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Great brands happen between the eighth notes

Great brands happen between the eighth notes

AT school with the Marcus Roberts Trio*.

This is a long post. But if you’re in the mood for talking a little music and getting some groove and swing up in in your approach to branding, then I appreciate you settling in.

The Marcus Roberts trio has been together for some fifteen years. They occupy a place in American music that combines the maintenance of tradition and honoring the past with a highly innovative interplay of harmony, space, and rhythm.

And they’re heavy pros. Serious technique. If you haven’t heard Marcus walk a bass line with his left hand while improvising with his right you’re missing out on some joy in your life. I’ve shared a playlist on iTunes with a sample. Check it out.

But technique is just the start. They’re professionals with a steadfast dedication to the gig at hand regardless of their mood, the audience size, or a parent refusing to remove a fussy child from the auditorium. (Which happened recently. I witnessed it with hair raised. They played on, and blew us all away.)

And the gig at hand is larger than entertainment for them. It’s even larger than themselves. They have lessons to spread. Lessons in collaboration, flexibility, alignment, and dialog.

The trio was in Denver a few weekends back performing Rhapsody in Blue with the Denver Young Artists Orchestra. They do this around the world with symphonies and orchestras of all kinds. Here’s one of their performances.

The trio was very generous in giving their time while in Denver. To students, to the community, and to the non-profit organization with whom they performed. They gave a Master Class the day before the performance, explaining what they’re after with these gigs that bring together jazz and classical music traditions. Gulfs that most have seen as un-traversable. Strict silos of art that don’t communicate.

Marcus and his trio use words like collaboration, integration, dialog, and relationships to explain their purpose. Phrases like bringing traditions together to find intersections while honoring the traditions of both. Not a fusing, rather a finding of alignment. The creative mind has has long lived in places like this. Places that the world of business is still trying to understand.

Alignment is a particular sticky point with business. I had a conversation with the bass player Roland Guerin about creating collaborative art in an economic structure that rewards intellectual property and protectionism. It’s tough work. And it’s a difficult thing to change in a business context: Honoring the unique voices in an enterprise to inspire a shared vision or brand is something business just isn’t hard-wired to understand.

Back at the master class I asked the trio about how they approached dealing with swing in a more classical setting. How do you bring swing into a hall filled with artists trained in the European tradition? Do you lead by example, or do you have to take the time to explain it? Teach a bit?

The drummer, Jason Marsalis, offered a thoughtful response. In a way, he said, all the differences between all musics can be explained by how they deal with eighth notes. Talk about getting to simple side of complexity. A lovely insight.

You don’t have to understand music from a theoretic standpoint to get this. Here’s a simple way to think about it:

Music moves along like a clock: pulse, pulse, pulse, pulse. There are infinite possibilities in terms of the speed and rigidity at which a piece of music pulses along, but they all pulse along just the same.

And just like we organize and subdivide infinite time into centuries, decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, and so on, music organizes and subdivides its pulses to better understand where the music is as it moves along.

Western music often does this by organizing its pulses into groups of four. In the U.S., our music almost always accents the second and fourth pulse creating what’s called a backbeat: pulse, PULSE, pulse, PULSE. You hear it so much that it’s truly a part of your DNA. When you hear it otherwise it sounds different even if you don’t know why.

Here’s another shared playlist on iTunes. The first tune (Brass in Pocket) quite visibly demonstrates four pulses with a backbeat. There’s a main pulse chugging along like seconds in a minute, hours in a day. Listen especially to the drums: a deep sound hits the first and third pulse, and a higher sound accents the second and fourth. That’s the backbeat.

Listen to that tune again, this time focusing on the bass guitar — that deep, regular thumping. Those are the eighth notes: the bass player is thumping eight notes for every four ticks. You can count them (and pretty soon you’ll hear how he’s also aligning accents to the backbeat).

I’ll throw in the vocals and how they line up since most of us orient ourselves around lyrics in rock songs:

[table id=1 /]

Brass demonstrates a straight groove: eight notes that are subdividing the main four pulses very strictly. It’s a rock and roll groove, and if you remove the backbeat, one common way the European classical tradition approaches rhythm as well.

I hear Jason Marsalis suggesting that we all have the same main pulse in our lives, perspectives, and worldviews. It’s the subtleties, the nuances between the main pulses, that give us diversity. Diversity that we can embrace and find collaboration around, instead of viewing as differences and points of contention.

With that in mind, check out the second track, The Rubberband Man. It’s the same basic structure as Brass.

Listen closely and you might be able to hear a little more distance in between the eight notes. And some playfulness around how strict they’re sticking to it. It’s a bit playful, isn’t it? A bit (dare I say) elastic?

The bass player is thumping along like the bass player in Brass. But there’s just a bit more breathing room. A bit more space. Do you hear the difference?

Another dimension to think about is in the third track, End of the Road. Listen carefully to the swishing, brushy sound in the background. Those eighth notes aren’t pulses, not at all precise points in time. They’re more like moments in time. Areas around the pulse. Hear what I mean?

Combine those two dimensions and you start moving toward what a swing groove is: the crux of my question to the trio. Check out the fourth track, Rainy Day Blues with Jason’s brother Wynton laying down some serious blues with Willie Nelson.

Hopefully you can hear a very similar alignment between the bass and drums. But there’s all kinds of space in between the eighth notes**. It’s as if the musicians don’t want the time to pass, like they’re enjoying a great conversation at a dinner table over wine with friends. They find ways to swish and brush the pulses so that they can savor every moment before it passes. It doesn’t move any more slowly, but they’re taking in each beat a little more deeply.

Jason went on to tell me that working with a symphony and their inherent differences in how they approach eighth notes isn’t about leading by example, or teaching anyone to come to a different place. It’s about listening to the approach of the artists, understanding their relationships with eight notes.

And, he said, being flexible.

It was a humbling moment for me. These giants of jazz who swing as hard as anyone on the road putting the prime purpose of collaboration ahead of any kind of agenda. It isn’t about how to swing. It’s about how we’re all going to swing in a given context. Together.

The last tune on my iTunes playlist illustrates why Jason is so superbly qualified to make these connections for us. In New Orleans Blues, Jason plays a groove that’s a kind of combination between what we hear in the other tracks. He’s swinging with very precise articulation of eight notes. Sometime it’s more straight, sometimes it swings more. He puts a New Orleans sensibility up in it (New Orleans: the epitome of culture mash-ups) that comes through brightly, lighting the way of collaboration for us.

We can get as bombastic about this as we want. Big-picture: As living spirits we need to understand our common pulses, listen to and respect each others relationships with the nuances that are our eighth notes, and collaborate. The banal: Business is slow to realize the social web because they operate in a structure that rewards protectionism and competitiveness over collaboration and dialog (in other words, business needs to listen to more swing).

Certainly effective strategic planning and branding require flexibility. Entering an engagement with a dogmatic model sets you up to uncover conflicts. Success in strategic and brand planning starts with combining a few creative minds to empathize and see the big picture with a few left brain-led minds to understand the strategic and economic contexts.

Uncover (don’t tell, teach, or propose) the intersections. Grow wise by a humble process, and you’ll find that the seemingly disparate approaches to the eighth note actually groove stronger when brought together.

* Around the horn from back-left to right: Bassist Roland Guerin, Colorado Symphony Associate Conductor Scott O’Neil, Marcus Roberts, drummer Jason Marsalis, and AT.

** So much, in fact, that you can subdivide the main pulses into three. This is really what swing is: instead of eight over four, you have twelve over four. This is probably another post: swing is the perfect rhythm, in my opinion. A uniquely American art form that endures because of the space it gives for multitudinous expression.

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