Conquering Complex Time Signatures in Jazz
By Erik Morales
A new movie hits the cinemas this fall, Whiplash. This highly acclaimed film is about a young student drummer and his relentless pursuit of perfection. The title of the film is borrowed from a jazz band composition by Hank Levy of the same name and is featured in a key scene of the film. “Whiplash,” composed by Levy for the Don Ellis band, is a notoriously difficult piece. This is due largely in part from the time signature that prevails: 7/4. Don Ellis was a pioneer in championing music that had odd meters. But the difficulty does not necessarily arise from the 7/4 meter.
The challenge of this arrangement and many other odd meter pieces in any genre lies in how the individual measures of 7/4 are subdivided. In order to perform this piece effectively all members of the band must understand how each measure is sub-divided or broken down into smaller parts. Specifically, each measure is subdivided in groupings of two or three eighth notes. Of course the eighth note groupings are arranged in a manner that always equal out to seven full beats (14 eighth notes). These groupings are illustrated in the following manner: (2+2+2+2+3+3), (2+2+3+3+2+2), (3+3+2+2+2+2), (3+3+3+3+2), and so on.
Luckily, most of “Whiplash” is based on the (2+2+2+2+3+3) subdivision of the 7/4 meter. Another variation to count this subdivision is a measure of 4/4 plus a bar of 6/8. Levy’s genius shines in his ability to save the more complex subdivisions for later sections of the work including the head-spinning ending. I was lucky enough to create an arrangement of this work for Belwin Jazz (00-30647).
The Levy arrangement was out of print so hopefully I was able to bring new and fresh light on this terrific tune. My version of the work attempts to be as close as possible to the original version but remain within the standards of today’s modern jazz ensemble. The producers of this film could not have found a more appropriate title. Whiplash lives up to the billing as both a brilliant movie and a musical masterpiece.
I highly recommend students and educators step out of the common time “box” and explore odd meters. It is a great way to expand the focus of meter and time in general.
Most importantly, have fun playing jazz!
Click Here to see all of Erik’s Belwin Jazz arrangements.