You Can Count On The Groove - Music, Dance, Improvisation
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
In the Summer of 2007 I experienced what I can best describe as a very valuable humiliation. It was the annual Rhythm World tap dance festival here in Chicago which includes the annual cutting contest, a two at a time faceoff between improvising tap dancers. I had only been practicing improv for two years (I started late in the game), but I had practiced my phrasing and had cultivated a pocket full of tricks. I believed that I was ready.
I was not.
Jason Samuels Smith was the MC. Canadian hoofer Mathew Shields was my opponent.
"Yo," said Jason, "It's like, yo, let's do it in 3. 1-2-3, 1-2-3".
I said, "You have got to be fucking kidding me! I have not practiced in 3/4 time. The vast majority of western music is in 4/4 time. This is bullshit." Not out loud, mind you. This was what I thought. What I "said" was: flappity, mud, plop, bad tap dancing, lost, so lost. Rhythmically speaking, of course. I had no phrasing in 3/4, no decent songs in that meter to reference and every "trick" put me one count over my allotted time. To be fair, Shields fucked up a little, but much less than I did and he semi-comfortably tore me a new asshole in front of my peers. I was kind of already committed to the whole "Tap 4 Life, Bro" mentality, so there's only one thing to do, practice.
I received great advice from amazing teachers along my journey. Sam Weber, whom I had spent some time training with in San Francisco, advised me to choreograph in odd meters to get used to them. So I did that. Years later, I was speaking to M.A.D.D. Rhythms director Bril Barrett about the subject and he scolded me for counting too much. "You have to pay attention to the groove," Papa Bear Barrett growled. "You can't always count on the 'counts', but you can count on the 'groove'."
The groove? Not counting? Bullshit I thought, but bullshit it was naught!
The groove that Bril was referring to are the accents in the rhythm section. For example, in 5/4 time it is common to hear a groove split up into smaller intervals that you can memorize fairly easily, opposed to having 1,2,3,4,5 running through your head the whole time. Perhaps the most popular song to dance to in 5/4 time is Dave Brubecks Take 5. Here's the groove: (1 +) 2 (+ 3) + (4) + (5) +, or more scientifically, BaDum BaDum Ba Ba. Brubeck is giving you the answer right off the bat and shame on me for ignoring him and trying to do quantum physics calculations in my head instead.
There are so many crunchy grooves in off meter music. In 5/4 time, my favorite is when the meter is broken up into a 3 beat phrase followed by a 2 beat phrase as heard in Take 5 or Glen Hansard's (When Your Mind's Made Up), followed by the reverse 2 - 3 (no example, hard to find) and finally 2.5-2.5 (no example, good luck!). To be honest, I rarely see those last two, but if you know some examples send them my way.
In 7/4, right now I'm digging 4 then 3 (Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill) , then 3.5 - 3.5 (The 11th Dr.Who's theme I Am The Doctor), 2 - 2 - 3 (Nine Inch Nails March Of The Pigs) and finally 3 - 4 (Devo's Jocko Homo).
I'll even toss an 11 at you: (1 +) 2 (+) 3 (+ 4) + (5) + (6) + (7 +) 8 (+ 9) + (10) + (11) + (Pat Methany Group's The First Circle). Still not easy, but groups of 1s and 2s are better than trying to keep track of an entire 11.
Yes, these are all pop songs. I can hear the *squi-squish* of the Jazz Heads' eyes rolling back in their sockets, but you kind of need to moderately educate yourself about musical form and phrasing before you can really get comfortable with jazz. At least that's how it worked for me. These are some of the songs I used to recognize the odd meter groove that Mr. Barrett was talking about and were familiar enough to start choreographing to per the advice of Mr. Weber. I had to get comfortable with those before I could hit Brubeck's Blue Rondo a la Turk, Glasper's Jelly's Da Beener, Shorter's Indian Song, or Ellis' Whiplash.
I remember first listening to Take 5 and thinking, "There's no way I'll ever be able to dance to this." Now it's one of the easiest songs to dance to. As I become more familiar with the various grooves, the odd meter songs are the only ones that I really feel like listening to and the more convoluted the track, the more fun it is to plot the form.
And for your information, Tool's music is now available for streaming. The whole first 40% of their Lateralus album is in 5/4 and all mixed up. It's amazing. Check it out. I'm going to listen to it right now. I'm frickin' sweet!
Tristan Bruns is a Chicago Hoofer founding member of Chicago Human Rhythm Project's BAM!/Stone Soup Rhythms, professional company member of M.A.D.D. Rhythms and director of Tapman Productions.