Excerpted from “Rhythm Section Workshop for Jazz Directors” by Shelly Berg, Lou Fischer, Fred Hamilton and Steve Houghton / Published by Alfred Publishing Co. ©2005; Used with Permission
The rhythm section is the energy core of any jazz ensemble. From the rhythm section radiates the groove, time and spirituality of the music. It is the intensity of the rhythm section that “infects” the remainder of the ensemble, helping them to play with the style and intent of the music.
Unfortunately, much of the music we play in rhythm sections is either notated poorly or inadequately, or is deliberately sketchy to leave room for innovation. So, rhythm section players must learn to create grooves on their own, as opposed to what may be written!
GROOVE AND SUBDIVISION
Obviously, the rhythm section must provide a groove. Our definition of the verb groove is, to create constant energy channeled into subdivision. For every kind of beat (or feel), good rhythm sections understand the underlying subdivision and apply it to the type of energy that gives the music the appropriate “life.” We like to say that the answer to every question having to do with tempo, time, groove, counting, etc., can be answered with just one word, subdivision (or subdivide). How do we keep from rushing or dragging? Subdivide. How do we all play that note on the “and” of three together? Subdivide. How do we all play in the same groove? Subdivide.
The verb, to groove is not to be confused with the noun, groove, or the time feel. The purpose of this project is to help you teach students how to groove in the typical styles that most intermediate jazz ensembles play.
CLARITY AND DEFERENCE
Next to groove, clarity and deference are the two most important words for rhythm sections. Clarity is essential. Never tolerate a rhythm section that muddies the sound of the ensemble. Here are some factors that can affect clarity: playing at the wrong volume, playing too much, playing inappropriately,, playing too many sustained chords, playing with a poor sense of time and groove.
Deference implies that a player will yield (or defer) to someone else by leaving space in his or her own part. The space that one player leaves highlights the beautiful idea in someone else’s part. So you see, deference is a key element in achieving clarity.
TIME IS A WEIGHT
Although it is the rhythm section’s job to play with excellent time, it is not the rhythm section’s sole responsibility to do so. Think of time as a weight, perhaps a steel plate weighing 500lbs. If we lower that plate onto the ensemble, and ask everyone to raise their arms up to hold it, they will find the weight quite manageable. It seems to float in the air. But, if we instruct everyone except the drummer to let go, all will be crushed by the weight. The same is true with time. It floats in effortless fashion when each ensemble member holds up his or her little piece of it.
Comping is the rhythmic accompaniment of chords played by piano and/or guitar. Some say that the word is derived from “accompany,” while others trace the derivation to “complimenting.” Perhaps both explanations are correct.
Most societies pass grooves down from generation to generation in a great aural tradition. Western music seems to be learned more from process and explanation. This method is inadequate when applied to jazz grooves. The aural apprenticeship must be observed for jazz music to spring to life. Be sure to have your students listen to great recordings. Over time they will develop an intuition for groove and style. After all, as Duke Ellington said, “It Don’t Mean a Thing, if it Ain’t Got that Swing!”