How To Play Jazz Ballads
Once you've got your basic Jazz chops down anyone will tell you this... Its not uptempo tunes that are the challenge when it comes to playing... they're easy... In fact, some players can turn almost any tune into an uptempo cooker... and even when its not initially, they'll keep speeding up and speeding up until it does... So what's really the challenge is keeping count and time on ballads without getting lost. --Doing it at slow tempos can be really tough... But the secret is simple : You simply need to learn how to count the beats between the beats. Its also important to learn how to relax!
Counting the Beats between the Beats
The way to do this was taught to me by an old drummer in Philly named Bob Hampton. The answer is simple... You simply count the beats between the beats like they're a measure in themselves... for example, if its really slow 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 you go 1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, 4 2 3 4 - - but even better, you can count the changes as if they're double time. For example, if its G-7 to C7 in one bar you pretend its two bars (1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4). I find this particularly helpful for my bassline and chords, because instead of just dragging, at times I can see the beats between the beats and use it to improve my walk ups and passing chords.
Now, check out my recording of Laura on my new CD... This is an even better take off on this method. You tap 3 instead of 4 beats on each beat... There are actually a lot of Jazz ballads that are played like this and gospel players love it... Sometimes the musicians only count like this, but the drummer will play straight 4/4 though at other times you'll get a hint of what's going on by the way the drummer plays the pick up beats. - - In my version of Laura however, I asked the drummer to play on all 12 beats, which gives it somewhat of a grindy slow shuffle feel... (In the '50s people use to love doing a type of "dirty" slow dance to this type of rhythm... though the tune is still slow and sweet, those extra beats allow for a bit of extra how should I say grinding...) The 12 beat approach also gives space for some extra fills and builds as well. - - On my take of it, I asked Royce to comp on the upbeat... the reason I did this was so the tune would have an on word moving feel... For a ballad, a lot is definitely happening rhythmically if you listen closely and it forces the listener to really get into it. (This rhythm can easily be transformed into a bass shuffle as well by playing the pick up onto the one as in "b'boom cha cha cha cha cha" !)
All in all, there are a number of things to consider when playing ballads... Yes, a ballad should be sweet and pretty, but no that doesn't mean the audience has to be put to sleep. By being aware of the beats between the beats you can actually let the tune build as the tune heats up. This is both the job of the drummer and rhythm section, as well as chord playing instruments who can come up with creative ways to lead into the beats. Most importantly, as you get used to counting those extra beats, eventually playing straight time at slower tempos will come first hand... and trust me, being able to play really really really slow will blow away even the most seasoned musicians... it isn't easy... and nothing's worse than sweating through a ballad !
Finally, its important to learn how to relax. Frankly speaking, I'm not a new-agey type hippie dude, but when it comes to playing Jazz, I will admit, that there are some lessons to be learned from YOGA and other controlled breathing methods. At times you just have to calm yourself down -- simply focusing yourself and getting your breathing in control with the rhythm. Ideally, I try to get my intake and outtake of breaths aligned with the actually phrasing of the tune, almost as if I were playing a saxophone. --Ironically, you'll notice a strange tendency of some musicians to make strange grunty noises when they play. I've caught myself doing this a few times, and recently suspect it may be a result of wind passing over my relaxed vocal chords as I try to deepen my concentration and connect my body with the tune.
So, with all this said, how 'bout digging down into a nice ballad style standard today?
Eddie Landsberg (2004)