This an excerpt from the only chapter of a book I started writing on playing earlier this year. I'm not sure if I'll ever finish it. Take it or leave it. Let me know what you think.
That's as far as I got. I know there was more to Elvin's playing than that, but it made for a good example.I love the way master drummer and educator Peter Erskine plays, and the way he discusses his playing. The subject matter of this chapter comes from him, though the actual term he used was “rhythmic information”. He was referring to a drum solo, not having to “save the world”. He played a simple 8 bar drum solo for the B section of Duke Ellington's “Take The A Train” and then said (to paraphrase) “Now that drum solo's not gonna win any prizes, but it was true to the form, and it conveyed rhythmic information to the rest of the band members, so that they could come in and finish the tune. I would call that mission accomplished.” These words of wisdom got me thinking: what other musical information do we (not just drummers) convey with our instruments and from what angles can we approach that concept?
First off, let's define what I'll be calling musical information. It's a deceptively deep concept and it's much easier to call it what it is NOT rather than try to define it. Musical information (by my definition) is always the result of a player's action. It has to do with the notes being played and the way in which you choose to play them, rather than the timbre of the note or the sound of the room.
At its simplest level, musical information can be separated into two categories: Direct and indirect.
Direct musical information serves a utilitarian purpose; it is very clearly stated. Before the chorus of a tune, Bob The Drummer could play a full bar of sixteenth notes on his snare, with a dramatic crescendo from piano to fortissimo. Check out all the direct musical information in just that passage! He's playing a definite rhythm, and is building the volume throughout the bar. This serves the purpose of “showing” the band the beat, to prevent a trainwreck, and notifying everyone (the audience too) that the music is building in intensity.
Indirect musical information serves a textural purpose. It's easy to confuse indirect musical information with factors of the timbre, like tuning, or the sound of a singer's voice. Remember, musical information is always intentionally conveyed by a musician. Let's say instead of sixteenths on the snare drum, Bob The Drummer chooses to play a massive press roll, blending the strokes together to sound almost like a big, dramatic deep breath being drawn in (in doing so revealing himself as Bob The Super Drummer). There is now less direct information being conveyed, because Bob isn't playing a definite rhythm. He's still playing, though; It's still there, but it serves a textural purpose because of how he chooses to convey it. This is an extreme example, however, since few phrases are of indefinite rhythm. Many phrases can be conveyed indirectly, and be more “concrete”, so to speak.
For example, one of the pillars of drumming and master of airy, indirect, accessorized playing is the jazz drummer Elvin Jones. He managed to get a beautiful swirling feeling by playing over-the-barline rolling triplet ideas around the drumset (indirect) while keeping time on the ride cymbal (direct) all the while.
Closer to the present, modern Jazz great Eric Harland is an absolute master of playing what he calls “against” the time; when he plays this way, everything is an accessory to the pulse of the music. The indirect information that he conveys gives the music an incredible emotional atmosphere and is reminiscent of Elvin's swirling complexity.
“The song is always moving, whether you choose to play the time or to step away from the time.” - Eric Harland
Another great example of this for our non-drummers is a simple major triad in root position. It's got a bass note directly conveying the tonic, and a third directly conveying that it's major. You can go to town with ninths and all of those beautiful chord tones to convey indirect information. The fifth is special though, because not only does it further solidify the root to the listener (direct), it thickens the sound of the chord (loosely indirect, really it has more to do with timbre). Any chord tones added after the fifth actually diminish the solidity of the chord, and open possibilities for the listener to perceive the root as a different note than it really is. Play a C major chord and it's C major; play a C major chord with an A in it, and suddenly it could either be C major 6 or an inverted A minor 7!