Playing ahead of the beat

 In Rhythm, Taking the solo

A technique used by many singers is singing, or for the cellist playing, ahead of the beat. Just enough ahead of the 1 on your entrance into the new phrase, or finishing just a little early than what the notation of the melody might show. It’s not rushing, or shouldn’t be. It’s stringing together the notes/phrases of your solo like you love them so much you just don’t want to wait.

When done well it adds a nice flexible feel. There’s a few ways to do this:

– start a phrase a little early and you stay ahead of the beat

– speed thru a particular line of the song and end it before the band does. 

In the right hands, this ahead of the beat business can bring a conversational quality to the performance. Or it can seem like you’re tossing off the thought expressed by the lyric. It can be a way to bring a different phrasing to a line of words or notes that are being repeated in the song. When done well, playing ahead of the beat doesn’t sound like you’re rushing.

In this video from the last week of Dave Letterman’s Late Show in May 2015, Bob Dylan does the  jazz standard The Night We Called it a Day, done memorably by Frank Sinatra in 1942. Old grizzled Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of his generation, croons the relaxed, almost lazy tune, and he’s ahead of the beat on almost every line. The man knows how to sing a phrase. Listen to it carefully and notice how, after rushing each little subphrase of a verse, when he arrives at the refrain, he’ll return to (mostly) on the beat with “The night we called it a day.”

His backing band is tight and smooth, the perfect pad to a famous front man. I like how simple the solo is, when the slide guitar gets to improvise for 8 bars. He keeps it tasteful and simple, doesn’t squeeze in too many notes. He hints at the melody without actually playing the melody straight. Toward the end, in about the 7th bar, he plays the melody notes and same phrasing of the lyrics “the night we called it …” and then moves into the transition. This is a very common, and to audiences probably an expected, technique or approach.

When you, the cellist, get 8 bars to solo halfway thru the song, you hint at the melody that the singer’s been singing over and over; hint at it but expressively change it around just a little. Then for line 3 or maybe line 4 of your 8 bars, actually play the melody, same notes same rhythm. The audience is brought back into the song, and you have shown yourself to be a soloist who solos in the context of the song and not just tried to show off with lots of notes or cleverness.

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