Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Beat

I've been listening to pianist Erroll Garner's classic "Concert by the Sea," along with his other solo and trio work while I'm working out in the mornings. Garner does some interesting things with rhythm. At times, he plays right on the center of the beat with his left hand, while playing way behind the beat with his right hand. When his right hand "caught up" to his left hand, the release of tension was very cool. This left-hand tempo is pronounced in Erroll Garner's playing because of his stride-like left hand playing, and his tendency to play steady eighth notes like Basie's guitarist Freddie Green, an uncharacteristic thing for a pianist to do (at least I can't think of anyone else who plays this way regularly). Well worth hearing.

This brings to mind an interesting question on the mechanics of music - what exactly comprises this all important musical pulse that gives life to music, this thing that we call the 'beat'?

A beat is not a fixed point in time; artists are humans, not machines. The beat is more like a Gaussian distribution with exactly "on the beat" being in the middle. For example, a drummer and bassist in a typical jazz trio might be playing exactly on the beat (the mode of the distribution). Playing ahead of the beat, the note falls to the left of center (i.e., it is played before the beat) with rapidly declining probability (since way to the left will lose the groove). This makes the piano part sound a little "pushed" but still in time. It brings the energy level up a bit. The more to the left of center you play, the more urgent the feel.

When playing behind the beat, the note falls to the right of center; i.e., a bit late. This makes the piano sound a bit more relaxed. This is, for example, a signature of Dr. John’s New Orleans style of playing. Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) started out as an electric bass player, where playing behind the beat makes the bass and kick drum lock in better, since the beater of the kick happens milliseconds before the bass note, so the end result is a percussive whump followed by the bloom of the bass note.

It’s all part of the innately human aspect of jazz. No good musician plays every note exactly on the beat. A typical drummer will keep the hats pretty much consistent, either on the beat or slightly ahead of the beat. Most kick drum parts are on the upbeat except when they want to emphasize a downbeat in which case that kick might be slightly ahead of the beat. The snare hits will often move from ahead to on to behind the beat depending on verse/chorus/fill, and so forth.

Playing along with drummers is the key to developing your own feel for things. Put on an old Police track - Stewart Copeland was almost always playing ahead of the beat. Now put on some old Al Green - Al Jackson Jr and Howard Grimes were almost always playing behind the beat (especially on the 2). Now put on the Stones' Honky Tonk Women - Keith Richards is always behind the beat and Charlie Watts is staying with him except for the kick drum, which ties it back to a solid beat every two bars.

It's not a science, but art. Or maybe its ... artsy science.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

very nice thank you so much. as a musician ive come across alot of producers who are click track fascists

7:39 PM  

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