How is your sense of jazz time?

I’ve been listening to Youtube videos of jazz players. Not the stars, but players who most people would consider to be very capable. If you consider music skill and talent to be a smooth continuum, I want to talk about the players in the circled part of the line below. Not the greats at the top nor absolute beginners at the bottom, but in that lower-mid level of skill, experience, and talent:

Talent contuum3

That article focused on the scales, patterns, and licks jazz musicians play in their improvisation and how those notes and the instrument seem to take priority over musical intent. The result is collections of notes with too little musical soul behind them. I call that a caricature of jazz.

Keep in mind the roots of this music-the blues played and sung in the deep south. I don’t think they were trying to outdo each other with tricky note-filled lines.

I made the point in the article that our obsession with the ‘right’ notes seems to be draining the soul out of the music. ‘Right’ notes are memorized scales, licks, patterns, transcribed solo fragments, and anything other than the driving force of the music which is the emotion from your soul.

I want to explore another element of the caricature: time and rhythm, which might be worse than the ‘right’ note obsession. I think you can more easily get away with ‘wrong’ notes if they groove. Not so with ‘right’ notes played with poor time.

Listen to less experienced jazz players and too often you’ll hear a metronomically accurate-ish flow from one note to the next, carefully placing notes in their proper place within the beats and bars. They tend to articulate each note identically with little variation in dynamics and with a feel that is too on top of the beat. One might describe it as rushed or anxious. Uptight? It’s not a swinging groove. No one’s tapping their foot to it.

Just like you can put notes ahead of musical intent, you can also put the clock-like timing of notes ahead of your musical intent.  Doing either (and both) can make the difference between a deep expression of emotion and merely playing notes. It sounds like jazz, but it lacks the soul and personality of the musician. It’s a caricature of jazz.

Can you hear your own tendency to articulate every note the same and package a bunch of them in neat clock-like spaces of four beats? For most players, it’s hard to hear. In a way, I think it’s much easier to be aware of your note choices than to introspect into your own sense of time.

While improvising, you are thinking about what notes to play next. You can hear the churning of your brain and the internal self-talk. On the other hand, your sense of time seems to live more at the subconscious level. It’s much more subtle than your choice of notes.

But where you place those notes in time has a profound effect on your music. Players are in part defined by their sense of time. Think of the difference in note placement between Bill Evans and Dexter Gordon, or between Chet Baker and Woody Shaw. Of course, there are many other differences, but can you hear the role of note placement and articulation on their musical personalities? In a way, their placement of the note became part of their musical fingerprints.

Here’s a hard question for you: can you hear and describe in words YOUR own time feel? How does it reflect your personality? Are you simply trying to consistently fit notes into the allotted time or are you expressing yourself with articulation and note flow in order to tell your story?

23 Responses

  1. Great post Mike!! You nailed the legions of so-called good jazz players whose playing is unfortunately just a caricature of the music they think they’re playing.

    Very good !!

    Please continue with your honesty and kindness and specific ways to help those players.

  2. Is jazz “becoming” a caricature of itself? It has been for 40 years! As for sense of time, “accuracy,” and so on, two words: Kenny Wheeler. His solos are untranscribable — he’s not playing quarter, eight, 16th notes, etc.; rather, his playing takes on the character of speech. Especially in his late work, there’s almost never a “straight” note, either — everything is bent, shaped, curved. That’s the kind of rhythmic, time, and sound freedom we should all aspire to. The cookie-cutter “accurate” players turned out by all the jazz schools… why bother?

    1. Yes, Kenny is a player whose personality is on full display in his articulation and time. For him and other greats, time is a playground rather than a straightjacket.

  3. i love my time ” only when i forget about the greats, when i am the real myself. we all have listened to the greats and i still do that on daily basis, but music is a personal experience, when i am myself the time works better … definitely. because there is more harmony in my thoughts about what to play next. we all know the importance of putting three notes together but with the right sense of time, with the required breath to reach other listeners, time works when it becomes part of our body, when we interiorize it and it becomes natural. many great musicians dance while they play, it is not always easy to notice, even a piano player can dance. and when they do it there is a perfect conjunction between rhythm and music, between the brain who send ideas to the body. everything is important in Music, but nothing makes sense if you don’t develop your natural sense of time. a big hug to everyone.

  4. I was indelibly impressed by your writing here. Although I won’t send in an MP3 I see the value of the exercise. Your writing got me to thinking about my own skills and indeed I am at the point where I consciously although not consistently enough, make an effort to practice performance skills…..particularly avoiding those neat time packages of right notes and focusing on the melody so that I can hopefully be more lyrical for myself and to others.
    Nina Simone once said and I quote …”Music is a difficult mistress and if you don’t serve her properly, she punishes you” Ultimately you know when you are in the zone and when you are not. For me it is vital to tune out all external and internal distractions to allow the music to play ME! thanks for you insightful writing

    1. Playing bari sax has time and rhythm constraints. Especially during a unison stretch with bass trombone or bass guitar. Ah yes, then there are those tracks where I lay the rhythm out myself. Am I as solid as a metronome? Not at all. From reading this article I have so many more questions of my own playing. Thanks for raising the topic.

  5. This is beginning to sound like a musicologist’s attempt to define “swing”. I recall a study years ago that dissected drummers’ ride patterns in an attempt to reveal the holy grail. Some folks have got whatever it is and others don’t and never will. Alan Dawson taught a young Tony Williams. Alan told me that, when trading 4s with his tenor playing father, Tony’s “little hands” would get “tied in knots” trying to execute his 4 bars, but he always managed to find his way back to “1” coming out of his solo. Alan said it made the hair standup on the back of his neck. Alan took Tony as a student after that. He was Alan’s first student. Tony’s technique was refined by Alan. The time was already there.

    1. Ed, I hope my post doesn’t strike you as academic. Be sure to chastise me if I come out with a ‘swing guide’ that illustrates jazz eighth notes as the last part of an eighth note triplet and then demands that everyone turn their metronome to 60 bpm and accent the first and last note of that triplet. “Now you sound like a jazz player.”

      I’m actually characterizing the opposite in this piece. After years of listening to the greats of jazz, I’m hoping that players will hear their own internal rhythm and express themselves in a groove that best reflects their musical personality. No classroom cookie cutters here!

  6. Mike, timing and rhythm, the two most important factors for the other components . In college (many moons ago) I had a great teacher in jazz ensemble for swing and Latin , and in classical I had such a strong rhythm teacher and guide ( I played chromatic harmonica)

    But I never became a musician because my timing is so poor I can’t play rock n roll and am only now learning to follow the bass and drums. Sorry no music…

  7. As a student of jazz time is more important then the notes played. I am always playing a wrong note until I get it right. But time and energy keeps going so maintaining time and feel is something I try to maintain above all.

  8. Thank you very much for this article Mike!

    Perhaps the problem is that now there are jazz schools (a theorized jazz), with techniques : such lick, such scale on this chord… It puts everyone in the same mold. It is no longer music, but just like cooking recipes. Jazz, in my opinion, is rather a teaching by listening to the other musicians, by researching a lot also by oneself. Soak up what great musicians deliver, try to understand their state of mind when they play. And understand what, in the way of playing, what touches you deeply.

    1. Christophe, don’t blame the schools!! Of course there are certain things like theory harmony, technique, and orchestration that can and have been successfully taught for years in jazz and classical schools too. What CANNOT EVER BE TAUGHT is individuality personal expression SWING how to touch someone with your music or how to develop your own personal sound and of course to write a tune that moves your heart and head. By DEFINITION you can’t teach someone to be themselves!! There are excellent brilliant teachers all over the world who love teaching and give their hearts and minds to their students. They are serious professionals who have the INFORMATION and know HOW TO GIVE IT TO THE STUDENTS IN THE WAY IN WHICH IT WILL BENEFIT THEM. Then there are also, unfortunately, some incompetent bored bitter mediocre unmotivated teachers that a student sometimes is dealt. Thats a drag, but dont blame the school! Thats like saying, Hey man, you know I went to that great hospital that everyone said is the best one in the city and you know what?? It took 3 hours in the emergency room waiting on a saturday nite before anyone could see me. I’m ok but there were guys with gun shot wounds before me.

      So you going to blame THE WHOLE HOSPITAL BECAUSE YOU HAD TO WAIT 3 HOURS ON A SATURDAY NITE IN CHICAGO?? Be reasonable.

  9. I view time as an internal tempo that you have to feel before you start to play a tune. As a runner, I was able to hit splits on the track within a pretty close margin and I finally translated that skill to my bass playing. Whether running or walking, I feel a tempo in the process that enables me to “stay there” for extended periods of time, from 5K to marathon, subject to exhaustion, which then leads me to being satisfied with a ballad pace. Getting locked in is still a human feel rather than metronomic. I recall races where runners had watches beeping for every step, I couldn’t wait to get away from that noise. I will say that having a drummer with impeccable time makes the process a little “easier” but I still have to hold up my end of the bargain. And not every drummer is a perfect match but you have to stay focused and do what’s necessary to make it work. It’s like running that workout with another runner, could be someone of opposite gender, one third of your age. When you lock in together, you both perform better than you would have on your own.

  10. It looks like there are many more erudite and comprehensive comments than I can give. I will explain my own sense of time which has been developed over 40 years of teaching general music to young children. I have been teaching simple rhythms and steady beat for up to 7 hours a day during for those years.

    So, if you want to learn to feel time, be aware of all of the things that you do rhythmically (such as dribbling a basketball, body percussion, saying poems, tap you toe, or walking) away from your instrument. Time / rhythm isn’t something you do only in music. It is a big part of your life.

    BTW – I love your posts and what you are doing educationally for those of us trying to learn to be expressive. Thank you for your generosity and expertise.

  11. Provocative point of view (as always) Mike!
    I thought your article was going to describe me – someone who regains “consciousness” sporadically – hoping to find the downbeat. Funny how my striving to stay in time seems to be the antithesis of the excellence of expression you describe.
    Thank you for another key to another treasure chest of Music Savvy.

  12. Hello Mike ! Excellent your post. In terms of escales and patters, my approach is to use the material as means to develop technique but paying attention to the sound and content of these paterns agaist the harmony then I try to create from there.
    I tend to think more on creating melodies. So i can say that I use more a melodic approach. in terms of time well I tend to practice playing on the beat and ahead of the beat and behind of the beat . always with the metronome so I enjoy taking a tune and working on the harmony and on the time also playing with rithmic fomulas and the accent on diffent beats and trying to extend phrases over the barline. Thes is something I pick up from working the french saxophone book and literature where is very common to se these concepts being use.
    I do fell that your point is totally valid and correct. so glad you posted that. I do work thoses ideas with my students and incorporate that to their warm up routines and studies.

    Thank you for posting the article Iwill forwar it to my students and will keep up on it .

    Best regards

    Glenn Tomassi

  13. Michael Brecker told me: ‘I play with my internal rhythm section all the time. Now matter who actually sits behind me’. His ‘internal rhythm section’ was made of musicians with great time he had listened to, he had worked with, he also explained to me.
    If MB had a good time or not, if you like it or not: this in not the point I try to make here. in order to develop a good time feel, one has to develop an excellent ‘internal rhythm section’. Some will , some will not. But please, please: do not blame jazz education for that. Without jazz education jazz would be dead. A long time ago.

  14. I think time in music is like breath in life. I remember early in my career playing with the drummer Billy Peoples in Miami. I was maybe 21 and just starting out. Billy had been with Ray Charles and was a veteran. At one point he threw a drum stick at me (I was on the piano) because I was pounding my foot on the stage and rushing like crazy. Fast forward 30 years. I came back to NYC in 1980 and lived there until 2002. The main thing I learned in NYC was how to play time, play the groove, breathe the music. How did that happen. Mostly, I think, by just playing and listening to all the great musicians around me. I notice when I listen to younger players that there is no sense of openness in their time. No sense of play, breath, life. Time to me is a “place” one enters when playing music. Once there, the joy and life that defines great music becomes a physical reality on the band stand. It is like swimming in a deep pool with others, and feeling where everyone is at the same time. Maybe this does not make sense, but I don’t think of time is metric. I think it is spatial.

    1. Michael, nicely said. However you happen to think about music, you have a beautiful feel for time in your own playing.

  15. Funny thing.. as an electric bass player, when laying down a groove, I have been told by others that they love my feel/time/groove. The genre doesnt matter, be it R&B, latin, funk, rock or jazz. When I am soloing my time goes out the window. Recently i took ownership of this and have tried to “listen to the time” while soloing, and have the same intent for great groove while soloing. As a result, I know my soloing has improved, not because I suddenly am playing lines like a master, but because the execution feels better to the listener. It also feels better to me, as I am playing it, and when I listen back to it.

    1. That’s exactly why I challenged people to describe their feel for time because not everyone is present and aware of time as they solo. Glad you discovered that on your own.

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