On the Duffy Jackson Post, I mentioned the concept of a zone around the beat or pulse of a performance. The general idea is that the beat isn’t a fixed specific moment in time, but instead a zone that someone can play within and still be “in the pocket” or “playing the time.” Leaving that “Zone” could be considered dragging, rushing, or purposely playing out-of-time, depending on the context and intent.
At Duffy’s gig (which, by the way, was a blast), some of the audience members who read this blog mentioned an interest in the concept, and particularly how it relates to a horn player who may not be playing “time” for the entire song/performance.
In the context of improvising and certainly in ensemble playing, I think time and feel within the “Zone” is just as important as sound, consistency, intonation, dynamics, nuance, etc. Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the “awareness” of the musical situation – be it style of the music or the types of players – should inform where you play within that zone.
In Cuban or Latin music, for example, I find myself really trying to play on the front part of the beat to give the music forward momentum and energy. In Afro-Cuban music, there is often a strong triplet-feel against the feel of the pulse and I notice many horn players tend to relax just a little too much. Additionally, if I’m playing the music of Earth Wind and Fire, or lead with Duffy Jackson’s Band, each of those situations may require a different relationship within the zone. In a micro analysis, it may shift tune-to-tune or from the other players with whom you’re performing.
I remember someone (perhaps Gizzy or Alex Norris) making the analogy of “thinking like a drummer” when you play eighth-note lines while improvising. A great jazz drummer playing time will often accent different parts of the beat on the snare within the steady pulse of the ride-pattern. Great players will do the same thing in accenting their lines, creating a contour and rhythmic dialogue within all the melodic and harmonic information. Just as the rhythm section can create tension and release rhythmically with their relationships in the “Zone,” a wind player can do the same thing in how he/she plays the divisions of the pulse and accents their phrases.
Anyone who has gone through the typical music educational system (as a student or teacher) will likely tell you that a majority of their studies focused on elements related to melody and harmony – at least for non-percussionists. The truth is, time-feel is a much more enigmatic and difficult concept to teach within the conservatory based system, even though it is so integral to a successful performance career.
As I mentioned previously, time is everyone’s responsibility, and just like most things in music, awareness of how you operate within the zone of the pulse can change the character of a performance.
I notice that time awareness is generally great among the professional musicians in Nashville, and I imagine that may stem from a variety of performance situations which require different feels, and also the experience of playing with a “click” in studio situations. This can be a topic of heated debate (practicing with the metronome and whether is is integral to “good time” - I remember Dave Douglas and Jeff Berlin debating the topic on the web months ago), but I imagine that the reinforcement of steady time can only improve your awareness of rhythmic tendencies.
I’ll probably continue this topic more in the future in the context of performance (and perhaps some illustrations of famous groups and their rhythmic relationships), but spatial element of the pulse does remind me of a teaching experience while I was working at Belmont University.
In addition to my responsibilities in the Jazz/Commercial and Theory departments, I also taught a course entitled “Advanced Computer Productions.” The course was effectively technology private lessons for students who had a technology emphasis within their commercial music degrees. Students were responsible for bringing in DAW (digital audio workstation) projects every week. This could include mixing of recordings, film cues, video game music, and programming. We used Logic as the lab was Mac-based.
Due to the number of aspiring indie and country singers in Nashville, “song treatments” are very popular. Students may record a singer performing an original song with guitar or piano and expand and arrange the song for an entire ensemble, most of which will be heavily programmed. As an aside, let me say that from a musically ethical standpoint this was always tricky ground for me to cover. On one hand, this type of programming is a growing development in the commercial music world, and as a teacher I want my students to have the skills necessary to succeed. Adversely, the part of me that now relies on playing to make a living would push very hard to hire live musicians to record or prepare the treatment as a template that live musicians would later record and greatly improve the product.
Quantization is a very handy tool when programming. If effectively takes your rhythmic inconsistencies and moves them to pre-determined nearest rhythmic value. The interesting thing is that when all the programmed instruments were quantized to a fixed point, even with great sample sounds, the music often felt fake and sterile. A big reason is that real musicians understand that the feel and natural energy of the music is dependent on their relationship and tension within the “Zone” and in many cases, actually creates better separation and clarity among instruments. It feels and consequently sounds better.
(“Flex-Time” - who needs a good time feel?)
Logic now has a zone feature within quantizing (I assume other programs do as well) which allows you to set a percentage value around certain rhythmic divisions of the pulse. For example if you program within 20% of the sixteenth-note division, it will keep it there rather than move it to a fixed point. Technology has certainly changed the music industry in a number of ways, but I think that is a heavy topic for another day.
I know that some well-known producers in town purposely use synthetic sounding samples in their treatments and then say, “It will sound much better once we get the real players to record it.” Kudos to them. Ultimately moving within the “Pulse Zone” and flexing around it when playing with others is a very human act tied to the moment and awareness/feel of the individuals performing.