure, chord voicings, harmonic movement, phrasing, articulation, and melody all at once.) 

Tunes from Miles Davis, Jimmy Webb, John Coltrane, Lennon/McCartney, George Gershwin, and Thelonious Monk have become “standards,” because musicians continue to call them on the bandstand years after they were written. It’s a canon of music that has withstood the test of time, and we drummers should give it some attention. This article series is designed to expose you to different ways to apply the rhythmic material of the melodies of these standards.

At one time or another, most jazz drummers have been put in the awkward position of not knowing a tune called by the bandleader. When you find yourself in this situation, remain cool and ask obvious questions like: What is the style? Would you prefer brushes or sticks? How are we getting in and out of the tune? Of course, the best-case scenario is to know the form, melody, and basic arrangement of as many standards as possible so you can be fully engaged in the improvisational process.

There are many ways for drummers to become better acquainted with new songs. If you have some basic knowledge of music theory, I highly recommend that you sit at a piano and slowly plunk out the melody of different tunes. This will give your ear a chance to become familiar with the overall structure and contour of the songs. The next step would be to add each chord’s root note with your left hand, as your right plays the melody. This can be followed by playing each chord shell (the root, third, and seventh) in the left hand as accompaniment to the melody. You can also try playing the melody on a mallet instrument, like vibraphone. If you have aspirations of writing or arranging music, knowing some basic theory, and being able to function on a keyboard instrument, can certainly help you realize your goals.

When asked to play the melody of a tune on the snare drum, most drummers tend to lead with their strong hand and alternate. This is one way of playing, and it produces a specific feel and sound. To alter the phrasing, I suggest mixing in combinations of singles and doubles, while strictly adhering to the rhythm of the melody. (You should begin by limiting the instrument choice to the snare, because it’s more challenging to create different inflections of sound on one source as opposed to many.) By mixing up the sticking, you’re able to phrase the melody more accurately to match the original recording. In general, double strokes can help bring a sense of legato (smoothness) to an instrument that is naturally staccato sounding, like the snare.

Below are various sticking examples applied to the standard twelve-bar blues tune “Straight No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk. Practice each sticking along with the different versions that appear on these classic recordings: 5 by Monk by 5, Monk in Tokyo, The Best of Miles Davis & John Coltrane (1955–1961), The Cannonball Adderley Quintet in San Francisco, and Oliver Nelson’s Sound Pieces. Listen to each recording actively, and mine out as much detail as you can with regard to the feel, articulation, and phrasing.

Here are the first four measures of the melody of “Straight No Chaser,” played using an alternating sticking that begins with the right hand.

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Once you have control of the rhythm by itself, add the bass drum and hi-hat ostinatos as accompaniment.

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This next example, which includes the entire twelve-bar melody, incorporates double strokes that start with the right hand. Notice how the sticking influences the phrasing.

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Examples 3–6 use combinations of single and double strokes. Observe how the stickings affect the phrasing of the melody.

Jazz Drummers Workshop 5 As you get comfortable with the melody and different stickings, experiment by employing different sounds and articulations. Example 7 mixes in press rolls to better replicate the actual length of each note.

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Continue to work on “Straight No Chaser” until it’s firmly ingrained in your memory, while also beginning the process with other standards. In the next installment, we’ll explore ways of using a standard melody as a vehicle to comp and improvise around the drumset.

Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more info, including how to sign up for lessons via Skype, visit stevefidyk.com.