Pianist Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 10
Swinging the quavers
It’s well known that quavers (or eighth notes as their known in American terminology) should usually be played with a “triplet” rhythm in jazz.
This applies when the underlying feel or groove is swing (as opposed to a “straight” feel such as latin, rock,etc) and at tempos within a certain range.
What is also important is to give some accentuation or stress to the “off” quavers thus creating a syncopated sense of accent. This has the effect of “driving” the groove because every beat (ie. the “on” quavers) is anticipated with an accent.
So, quavers written as in example 1
should generally be accented as in example 2:
and if it’s a swing groove they should be played somewhere from example 3:
to example 4:
Practise scales, phrases and improvisation with the accentuation in the correct place. This can be hard if you haven’t developed it. Many players when they start out emphasise the “on” quavers and this sounds very wooden and “un-swinging”
Experiment with different levels of accent from subtle to extreme and vary this as you play a phrase.
Also experiment with varying the amount you delay the off quavers. Try example 3 above (two thirds to one third) and then example 4 (three quarters to one quarter).
You may be surprised that I have included example 4 as a way of playing swing quavers because it is often cited as “wrong” but it is my belief that different players “swing” the quavers to differing degrees as a way of personalising and varying their swing feel. For example the pianist Wynton Kelly has a buoyant, perky swing feel because he frequently plays closer to example 4 than example 3.
Then again some players (particularly saxophonist Dexter Gordon and frequently trumpeter Art Farmer) actually play more or less dead straight (even quavers like example 2) nearly all the time while the rhythm section play swing feel.
You can still manage to swing when playing straight by accenting correctly and by using other devices such as playing behind the beat.
There are other times though even in swing jazz when the quavers aren’t swung – more on this next time.