Practice by creating an arrangement
I was feeling inspired by a fantastic solo by Jeff Hamilton where he plays a whole arrangement of "Caravan" (it seems to have disappeared from the internet) on the drums, so I thought I would record my own version of "St. Thomas" as well as share some thoughts on how to play an arrangement in this fashion. Making an arrangement of a song is a great practice tool for internalizing whatever tunes you are working on, soloing more compositionally, and often inspiring some great ideas that you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.
Here are some basic techniques to use when playing an arrangement:
1. Come up with an overall map of the arrangement
It is important to understand the over-arching structure of the arrangement you are going to play so that you can anticipate what is coming next. The map of my very basic arrangement goes like this:
- Brief rubato intro on the cymbals
- Max Roach inspired latin groove taken from the original Sonny Rollin's recording
- Melody twice- I tried to match the contour of the melody on the drums
- Solo section
- Melody twice again
- Ending- I tagged the last four bars three times
2. Stay in the character of the song
In order for this style of solo to come across to an audience you need to spend some time thinking about how to keep your solo in the character of the song. To accomplish this, when I am soloing I am constantly thinking about the melody of the song (for more on this check out my
about the two songs of jazz). If you listen carefully to my solo you will hear me referencing the melody, playing off of the call and response structure of the phrases, and also outlining the form of the song.
This is the most important part of this exercise, and is also the most difficult. Start with simple ideas that come to you from the melody or structure of the tune and then build off of them. Often using the most basic call and response style phrases is a great place to start. Don't worry about trying to play your fanciest, most technical ideas, this isn't really the place for that. Just play what comes naturally and take your time.
For more inspiration on how to keep a solo in the character of a song, I would check out Max Roach. As a matter of fact, his classic solo on "St. Thomas" is a great place to start:
3. Try to give your solo a shape
Once you start to hear the song in your solo and you are feeling more comfortable, you can begin adding a macro dimension to your solo, a shape. In the most basic sense you can think of your solo as an arc. It has to start low and build intensity to some sort of climax before coming back down. There are different variations of this shape, starting high before coming down and building back up, multiple crests and troughs, ending at a high point, but they all work on the same basic principle of tension and release.
This deceptively simple phrase basically describes why music works, it builds up tension and then it releases it. The important thing to take away is that if the shape of your solo is too flat for too long, you will lose your audience.
There are a number of elements you can manipulate to build tension in your solo including:
- Dynamics- How loud or soft are you playing?
- Texture/Orchestration- What parts of the drum set are you using?
- Note density- How many notes are you playing or not playing?
- Rhythmic phrasing- Call and response? Reference to the melody? A groove? Rudimental ideas?
Essentially, the degree to which you use your musicality to control these elements will determine how much tension and release there is in your solo. This in turn will effect what impact your solo will have on an audience.
More tension and release = Better solo.