Odd Meters, Polyrhythms and Some Exploratory Guts

When I was 15, jazz composer Hank Levy came to my high school in Delaware and introduced our jazz ensemble for odd meter music. It was the core of what Don Ellis and Stan Kenton were exploring in their respective big bands in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, and it was the rhythmic essence of music that Frank Zappa, Yes, King Crimson and other rock musicians were creating as well.

Was it commercial? Of course not. Stravinsky was writing music using odd meters and polyrhythms that blew peoples minds in the very early part of the 20th century, and it never made it to the Am radio top 40 play lists. But composers like Stravinsky and Edgar Varese didn’t care about popularity; they cared about exploring and taking things to the next and undiscovered level.

THAT’s what music is about for me. I lost touch with that ideal for a long time, but it’s been coming back lately. Last night, I got real good reminder of why one should follow that “see what’s out there” bliss. I met a woman who was going to audition for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, for their principle (first chair) flute position. She showed me some of the music, and it was incredibly brutal from a rhythmic standpoint, but for her, it was just another day at the office.

Somewhere in her training, music teachers valued imparting the highest level of development and exploration. If drummers are going to evolve and take things to the next level, we’ll need such teachers to make it happen. We’ll also need the music and the environment in which to play it… which isn’t going to happen commercially, at least not in the immediate future.

What this means is that we, as drummers, have to make that music happen. We have to value it, want to see what’s out there, and not wait around for anyone else to do it for us. I am not a deeply educated musician by any means, but I do compose and created basic songs and grooves that explore meters because that’s the stuff I love to play.

I am working more and more with revisiting polyrhythms and figuring out how to incorporate them into the improvisational world. Guys like David Garibaldi are constantly exploring how funk can be turned on its head, and we as a group, as drummers, should find inspiration in these ventures.

Vinnie Coliauta blew the door off polyrhythm performance with the classic “Joe’s Garage,” and he set the bar that we need to rise to and push a little higher. If we do not, no one will… and if we wait, it will be a long wait.

The next time you want to make a difference in music, do something different, something bold, something scary… something that challenges you well beyond what you thought you could handle. The future of rhythmic exploration is in all our hands, and as it always has been and will continue to be…