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"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."
April 28, 2011 | Don Julin; Jazz/Swing rhythm for mandolin
This week we take a look at an oft ignored topic from staff writer, Don Julin, proper comping techniques. It's a subject easy to take for granted, but if you really want to make the mandolin an important part of the accompaniment force of the ensemble, you'll want to pay close attention. Don weighs in with two basic comping styles for swing/jazz mandolin.
Many mandolin players find themselves at one point or another being attracted to swing and jazz music. The chord changes for this music can seem a bit intimidating at first but I find that that an equally challenging part of this music is the rhythmic drive or groove. Many mandolin player approach jazz from a bluegrass or old time background and discover this sound from either the gypsy jazz recordings of Django Reinhardt, or the western swing sound of Bob Wills. I will try to break this swing rhythm down into two groups consisting of older two beat styles, and more modern four-beat styles.
Often in two-beat swing, the bass player plays mostly two notes per measure similar to country, bluegrass, polka, etc. In this style, the mandolin or rhythm guitar plays four beats (downstrokes) per measure. An important element in this style is the left hand mute. By releasing your left hand immediately after a crisp downstoke the sound of the chord is muted. You can hear this muting style in many of Django's recordings resulting in a 1,2,3,4, sound with a bit of silence between each chord.
Another popular two beat style involves muting only on beats 2 and 4. For this rhythm we let beat 1 sustain (without mute) into beat 2, muting beat 2, and repeat the pattern letting beat 3 sustain into beat 4, muting beat 4. This rhythm has a pulse of long, short, long, short. There are many variations and embellishments to playing good two beat rhythm, but these two ideas will start to get you swingin'.
This is often called modern jazz and the chording instrument has a new function in this groove. In four beat jazz, the bass plays mostly quarter notes (walking bass line) instead of half notes. To contrast this quarter note bass rhythm, one idea is to introduce some rhythmic counterpoint sometimes called comping. One standard comping pattern is to play on beat 1 and then again on the & of beat 2. This works well when you find yourself on a gig with a modern bassist and a good jazz drummer. The drummer will supply eighth notes with a ride cymbal or with brushes on the snare while swinging beats 2 & 4 with his foot closing the hi-hats. The bass player plays mostly quarter notes leaving us, the mandolin players to act more like a piano and play some accents that will push the groove along nicely.
Two-beat rhythms benefit from more than one person playing rhythm. Django many times had two rhythm guitarists. Four-beat (modern jazz) is a little more finicky about this and tends to work best with one person comping at a time.