By Wally Schnalle
Published March 11, 2011
Jazz is not typically considered music of the masses. So when a jazz tune becomes a hit single, it must be something extra special. And when that song is in an odd meter and contains a drum solo, well, it’s nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Of course, we’re talking about “Take 5,” which Dave Brubeck’s quartet recorded in 1959 when their sound was (and still is) considered the epitome of cool.
Paul Desmond, the group’s sax man, wrote the piece, but it was undoubtedly influenced by the rhythmic acuity of the quartet’s drummer, Joe Morello, whose “three plus two” 5/4 jazz groove, along with Brubeck’s vamp on the piano and that unmistakable bass line, are etched into the psyche of musical pop culture.
When it came to soloing, Morello’s smooth, flowing technique allowed him to unleash torrents of single and double strokes with ease. But the solo he played on “Take Five” was about space and musical development rather than speed or technique. Morello repeats phrases, creates surprises, plays phrases over the bar line, and takes us on a musical journey, which was unfamiliar territory to most musicians in those days — and still confounds many who hear it for the first time.
First we’ll look at the entire solo transcription, which is followed by performance notes and an analysis of the techniques Morello uses throughout it.
Morello’s technique is legendary. And though this solo is not filled with blazing thirty-second-notes, when he plays singles, they are smooth as silk. The sixteenth-note groupings in the first 16 bars of this solo couldn’t not be more relaxed, accurate, and in the pocket. Ex. 1 is a very simple but effective exercise for developing single strokes and endurance. It is most effective when used for extended periods and played all right-lead or all left-lead. Start at tempos you can perform accurately, and then slowly increase the speed while staying as relaxed as Morello was.
EXPECTATIONS, SURPRISES, & RESOLVE
Measures one through six of the transcription reflect the first statements of Morello’s solo. By repeating the same two-bar phrase (extracted in Ex. 2) three times, he solidly establishes the framework of the five-beat structure, and sets up the listener’s expectation of the downbeats. In bars seven and eight, extracted in Ex. 3, Morello surprises the listener and creates tension by playing the bass drum on upbeats both earlier and later than in the previous three phrases. And in Ex. 4 you can see how he resolves that tension by bringing the bass drum back to the downbeat to complete the phrase.
FLAM TAPS & INVERTED FLAM TAPS
Morello sprinkles flams throughout the solo, but in measures 12, 14, and 16, his usage of them showcases his ability to play a variety of flam rudiments. The obvious stickings here are the flam tap and the inverted flam tap. These are written out for you in Exs. 5 and 6 to practice in standard sixteenth-note notation, though you can obviously play these rudiments at other note rates, as Morello did.
THEME & VARIATION
Morello develops and reiterates his melodic ideas throughout this solo. Many are stated and then restated, but embellished or re-voiced, adding an air of completion before moving on to the next phrase. Ex. 7 extracts the essence of bars 25—28. In this example, the first four sixteenth-notes are delayed by a quarter-note when repeated. And the two accented eighth-notes, which are three eighth-notes apart, are extended to a four-note sequence in the restatement. Finally, the quarter-note triplet figure is beefed up by adding the floor tom.
Ex. 8 is taken from measures 33 and 35. Here Morello uses the floor tom and snare to reinforce the restated phrase by adding it on the & of 2. In addition, the five eighth-notes at the end of the measure are played on the high tom the first time through, and then descend to the floor tom and bass drum when they are repeated — ending on a lower note characteristically lends a feeling of finality to a phrase.
In Ex. 9, measures 37—40, you’ll notice how Morello re-voices the eighth-note triplets the second time around, and then delays the eighth-note double-stop pattern at the end so it actually ends on the downbeat of measure 41.
Even though Morello’s solo is more about taste than chops, he still manages to give you a glimpse of his legendary fast hands in measure 42, where he smoothly and quickly pulls off a four-stroke ruff on beat 3. Ex. 10 demonstrates this old-school rudiment. These days, with slightly different notation, The Percussive Arts Society calls this a single-stroke four. Whatever the name, Morello does it well.
Measures 45 and 50 find Morello using a four-note figure that seems to be ubiquitous with drummers of all stripes. It is typically played right hand snare, left hand high tom, right hand floor tom, and then the bass drum. Exs. 11—14 offer some worthy variations on this familiar phrase. The first is from 40 years ago, when the great Max Roach used it as part of the melody in his solo drum piece “Blues For Big Sid.” Ex. 12 is John Bonham’s big fill from the middle of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.” Ex. 13 is from Steve Gadd’s solo in Steely Dan’s “Aja.” And the last example is a bit more current — also used in a 5/4 environment — excerpted from Billy Kilson’s drum part from “The Balance” with Dave Holland’s band.