Time Feel: A rhythm workshop with Cedric Easton

July 8, 2017, 4:37 PM · What is "time feel"? And how do you hone your sense of it?

Rhythm fundamentally drives all music, whether it is classical, jazz, fiddle or otherwise. And whatever kind of music we play, we have to get in touch with the beat.

"I think it's the same, in all music played by all humans," said jazz drummer Cedric Easton, who works at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and who gave several workshops on rhythm at Creative Strings Workshop, a six-day improvisation workshop that I attended last week in Columbus, Ohio. Though harmony and melody tend to get all the attention, rhythm goes to the heart of any kind of music.

Cedric Easton
Cedric Easton.

"If there is anything that would help you play others styles of music, it's rhythm," Cedric said. And what can help give us good rhythm? Cedric gave us a number of basic concepts, talked about the evolution of rhythm in jazz, referred us to some good resources for learning and teaching better rhythm and then led us in some simple exercises meant to help us feel the rhythm.

Where does good rhythm start, for a musician?

"Metronome, metronome, metronome," Cedric said. "When it comes to the mechanics of good time, there is no getting around the work."

In fact, the best way to improve rhythm in an ensemble is not for everyone to try to follow one another. Instead, its individual members should work to hone their own sense of rhythm and beat, and to be 100 percent accountable, he said. "Deal with you, and by default it will affect the group," he said. It is important for every member of a group to rely on their own sense of the beat, not depend on others, because in order to relate to something, you have to be firmly planted.

Drummers tend to be very thorough with their fundamental metronome work, he said; in fact, some listen to a metronome on in their earphones instead of music, so they can instantly replicate particular tempos (120 beats per minute! etc.). (Remember Whiplash?)

Some of the books that drummers use to perfect their rhythm can be useful for any kind of musician. Here are the books and methods that Cedric suggested: Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer by Ted Reed; and Modern Reading Text in 4/4 For All Instruments by Louis Bellson, which looks at swing rhythms. "If you understand swing, you will understand American music," Cedric said. He also mentioned the classic for drummers: Essential Rudiments (the first 13 are the original ones, and the most important to master, he said).

Our ultimate aim is to "be together" or to have a "tight band," but in Cedric's estimation, that doesn't always mean being completely together. He doesn't like to refer to something being "before" or "after" the beat, or as "rushing or "dragging." Instead, he thinks about the distance between beats. "I perceive a beat as very wide; I'm playing somewhere within it."

Different people have different perceptions about where the beat is. Beat out four quarter notes in a row, and different people will relate to them in different ways.

To prove this point, Cedric had us try a simple exercise. Using a four-beat measure, Cedric told us to clap on only certain beats for several measures, for example, beat three. Then he gave us the beat, and our job was to internalize it, and clap just on those beats he mentioned. What happened? Well here is the video:

Apparently this is what happens with most audiences: people put about the right amount of space in between beats, but they place the beats in slightly different places. "Everyone interprets time slightly differently," Cedric said. He introduced us to the idea of "flam," which is an actual drum rudiment that involves an almost imperceptibly fast grace note before a beat, but which he was using to describe that effect: when a group musicians each place the beat slightly differently.

The same thing happens even in a lot of well-respected jazz: the beats don't always line up perfectly.

Cedric said that, before quantized music, a little bit of that "flam" effect was okay. Being so immersed in acoustic music, I actually did not know the term "quantized," so Cedric explained: when music is "quantized," a band's recording is digitally revised to put everything exactly on the beat, as auto-tune does for pitch. In essence, it's auto-tune for rhythm. Popular songs started being quantized in 1979. Recordings "from Jelly Roll Morton through 1979," as Cedric put it, were not quantized, and that "flam" effect is almost always perceptible.

Cedric said that one can still have a "tight band" and have some of this disparity, within reason. "There is a difference between 'correct' and 'right.'" In jazz, it should feel "right."

An example he showed us was this recording of Caravan by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, in which a lot doesn't quite line up, but it still sounds "right," he said.

Another exercise he had us try was simply to listen to a piece of music and lightly clap the rhythm of the melody. Sounds simple enough, until you try it! Here is the melody he gave us (find the tune at 1:19):

After clapping the melody, try clapping the the bass, then the drum. Incidentally, clapping to the melody is a pretty fun way to learn -- "Now I'm practicing, and I'm enjoying something at the same time!" he said.

We ended the session with a few different exercises for feeling the beat, which are in the video below. The first exercise has to do with feeling the tension between the elements of three and two in a 6/8 time signature. In the second, students simply had to walk to the beat of the music that was playing, and then listen and repeat the rhythms that Cedric clapped. You are welcome to try both exercises along with the video:

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July 9, 2017 at 12:55 PM · This post was a delight to read. In most standard jazz groupings the tempo comes from the bass player, not the drummer. The drummer does, of course, contribute significantly to rhythmic "feel." In addition, a lot of gig venues (e.g., restaurants) do not allow drummers at all because they take up too much space and they're considered too loud, and the owners have had one too many complaints about drum solos. Unfortunately, on the "semi-pro" (i.e., amateur/hobbyist) jazz scene, bass players often tend to be among the most self-taught and often you can tell they have not put in the effort with the metronome. It's rather frustrating actually.

July 11, 2017 at 10:26 PM · Everything that Cedric said also struck me as true for orchestral playing -- everyone in the orchestra must take responsibility for every beat, for counting everything. It's not actually the conductor that creates good rhythm, tho the conductor is certainly a factor.

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