All That Jazz II: Rhythm


As the great man once said, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. But what is swing? How do you tell if it’s got it or not? Well, if you have to ask… If non-jazzers think of jazz rhythm, I suspect they focus on two things, exemplified by the Sonny Rollins track last time: it’s played mostly on the cymbals, with the bass and snare drums used for irregular emphasis, and it involves those irregular quavers (DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da etc.). Like more or less any statement about jazz, there’s some truth in that, up to a point, but only up to a point; lots of jazz records from the 1930s to the 1960s (and later ones imitating that style) feature that sort of rhythm, but plenty of others don’t. Sometimes the rhythm is syncopated, sometimes it isn’t; sometimes it’s played on the cymbals, sometimes it’s played on the bass and piano while the percussion gets to do its own thing (see nilpferd’s brilliant analysis of Tony Williams’ playing on Miles Smiles), sometimes it’s played on broomsticks or rocks or the floor (the great Han Bennink). Sometimes it swings obviously, sometimes it doesn’t obviously swing in a traditional sense.

I think Ellington is right that rhythm lies at the heart of jazz; the great stylistic changes, from ragtime and New Orleans jazz to swing, to bebop, to hard bop and post-bop, to the New Thing, to jazz rock and fusion, were all marked by new styles and conceptions of rhythm. But ‘swing’, I think, isn’t a particular sort of rhythm so much as the right sort of rhythm, the rhythm that feels right for a particular context. Jazz is marked not by a special style but by a concern with time and timing, an interest in exploring how far things can be stretched and manipulated before they fall apart altogether. That may be a matter of a soloist interacting with the rhythm section and playing around with the beat and the chord sequence, or of the rhythm section taking centre stage rather than just providing the backing.

Duke Ellington’s Orchestra explores how many different rhythmic patterns, played by different instrument sections, can be fitted into a single song without losing the underlying swing. Sarah Vaughan exemplifies the fact, known by a lot of the greatest jazz soloists, that having a great sense of rhythm frequently means not keeping to the basic beat but working around it (contrast a couple of the soloists on this track; for me, Herbie Mann’s flute solo exemplifies a failure to swing). The Tomasz Stanko track, with Tony Oxley on percussion, switches the function of keeping the beat to the bass, and thinks about abandoning clear divisions between bars altogether. The Esbjorn Svensson Trio experiment with non-swinging rock rhythms; Matthew Shipp explores (with a real drummer) the influence of contemporary electronic beats.

Finally, a track that is probably too familiar to many of us, too much part of the wallpaper, too laden with images and associations – but just listen to that drummer. Dave Brubeck sticks to the same piano riff all the way through, Paul Desmond plays short phrases as a means of sticking closely to the song’s structure in the face of an unfamiliar five beats to the bar, but Joe Morello merrily shifts the accent around and plays with its possibilities. The only drum solo I actually love, and it also worked brilliantly in Pleasantville

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