The Rhythm Section
The first two shows in this series have explained the basic structure of a jazz tune and introduced the concept of standards. At this point, we’ve heard a variety of jazz tunes and started to gain a basic understanding of how jazz works and sounds. I think the next logical step is to start focusing on the instruments. I’m going to break that focus up into distinct sections, starting this week with the rhythm section. This show focuses on five basic rhythm section instruments: drums, bass, piano, vibes, and guitar. Entire books have been written on jazz drumming alone, but in the spirit of this series as an Intro to Jazz, I am going to try to keep it simple.
What is the role of the rhythm section, and why should we care?
We (and by “we” I mostly mean me) have a running gag at the Faux household. We (I) like to point out to anyone who will listen to us (me) that you can put one hundred trumpets and saxophones in a room and you will get a lot of noise, but you can put a rhythm section in a room and you will get jazz for an eternity. This quote isn’t as life affirming as “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,” but I think it has its own sentimental charm.
The point of that joke is that without the rhythm section there is no jazz. Not to be too simplistic, but this is because the function of the rhythm section is to provide the rhythm and there is no jazz without rhythm. I admit it isn’t universally true that there must be a rhythm section to create the rhythm in a jazz tune, but for our purpose it is certainly a basic tenet of jazz.
To start, let’s look at the definition of rhythm. There are a lot of them, but I’ll go with “the pattern in which music flows.” It is composed of elements such as the tempo (or beat) and the time signature (see the first show in this series for a discussion of these basic elements), as well as the way those elements are presented in relation to each other. In all music, and especially jazz, the rhythm is everything. It allows the musicians to conduct their musical conversation, and allows the listener to understand what they are saying. In other words, the rhythm is the language of the tune being played. Using this as our definition, the rhythm section musicians are responsible for ensuring that the rhythm is constant and that all of the other musicians know how to play the tune. While playing the right notes is also important, if they aren’t played within the structure of the rhythm then they usually aren’t very pleasant to listen to.
What is the basic rhythm section?
There are a lot of instruments that can be included in the rhythm section, but we’ll keep it simple and start with the three that are almost always a part of every jazz band: drums, bass, piano.
I can’t emphasize enough how important a capable drummer is to the sound of a jazz tune. However, the drummer doesn’t have to be a virtuoso performer. At the core, the drummer’s main purpose is to maintain a consistent rhythm. The ability to solo and add insane fills is always appreciated, but even the most basic drummer can allow the rest of the musicians to shine if they can lead the rhythm. As I already noted, you can read entire books about this topic if you want to gain a complete understanding, but I’ll keep it simple with three main points.
- The drummer sets the tempo. This doesn’t mean that other musicians don’t ever count in the tune (1, 2, 3, 4) to get it started, but once the tune starts everyone must follow the drummer’s lead. There is nothing worse than listening to a jazz tune where the drums push the tempo while some of the instruments lag behind. Even if the drummer is pushing too hard, everyone must follow their tempo or all hope is lost. The trombonist can yell at the drummer after the gig if they want to, but during the performance the drummer is in charge.
- The drummer sets the type of rhythm. Most jazz tunes are played within the patterns of a few common rhythms (see the first show of this series for more about that), but there are plenty of rhythms out there to follow as well. If the tune is a samba, the drummer better play a samba rhythm; if it is a bossa nova, same thing; if it is funk fusion, same thing; and on and on.
- The drummer sets the volume and energy. If a big band’s horns are swinging hard and blasting the audience’s ear drums out, then the drummer needs to maintain that energy. But if the tune suddenly calls for a bass solo and the horns drop out, the drummer needs to match the volume of the bass. This is true for all sections of a tune, and it is not as simple as it sounds. In my experience, even the most talented drummers sometimes have difficulty with this aspect of their role. I would guess that sometimes it is the ego of the drummer that causes this disconnect, but I’ll let a psychiatrist research that one.
How to listen to the drummer
This may sound like a joke. How do you listen to a drummer? Punchline: very carefully, but once you start to gain an understanding of jazz, and hopefully fall in love with it, you will find that paying attention to the drummer can be the most rewarding experience gained from listening to jazz. Everyone loves to listen to the horns do their thing, but focusing on the drummer, especially during a live show, is just as fulfilling. I don’t have some genius answer for how to do this, but I would argue that it starts by watching the drummer as much as listening. If you pay attention to a drummer, especially if they are doing their job correctly, you can predict what is going to happen, you can better understand why things are happening, and you can better feel the music in your soul. There is a basic theme starting to present itself through this series (jazz is a conversation and shared experience between the musicians and the listener) and focusing on the drummer is the best way to become part of that experience.
Bonus: A Brief (Incomplete) History of Jazz Drums
I wasn’t sure how far to take this discussion of drums, and in the end I decided to add this brief history for anyone who is interested. It isn’t necessary to know this history in order to understand and appreciate jazz, but drums are such an integral part of jazz that it seemed appropriate to include it. Let me reiterate – this is not a discussion of the music theory behind jazz drumming; it is simply a brief history of some basics. If you want to learn about how African, European, Cuban, American military, and other influences all coalesced into jazz drumming then you can spend hours on YouTube learning and listening to all of those subjects in order to gain a deep understanding. If that is your thing, go for it!
Due to the sound quality of these old recordings, they aren’t the best way to listen to jazz if you want to try to focus on specific instruments, much less the drums, but they are all that we have. I selected this 1927 piece by Bix Beiderbecke, one of the early jazz pioneers, because you can listen to the incredibly basic way that drums were often used one hundred years ago. Starting around 1:30, the drums come in with some basic cymbal playing and occasional snare rolls. The drummer maintains a simple rhythm, but nothing that sounds like modern jazz drumming. The drums are there for musical accents as much as for rhythm, and at best serve as a rudimentary time keeper.
One of the first drummers to start to expand the sound of jazz drumming was New Orleans musician Baby Dodds. Here is a recording from later in his career, but played in the same way he would have played it in the 1920s. You can immediately hear how he, and other pioneer drummers like him, made themselves integral to jazz by driving the tunes from their drum kit.
In 1937, the first recording of a featured drummer was Gene Krupa on the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” It may not seem so amazing now, but this was groundbreaking stuff back then and exploded the role of the drummer into one of improvisation, experimentation, and band leader.
Papa Joe Jones
Papa Joe Jones was the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra from 1934-1948 and was a pioneer in using the high hat for timekeeping. This change heralded the beginning of the sound of jazz drumming we think of today. This short film from 1944 literally shows the rhythm moving to the high hat when Jones takes the throne.
The ’50s and ’60s
From the Bebop Era of the late ’40s into the ’50s and ’60s, the role of the drummer continued to expand. Kenny Clarke moved the rhythm to the ride cymbal. Max Roach showed everyone how to solo using a complete kit. Elvin Jones somehow took the vision of John Coltrane and made it a reality with his drumming genius. Here are a few examples to show the evolution of jazz drumming during its most important twenty-year period.
Here’s Kenny Clarke and a group of jazz legends in 1946 performing a tune he wrote with Thelonious Monk. This is quintessential bebop and the harbinger of all jazz to come.
Here is some rare footage of Max Roach live in the late ’50s. Roach trades fours from around 3:30 to 4:00. This is how you use the entire drum kit.
Here is Elvin Jones live in 1965 with possibly the greatest jazz quartet ever. You can listen to the entire twenty minutes of Jones’ playing to see how he allowed Coltrane to expand and present his musical vision, but especially noteworthy is his playing from around the 17 to 19 minute mark. Those two minutes map out the landscape of all jazz to come.
I’m going to throw Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” in here just because it seems important to note the influence of funk and electronics on the work of jazz artists from the ’80s and on.
Hip Hop’s influence on jazz drumming
I don’t want to skip past the entire period in which hip hop has influenced the sound of jazz drums, including sampling, live drums a la The Roots’ Questlove, and electronic drum technology, but there has been so much innovation in the last thirty to forty years that it is too much to delve into here. I’ll give one example, just to be somewhat inclusive. This is a live solo by Questlove.
Modern day drummers
And finally, here is where we are today. Jazz has entered a period in which all of its earlier forms are either performed in their traditional style or melded into new variations that incorporate all that has come before. I’m sure that I am glossing over the last fifty years of jazz more than some would think acceptable but, as I stated earlier, I’m not trying to present the entire history of jazz. To wrap it up, let’s just say that there are a lot of great jazz drummers out there today. My favorite is Brian Blade.
If the drummer is the leader of the rhythm section, the bass player is the second in command. Arguably the least-noticed member of the rhythm section, the bass player is the unsung hero. Easily ignored, the bass is always present behind the other, more prominent sounds of the band, laying down the foundation upon which the other instruments build their performance. Unlike the drums (at least for our simple discussion), the bass is a tuned instrument. For this reason, it serves a dual purpose because it not only maintains the rhythm but also adds the bottom notes to the tune. No other instrument in the band (at least for our simple discussion) can play those notes. This is true for other styles of music as well, but it is especially important in jazz because the bass is sometimes the only tuned instrument playing while other instruments solo, and its ability to lay that bottom layer provides the widest sonic spectrum available to those other instruments.
How to listen to the bass
Unlike the drums, the bass can be easily lost within the overall sound of the band if you don’t seek it out. This is especially true in larger bands when multiple horns and other rhythm instruments are all playing on top of it. The best way to get a feel for listening to the bass is to do just that. Here are some examples for your listening enjoyment. If you want to make this an instructional exercise, try to focus on the bass all the way through the tunes to start to understand why they are playing what they are playing. Are they laying down a simple bottom line? Are they adjusting their energy to match the rest of the band? Are they supporting a soloist? Are they soloing themselves? Think about the the anatomy of a jazz tune and listen to how the bass fits into those different sections of the tune.
Duke Ellington Orchestra (featuring Jimmie Blanton) “Jack the Bear”
We’ll start with the first bassist to move the instrument from strictly rhythm to soloing and featured playing. Jimmie Blanton provides a now-famous intro line on this 1940 tune, and then presents the bass playing technique that all bassists to come after would emulate. His bass playing sounds like basic jazz now, but at the time this was groundbreaking stuff.
Charles Mingus Sextet Live in 1964 (complete set)
These 30+ minutes present almost everything you need to learn about jazz bass playing. Mingus was the greatest bass playing band leader, and this set showcases just about everything a bassist can do in a jazz combo setting. This is basically a 30-minute masterclass in jazz bass performance.
Eric Dolphy “17 West”
This tune features cello by bassist Ron Carter and bass by Charles Duvivier. The bow is the secret weapon in an upright bassist’s arsenal. Although it is used here on a cello, it is often used with the bass. During a live setting, always keep your eyes out to see if the bassist pulls out a bow. If you watched the Charles Mingus video, you learned this lesson already.
Weather Report (featuring Jaco Pastorius) “Birdland”
For the next example, let’s listen to the amazing fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius on Weather Report’s most famous tune. To start, listen to Pastorius create a looped bass line over which he plays a lead melody line (don’t expect to hear this technique used at your local jazz club very often!). Throughout the rest of the tune, he moves from taking lead to laying down a massive bottom that the keyboard and horn can soar over as they wish. Granted, most bassists are not able to imitate the sound and technique of Pastorius (he even adds the vocalization sections to this performance) but this is a great example of how a bass player can be the centerpiece of a tune without overshadowing the rest of the band.
The third basic component of the rhythm section is the piano. Unlike the drum and bass, the piano can often be considered the lead instrument in a jazz group, especially in smaller combos that may only have one or two main soloists. However, the piano is still a rhythm section instrument, even in those smaller groups. The main difference is that while the main role of the drum and bass is to keep the rhythm, the piano often serves as the main comping instrument. Simply put, this means that the piano often plays the chords of the tune while the other instruments play the melody or solo. Comping is a core aspect of jazz, and as such the piano is integral to the sound of jazz. In addition, the entire world of jazz fusion is centered around keyboards and electronics, which are piano’s little brothers (but we’ll save that for another show).
How to listen to the piano
Depending on the tune and the instrumentation, the piano may be the primary instrument or may blend into the background. Listening to a piano solo is simple because many of the instruments will stop playing during that section of a tune. Similarly, the piano will often present the melody during the head of the tune (check out the anatomy of a jazz tune if you don’t know what that means). In both of those instances, the piano is the focus of the performance and you can’t help but hear it. A more difficult exercise is to focus on the piano as a comping instrument. The way a pianist comps during a tune is often indicative of how they interpret the music. Just as important as what they play is when they don’t play. The interaction between a piano and the rest of the band can be just as important to the listener’s experience as the drums. I’ve presented a few selections to listen to in order to hear the piano in a variety of ways.
The Count Basie Orchestra Live in 1965
Duke Ellington may have been a better composer, but nobody swung like Count Basie. This is an entire concert that presents a masterclass in how a pianist can lead an orchestra, solo, and comp in a big band setting.
Oscar Peterson Trio, Ella Fitzgerald, and more Live in 1957
I don’t even know what to say. That fact that this live concert footage is so easily available is one of reasons the internet is so important. This is a masterclass in all aspects of jazz piano.
John Coltrane (featuring McCoy Tyner) “Afro Blue,” “Alabama,” and “Impressions”
This is a piano comping masterclass by McCoy Tyner.
Bill Evans “Blue In Green”
This is the classic tune by the Bill Evans Trio. I included this one to provide a simple piano trio tune with the entire focus on the pianist.
Chick Corea “Mediavel Overture”
This is jazz fusion at its highest level, with Chick Corea (keys and synths), Al Di Meola (guitar), Stanley Clarke (bass), and Lenny White (drums). I included it to provide some fusion by a jazz piano master. For our purposes here, check out how Corea comps and solos on his keyboards in the same way a piano player does.
Tony Bennett (featuring Ralph Sharon) “I Love A Piano”
This is classic, old school piano comping with a vocalist. It seems simple, but the pianist is showing the basics – when to solo, when to comp, when to adjust the dynamics. This is obviously the perfect song with which to end this section about the piano.
Who Else is in the Rhythm Section?
There are a lot of other instruments that can be included in a rhythm section. Some of the most obvious are any percussion instruments other than drums. These include dozens of Latin, Cuban, and African drums and other instruments that are struck, scraped, or shaken. There are mallet instruments such as vibraphones and marimbas. String instruments that are normally associated with classical music, such as a harp, cello, or violin can function as both rhythm and solo instruments. The list is almost endless, but I’ll focus on the two most common across the last one hundred years of jazz – the vibraphone and guitar.
The most important thing to know about the vibraphone (vibes) is that they can (and often do) serve the same purpose as the piano. Everything I explained in the piano section applies to the vibes as well. The only thing I will add is that all of us in the Faux household believe that the vibes are the best jazz instrument and that they are often overlooked in the modern jazz world. The sound of the vibes is unlike any other instrument. They can add an extra layer to the sound of the tune, they can groove as hard as any other instrument, and they can present a ballad in all of its beauty. Everyone has their own preference for what sort of sound they like best in jazz, but for me the beauty of a ballad played on vibes is at the top of the list. The only competitor is the beauty of a tenor sax played with the tone of artists like Lester Young or Sonny Rollins.
How to listen to the vibes
Let’s just listen to a (very) brief history of vibes. If you think of them as serving the same role as the piano, then there isn’t much more to say.
Louis Armstrong (featuring Lionel Hampton) “Memories of You”
In the history of instruments, vibes are a relatively new invention. The version of vibes most similar to the modern instrument was invented in 1927. The fact that this timing coincides with the end of the Jazz Age and the beginning period of the Swing Era made the vibes an obvious jazz instrument at the start of the periods that led to modern jazz. The pioneer of jazz vibraphone, Lionel Hampton, was originally a drummer but played some vibes before recording the first vibe solo on a 1930 Louis Armstrong recording called “Memories of You.”
Lionel Hampton “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”
Lionel Hampton was the man who brought the vibes to the public as a primary instrument. He was a band leader for decades, recorded hit records, and performed on film and television. Above all, he was a joyous musician. If this video doesn’t make you smile, go see a doctor.
Milt Jackson “Bag’s Groove”
Milt Jackson was a member of The Modern Jazz Quartet and the man who moved the vibes into the modern era as both a comping and soloing instrument. Jackson swung as hard as all of his bebop/hard pop contemporaries, and his theme song, “Bag’s Groove,” is a vibraphone standard for anyone who plays the instrument.
Bobby Hutcherson Live
Bobby Hutcherson is not as well-known as some other vibe players, but he was an integral session player in the ’60s, and was the second most tenured performer ever to record for Blue Note.
Here is an incredible concert from 1969.
Here is Hutcherson performing “Maiden Voyage” with Herbie Hancock in 1987.
Gary Burton Tiny Desk Concert 2013
Gary Burton is the premiere vibraphonist of the last fifty years. He has performed with just about anyone you can name, and works in both jazz and classical. He is a master of four-mallet technique, and one of the most common four-mallet grips is actually called the Burton grip. I’ve selected a Tiny Desk Concert with just vibes and guitar in order to showcase his virtuoso talent in all of its glory, but you should go watch one of the hundreds of videos of him available on YouTube if you want to fully understand the depth of the vibes.
Sasha Berliner Quintet Live
The 21st century has seen jazz move in new directions that combine traditional and modern sounds into something that often sounds very different from the last few decades of the 20th century. While those twenty or so years were dominated by young artists looking to bring back the sounds of the past, the last twenty years has been much more a look toward the future. This is true for all instruments, including vibes. I’ve selected a new live set by a young vibe player named Sasha Berliner as a prime example.
Much like the vibes, the guitar is overlooked and under-utilized. At this point, I don’t have much more to add other than the guitar, vibes, and piano are the three main comping instruments. They can all work together or individually in a jazz combo, big band, trio, or any setting.
How to listen to the guitar
Let’s just listen to some in the same way you would listen to piano or vibes. I’ve picked six very different guitarists to show a variety of jazz guitar playing.
Charlie Christian “Swing to Bop” Live 1941
Charlie Christian was one of the first, and some would say still the best, jazz guitarist. He revolutionized the playing of electric guitar as a jazz instrument.
Django Reinhardt “Jattendrai Swing” Live 1939
Django Reinhardt was a contemporary of Charlie Christian, but focused on the acoustic guitar.
Nat King Cole (featuring Oscar Moore) “Better To By Yourself”
He is best known for his ballads such as “Mona Lisa” and “Unforgettable,” but Nat King Cole’s trio of piano, bass, and guitar were extremely influential on the future of jazz, soul, and R&B. Oscar Moore was his guitarist, and a comping master.
Wes Montgomery Live in 1965
Wes Montgomery bridged the gap between Charlie Parker and the plethora of jazz guitarists from the ’70s and on. His comping technique of brushing the strings with his thumb is iconic, and his soloing style paved the way for all who followed. This is an entire concert and it is simply wonderful.
Mahavishnu Orchestra (featuring John McLaughlin) “Meeting of the Spirits/You Know You Know”
John McLaughlin was the founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of the original fusion groups. The importance of the guitar in the evolution of jazz fusion and smooth jazz can’t be overstated.
Earl Klugh “Whispers and Promises”
Earl Klugh is one of the most important smooth jazz artists. His collaborative albums with Bob James are smooth jazz masterworks, and his prolific discography features a who’s who of the genre.
I’ll stop here. I know that is a lot to take in at once, so I hope you can digest these instruments in smaller doses. The most important point, as always with this series, is that you don’t have to like all of this. My hope is that you can find at least a few artists, tunes, or styles you like in each of these instruments, and that you come away with a basic understanding that there is a lot more to jazz than the horns that get almost all of the attention.
If you know anyone, especially youngsters, who are interested in expanding their knowledge of music, please forward this show on to them. And, as always, thanks for listening and reading!
As usual, I have created a playlist to accompany this show. I’ve selected ten tunes, and all of them feature different rhythm section instruments, and ONLY rhythm section instruments. There is a variety of styles and tunes, so enjoy what I believe is a great set of music which proves all you need is a rhythm section to make fantastic jazz.
Track One: Diana Krall “I’m An Errand Girl For Rhythm” with Diana Krall (piano, vocals), Russell Malone (guitar), Christian McBride (bass)
Track Two: Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio “Close But No Cigar” with Delvon Lamarr (organ), Jimmy James (guitar), David McGraw (drums)
Track Three: The Oscar Peterson Trio “Night Train” with Oscar Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Ed Thigpen (drums)
Track Four: The Modern Jazz Quartet “Django” with Milt Jackson (vibes), John Lewis (piano), Percy Heath (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums)
Track Five: Gary Burton (vibes) and Chick Corea (keys) “Radio”
Track Six: Charlie Haden (bass) and Keith Jarrett (piano) “Ellen David”
Track Seven: The Benny Green Trio “Greens” with Benny Green (piano), Christian McBride (bass), Carl Allen (drums)
Track Eight: Hot Club de France Quintet “Minor Swing” with Django Reinhardt (guitar), Stephane Grappelli (violin), Louis Vola (bass), Roger Chaput and Joseph Reinhardt (rhythm guitars)
Track Nine: The John Pizzarelli Trio “One Hundred Years From Now” with John Pizzarelli (guitar, vocals), Mike Karn (bass), Konrad Paszkudzki (drums)
Track Ten: Jimmy Smith “Root Down (and Get It) with Jimmy Smith (organ), Wilton Felder (bass), Paul Humphrey (drums), Buck Clarke (percussion), Arthur Adams (guitar)
One thought on “Radio Faux Show Volume 3, Number 4: Intro To Jazz (The Rhythm Section)”