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Working the Rhythm Section: Tom Lawton, Lee Smith, and Dan Monaghan

Victor L. Schermer By

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As Duke Ellington's standard goes, "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing." The rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, with guitar and percussion sometimes added) is the core of the typical jazz ensemble. They set the frame for the leader, singer, and soloists and contribute their own solos as well. Even though they work primarily in the background, they can make or break the performance of the horn players or singer.

In order to call greater attention to the rhythmic component of the jazz ensemble, All About Jazz assembled three top Philadelphia musicians in a conference room at the University of the Arts and asked them to discuss their views on rhythm and rhythm sections as well as their experience accompanying other musicians. Tom Lawton, piano, Lee Smith, bass, and Dan Monaghan, drums (top left to right in above photo, with vocalist Mary Ellen Desmond and saxophonist Larry McKenna), are among the most highly regarded players on the jazz scene today. They front their own groups and work independently as well, but they also frequently work together as a rhythm section for singers and horn players. It is fascinating to hear their candid and sometimes surprising views on what it takes to make the music swing. Foot-tapping aficionados might think it's easy to do, but it's more complicated than fans might think.

All About Jazz: To start out, I'd like to ask each of you to tell us who you would consider to be the greatest rhythm section of all time. [The musicians were asked to write it down first, so that their responses would be independent of one another.] Why don't you start off, Lee?

Lee Smith: Off the top of my head, I'd say Tony Williams, drums; Herbie Hancock, piano; and Ron Carter, bass.

AAJ: That was the rhythm section for Miles Davis at one point.

Dan Monaghan: I picked the same guys.

Tom Lawton: So did I!

AAJ: Amazingly, you all independently chose the same rhythm section! Do you think that would be a consensus among many players?

LS: Yes, but it could also depend on the generation of musicians. Musicians who came up at a different time than us, either younger or older, might disagree.

TL: I added two other rhythm sections: McCoy Tyner, piano; Elvin Jones, drums; Jimmy Garrison, bass. They were with John Coltrane, of course. And bassist Paul Chambers with either Red Garland or Wynton Kelly, piano; Philly Joe Jones, drums. They were all with Miles at different times.

AAJ: Aside from the fact that they may have been your heroes during that time, what in your mind makes them so special?

DM: For me, Williams-Hancock-Carter: They were so swingin'! For me, that's the most important thing about a rhythm section.

TL: The term "swing" has a large area of meaning. Like Williams, Hancock, and Carter would sometimes swing in a "normal" sense, as with a burning or walking tune. On other occasions, however, they would be breaking up the time, but you could always hear the basic swing behind it, even if it were unstated. And they were exceptional at playing impressionistic tunes softly and in a subtle way, as when Miles did one of those brooding ballads.

AAJ: Like "My Funny Valentine" in that famous Carnegie Hall concert.

TL: In other words, no matter how "out there" or oblique it got, you felt the heritage of swing behind it.

In the Trenches: Working on a Gig

AAJ: OK. Let's talk about what it's like for you guys when you work together as a rhythm section. Let's say you're accompanying a singer like Mary Ellen Desmond or an instrumentalist like saxophonist Larry McKenna—which you often do—or maybe it's a new musician or a new tune. How do you go about setting up a performance? What's your strategy?

LS: Well, occasionally, a leader will convey to the rhythm section what he wants and expects. He might have a chart with the chord changes, or he may convey to you that he's giving you a certain amount of freedom to interpret the changes. He might say, "Don't necessarily stay glued to the changes; if you hear other changes or chord progressions that you feel may work, feel free to use them." Other guys are very stringent, and they'll say, "This is exactly what I want you to play." In which case, it's not as much of a challenge; you just read the music and go from there.

AAJ: That sounds very rigid to me. Don't you feel your spontaneity is interfered with when they give you orders like that?"

LS: Not necessarily. For me as a bassist, and I would say the same for the whole rhythm section, we're there to make them comfortable. Whether it's a horn player or a singer, you have to adjust to their needs. For instance, with some singers, like Betty Carter, we could be very aggressive when accompanying someone like her. Whereas, for other singers, I feel I need to play underneath them, let them shine, and just play a secondary role. But, until you actually do the gig, you don't really know how it's going to sound or come out. And, in addition, everybody is going to hear what you play differently anyway.

AAJ: And from what I know about jazz gigs, you often don't have much time for rehearsal, if any.

LS: Rehearsals would be great, but you're right. We often don't have a chance to rehearse. Take for example, another bass player, who happens to be my son, Christian McBride.

On his last CD with his trio, they had been on tour for quite some time. So they were very familiar with each other and the tunes. Sometimes you need very little rehearsal time because you've worked with each other a lot. At other times, it's a relatively new group, but that can be a creative challenge. In a way, I think that's good. You want some uncertainty there, an edge. I think that's what makes it interesting.

TL: Some music takes more rehearsal than others. If you're doing original and difficult material, like avant-garde or some complex compositions by, say Bobby Zankel or myself, it'll take some rehearsal time. But, as Lee said, you don't want to overdo the rehearsing.

DM: And it depends who you're working with. Lee, Tom, and I are very familiar with each other. And if we work with Mary Ellen or Larry, for example, we're already in synch with them. And, I agree with Lee that I'm happy if the leader is happy. Unless it's my name that's on the marquee, I want to make the leader as comfortable as possible. If they're happy with us, I'm happy because I know I've done my job. So I might just decide whether to start out with a pedal, or maybe Tom would set the tone with an introduction, and then the rest of us come in to state the melody. We're already comfortable enough with each other that we can go with the flow after that.

LS: Can I just add something? The reason it is so important for me to almost "serve" the leader, is because he's the person who's going to call you again! (Laughter.)

AAJ: That's the bottom line!

LS: And to me, it has nothing to do with your talent or capability. It's more your attitude. How do I want to approach this? Do I want to show what I'm capable of doing, or do I want to make it right for the leader?

AAJ: But aren't you also expected to step up, take risks, and make a claim on your own for the music?

TL: It depends on who you're working with. I would agree with you in the sense that I'm one of those who believe that there's no such thing as "mere" accompaniment. The rhythm section provides the whole "subtext" of the music. The articulation of the bass or the pulse from the drums, we're painting an atmosphere without which the music wouldn't be as good. Maybe someone like Sonny Rollins can play a whole tune solo. But in most cases the upper line that is being played by, say the leader, is dependent on the rhythm section. As a pianist, I can't even play one phrase unless I'm feeling a pulse inside. The only exception would be rubato, where the duration is flexible. If it's a swing tune, we're trying to create a certain vibe behind whoever is playing. On a spacious Latin tune, like a bossa nova, a lot of times two or three of us will be putting a certain rhythmic feel on it, but sometimes I might alternate between going with them or floating around them, in the cracks, so to speak. That creates a particular mood for certain phrases.

AAJ: It's as if the rhythm section participates in co-creating an improvised composition. At the same time, you also have to subordinate your own ego to the leader's purpose.

TL: With rhythm section work, we really want to do what's right for the gig. And with many of the people we work with, we really are more influenced by the older more traditional rhythm sections. Like for some people, it wouldn't work to do the Herbie Hancock-Ron Carter approach. It wouldn't make sense to play that way behind Larry McKenna, for example, because that's not his language. However, there's almost always a small amount of playing during any gig where we can incorporate some elements of various influences without disturbing the overall zeitgeist: the spirit or mood of the piece.

DM: Yeah, like even on the most conservative of gigs, I never feel like I'm restricted. Even within those confines, I always feel like I have unlimited freedom.

AAJ: The classical composer Stravinsky said that musical freedom comes paradoxically from the structure.

TL: And even in the freer kind of jazz, there's always a structure, because there's a motif, a rhythm.

Communicating by "Signals"

AAJ: I always notice that you guys give each other signals. Like you'll hold your hand up, or you'll nod, or glance over at someone. What are all those signals about? I imagine jazz fans would be curious about that.

LS: There are many signals. Many times, the leader will signal when he wants you to go back to the beginning of the tune.

AAJ: How do they signal that?

DM: If they want you to go back to the head, they'll point to the top of their head. If they want you to go back to the bridge, they'll point to the bridge of their nose. Some of it is guesswork based on what they most likely are trying to communicate. Like, if Lee looks at the leader, my best guess might be that we're going on to the next phase, like trading fours or whatever. The context tells you what the gesture means.

TL: For some gigs, for example, the length of your solos may be preset. But sometimes you have to coordinate that with whoever comes in next. So I'll look up and see whether I should keep going or let them come in.

LS: Many of the signals are mainly "yield" signals. Like, sometimes, I'll feel I've soloed as much as I can at that point, and I'll look over to Dan to give him the opportunity to come in if he wants to.

DM: It can get to be weird that way. Like if Lee looks at me with raised eyebrows as if to say, How 'bout you taking over?" I can look at the leader with raised eyebrows, asking if he wants to come in. It can go all around the group like that! (Laughter.)

TL: Sometimes there are surprises. Recently, when we were with vocalist Jackie Ryan at Christmas, we were doing a tune with an unusual form, "The Sweetest Sounds," and suddenly out of nowhere, Jackie looked over at Dan to play, which shook him up, but he nailed it because he'd already played a few choruses with us. Afterwards, Dan said he didn't know what was going on, but he took a chance and fortunately he got it right.

LS: Jackie may not have planned it that way. She probably got that idea right at that moment. That's what jazz is all about.

TL: It can get very confusing. One time, I played with Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, and the special guest soloist was saxophonist Steve Coleman. We had several rehearsals, but all of a sudden we're doin' the concert, and Steve looked at me and said, "Go ahead, Tom." I had no idea what he meant. It turned out he was telling me to do a five minute solo on one of his tunes, which I never played before, and in the rehearsals, he never called for me to solo!
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