How do you play drums…in free jazz/improvisational music? I lasted 2 sets at a jazz club. Was I grooving or was I shtick-ing?

How do you “play free” on a drum kit? What drum techniques can I use in free jazz/improvised music?

These questions whirled through my mind last night when I sat on the drum throne and pondered what to do before a live audience.

I’ll expand on that but first I ask you to consider what you would do if you were at the kit accompanying a pianist who fashions himself, or herself, after the calamitous, seemingly anarchical Cecil Taylor? Do you let the sticks fall where they may? Play some counter rhythm according to some logic that books & DVDs don’t address?

Last night I came to appreciate first-hand what I’ve come to realize over the years, namely that those so-called free, or improvisational, drummers are those who detect rhythm where most people hear clatter, and find and guard a strong pulse where no civilian can tap a foot. These are drummers who can invoke conventional techniques, and otherwise, in extraordinary circumstances.

When last night’s gig came up, it’d probably been years since I’d hung with Ronald Shannon Jackson, who was putting together an alternative jazz ensemble called Gifts. Similarly, it’d been a least 3 years since I’d co-produced, with Toronto free jazz pioneer Geordie McDonald, a session featuring the great trombonist Roswell Rudd (you look in the dictionary under “free” and there’s a picture…), a contemporary of Archie Shepp and perhaps best known for his work with Carla Bley in Escalator Over the Hill. I’ll tell you, it became increasingly evident, before I bolted from the session (a 5-act drama in itself), that Roswell was not only a good soul but a brilliant musician, whose instincts and musicality were subservient to an ethic and methodology which left very little to chance. Mind you, he’d spent 6 decades honing his discipline. And I had but minutes of reflection before taking the stage.

What was I to do? The laws of cause & effect were, I knew well, as inapplicable as conventional aesthetic considerations. My friend Jon Christensen raises a stick and lets it tumble down, catching each nook and cranny along the way—drum shells, metal lugs, stands, counterhoops, maybe even batter heads and it’s art. It’s musical. It pulses in sync with some primal modality. I do it, and I copped a little bit of that last night, to be sure, and it’s crap, not even craft. Why?

Questions, questions, questions, all of which fell like rain last night, though the weather called for snow.

Drumming in the wilds: a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do

Those questions, some of them existential in nature, danced in my head (pun/reference to Ornette intended: clever, eh?) last night when I performed 2 long sets of totally improvised jazz at a well-populated club in my hometown. It was truly a unique experience, right down to the intimate setting—a Chinatown coffee shop no larger than your average Starbucks in Edinburgh or Machias, although twice as well lit and with no dimmers to foster decent contemplation once the set began.

I have to hand it to Linsey Wellman and Craig Pederson, who have forged an agreement with the coffee shop owner and made good on their promise by holding a series of concerts. There appears to be one criterion imposed on ensembles: that they play improvised music. This is stuff that you won’t hear on the radio or even the local cable channel. This is material appreciated by a rare few who get it. I’m not sure I got it but I’m enlightened for the experience.

So there we were in duet. The guitarist, Wayne Eagles, set the tone in his inimitable manner on a new Victoria amp, an exceptionally finely-crafted unit incorporating the tweed of the Fender Tweed, the stitched leather of a fine automobile interior, and tone that leaves a similarly-sized Twin holding a beggar’s cup, and not only because it’s half the weight. I’m knocked out by that amp, I guess because it’d suit any guitarist who is musing about a full sound—even somebody like Blood Ulmer, to whom I was listening earlier in the day. Now when Blood’s playing live and he goes out, he knows where he is at all times. So does Wayne; he seemed to at the time. What was that saying that Will Lee put at the bottom of his email? Wait a minute while I go to my inbox; I’m sure Will won’t mind if I borrow it for a moment, given he borrowed it himself:

“It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you’re doing” - Charles Wright

Mercifully Wayne began as Bill Evans did so often: solo. Not that Will played electric guitar. I began hearing lots of whole notes. And lots of holes from me, since I had no ideas or phrases worthy of throwing into the mix. Wayne simply played what he felt, and what he felt filled that part of the room he wanted to address, slowly introducing dense delay settings and phase shifting that bridged the tonal gamut between Bill Frisell sliding fluidly down the fretboard and George Martin holding a finger against one open reel while letting the other go its way. It was cool, sometimes melodic and romantic, even. It reminded me that all music is folk music—musicians playing for the joy of playing and according to their respective capacities and aesthetic senses. Sincerity is the key and something hard to measure except that when artifice is in the air, folks fall out the door in droves. Last night the room remained full.

I was clueless for a spell but there was a glimmer of hope when Wayne began constructing loops. I began playing a little time here and there, apply marshmallow mallets to a 20” flat ride. At least I was in the game.

Out of the corner of my eye, through a portion of the giant glass pane that wasn’t obscured by ice, the Chinese laundry across the street was doing a booming business. Occasionally passersby would pause, gawk, make faces, all of them dressed, to use Randy Newman’s words not mine, like Eskimos. That was pretty much the weather. The news was I couldn’t quite get into anything, whether tone or fill or phrase or groove that might enhance or just plain gel with what was coming from that funky looking, and sounding, amplifier.

When in doubt, rest

So I did what I felt was musically appropriate: I went tacet. Wayne was doing his deed and why, I reasoned to myself, should I scurry across the skins and fill space that would obscure the one positive contribution, of two, coming from the stage. Scurrying, mice—my neighbor had left for Montserrat and I was minding his house, which as mice. Scurrying: What would Tom Rainey do if he were me in my situation. He’d be him of course but him probably knew what to do and me hadn’t the faintest. Montserrat, the Caribbean, warm waves cascading. An idea came out of this blue: something with a pulse, something regular, something Latin but not reggaeton: maybe folkloric rumba with voice and drums, substituting guitar for the voice, of course, and in 2-3 clavé. What would happen if Tom Waits were to go salsa?

I began thinking in terms of found objects. Tom Waits on a desert island. Problem is, when I reached for my tin man shaker, I was shaking a wee bit and my shirt sleeve brushed against a pocket of my stick bag, from which a tiny bronze hand-held bell sat in waiting, ready to emit a piercing, long sustaining high pitched tone. It didn’t simply dislodge but popped out of the pocket, hit the floor—the tiny portion I hadn’t covered with my drum rug, and came to rest. Now, this might well have succeeded as a “happy accident”, as my art teacher once described happenstance events such as the current. But as I dipped down to recover the bell and raised it, I dropped it again. It wasn’t the time, nor the place, to utter fuck but I did so, I regret to admit. With my ears burning, I grasped the tin man shaker, which was securely attached to a Vater rod thingy, which consists of white plastic strips framing a sheave of wooden dowels.

The funny thing about reddening is that once it happens, there’s no going back. It’s self-perpetuating. You look to see if someone’s noticed and, of course, in your mind’s eye everybody’s noticed and, accordingly, you redden some more. Wisely I kept my eyes firmly closed for the balance of the set, except for a few squints to the sides. I wouldn’t have complained had someone yanked that fire alarm over by the kitchen doors. Kitchen doors. Sea food. I love crab except when it gives me the runs. Come to thing of it, it’d be nice for something to gush forth. Would today be the day I’d salvage my drumming, my rep?

Jeezus, give me a chance to play time, begging the definition…

The day was Sunday—the Sabbath for those who share my religious affiliation, and, there was a God in the house. He instructed Wayne to set a loop at march tempo. I expelled air in a hiss of relief. Now on firm footing, I got the time in a place I understood, unlike what Jon Christensen told me and which I reported in Modern Drummer: “You go to a club and you strike the tom once and you leave. You come back next Tuesday and strike it once and then leave. That’s a beat.” I was on firm footing. There was but one problem. Wayne began to solo and the solo volume exceeded the loop level by a good 30 dB, or so it seemed. Ah, but the looper featured an LED, which flashed with the pulse in plain view. The light became my guide and my strength. But Wayne felt a conflicting compulsion, given this was what they used to call a “free jazz” situation, to break time and deconstruct our hip-hop rhythm and meld it into more legato passage, something he does really well—in this instance suggesting something we’d played in past, a medley of Miles’ “In a Silent Way” and John Abercrombie’s “Timeless”. I knew that time keeping wouldn’t be a pressing necessity so I took the down time as an opportunity to try something.

On the nature of overtones lurking within a polite flat ride cymbal

To understand this next creative feat of timbre and Doppler, you need to picture my 23” flat ride, which is not totally flat but certainly has no bell to interrupt the plain across the top portion. This is surface number 1, of 3, and a creation of my good friend Nort Hargrove, now head of manufacturing at Sabian and still one of the world’s greatest living cymbal smiths. The flat expanse yielded to a hasty descent, so quickly drawn that a ridge marked the end of the 12” plain, which then extended 11” to the edge, nothing steep but hammered and angled such that it harbored sweet spots a plenty. I shanked across the bow with a Regal 9A, could have been a 5A, and caught the ridge. Interesting undulating tone. So I grabbed that Far Eastern bronze bell and cupped it just above the target area, raising it and lowering it. I heard harmonics that I’d never heard from that giant flat ride, which encouraged me to go for it again, and within, oh, 60 seconds I’d gotten onto a technique whereby I began to suggest melody, like Jaco would do with those faux harmonics on his Precision.

I was truly learning loads and knew it and kept at it. It was about that juncture when I realized that Wayne had been preparing for his landing, smoothly touching down without developing the melody he’d suggested, possibly saving it for later. Here I am, deftly playing clusters of exactly 7 with my right foot, the pedal fitted with a fluffy World War II beater, and working that bell like a gypsy works a tambourine. And the set is over and Wayne is looking at me with a grin growing: why disturb Bruce when he’s having a good time?

I awakened to a round of applause, perhaps polite in tone, and felt so far deep in a zone that returning to default setting was proving difficult. My eye lids hung as if hung over and my limbs were plasticine. Even had the applause been merely polite I’d put myself into a stupor as a defense mechanism. If you don’t know Spanish, if you listen really hard and focus, you’re going to pick up the gist.

I was thinking on the ride home about the school band and about post-high school and a symphonic band I’d jointed and about reading Aaron Copeland percussion parts, maybe Charles Ives, and realizing that tonight I’d been drawing on those roots, while occasionally alluding to ECM jazz and funk, never really settling in but, at times, almost unconsciously finding patterns where none ought to have existed.

The logic of free jazz, of improvisational drumming

Was this the deal? I mean, I remember back when and hanging around with Sirone, bassist, and Ron Shannon (Jackson) who, at the time, were playing with Cecil Taylor. The notion of reconciling diversity via tone and rhythm—and introducing similar diversity similarly—was not foreign to me. And hanging with Jon Christensen has enabled me to pick his brains for tips on how he seems to run parallel rhythmic structures against the prevailing themes in common time. And then one night, although I never spoke with him, witness Tom Rainey do some of the most bizarre, seemingly anarchic clattering on drumset—which, I realized after 20 minutes or so total incomprehension, actually grooved powerfully. From that experience, I knew that it is possible for a drummer to define pulse and groove and not just dick around.

It is valid and there can come, from the hands of masters like Rainey and Christensen, regularity enough to make you tap your feet from seemingly grossly irregular rhythmic phrases.

There is, once again, a problem. I wasn’t even close to invoking a deep pulse, nor reconciling diversity or harnessing a slew of timbres lying in wait in my ever-present box of percussive toys.

I was winging it. Nodding to Christensen, nodding to Rainey, but not organizing my phrasing or my erratic strikes and fills according to an aesthetic logic.

I was an imposter. I realized how incredibly difficult and awkward it must have been for Sunny Murray playing in the milieu defined by Art and Elvin. What audacity for Murray to thump tribal toms instead of ride the usual jazz cymbal beat.

I will never again dismiss anything remotely falling under “free jazz” or “totally improvised”. And as for free jazz, I’m $35 US richer for the experience and, as you well know, you could buy 3 CDs with that kind of coin in your pocket—but learn squat about life and playing music with folks. Or what it is to keep your nose to the grindstone rough and hold it down there long enough—old Scottish saying. Get out and play, don’t philosophize like I’m doing.

Visit Linsey, Craig, and colleagues at

They’re doing a great job at replicating New York City opportunities in a much smaller urban center. And people come out on a Sunday night, temperature 14-degrees below zero, to hear musicians like me wing it. Shame on me. But good on them. One of us has what the cowardly lion felt he lacked, “What do they got that I ain’t got? Courage!”