Mind The “Ands”
In this second installation of my "Groove Rules of Thumb" Series, I want to talk about syncopation. Jazz rhythm is rooted in syncopation, which is the essence of Swing. It's inordinately difficult to define or notate Swing, but its clear that Swing is an idiomatic feel that is all about the “ands”, or “upbeats”. Playing jazz, we necessarily spend our lives trying to articulate these parts of the beat in a swinging manner.
This distinguishes jazz from classical music. Our music is about a highly idiomatic style of syncopation that is ingrained over a lifetime. Just try and get a classical player to play a jazz line and you’ll quickly hear what it sounds like when someone hasn’t spent their life immersed in this essential building block of swing.
I’ve noticed that most musicians have more of a tendency to rush than to drag. To combat this tendency, we have to look at how we're interpreting upbeats. Upbeats naturally want to rush. Waltzes and "Straight Eight" tunes are two areas where we should be especially mindful.
Upbeats, like all rhythms, should be played broadly; in the center, or towards the back end of the beat.
This upbeat-based rhythm is an essential building block of jazz:
I like to call this a “Charleston,” as it’s the same rhythm from the dance from the 1920’s (the great Chicago-based conductor/arranger Cliff Colnot uses this term for rehearsal purposes - “take it from the Charleston in bar #33” )
The Charleston is endlessly used in jazz waltzes to imply 2 over 3. As bassists, we’ll be playing this “clave” a lot.
Placing that eight note on the “and” of beat two isn’t easy. If we’re not mindful of the upbeat’s tendency to want to rush, we’re going to compress the rhythms in the beat, and the groove won't be locked down.
In addition to its essential role in establishing the “clave” of a waltz feel, playing this rhythm properly is essential for making “straight 8” or Afro-Cuban music feel good.
Let's take a classic Tumbao figure, for example, the same rhythm as above, just now in 4/4.
We’ll face the same problem here – we can’t rush that upbeat on the “and” of beat two. Even though salsa and Afro Cuban music have a tighter, more 16th note feel than, say, a jazz waltz, the time still has to be broad and bouncy. This is especially true in this style of music, where all the parts are syncopated. If we don't place that “and” right where it needs to be, we’re not going to lock into the clave. We’re going to piss off the congueros, and we don't want to do that.
So this is where the rule of thumb comes in - if somebody wants to play “Jitterbug Waltz"; the first thing I’m thinking is, “Ok, I’m going to be playing a lot of "Charlestons" – lay those upbeats back!”