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

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: It sounds like the rhythm section has to be very "in the now," ready to respond to almost anything that happens.

TL: But that's exactly why we choose to play jazz instead of other forms of music. We like the spontaneity and uncertainty of it.

Can You Teach a Musician to Swing?

AAJ: That raises another question: whether jazz can be taught. You guys do a lot of teaching, and I'd like to ask whether you can really teach someone to swing and improvise in the same way that you can teach classical music.

DM: In my experience, teaching any art form involves quantifying it. Some things in jazz can be quantified and taught, but then there's a lot that can't be quantified. There's magic to this music. For example, I can transcribe a Jimmy Cobb drum solo down to the most minute detail, and I can explain exactly what he played, but it won't capture the magic that is Jimmy Cobb. But there are basic things about being in a rhythm section that you can teach, like, as we said, when you get to the end of a solo, make eye contact. There's common knowledge that can easily be taught.

AAJ: But there's a "feel" of swing, of the syncopation, and some players have a harder time acquiring it than others do.

LS: Everyone has an individual feel for what you call "swing," and I think that's what makes jazz so unique. There's an opportunity to express yourself rhythmically as an individual. You can't teach music the way you teach most other vocations, where, like for a computer programmer, "This is what you're going to do on a job, and this is how you do it." With music, it's not just that way. It's somewhat up to the individual student as to how far they want to pursue what they're doing. I see a lot of young musicians who study hard and get a music degree, and they're still not going to "get it." When it comes to teaching jazz, I see it more as exposing the person to experience and ways of playing. You can demonstrate to a student what you have in mind, but there's no guarantee they're going to get it.

AAJ: You seem to be saying that a lot of the so-called knowledge is really intuitive, and, as Dan pointed out, can't be quantified or explained.

LS:: Most definitely, yes.

AAJ: Many musicians will tell me that, in their youth, they bought a recording or someone gave them one, and it just suddenly hit them! And that's how they got interested in playing jazz.

LS: But because you don't "get it" right way doesn't mean that eventually you won't. It depends how dedicated to working at it. Some people are willing to put in the work, and some are not. Unfortunately, some of the most talented people may not have that work ethic.

AAJ: One reason I asked about teaching a musician to swing is because of "crossover music," where you might get some classical musicians to work on a piece with jazz player. Tom has done a considerable amount of that kind of work. For example, he's worked with a string quartet. And from what I know, many classical musicians just can't play jazz well.

TL: Some of them do and some of them just do not. But as far as teaching is concerned, I look at it as if I as a teacher or mentor am trying to create situations or ideas that will gradually unlock the potential in the student. Just because someone doesn't swing from day one, doesn't mean they're not natural with it. It's a new language for them. Like I didn't play jazz until I was age nineteen. I did all classical and rock before that. But I'd always been comfortable improvising, so the hard part of jazz wasn't the harmony, but it was the rhythmic idiom. To this day, that's what I work on the most.

LS: That's very interesting, because the least natural aspect of music is the actual "counting," which you almost have to force yourself to do. But the count doesn't necessarily dictate the "feel." Say when I'm playing odd meters, like five, seven, nine beats in a bar, or whatever, I'm literally counting the meter to myself, and it's harder to get the "feel" of it than what I'm used to playing all the time.

AAJ: That's the part of it that's intuitive: the "feel." I often think that's "built in" to the nervous system, kind of "hard wired," and you can't teach it as such. It goes back in the DNA hundreds or even thousands of years to the African tribal music.

TL: But that doesn't mean you've got to get it from day one. Some people do get it right away, but I've run into musicians I thought could never get the jazz "feel," but after time it's unlocked, and in retrospect it seems that they had it all the time—it just had to be brought out in them. But I've had some students over the years who knew every chord and every scale, and couldn't turn it into good musical phrase. But sometimes, if you encourage them to scat sing the phrase first, without all the technical stuff, then they can go back and get the right "feel" on their instrument.

AAJ: So some players might never get it, but many of them who don't seem to have it, might acquire the jazz feel over time.

How Do You Define "Swing"?

TL: To some extent, it's also a matter of taste what you consider "swing." I prefer the way some musicians swing better than others. But Lee or Dan might have a different preference. There are different "dialects" of swing, so to speak.

DM: Swing is a very broad term.

TL: It's a kind of forward motion.

AAJ: It creates energy. I think there is swing in other kinds of music than jazz.

TL: Yes. One of my classical teachers, Edna Golandsky always said there is a lot of swing in Bach. She got people to put a lot of life into Bach by getting them to phrase over the bar line instead of strictly within it.

AAJ: Would you say that Glenn Gould made Bach swing, even though he plays very strictly on the beat?

TL: Totally. He's not using swing eight notes, but he still swings. Similarly, bossa nova swings even though it's straight eighth notes. There are several different uses of the word "swing." There's the swing era or period of the swing bands. There's the more general eighth note held back. And there's the all-encompassing idea of musical flow. Does it feel like it's buoyant and moving, or does it feel stagnant?

DM: And I think it's important to realize that a rhythm section as such is a collaborative effort, where every player is affected by every other player. Some fantastic players don't work well with each other because of the way they individually interpret time differently. For example, I'm affected very positively by the way Lee plays, and I'd be hard pressed to find a drummer who doesn't swing when he's playing with Lee. But for other bass players, like Madison Rast or Brian Howell, their interpretation of time is different from Lee, and I have to reach agreement with them, so to speak. So achieving the right rhythm is really a collective effort.

TL: Trumpeter Terell Stafford used to talk about how swing is an illusion. He liked it if the drummer's quarter notes didn't exactly match that of the bass, because the swing came from the space in between the two of them, the pocket. I've actually seen that happen. For example, I love Lee's "on top of the beat" feel. It makes the music very buoyant. But there have been times when Lee and I worked with different drummers than Dan. They would try to match Lee on top of the beat, but that would make them rush the tempo. By contrast, Dan, or Byron Landham, or Craig McIver, they know exactly where to be.

LS: Even our own interpretation of swing has to be flexible. It's not the same all the time. It's affected by whoever we're accompanying. Tom said I play on top of the beat. But some drummers I work with also play on top of the beat, in which case I will hold back on the beat to keep it from rushing. So it depends on whom you're interacting with.

AAJ: It sounds like the beat is a very subjective rather than factual or objective matter. You can't measure it with a metronome. A propos of Lee, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan said that he always listened to the bassist rather than the drummer for rhythm. Maybe that's because he played a lower register instrument. But I would think that the drummer supplies the basic rhythm.

LS: I worked with Latin percussionist Mongo Santamaria, and his group used to always tell me, "Lee, we're listening to you for the tempo." I was really surprised that these percussionists were listening to me for the rhythm.

AAJ: It sounds paradoxical. Like your following the other guys' rhythm and at the same time they're following you.

TL: In the past, I would try to hook up rhythmically with this player or that player, but what I eventually arrived at that worked better for me was to listen to the whole sound of the group, and then try to find my place within it. It really is a collective effort, and there's a part of it that we can't really define.

AAJ: Saxophonist Dave Liebman agrees a lot with what you're saying. He wrote an excellent article on jazz rhythm . Accoding to Liebman, "In jazz after tone, it is what I call "time feel" that most expresses an artist's unique conception. The manner in which the player rhythmically phrases is to an even larger degree more revealing than the actual melodic and harmonic content. It conveys a truly physical impression to the listener which is difficult to describe in words." To my mind, Lee, your lively rhythmic feel is so unique that it almost becomes your signature. [Dan and Tom nod agreement.]

LS: I'm flattered, but I haven't got the slightest idea what you mean! [Laughter]. My bass playing comes from rhythm and blues roots, so I'm used to emphasizing a certain feel. Sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it's not. Sometimes you want to subtly imply something rather than throwing it in your face.

TL: But, getting back to the Herbie Hancock rhythm section with Miles, they not only did straight ahead tunes, they also did some exploratory stuff. Herbie and Tony were really going far out there, while Ron Carter served as the "glue." There was a time for about two years when I listened to nothing but that group, and it was a revelation to discover how Carter, the guy at the bottom, really held the group together. Without him, they would have fallen apart. I think the public can feel the presence of the bass player, but they're more likely to be listening to the singer or the soloist. They don't realize how much the bassist makes or breaks the music. I can cope with mediocre drummers much better than with mediocre bass players.

DM: As the drummer, I'm sitting right here, and I can hear everything you're saying, but I won't take it personally! [Huge Laughter.]

TL: Some people might dispute this, but in my opinion, there's much more than rhythm to the bass playing. The bass is also underpinning the harmony, so they play double duty at the sub-structural level. Notes can feel differently at certain spots. The early bass players had a very staccato feel, while later ones, like George Mraz, have a more sustained feel. Lee seems to be somewhere in between the two. The length of the note affects the feel and the sound.

Then there's a type of rhythm section we haven't touched upon, like Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans and Paul Motian. They had a much more subtle way of playing where the swing is there, but it's not so obvious.

DM: I think what Liebman is saying is that great time is the unifying principle for all the great jazz musicians. It's the one thing they have in common.

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