Rhythmic Folklore

(Educational missive for my NEC students)

I just spent a couple of nights playing with Eric McPherson. Eric has a folkloric beat. It sounds like the jazz records I love from years past with drummers like Billy Higgins and Elvin Jones.

Billy Hart (who has that kind of beat as well) explains that his own immense creativity is partially a result of imitating others. Billy always cites Tony Williams as saying, “I wanted to play like Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Philly Jones, but as if they were me.”

Do what your masters did, but do it like now.

Some drummers are real rock or fusion masters with great time and a charismatic assemblage of chops and style. However, when you put these rock and fusion masters in an acoustic jazz setting they can sound stiff, with each piece of the beat being sliced, diced, and handed out in ungenerous portions.

Consecrated jazz drummers have less accurate time than rock and fusion drummers for a reason. The beat is connected to the cycle of life and playing with an ensemble. It has warp and woof and slip and slide.

Perhaps because my ears were opened up after working with Eric McPherson for two nights, I was forcibly struck by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s playing of a Tchaikovsky “Humoresque” this morning. I had heard the track but never looked at the score before, and after the great pianist Peter Donohoe tweeted about working on it, I went and found a scrolling video on YouTube.

Rachmaninoff plays the rhythms and the notes his way. He does not follow the score very accurately. He’s connected to the cycle of life and his ancestors — and his offspring, for as it turns out, Stravinsky would steal the same material for the later ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. This is Russian music of a certain persuasion. If Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky got together for tea they wouldn’t need to explain a thing to each other. (Indeed, it might be a pretty silent affair.)

The rhythm is not at all like jazz, but the beat is still flexible and swinging. One could not notate what Rachmaninoff plays. It is in the cracks, backwards and forwards, generous, humorous, and loving.

By itself, the score is not that intriguing, but Rachmaninoff’s performance transforms it into a masterpiece.