Rhythmic Counterpoint

A conceptual framework of American groove, based on some ideas forwarded by David Penalosa in his excellent book The Clave Matrix regarding the structure of clave music. He specifically points out that most American music is not clave-based, and I would agree but only from a cultural/aesthetic/historical standpoint, but not by his definition of such. In fact, I believe it includes considerably more interactive rhythmic levels than those outlined in his book.

Penalosa defines clave-based music as having four elements of rhythmic counterpoint: 1) the primary beats (half notes in cut-time or dotted quarters in 6/8); 2) secondary beats (3:2 or tresillo); 3) key pattern (clave or standard pattern); and 4) a lead part.

In a typical performance of a jazz ballad not only could all of these elements be present within the group, the combinations of duple, triple, and double time can greatly expand upon a simpler four layer counterpoint once simultaneous variances of tempo come into play. Further, I believe the coexistence of these levels is essential in the perception and generation of a swing feel, even within a single player.

This chart does not represent any sort of hierarchy or traditional notation pyramid. Rather, it grows from the center, as an improviser may be using a whole, half, or quarter note as the felt primary beat and playing toward one side at a given moment (see Joe Lovano’s explanation of this practice here.) Also, the available patterns that could be used as key patterns are vast, and could even change through the course of a tune (here the 3-2 pattern is used as the example). The process reaches the same extents but at different tempos, turning this two dimensional framework into a sort of rhythmic mobius strip, entirely dependent on the perception and behavior of the player or group.

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