The Thinking Drummer: Jazz Is Not A License To Over Play

A few weeks back I went to see a friend of mine who was leading a trio at a small club in NYC. She is a great musician, with a lot of technique, creativity and musical taste.

She plays a lot of notes. And that is not a criticism. Just a fact. When she plays a lot of notes, I like it. Her runs are very clean and I hear a well practiced musician with very clear ideas and a grasp of the song form she is soloing within. In other words, she understands the basics of Jazz.

I like technique and I like hearing a lot of notes when it’s done right. I’ve always liked chops heavy music. When I first discovered this type of playing, I was immediately drawn to Chick Corea.

Why am I writing about the virtues of technique and dense playing in an article about not over playing?

Because when I went to hear my friend play, this accomplished musician was being obliterated by the horrible playing of her drummer.

Her drummer was stepping all over her solos. It was not supportive playing. There was no groove coming from this drummer. He had no ride cymbal technique and he never even tried to play a repeating pattern that established a pocket.

The drummer’s ideas seemed random, half-baked and without a real grounding in the language of the genre of music that was being played. He was playing a rock style kit too….the sound of his drums was all wrong.

Finally, the drummer’s ideas were being played in a vacuum. He was not listening to what the main soloist was playing at all.

All of this just made me think that the drummer’s concept was, “OK, I’m playing Jazz so I’ve got to play a lot of stuff—that’s what jazz drummers do.”

Wrong! Listen to Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Art Taylor and Billy Higgins! Talk about groove. Those guys laid it down. Groove city. Any busy playing from guys like this was always in a musically appropriate way; moving the music forward, or pushing the soloist to new heights.

I know I’m ranting, but please don’t make this mistake. Respect the music you are playing. Study it. Dissect it. Learn what the great drummers who played that style of music played. Than steal from them and twist their ideas around to make new ones. Listen to the other musicians in your band and compliment them.

Jazz is not a license for over playing. Even in Jazz, great drumming begins with laying down a great feeling pocket for other musicians to feel comfortable playing over. Then, add to that in ways appropriate to the music.