On April 10th, 2000 my good friend Wayne brought the Dave Holland Quintet to the Alumni Theatre at Carleton University*. Of course Dave Holland made a name for himself playing bass with Miles Davis (that’s him on Bitches Brew) before going on to record and tour with a who’s who of jazz history, like Thelonius Monk, Stan Getz, and others. Matter of fact, before this show I think I had only seen Holland once before, and that was as a sideman for Herbie Hancock.
But this time he was leading his own quintet – something he had been doing for the previous decade – and man, we’re they smokin’. Everyone on the stage was a fantastic player (especially Steve Nelson on the vibraphone – oh man he was so great to watch), but most salient was how well they all sounded together. This was more than just a collection of jazz heavies taking turns riffing over the form, this was a band, a juicy, oily, unified group that had obviously done a whole lot of work together.
And exactly what work they did together had been pre-revealed at a masterclass workshop that Dave held before the gig. Holland spent about an hour delivering a very eye-opening discourse on improvisation to a quietly rabid crowd of perhaps forty or fifty musicians who had paid extra to attend the lecture, and for the betterment of my loyal readers I will now summarize his method below.
(To the non-musicians out there: Thanks for reading, but as far as you’re concerned I’d say we’re pretty much done here.)
Any time signature (Dave explained) can be reduced to a combination of two-beat and three-beat fragments. Holland labelled these fragments as “talky” (for the two-beats) and “gamelah” (for the three-beats)**. So (he argued), a time signature of 5/8 could be played either as talky-gamelah (2+3) or as gamelah-talky (3+2). 7/8 could be split up into talky-talky-gamelah (2+2+3), talky-gamelah-talky (2+3+2), or gamelah-talky-talky (3+2+2). Even common time (AKA 4/4 but in this sense played as 8/8) could be broken down to either talky-gamelah-gamelah, gamelah-talky-gamelah, gamelah-gamelah-talky, or even talky-talky-talky-talky.
I hope you get the idea.
Now, the improvising idea here is to get multiple players chugging along all sharing a time signature but simultaneously selecting their own ways of dividing up the time signature. Say you have a groove in seven; maybe the sax player is honking away on talky-gamelah-talky, the guitarist is plunking out a heavy talky-talky-gamelah, whilst the drummer taps out a steady gamelah-talky-talky. You’ll have a convoluted and unique sounding repeated bar that always meets up solidly on the one. Then imagine if each player changes up their option whenever they feel like it, so the drummer could alter his groove from a heavy gamelah-talky-talky to a rocking talky-gamelah-talky, and the others could do the same as well.
And now imagine taking this concept and stretching it over a two-bar spread! So 7/8 becomes 14/8, opening up a whole slew of new talky-gamelah combinations, plus the added bonus of a rhythmic cacophony that only meets up every two bars!
This is what the Dave Holland Quintet had spent so much time practising, and it’s why they sounded so great and so original.
Now, before you walk away from this little Readers Digest condensed lesson thinking you got it, be aware that this is really, really hard to become proficient at. I know, because I introduced the concept to the Contemporary Improvisation Group that I was directing at the university at the time. And though we worked on the technique for about a month not even the seasoned Bachelor of Music students that made up the group got to the point where they could execute the exercise with any real musical success. It seems that it would take a great deal of intense study to elevate gamelah-talky beyond the strictly mathematical.
So there you go. Good luck with that.
(PS. Before the masterclass Dave Holland was kind enough to allow me to take a few photographs of him while he warmed up. My bashfulness combined with using actual film in my pre-digital camera limited me to taking just three pictures, all from basically the same angle. One of them actually came out pretty good.)
*Imagine how hard I was kicking myself when Wayne called me earlier in the day and invited me to join him and Mr. Holland for dinner, an offer I had to decline because I had to work. Argh!
**It’s quite common for musicians to utilize the unique rhythms of language to help them achieve specific musical rhythms. Like, the word “Superman” rolls off the tongue as triplets while “Green Hornet” inevitably comes out as a quarter note followed by two eighth notes. My favourite example comes when you tap out the rhythm for the phrase “not difficult”. Try it: tap both hands simultaneously on the word “not” and then alternate your left and right hands while you say the word “difficult”. If you do this over and over you’ll find that you are miraculously beating out a duple rhythm in one hand while tapping out a triple rhythm with the other at the same time. Ask a musician to try this cold and without a helpful phrase to get them through it and they will find it all but impossible. But just do it along with that little phrase and whattya know, tapping three against two is quite simply not difficult.