Demonstrating the tangible elements of good jazz time

On Monday's post I asked readers the question, what is your feel for time? I wanted to raise the idea of being aware of one's personal feel for time and of the importance of good time in jazz improvisation.

I also made the point that good time trumps carefully chosen 'right' notes. Even the most well-composed solo falls short when played with inconsistent time and no groove.

So, for my little social experiment, I asked readers to submit a sample of their playing along with their description of their own feel for time. Players sent me responses that make my point. If they had played all those notes with swinging, grooving time, their improvisations would have been much much better.

One submission came from a trombone player who wrote, "Because of my focus on notes and harmony I'm focused less on rhythm and often find myself struggling to fit my phrases within the groove."

Part of my motivation in requesting readers to describe their sense of time and how it manifests itself in their improvising was to see how aware they are of this critical musical element. The above quote is praise-worthy. I'm not sure how aware less experienced jazz musicians are of that tendency.

The objective is to have notes, harmony, time, and rhythm so ingrained into your musical subconscious that nothing is stealing away focus from anything, but if it isn't yet for you, at least be aware of it.

This trombone player gave me his kind permission to use a segment of his submitted solo over the first A section of Gershwin's tune 'S Wonderful as an example for me to describe the elements of good time, feel, and groove. I commend him for putting himself out there. Only a tiny portion of the thousands of musicians I reached out to was willing to upload an audio file of their playing. Even with my promise of a free eBook and the chance for Richie Beirach to offer his personal coaching to one of the chosen submitters. I'm reminded of the phrase, all growth comes from outside our comfort zone.


Elements of Good Jazz Time

Stylized sound wave3

I think of groove or swinging time as a three-legged stool. All three legs must be strong and doing their part.

The three legs are flow, articulation, and dynamics, and just like other elements of good music, those three must be embedded deep within you.

Flow is the smooth passage of time, like a moving stream. It doesn't halt or waver. It just flows.

Articulation is the personality of the notes. Short, long, hard, smeared, gentle all describe how each note can be played.

Dynamics is the volume of each note and that of every phrase they form.

They all work together so that if one is missing, the swing or groove will suffer.

Listen to the following first A section of the trombone player's recording:

The lines he played made for good phrases. What is missing is the three-legged stool.

Start with dynamics. He played each note with a very similar dynamic. Loud. Speaking as a trombone player, if each note is equally heavy, you're going to have a very tough time creating a musical flow.

Regarding articulation, there is very little variation. Similar to the dynamics, each articulation is hard. Again, that's weighting down the possibility for flow.

The resulting flow is inconsistent. Consider his dynamics and articulation, and combine that with rushed notes and phrases. Rushing time can be a groove or swing killer.

I sent back to this player a recording I made of my own version of this segment of 'S Wonderful. I did that in order to better illustrate my points. It's nearly impossible to describe the beautiful flow of music using words.

I'm not suggesting that my version is necessarily beautiful, but it does demonstrate the three legs. Listen to it below:

Don't be distracted by the better recording quality of my version. I was going for the clearest possible representation so that you can hear the nuances comprising my own sense of time and rhythm. In fact, 'nuance' is a very good word for much of good time. The process of articulating good time is super subtle even though the result is super obvious.

After hearing my version, the trombone player wrote back one last thing that was perceptive:

"I now see it's not asynchronous vs synchronous time which you're getting at but a more controlled expressive interplay with the groove would definitely help my playing."

In other words, he heard that the goal is not metronomically perfect time but instead, a dance with time.

And speaking of dancing, I am rehearsing my parts for some upcoming salsa gigs and can attest to the fact that a good Latin groove demands all three legs of the stool. Salsa solos should add infectious energy to the room, and even though blasting an energetic trombone salsa solo requires loud and hard articulation, it must still be balanced with enough variety to keep the dancers in full gear! The groove.

So as you listen to the music of others and of yourself, think about the three legs of the stool and be able to identify what is making or breaking swing and groove.

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