Dan's Polyrhythmic Practice a la Warne Marsh

This is courtesy of PDX pianist Dan Gaynor. Over the last few years I've been playing with Dan quite a lot. If he really does leave for an East Coast grad school it will be a major blow for the PDX Jazz scene. Thanks Dan!

"I'm reading An Unsung Cat: The Life and Music of Warne Marsh, by Safford Chamberlain (thanks mom! merry christmas!), and it's really informative. There are a lot of interviews and perspectives on Warne Marsh, his music and also on the 'Tristano school' of improvisation. Tristano's thing was very conservative in many ways. For example, he believed that "the major innovators in jazz up to 1945" were Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Roy Eldrige, Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, with footnotes for Billie Holiday, Billy Kyle (as precursor to Bud Powell) and Art Tatum, but not Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton or Coleman Hawkins. So, he had a very conservative outlook, to say the least.

One of the more interesting things that developed within his method was a means of practicing rhythmic phrasing. Now, this method itself does not appear to be outlined in the book, and I don't personally know any of Tristano's students, but there are a few clues. It mentions "five beat phrases", meaning five eighth notes, and also mentions the last phrase of Tristano's "April," where an 11/8 figure (3-2-3-3) repeats three times. Now, I don't have access to Lennie's method, but I have made a list of uneven groupings of eighth notes that can be practiced over a 4/4 form (or just with a metronome). Accent the first of each group. They repeat in uneven ways compared with the other meter (4/4).

  • 3 notes, repeating.
  • 5 notes, grouped as 2-3 or 3-2
  • 6 notes, 3-3 or 2-2-2 (also 3-3-2-2-2 for a 12 note grouping)
  • 7 notes, 2-2-3, 2-3-2, 3-2-2
  • 9 notes, 3-2-2-2, 2-3-2-2, 2-2-3-2, 2-2-2-3
  • 10 notes, 3-2-2-3, 2-3-3-2
  • 11 notes 3-3-3-2, 3-3-2-3, 3-2-3-3, 2-3-3-3

These can be practiced in as many ways as you can conceive. Here are some ideas for pianists:

1. Major/minor scales, both hands, 4 octaves, 16th notes. Play the accents within the scale (either legato or detached with each group).

2. Improvise on a standard song (simpler changes are easier for this exercise), with a LH walking bass in quarter notes and RH playing an uninterrupted line. This has to be done slowly. The simpler the RH line, the better, for purposes of the exercise.

3. Improvise with the RH with an ostinato accompaniment in the LH, like a bossa nova bassline, or more pianistic things like a stride LH or a boogie-woogie line, even.

4. Make a stride/boogie/latin pattern which follows the polyrhythm and try to play the melody with the other hand. Or play chords with the RH and sing the melody.

These exercises are ways to practice how to juggle the polymeter and the meter of a rhythm section and not get lost. They're not limited to a eighth-note and 4/4 context by any means, though it is most useful there. One can imagine Bill Evans practicing this sort of thing with triplets in a jazz waltz. Anyway, I hope you like this stuff. Cheers!"


Anonymous said...

Well, these are just patterns for accents, like a clave that doesn't repeat every 2 bars. If you're able to play these rhythms against a 4/4 pulse, you've got somewhere. I don't understand exactly how to play polyrhythmic music on a guitar (it would have to be fingerstyle. Woitach would have some idea how....) but when you're playing with a jazz rhythm section, then you can apply it linearly, just like a horn player. If you have enough independence to play a bossa comping pattern with an ostinato bass line, then you can figure out how to play these rhythms as a polyrhythm while keeping the ostinato together. It's not really an idomatic idea specific to the piano. (Warne was a tenor player, of course.) It's like some of the things Randy Porter does in his master classes (if you haven't attended, you should), where he makes the students improvise in dotted half notes - only, and make it fit the changes. Then, when that becomes possible, move to dotted quarter notes, then dotted sixteenth notes. That's just the first level of the exercise (three 8th notes, repeated).

Anonymous said...

You should really take one of the workshops the next time he gives them. He's got a good way of teaching. There weren't too many handouts - the bulk of them were printouts from the Omnibook, but the things he told us to do with them were not printed out formally.

He has an exercise where you play uninterrupted phrases that begin in a certain way: the first one begins on beat 1, second on the & of 1, third on 2 and so on until the & of 4. It's harder than it sounds. Then you can do the same thing with the starting beat in reverse order. Then you can do the whole thing over again, except instead of beginning the phrases on these beats, you can begin anywhere, but you must end them on the specific beats. It's a similar exercise in rhythmic awareness.

I don't feel comfortable publicily publishing Randy's material on the wiki. Like I say, take the masterclass when it comes up again -- it's in a group setting, and there were a number of good musicians there (Tim Jensen, for example). Plus, he co-taught with Reinhardt Melz at the workshop I took, so the rhythms were being discussed from a different angle.