June 30th 2018

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COVER STORY NSW electricity grid now at 'crisis point'

EDITORIAL China's pivotal role in Trump-Kim summit

CANBERRA OBSERVED Throwing our 8ยข in the ring over sale of ABC

OPINION Why populism has become popular among the populace

MEDIA Ramsay Centre gets all that' left from ABC's Drum

ENERGY Solar panels leave hidden carbon footprint

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson conviction conundrum

ENERGY Don't let our waste go to waste: energise it

OPINION We've moved from low standards to no standards

LITERATURE AND CULTURE Christian humour through the ages: Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes

ECONOMICS Trump, China, the WTO and world trade

WHY BREXIT? A tight little island


MUSIC Contrary emotions: Following and leading the beat

CINEMA Incredibles 2: Just the average family of superheroes

BOOK REVIEW The main driver of our foreign policy

BOOK REVIEW Commitment at risk of obliteration



EDITORIAL By-elections a trial run for next federal election

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Contrary emotions: Following and leading the beat

by David James

News Weekly, June 30, 2018

Most of the accolades in jazz go to the brass instrument players, pianists and, to a lesser extent, guitarists. But the central instrument of the genre is really the drums, because it is the rhythms, rather than the harmonies or melodies, that are the form’s distinctive feature.

Left to right: Christian McBride, Ornette Coleman and Chris Dave

Two bands in the 2018 Melbourne International Jazz Festival gave an intriguing contrast of the state of play in jazz drumming, and the use of the drums. First was Chris Dave & the Drumhedz. Dave, a drummer, puts his instrument at the centre of the band, with the bass, keyboards, sax, vocals, entering and exiting as the arrangements dictated. It led to a different kind of musical architecture. The drums were not accompanying the soloists; rather the soloists were being shaped by what Dave would do.

Typically, soloists dictate to a rhythm section; it is a roughly antiphonal relationship. But as wind and brass players have lost the ability to play rhythmically – many modern players now emphasise technique more than percussiveness, “sitting on top” of the rhythm section rather than driving it – it has become more difficult for drummers. In effect, the soloists are not living up to their part in the conversation.

That was not the problem in Dave’s ensemble, however. He took the lead and it was up to the soloists to follow. As a consequence, the solos would often be short, and had an uncertain quality. The melody improvisers could never be certain when the feel would shift and the ground disappear from under them. Nothing like continuous change to keep them on their toes, but it made it almost impossible to craft a long melodic journey.

The other distinctive element in Dave’s approach is a continual shifting of genre. Overall, the style of the concert was 1970s fusion (which was unfamiliar to the mostly young audience) but within which there was relentless change.

Dave himself describes his approach as like “going through a record store and picking out music from different aisles”.

It represents an intelligent response to finding new ways to interpret the tradition of jazz and popular music. The music moved across the styles with great rapidity – including a lyrical, solo guitar version of Danny Boy. Musicians at this level are taught to play in any style, and the transitions were delivered with ease.

Contradictory effect

But the effect of such intense variation was oddly contradictory. For one thing, it showed just how homogeneous the jazz, rock and popular styles are, at least rhythmically. There is a clear lineage that dates back to the New Orleans street music of the 1920s, and in turn to the rhythms of Africa. As Dave moved across the various styles, one was reminded just how homogeneous it all is.

The other contradiction is that the constant surprise ultimately becomes unsurprising. It is technically impressive, but it does not take the listener very far. A bit like setting out on a journey, then constantly moving down side streets, until all sense of direction is lost.

The other concert was bassist Christian McBride’s quintet New Jawn, which performed at The Jazzlab. McBride took an unashamedly traditional approach, using a line-up reminiscent of the 1960s bands of saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

The rhythm feels were very much set by McBride and not by the soloists. Marcus Strickland on saxophones and bass clarinet (an instrument much underused in jazz), and Josh Evans on trumpet were artful but not especially dynamic. The pieces, very much set in one, familiar style, were the diametrical opposite of Dave’s eclectic approach. Such innovation as there was came from the instrumentalists trying to find new ways to say things in a very well established language.

The approach of drummer Nasheet Waits was the opposite of Dave’s. Far from being the centre of attention, he was almost imperceptible at times, a fact that stimulated this writer to listen closer to what he was doing.

It became clear he was getting inside the soloist’s mind to an extraordinary degree: his playing was so intuitive and skilled (and, of course, technically accomplished), he did not so much accompany the improvisers as achieve a kind of simultaneity with them. That is a rare skill. At first, one hardly noticed the drumming, but when it was focused on it became a highlight of the whole performance.

The conclusion? Drumming may be the centre of jazz, but Dave and Waits demonstrated that the philosophy of drumming can be approached in diametrically opposite fashions.

David James is a Melbourne musician and writer.

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm