A while back I wrote several posts about time, making the point that one’s sense of time and swing was more important in playing jazz than the ‘correct’ notes.
The articulation of a note is a partner in time. You can have perfect time but if every note is attacked with the same force, dynamic, and nuance, you will sound stiff and robotic. This is not just true of jazz but really of any type of music.
The groove or flow of good music depends on the articulation of the notes. It’s similar to speaking. You don’t say each word with the exact same emphasis or nuance. It’s the variance of each word and the arc of their dynamic and tambre that gives the spoken word its beauty and power.
Speaking about wind instruments as a trombone player, I think that articulation is everything. It determines your swing, your attitude, and the musical story you tell.
For my book, Rhythm Savvy, I recorded the song Dat Dere for an example of how articulation and time are intermingled. Listen to the difference between my similar articulation of each note here…
And my version of the same tune in the same tempo with a much more nuanced articulation…
And here is a variation of the melody with an exaggerated nuance. The point I’m making is how much you can craft your expression of a melody using your articulation.
I’m not making a value judgment on how you should sound, only that your approach to the start and end of notes has a profound effect on the musical story you tell through your playing.
How much range do you have on your articulation? Are you a trombone player with only ‘blat’ and ‘BLAT’ in your toolkit?
Here’s an exercise to stretch your range of articulation. I’m not talking about your range in terms of how high and low you can play, but instead, how much variation can you cover.
Play only one note. Start with either super smooth legato where you can barely hear the distinction between notes. Then slowly evolve to a staccato articulation with lots of separation between the notes along with a hard articulation. Then play that in reverse.
Let me demonstrate this exercise on trombone as I play around with it. My first recording below is playing the lighter articulation and longer notes soft and then making the shorter notes loud.
I did the opposite in this second example.
It was easier for me to go from short to long than long to short. Hear the smoother transition from short to long? Just playing around with this and coming up with your own variations will make you more aware of this aspect of your playing.
Now that you’re more aware, how can you put this articulation finesse into your performances? Record yourself as you purposefully play more expressively. Make note of how you’re doing it.
Record, listen, then evaluate. Honestly.