Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Power of the Rhythm Section


Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis


Blog #39: The Power of the Rhythm section



I've been thinking a lot recently about how important it is to have a good rhythm section. Over the past few weeks I've had the chance to play with some amazing people at some sessions and some people that weren't quite on the level. As a horn player and soloist, when you have a good drummer they can propel your solo, help you build and punctuate your phrasing. When you have a good bass player they make everything feel better and can hold everything together, almost subconsciously affecting everything. When you have a good piano player, they can add color to the harmony, and make everything you play sound 10 times better. MOST importantly, when you have a good rhythm section the band can interact and make something greater than the sum of its parts. Last week I played with some musicians that were so good that it felt like I wasn't even working, that the music just played itself.


The flip side of this is that I also played with some bad rhythm sections this week at a few Jam Sessions. When the drummer and bass player are fighting as to where the beat is or the piano player doesn't know how to comp, it feels awkward and like you can't get anything off. Its like having a conversation with someone where every time you start to get going they abruptly change the topic and leave you confused and lost.


The more you as a player try to interact with the rhythm section the better they need to be(and you need to be). If you are a player who just plays 8th notes and plows through, its probably not as important.


Which leads me to Miles Davis. Miles, more than any other musician I can think of, pulls so much of his power from his bands. When Miles used space in his phrasing the members of his band did exactly what they needed to do to make his phrases sound even better. With his first quintet, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers had an unbelievable pocket, time feel and swing. They GROOVED! Red Garland added lush chords behind miles that added a certain romance to Miles' phrasing. Miles' 2nd quintet was arguably the best in the history of the genre. Tom Williams was restless; changing time feels, switching into double time and back in an instant and was generally the instigator of creation within the group. Herbie Hancock, in my opinion, has the best comping of any pianist. He shifts in and out of the harmony, sometimes completely departs, somehow it ALWAYS makes sense. When Miles holds that one note, Herbie shifts the harmony around him and makes everything Miles plays incredibly profound. Ron Carter is the rock of gibraltar, he holds it all together, and without him its a carousel going too fast and everyone flies off.


Without these people, if miles paused a lesser accompanist would get in the way, OR his pauses might be awkward and cold. This is by no means an attempt to make Miles sound any less incredible, because he knew what to play and when NOT to play to make this all work. He knew that if he left a space here or held a note here, that with an amazing rhythm section it becomes magic.


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