By Dan DiPiero
Inside “Intro To Polyrhythms”
In the world of jazz drummers there exists two kinds of players: The ones who replicate the styles of the great masters, and the ones who create their own styles. Ari Hoenig is surely of the latter category, and one of the primary components of his unique sound is his ability to manipulate the timefeel of any tune, metrically modulating at will, not just with one idea, but with an entire groove, the result of which is often as baffling as it is exciting. It is clear, not only from his ability to do this, but also by his ability to improvise so fluently in the new time feel before returning to the original tempo, that Ari possesses a deep understand of rhythm, and how it breaks down. And when his method book arrived in my mailbox two weeks ago, I got a glimpse into that understanding.
“Intro To Polyrhythms: Contracting and Expanding Time Within Form (Vol. 1) is a joint project between Ari Hoenig and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller that really fills a gap in drum set education. Prior to this, the only method book that I’m aware of that dealt with metric modulation was John Riley’s “Beyond Bop Drumming.” I worked out of that book for a while, and those pages, plus a lot of listening, helped me to develop some of my own modulation possibilities within my playing. But Riley had a lot of material to cover in his book. Ari’s on the other hand, is strictly devoted to metric modulation, and additionally, it comes at it from a different perspective. Plus, I have no idea if this topic has ever been covered for instruments other than drums. And while this book is primarily beneficial for drummers and bassists, they do include Aaron Goldberg on piano to demonstrate how a soloist can react to, initiate, or play inside of these modulations. I finished going through all of the exercises yesterday, (although there’s still about two I can’t say I’ve really mastered), and the process has been illuminating. Here’s a quick breakdown:
The first chapter in the book deals with eighth note triplets, the main subdivision for a swing feel. The goal here is to become equally comfortable playing on all three beats of the triplet without losing the “1.” This is accomplished by displacing the ride pattern to start on either the second or third beats of the triplet. It’s not so bad when you subdivide the triplets between your snare and ride, but when it’s just ride and hi hat (and when it’s just you and a modulated bass line) then the second or third triplet starts to sound a lot like the first. The time doesn’t change, it just moves, which can present a particularly unique challenge.
The next section is the exact same thing, but with all four beats of an eighth note series. Say you’re playing a medium up swing feel. Then start playing hits on the “and of 1” and the “and of 3.” Then take those hits, and treat them as the quarter notes in a slower jazz ride pattern. Then keep it together when the bass player joins you, and get back to the original tempo. Then repeat the process for beats “2&4” and the “and of 2& and of 4.” Kind of blows your mind. But now the fun part.
Quarter note triplets in 4/4 are probably the basis for metric modulation that people are most familiar with. The surprise here for me wasn’t superimposing three over four, or a quick two over four, but the bossa nova based on groups of four triplets. I’ll have an audio sample to show you what I mean. Additionally, taking those same triplets and offsetting them by one eighth note triplet changes the whole game. It’s just as easy to “feel” but it’s way harder to get back to the real “1” unless somebody is holding down the original tempo (which you don’t want to rely on…just in case).
From there it’s dotted quarter notes in both 3/4 (offset and grouped in twos and threes) and in 4/4 (likewise). Again, although creating hemiolas out of dotted quarter notes is something many people are familiar with, grouping these notes in twos and threes, then creating grooves that correspond to those groupings…well, that takes your understanding to a different level entirely.
In terms of how I practiced out of this book…I think a doing a couple of methods is more effective than just one. In the beginning I played with just a metronome, so that I could make sure I really understood what was happening in the time (and not just imitating what Ari was playing on the DVD…this book comes with a DVD, by the way…there’s a sample from youtube below). Eventually, however, I brought my laptop into the practice room and fired up the DVD. From here I essentially went chapter by chapter, first playing the core rhythms (the basis for the modulation), then the core grooves (the new groove established within that rhythm), then trying to follow the trio on some of their examples and playalongs. Whenever there was something I couldn’t get 100% it was back to the metronome to break it down slowly. Sometimes the “click” moment came when I heard the displacements against a solid tempo like that, and some times they came only after reading the music to see what was really going on. Other times just hearing Ari respond to something in the music helped me “get” what was supposed to happen.
The DVD for the most part is fantastic. Even though it’s clear that Ari and Johannes did this in one take, and kind of made it up as they went along, the playing is spot on 100% of the time, whether it’s a demonstration or a true improvisation.
I can’t say enough about how important this book seems to me at this particular point in time. This kind of playing has been evolving since Miles’ groups started experimenting, and for me, the ability to react musically to ideas like this is an essential component of contemporary jazz playing, not only because it is a way of sounding more authentic in a modern style, but also because it injects an entirely new vocabulary into even classic literature. (Every example played on the DVD is over a standard form; either Blues, Minor Blues, Rhythm Changes, or 32 bar song form). And as is true with most concepts, if it improves your improvising, it improves your musicianship as a whole, from soloing to composing.
As fantastic as the companion DVD is, I found myself wanting more of a challenge than playing along with Ari. I needed to test whether or not I could “get back” without anyone else to lean on. So I wrote a bunch of bass lines in Finale and exported them as audio files to play with. I’m going to make those bass lines (and the accompanying music) available for anyone wants to practice with them. And I’ll have a few audio examples of me playing with them up here as well.
At the end of the day, however, I think the biggest challenge to come out of this book is not any of the exercises themselves, but the ability to employ them in a musical way. It is very tempting, once you’ve mastered some of the material, to bust it out on your unsuspecting friends. Of course, in retrospect, that move is just showing off for the sake of it. In order for any of this material to not sound like you’re doing it just to do it, there has to be a natural evolution of communication within the group. You have to take something that you hear and evolve it, instead of going there on your own, out of nowhere. It can even be your suggestion, but if no one is going there with you, drop it. To that end, I recommend practicing with Hal Crook’s creative comping playalong cds. It’s solo piano, comping with really interesting rhythms (many times hemiolas that can be used as a jumping off point for modulations). See if you can respond to the piano, and see how many kinds of responses you can create.
While you do this, we can all anxiously await Volume Two, which deals in fives and sevens.