Groove, Pocket and Feel

Mike Sturgis at British Grove Studios with the Stacks Band

The vernacular of a musician (or those discussing music) is sometimes a bit mysterious, weird, comedic or just generally inaccessible to the ‘layman’. On one hand, there are terms like accelerando or many others that are part of widely accepted musical lexicon that have clear, textbook definitions. But there are other words or phrases that are less conventional and are open to an element of interpretation, even amongst hipsters in the music community. With this in mind, I would like to take on a challenge that makes solving the debacle of Brexit seem lightweight in comparison; that is, to look at the frequently used terms of groove, pocket and feel and to try to understand their full meaning.

For example, how many times you have you heard someone say something like this:

“He/she has a killer groove.”

“Man, that’s grooving like mother*%\$@!”

“That guy/girl was so in the pocket.”

“He/she has an unbelievable feel.”

I’ll put it out there at this point that I believe there is some subjectivity involved in what is meant by these terms and I’m not sure that there actually are universally accepted definitions. However, the brief bit of research I’ve done suggests that there is some common thinking; in my quest to decode and demystify ‘groove language’ I’ve done some interesting reading and have also had the opportunity to ask some great musicians what they think.

To define all things relating to groove I went straight to someone who seems to have stood in line at least twice when it was being allocated by a Higher Power. Van Romaine is one of my favourite drummers and is widely known for recording and touring as a drummer and musical director with amazing artists such as Enrique Iglesias, Steve Morse, Nena and many others. Here’s his take on what these three terms mean:

“From my years of experience, groove and pocket are general terms for playing in time along with the other musicians and/or tracks. “Make sure you play in the groove” or “he/she has a great groove/pocket” would tend to mean the musician plays in time, for the song and doesn’t overplay. Feel, on the other hand (in my eyes) relates specifically to the one-of-a-kind stamp and personality of a musician’s groove or pocket. It’s a view into their soul as well, from my experience. While drummers Steve Jordan and Stewart Copeland both have an amazing groove and pocket, their feels are drastically different. Also, from what I see the musicians who focus on these three things tend to be the people playing on the most records and tours.”

Van Romaine

Van Romaine

Another heavyweight musician I’ve consulted, one who has a deep understanding these concepts from the perspective of someone outside of the rhythm section, is composer, arranger and lead trumpet extraordinaire Kevin Robinson (Simply Red, Incognito, Tom Jones). When asked about this subject, Kevin responded with the following:

“I think maybe with the exception of ‘groove’ there isn’t one single definition or easy explanation to what these terms actually mean. The reason I say this is because I think they mean different things to different people and can be applied to several situations, which also means they are all intrinsically part of the same fabric of music production.”

“Groove for example can be straightforwardly defined as a rhythmic pattern, be it sourced entirely from a percussive instrument (e.g. drums) or as a collective entity, the result of several musicians all playing together.”

“That being said, it’s still not a simple case of a rhythmic/chordal pattern being played ‘in time’…there are subtleties of execution involved that link ‘groove’ to feel…e.g. a simple slight displacement of part of the rhythm that takes it away from the metronome that will result in the music being played ‘loosely’- but it can still groove.”

“Pocket is a little more difficult for me to define because for me it is based almost entirely on feeling…also, I think that tempo plays a very important role in determining pocket…certain songs, grooves etc work best at certain tempos, causing them to sit ‘in the pocket’. Of course, individuals can also be attributed as playing ‘in the pocket’ and it’s obvious when they’re not. So basically, there is a lot of subjectivity involved largely based on skill, experience and emotional maturity.”

Kevin Robinson

Kevin Robinson

Neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin is the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, a book which analyses how our brains interpret music and the subsequent neural impulses that result when listening to it. When Levitin talks about groove in his book, he aligns with Van and Kevin but also blurs a little bit into that loosely defined area of ‘feel’:

“Groove has to do with a particular performer or particular performance, not with what is written on paper. Groove can be a subtle aspect of performance that comes and goes from one day to another, even with the same group of musicians.

Musicians generally agree that groove works best when it is not strictly metronomic – that is, when it is not perfectly machine-like. Although some danceable songs have been made with drum machines, the gold standard of groove is usually a drummer who changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music; we say then that the rhythm track, that the drums, “breathe.”

Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin

Hearing from these experts has been helpful for me, and I’m pleased to say that my own thinking on this subject is fairly aligned with their opinions. For me, the terms ‘groove’ (when used as a noun) and ‘pocket’ are usually referring to the quality and consistency of someone’s timekeeping (both as an individual and/or in the context of an ensemble) and are virtually interchangeable in their usage. Therefore, we can say, “They have a great groove/pocket” and be fairly confident that this refers to their ability to play in time, both on their own and with others. However, a great groove/pocket can also be a collective experience (or ‘entity’, as Kevin Robinson suggested) that is created from an ensemble, usually from individual musicians who all have this quality in abundance. Strangely, we often use the term ‘groove’ as a verb but never so with ‘pocket’ (e.g. “Man, that was really pocketing!”)

That brings me to ‘feel’, which as described above seems to be an even larger concept than groove or pocket, although I still believe the terms are inextricably linked. When we talk about someone’s feel, it’s almost like we are using one small word to encapsulate the totality of their playing. While there may be more, here’s a few of the areas that I believe comprise a musician’s feel:

  • Timing (hence the overlap with groove and pocket)
  • Execution (the level of technique and the ability to actually play what is required, with pin-point accuracy not necessarily being better depending on the genre)
  • Dynamics (as appropriate for the chosen genre)
  • Content (the ability to play appropriately as each musical context requires)
  • Sound/Timbre (which includes tuning)
  • Intuition (the ability to respond appropriately to the music and other musicians)

I’ve just come up with DISCET as a mnemonic but I’m sure that there must be a better one!

There has been a lot more written on this subject that you can check out if you’re interested. As a starting point, I would like to recommend the following:

What is groove? (Ethan Hein)

Playing in the Pocket (Dave Martin)

Push, Drag and Center: What is Playing in the Pocket, Anyway? (Mike Emiliani)

Conquering the Russian Dragon

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After playing drums for over 40 years, I would like to give you what is ultimately my most important piece of advice distilled into one pithy statement. Here it is.

 

You must keep good time, and keeping good time is difficult.

 

Yep, from my point of view, that’s pretty much what it boils down to. This is probably true for most if not all musicians, but for a drummer it is non-negotiable. If you can’t play in time, nothing will really sound good, even if there are many other positive attributes to your playing. And unless you run your own band, you’re unlikely to be doing many gigs as other musicians are relying on you to be the expert when it comes to accurate timekeeping.

We must face the Russian Dragon (referring to our propensity to be either rushing or dragging!) squarely in the eye and emerge victorious. This is not easy, and the degree of difficulty can depend on a variety of factors. These include, but are not limited to:

 

  1. Tempo
  2. Style
  3. Dynamics
  4. Other musicians
  5. Transitions
  6. Fills
  7. Fatigue
  8. Technique
  9. Equipment
  10. Concentration

For example, you timekeeping may be solid and consistent at medium tempos like 100-120 bpm, but playing something really slow (40-60 bpm) may become much more difficult. This is due to the vast space between the notes creating much room for error. Conversely, you may be playing a fast tempo, but your technique may be inadequate and eventually you start slowing down (dragging). Or maybe you’re just tired, and having trouble focusing – your capacity to remain consistent and accurately monitor, assess and correct errors in your playing can be affected. The opposite of that is being ‘pumped up’, and your adrenaline is racing – when this happens, you have a tendency to play things much faster.

When you really start to think about all the factors that can undermine your capacity to keep good time, the task can seem pretty daunting. If this is a problem for you, I would like to suggest a few ways you can increase your consistency (and although I’m predominantly speaking to drummers here, this applies to other musicians too).

Get the most out of your metronome.

This might include changing how you ‘hear’ the click. For example, you might just have the click on beats one and three, or two and four. Or maybe just the first beat of the bar. You may even want to move away from the downbeat completely, and perceive the click on the ‘and’ of each beat, or even the 2nd or 4th partial of the beat (assuming 16th note subdivision). There’s lot’s of different things you can try that will challenge your timekeeping and enable you to strengthen the inner clock.

 

Record yourself, and map this against the metronome.

If you have a metronome with a tap feature, you can tap with the recording and find out the tempo. Let the metronome run at this tempo across the recording and note where things may be speeding up or slowing down.

Take time in rehearsal to play with the metronome.

This could be through the PA if you want everyone to hear, or just in the drummer’s headphones if appropriate. By playing with the metronome, you’ll hear immediately where the tempo varies and you’ll begin to form a clear image of all the sections of the song being played in time. When you take the metronome away, you’ll be used to how it feels and be in a much better position to keep things consistent.

Learn to hear (and sing) subdivisions

This is particularly valuable at slower tempos. If you are only thinking about each downbeat, there is a relatively large gap between each of these that creates plenty of room for error. However, if you start to internalize eighth notes or even sixteenth notes, you’ve chopped up each beat into smaller components that are easier to deal with. Conversely, faster tempos can be made to feel much more relaxed if you don’t focus on subdivision – it may be more manageable to think of the tempo in half time. If you are ‘hearing’ these subdivisions in your head that’s great, but being able to ‘sing’ them (even if very quietly) can be a fantastic way of reinforcing the time. Also, many metronomes have the capacity to play the subdivisions of each beat, like 16th notes or 1/8th note triplets. Introducing a fuller representation of the subdivisions can really help refine your timing.

For a more detailed look at these concepts, I really recommend Billy Ward’s Big Time DVD. He talks about these concepts in detail, and also provides lots of other useful tips. I wish you well with you battle against the Russian Dragon – keep fighting the good fight!

Weather Report

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Call me reductionist or judgmental, but I tend to inwardly wince when someone tells me about a ‘fusion’ (jazz) recording they are checking out and how killing the playing is. My first thought is that it is probably a sad, self-indulgent effort in musical masturbation performed by a group of talented but condescending musos who wouldn’t really know a good groove if it hit them between the eyes. Does that sound a little cynical?

 

Well, I have a little confession to make. Against the odds, I’m turning my ear again to music that would probably have the ‘fusion’ label. Specifically, I’m rediscovering a band that was a big musical influence on me in my formative years – Weather Report. Their music defies description – is it jazz, fusion, ‘world music’ (a description that in itself is inherently flawed) or something else?

 

If you were trying to create instrumental music that had no limits (stylistically, harmonically, rhythmically, etc) you could do worse than starting with the formidable partnership of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Both are unbelievable musicians – technically brilliant, amazing improvisers and legendary composers. Add to that the influence of Miles Davis, and you have a perfect blend of components to create an approach to music that hadn’t been done before and in many respects hasn’t been equaled since.

 

The personnel that have been in the band over the years are literally ridiculous. And like Miles Davis (or a good football manager) the band members changed periodically to accommodate and/or reinvigorate the direction of the music.

For this and other reasons, the music of Weather Report has a timeless quality; it almost impossible to overstate its depth, in both the compositional and the performance aspects.

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If you’re new to the band, you might want to start with Heavy Weather, which features the band’s ‘hit’ Birdland. However, the album has much more to offer than that – for example, I’m moved every time I hear A Remark You Made, which for me is one of the most beautiful tunes every written.

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And, if you’re looking for a current band that is following in the footsteps of these legends, try listening to Snarky Puppy, specifically their Tell Your Friends CD. Absolutely stunning musicianship combined with compositions that are fresh, intrepid and endlessly creative. Or check out the music of Janek Gwidala (www.janekgwizdala.com) who is fast becoming one of the leading lights on the jazz scene today.

 

Changes, challenges and new opportunities

Hey, where did 2012 go? It seemed to fly by, partly because there seemed to be so much going on (the phrase ‘never a dull moment’ springs to mind). Some of the personal highlights for me (in no particular order) were as follows:

  • Lots of gigs with Redtenbacher’s Funkestra (the most we’ve done in one year)
  • Gigs with The Staxs that have featured Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce, the latter being the loudest bass player I’ve worked with by a country mile!
  • Forming www.bandworkshops.com with long time friend and colleague Ian Edwards
  • Giving several masterclasses and lots of private lessons
  • Filming several tuition videos
  • A fantastic trip back to Wisconsin to reconnect with family and old friends
  • Joining the staff of The Institute (www.icmp.co.uk) as a programme leader
  • A trip to Seoul, South Korea with The Institute (doing several gigs and masterclasses)
  • A positive resolution to a stressful legal battle
  • A definite increase in my knowledge and involvement with social media (although that really isn’t saying much!)

With a couple of exceptions, most of the things on this list are things that I never would have expected to happen when the year started. It just goes to show you that life can change quickly and unexpectedly, but if you stay focused and open to new possibilities then amazing things can happen. I feel one of the big challenges for me now is not to say ‘yes’ to more things than I can do effectively. Being fully present and at ease with each thing that you do is vital in order to do it with quality and integrity. It’s a difficult balance to reach, and often I don’t know where the line is until I’ve crossed it – which seems to be fairly regularly.  However, I feel lucky to have a few choices – roll on 2013.

A Tale of Two Bassists

I don’t get out to see nearly as many gigs as I would like, but there was two I made it to this year that I’ve particularly enjoyed. And the interesting thing is that the artist on both occasions was a bassist leading their own band.

The first was Larry Graham – yes, the legendary Larry Graham from Sly Stone’s band. The man is more than a consummate pro; he is a force of nature. He still plays amazing, he sings, he dances, he runs around the venue playing a bass solo, all in a way that would convince anyone that he is 40 years younger than he actually is. I saw him two years ago, and it was exactly the same experience. In fact, most of the set was exactly the same, right down to the bass solo. Did I care? Absolutely not – the man (and his band) were incredible, and left me feeling completely inspired and elated.

Larry-Graham

The other gig was Esperanza Spalding. When talent was being handed out, somehow this lady got in the queue twice. She is a fantastic bassist (acoustic and electric) but I think her singing ability is even more astonishing. The music was endlessly creative and hugely eclectic. The musicianship of the band was world class, and the overall production was completely unique – I’ve never heard anything exactly like it. She and the band were incredible on many levels, and very, very slick in their presentation.

Esperanza Spalding

But I wasn’t moved emotionally; the bottom line is that you either are or you aren’t.

Larry Graham and Graham Central Station did move me. It was like watching and listening to history; funky grooves that reached down deep into your soul and psyche. And all performed by a man who has been there and done it – many times, but the fire is still burning – very strong.

For me, Esperanza is a phenomenon, part of the future of music. But Larry is…THE MAN!! Go check them both out, you can’t lose.

Creativity in Kilburn

The-Institute

Since July 2012, I’ve had the privilege of being on staff at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance – actually, it’s just The Institute for short. It’s a vibrant educational community, filled with loads of inspiring people. The one problem for me when I considered working there was its location – Kilburn.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t have anything against Kilburn. It’s just that firstly, it’s a lot farther away from my front door than I would like. Second, its ‘urban’ feel was slightly daunting to me now that I have lived for about 13 years outside of central London.

Yes, it’s a little dirty and a little cramped at times. Just walking the street from the Tube station to college can be a challenge given the number of people. However, a strange and unexpected thing has happened. I began to pick up on a distinct energy in the neighborhood that was not only interesting – it was surprisingly rejuvenating.

How you may ask? Well, the answer for me was eloquently laid out in a book that I’ve read recently called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. He has a number of interesting things to say on the subject of creativity, and I really recommend the book. In one of the chapters he posits that the friction of interaction in a city is one of the main catalysts for creative ideas. It may not always be pleasant, but crowded spaces force us to interact and not become isolationist. And it’s this type of interaction that can inspire ideas and innovation that would not have happened otherwise.

One of Lehrer’s main proponents for the urban life and its creative benefits is David Byrne of the Talking Heads. There are plenty of quotes from Byrne in the book on how his New York city lifestyle has profoundly shaped his music from its mixture of ethnic sounds – everything from funky Latin beats to jangly Nigerian bass lines to CBGBs style punk. He says about his music, “The city definitely made it possible. A lot of what’s in the music is stuff that I first heard because it was playing down the street. Those are the accidents that have always been so important for creativity. And they just happen naturally in the right place…In a vibrant city, you can get just as much from going to the barbershop, or walking down a crowded street, as you can from going to a museum. It’s about letting all that stuff in, so that the city can change you.”

So – do you want to expand your creativity? You could do a lot worse than Kilburn. Embrace it, open yourself up to the possibilities and let those ideas flow.