Here are some thoughts I have had recently about simplifying rhythmically to not obscure or interrupt the message in the music or a particular song. Although I know that rules in music are made to be broken there still seems to be some general rules or concepts that come into play when the music is really happening. This piece began when a young drummer I worked with asked me to give him some suggestions on his playing. Some of the examples are specific to what he does or experiences I had with him but I think it may be an interesting read for any drummer or musician. It would be great to hear your thoughts in comments...
Stating the obvious.
Often the most obvious and simple thing in music works best, to embellish is like indeed trying to fix something that never needed fixing. I apply this rule often to myself and my guitar playing and singing after listening back to recordings of my performances - I find myself noticing that I could have just kept that first concept throughout because it was working so very well. So I hope to find the common denominator, the primer, the simple solution in the groove and then stay the course or direction throughout the song. Call it a popular, folk or dance music concept but I still think it applies to jazz as well.
But this concept can be quite elusive, I know its not so easy to apply or believe in at times. Yet finding the simplest way to convey your message is an art and discipline that is very effective in music. Often the trust and selflessness of defaulting to or accepting the most obvious or stock pattern or part is the key. As this may be obvious and natural to some, it seems almost impossible for some drummers to grasp. They say a band is only as good as its drummer, I think that is true and I will add that I would rather have a simple no frills or fills drummer that just grooves than a virtuoso one that is constantly searching and cant settle and stick with a groove.
Often drummers who play another instrument AND sing as well understand this concept. If you get into singing lyrics, the romanticism of it all, the mood and the meaning, this seems to give a drummer the perspective needed to understand the role better and perform effectively in that role. Maybe a song just needs something excruciatingly simple like laying towels over the drums and playing with your hands. I think of a Ray Charles tune where the drummer just lays down this lone snare crack! every three beats and nothing else on a 12/8 blues ballad. Its so effective. Another technique could be to really look closely into the lyric of a song and how it relates to your life experience. The lyrics could become metaphor for you or directly relate to you and then express it - make your drums sing! You could even make up words to your beat and play the lyric.
Master percussionist from Ghana Kobla Ladzekpo said it well when he said to me "never play a variation if you think of it first, it should just come from the music naturally" I think it is obvious that the masters of communication, expressing life, love and prayer in rhythm are African or have roots in African tradition.
For an example, the well defined mood of the rhythms of the Orixas in Afro-Brazilian religion. The songs for each orixa or deity have a rhythm and feel that is quite definite and all the variations and embellishments lock in with the basic groove. This reminds me also of the older funk grooves like James Browns band played. The mood is established and it stays there. Each groove is different and the parts from one song don't necessarily lock in with another songs parts because the parts and embellishments are mood specific. Obviously there are songs that have similar moods...
Maceo Parker; "Funk is what you don't play"
African musicians have the genius to combine incredibly simple individual rhythms among a group that when woven together create a tapestry of groove that can be played for long periods of time without sounding repetitive or boring. This is a nice guideline for a rhythm section. You don't even have to go to the ride on the B section, often just a nice punctuation or push of an extra note or dynamic change can suffice to create the needed contrast.
Each song and its rhythmic key generally has a meaning or mood that is the "right stuff" for that song. This idea of creating and stating a well defined mood that never waivers can be very powerful. You can embellish and even switch it up - but it should inevitably contrast, tie back or comeback to the original place, thus creating true thematic development where you always recall where you've been and retain that mood. Like that first groove you came up with in the beginning of a tune - that first instinct - it is home base and you always can recall it. Sometimes we may have to simplify in order to apply this technique and remember where we've been. Again, in jazz this can be even more elusive because its complexity and being an idiom where things float and morph in improvisation, but I believe it applies 100% still. There is some serious responsibility as a timekeeper. I have even noticed that these techniques often directly reflect personality traits of musicians as well.
I say don't be afraid of playing and stating the obvious and typical pattern, part or groove but do it with feeling, focus, intent and passion. Don't feel guilty for being simple or typical, let the guilty pleasure of just grooving win. Many drummers feel they don't want to play that same old Ringo Starr beat because its been done so many times before but the fact is it probably works and works for a very good reason. Embellishment and inventiveness can come from the time feel, focus, intent, heart, soul and passion you put into it. Subtle but effective to the max. One of the difficulties of playing very rhythmic music is that we want to follow any interesting pattern we hear the soloist playing because it is so contagious but often what made it so catchy was the fact that it was played against something steady. The mere contrast is in fact what made it sing.
One person can say something, a line, a phrase or what-not and another person can say the same thing but you will only listen to and feel the person who really means it, enunciates, projects and is putting their heart and soul into the words. So its not only the words, groove or pattern we come up with and play - it becomes the intent behind it or presentation and delivery of it. Now that's a deeper subject that can be ambiguous but I think its essential. This is where things like "feel" really come into play. If someone has an amazing "feel" they can play the simplest beat and it sounds fresh and totally new and inventive as if they are the first one that ever played boom chick, boom chicka boom :)
I revel and am amazed when I play the Cape Verdean music at how complex some great drummers tend to play on it when they first hear it or try playing it. Unfortunately they completely miss the point. All it needed was some 16th notes on the high hat and a bass drum drop on beat 4 and it would have completely taken the roof off the house but they play many complex variations or fills and confuse the song and in the end nobody gets it, nobody dances and nobody makes babies that night! Again you might say this could be a pop, producer, composer, songwriter, lyrical or romantic aesthetic but I find it to be very powerful and a sort of musical secret weapon. Groove and sincerity is eternal and when somebody conveys the profound with a few words he is called a poet. As musicians we can make sonic poetry. I have even believed that if the intention behind one simple clap of the hands is sincere, you could express the world just by a single clapping of the hands..
For an example; In my beloved Cape Verdean music, often the guitar plays a very busy finger picking pattern and the vocals are phrasing a nice syncopated and catchy line over it. That's a lot going on right there so the drummer can just lay a rhythmic pad to make it pop and percolate. Imagine if you were playing along with some trance-like DJ dance music and start soloing and changing up the bass drum beat all over the place on top of it, it wont work right? You need to come in playing four on the floor, tika tsh, tika tsh, tika tsh on the high hat and a big fat smack back beat - end of story. Really simple and just lock right? Well I think Brazilian, Jazz and African based music is a lot like that, it doesn't need much. Your part will generally be simple and its the combination with the other parts is what makes it work. And again, the heart and soul you infuse into it. Make it spiritual ;) Make it soulful and move people. This can be very specific; Think of someone or something and express your most profound feelings about them or that experience directly through your music. I think that some people don't even realize that they have that opportunity and outlet.
A related experience from my past: I recall seeing in a group of Chick Corea's back in the early 80's and then seeing Milton Nascimento that same month. Chick's group definitely wowed me and I was in awe of there talent but Milton's music moved my soul, re-arranged some soul molecules in me and changed my life. Chick Corea's wow factor lasted a week maybe but Milton's magic stayed with me for several months or more. I know its not really fair to compare fusion or jazz to Brazilian popular music but I am just sayin! Milton's group improvised a lot too (In fact Wayne Shorter was sitting in)
Obviously we have to listen and listen first before we speak. This practice in music will help you find that instinct to guide you. Often I will play a song once through alone before the band comes in, not because I want to play it alone but because I want them to hear what this song is really about so that they can also participate in enunciating the story clearly with me. If I am am called to improvise a part on top or after a bass player and drummer set a groove, often I wait until I hear what I should play and not just super-impose what I think works over that intellectually. Again, often the first thing is the best.
Of course we must study and listen intensely to develop and learn as much vocabulary in rhythms as possible in many different styles to be able to react and rhythmically enhance whatever music we are to play. Especially listening to other live musicians and listening to those you play with.
Hopefully remembering some of these guidelines or insights along with a good vocabulary can help a drummer find that deep pocket and do the thing that is invariably more effective than a vigorous display of chops: to groove!