Saturday, April 26, 2014

Developing the "ECM Feel" - Part I

The “ECM Feel” first developed in the early 1970s on Manfred Eicher’s ECM label.  The label has a characteristic sound that has become a staple of modern jazz.  While certainly not every ECM release features this drum sound, the “broken”, straight 8th note feel that can be heard on so many of those records in the 70s has become a style as important to know and understand as swing, mambo, and bossa nova; so much so that many charts now say “ECM Feel” in the style marking, and band leaders/composers will often expect their drummer to know how to play it.

For as common as the style has become, there’s surprisingly little material on the subject.  Todd Bishop wrote a cool post about it over at Cruise Ship Drummer!  As Todd points out, the early pioneers of this style, such as Bob Moses, Jack DeJohnette, Jon Christensen, and Airto were likely inspired by pre-ECM greats like Roy Haynes, Paul Motian, and Tony Williams.

Throughout the 80s and 90s drummers like Peter Erskine, Danny Gottlieb, and Joey Baron continued to use and further develop the style and today there are many great drummers who are masters of the ECM Feel, like Michael Miskiewicz, Jarle Vespestad, Magnus Öström, and Jon Fält.

Developing this feel obviously requires a lot of listening, but I’ve come up with a series of exercises to get you started using a book that many of you have already:  John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming.  Upon first listening to some of these albums many of us would be tempted to reach for Syncopation to work on this style of playing.  And there really wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but I prefer using Riley’s book for two main reasons.  1. The exercises in the Reed book are more dense than in Riley’s.  One of the prominent characteristics of the ECM sound is the use of space, and The Art of Bop Drumming gives us the space needed to leave some of those rests, or alternatively, to fill in the gaps with other sounds.  2. The Art of Bop Drumming is less repetitive.  While some ECM tunes do have repetitive, groove oriented drumming, more commonly you'll hear playing that has more of a stream of thought feel to it.  Almost like a long, but sparse drum solo.  The Riley book, when played without the repeats provides those types of long, almost unending phrases.

Here are some of the exercises that I like to use to work on the ECM feel using The Art of Bop Drumming.  I wouldn’t recommend trying to play every variation on every line.  Much like some other books out there, there are almost too many different possibilities and combinations, and if you try to get through them all you’ll probably end up treading water.  Just take some of the concepts here and apply them to random parts of the book.  These first five exercises are written specifically to be used with pages 18 and 19 of The Art of Bop Drumming.  In future posts I’ll have more exercises utilizing other parts of the book.

I’ve notated an example of each concept using the first two lines of page 18:

But each of these ideas works with all of pages 18 and 19.  Once you’re comfortable with how each exercise works, try it with any or all of the lines of these two pages.

Example 1 - Play each note on the snare drum and no matter where it falls, give it the value of a quarter note.  After that quarter note value is over, play eighth notes on the ride cymbal until the next note on the snare drum.  A slightly busier variation of this (1.1) is to add two 16th notes on the ride cymbal in the middle of any group of three eighth notes.

Example 2 - Using the same idea as Example 1 add the ride cymbal on all of the snare drum notes.  Example 2.1 is the same ride cymbal variation we did in Example 1.1.

Both examples 1 and 2 also work well by substituting the bass drum for the snare part.

Example 3 - Read the rhythm on the bass drum and ride cymbal together, again giving each note a quarter note value before playing anything else.  After the quarter note value is over play upbeats on the snare drum.  In addition, always play the snare drum on the eighth note immediately preceding any bass/ride note.

Example 4 - As we did with Example 2, play Example 3 with the ride cymbal added to all the snare drum notes.

Example 5 - Go back to Example 3 and play the individual snare drum notes with your hi-hat.  However, whenever there are two eighth notes in succession, leave them on the snare drum.

In Examples 3, 4, and 5 you can also swap the bass drum and snare drum parts.

The ECM website is extremely well maintained, and is not only updated regularly, but is also completely catalogued, and cross-referenced listing the personnel and background notes on every record.  It also features a player where you can sample a lot of the music.

Additionally, there's this crazy site, which appears to have every ECM album ever released in a very window shopping friendly layout, which is also linked to the ECM site.

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