16. Gear changes in music (aka ‘The Drop’)

Posted on 19/01/2017

16. Sudden gear changes in music (aka ‘The Drop)

Musical gear changes are fascinating. The first I can remember is by the Mothers of Invention (aka Frank Zappa and friends) and is called ‘Brown shoes dont make it’ (1967).

It goes on for a long time but its just the introductory moments that stick in the mind as it starts fast and then slows down quickly.

A more contemporary example is Tame impala ‘Half full glass of wine’ (2008). This is a late night lament by the hero, whose girlfriend has still not come home at 12.20 am. The song begins with a fast repeated phrase, which suddenly halves in tempo. Quite a dramatic effect and conveys the sense of someone let down by a broken promise.

A gear change that I heard many years ago was in Django Rheinhardt’s ‘My Sweet‘ (alternative version). After about a minute the song stops and Django talks to his band (the Hot Club of Paris) and then issues a wonderful rising groan. He then says ‘ecoutez, c’est chaud’ (‘listen, its hot’ and the song then gears up with interplay between bass and guitar and then roars off again. ‘Roars’ is a relative term: this was accoustic jazz recorded in the mid 1930’s. Django came to the electric guitar late, which is a pity (he only lived to be 42 or so) because his style of playing was so dramatic.

He had an ability, shared only with Art Blakey in my awareness, to use rhythm accompaniment to drive the song forward. He would use repeated strumming of chords to generate a gear change. Listen to ‘Appeal direct’ for the best example of this from Django. It begins with attacking chords and builds up momentum with octave changes and sudden multiple strokes on the strings. For its time its electrifying. He produced much better performances from his sidemen due to this propulsive force. You can hear Stephan Grappelli the violinist responding to it.

Art Blakey’s drumming was extraordinary at the time (I first heard him in New York in the 1970’s). A soloist in his Jazz Messengers would play the theme and then when his solo ended (or earlier if Blakey got bored and wanted to speed things up) he would hit every drum in sight in a massive drum roll. This would either accelerate the next soloist into vivid action or drown him. There is a good one at 2.08, but you can hear him driving all the way through the tune.

Jazz Messengers went on from 1954 to his death in 1990. His dynamic pressure wore out some, but he just got younger musicians and started again:

‘Yes sir, I’m gonna to stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’m gonna get some younger ones.’ (thats a quote from his later years, but it was always what he did)

That is one of the things about gear changes: they are an addictive source of excitement. In present day music its called ‘the drop’. For example Rihanna’s ‘Right Now’ at 38 seconds, you can hear the drop begin.

It raises the excitement of the track, just like all these other gear changes. They are an effective musical trick.

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