The Power of Simplicity

I just had the distinct pleasure of seeing the Charlie Hunter Trio at Tip Top Deluxe in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Despite the title here, the music was by no means “simple” – and if you’re at all familiar with Charlie’s playing, you know just how technical and impressive it can be, aside from it’s mega tastiness.

The trio consisted of Charlie on his magical seven-string guitar, a singer (Dara Tucker), and a percussionist (Damon Grant)… And for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on the “drums.”

With a cajon, a few cymbals, some shakers, and a pedals for a tambourine and low boy, Damon’s parts were eloquently sparse and waaaay deep in the pocket…

We hear about it often: the licks that will get you fired, the importance of the groove, fills don’t pay the bills, keep it simple, and on and on – but this was a masterclass in the raw power and straight funkiness of minimal, beautifully played time and TONS of space.

The late, great Ndugu Chancelor owned this approach with Billy Jean. Jeff Porcaro played with a ton of nuance, but it was always just right. Steve Jordan plays such monstrous, bare bones grooves that his name has become a verb and an adjective.

These lessons are all around us, but the show I just watched drove it home in a brand new way. Most of the playing was on the cajon, with the ocassional sycopated bass rhythm, and steady, low volume backbeats. When he brought in a shaker, it made a world of musical difference. One missing note on the low end produced a chasm of tension.

One of Charlie’s tunes, Big Bill’s Blues – a favorite of mine – was swinging and sludgy. The percussion part? Steady quarter notes in the right hand for the bass, back beats. For 90% of the song. No variation for minutes on end…

And it was perfect.

There was so much space for the leads to come through, for the little drag in the bassline to lend the groove a ton of swagger. The rests were dramatic moments of deafening silence.

Here’s the studio version for context:

Do you see where I’m going with this? By playing very, very little, there was a boatload of music happening.

We know it’s “what we’re supposed to do” sometimes, and many people do it well… But there’s the other side too, where far too many of us try to cram in a ton of notes, worry about filling the space, get caught up in listening to ourselves more than the sum total everyone playing. I’m certainly guilty of it, and learning to remedy that by the day (learn to shred, then don’t do it).

At PASIC 2017, Johny Vidacovich said that in every band, you have however many members plus one. That last piece of the puzzle is the combined forces of your instrument, the ultimate member of the ensemble: all of the sounds together.

By playing less, or at the very least, being interested in/open to the idea, we create more space for melodies to flourish. There’s more open air for the listener – and the players – to breathe.

When we play more consistent, “bedrock” type grooves, smaller variations have a larger impact. When we stay the course, phrases stretch and tension builds.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for the wildest fusion tunes, busy funk, blast beats, math metal… I work on speed and chops too, and I love drum set pyrotechnics as much as the next person. Rather, the very concept of playing next to nothing for great musical effect is something we should all consider – and practice.

There’s a time and place for all of it, but I’d wager (at least in my own playing – and probably plenty of other people’s), that we don’t employ the concept of “leaving space” nearly enough.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How have you learned to play less? How do you know how much to play? Let’s chat.

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