Ask Damian Erskine: Working with Tricky Drummers
Q: I was wondering how you play with jazz drummers who seem intent on messing everyone up with syncopation. I’ve seen and played with drummers who will start a polyrhythm and repeat it for two measures to set up a downbeat, and they expect me to come in on time? I want to be able to have fun and interact with the drummer without having to count to myself all the time.
A: This phenomenon doesn’t only apply to jazz drummers, to be sure. Many drummers love to push the envelope rhythmically. Sometimes it’s appropriate stylistically and sometimes it isn’t (usually, as most drummers apply these ideas, it isn’t, I’d say). In Afro-Cuban music and a lot of Latin bands, it’s pretty common for the drummer and/or percussionist to rhythmically modulate an idea and bring it back. It produces a nice effect but the band really has to be on their toes!
In the jazz setting, it can be a magical moment when it all comes together but, in my opinion, if the drummer is consistently losing the band, he’s not doing his job. He isn’t there to serve his ego and leaving the audience thinking about him. He’s there to serve the music and leave the audience thinking about the music and the band as a whole (unless it’s his gig).
I do play with a lot of drummers who take things a little too far outside of the comfort zone and, while I like the challenge, I often feel the the music suffers in the end.
If it’s driving you crazy, I would simply say to talk to the drummer. Tell him that his set-ups are confusing you and you need something a little easier to hear. Feel free to put it on yourself (anything to get the result you want, right?). Say that you apologize for not being as rhythmically intuitive as he, but the music suffers when half the guys are losing the one.
I notice this trend in a lot of church drummers, jazz drummers and guys who start studying African and Latin music. Once they get the adequate amount of “chops”, they try and pull off every trick they’ve been working on. The band can begin to feel like an accompanist for the drummer. That’s a drag, you’ve got to get the drummer to play the music, not the licks.
This is by no means just a drummer disease. Most every musician I know (including myself) hits a point where they’ve got some chops and are chomping at the bit to use them and explore the possibilities. This leads to an epidemic of overplaying and a sea of annoyed band members left in the wake.
Musicians: You are playing music. Save it for the solo!
(Okay, that’s my rant for the week.)
Another thing to consider, especially if your drummer won’t change his approach, is to take it as an opportunity to develop a stronger sense of time. Work with a metronome set at very slow tempos and further develop your inner clock. There are sure to be times where you have to block out the drummer during a fill or solo in order to keep the time happening, and that will help prepare you for keeping proper time during those moments.
Ideally, the drummer would have the chops to confuse everyone, but rarely use them and you’d have the inner clock to keep the time going, but not need to strain yourself on a gig and be forced to do it constantly.
As a general rule… It’s music, if it hurts to play, it hurts to listen to. If it’s confusing to play, it’s confusing to listen to. There’s a time and place for stuff like that but only you and the band-mates know whether this band is the place for that kind of stuff. If you guys are collectively trying to push the envelope than that’s really on you to be able to keep up but if it’s a swing band and someone is going nuts inappropriately, you owe it to the music to say something.
Photo by qbsster