Mallet Selection

© 2001 James Walker

This month's lesson deals with textures common to two popular Brazilian styles of music, Bossa Nova and Samba. Like most musical styles, there is more to them than can be covered in a single lesson; instead, here we will examine some basic elements from the perspective of a vibraphonist.

I tell my students that, in terms of chordal textures, jazz vibraphonists should look to guitarists for inspiration, as much (if not more) than pianists. The textures discussed in this lesson are very common in the work of Brazilian musicians, such as Toninho Horta, Oscar Castro-Neves, Tom Jobim, and the brilliant singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto; the reader would do well to listen to recordings by these and other Brazilian masters.

I. Bass Lines

The bass lines in Bossa Nova and Samba are rooted in the rhythms of the surdo, the bass drum found in Samba bands. Here is the most common surdo rhythm:

ex. 1

Bass players take that rhythm, and use it to create lines focusing on the root and fifth of the chord:

ex. 2

This pattern is quite appropriate to mallet instruments as well. However, one will find that at faster tempo, the quick repetition of pitches can be difficult to execute cleanly. Here is the bass line, now altered slightly to allow the use of double-lateral strokes between the mallets of the left hand. This version is much more idiomatic to mallet instrument performance:

ex. 3

Or, one can simplify the pattern, creating these variations:

ex. 4
ex. 5

II. Comping Rhythms

There are myriad rhythms which are used by guitarists and pianists when comping in these styles. Here are some common examples:

ex. 6

Again, it is suggested that the reader listen to recordings by Brazilian guitarists for still more ideas, and to hear how the rhythms are varied in performance. These comping rhythms are not meant to be completely static; the rhythms will change to reflect the melody, the harmony, and the work of the soloist or other rhythm section players. One should develop a vocabulary of idiomatic rhythms, and then let one's ears be the deciding factor in performance.

III. Combining Bass Lines and Comping Rhythms

Four-mallet technique lends itself well to recreating these bass/comping textures on the vibraphone. Perhaps the most obvious approach is to dedicate the two left-hand mallets to the bass line, leaving the right-hand mallets to comp the rhythms. Here, the guide tones (the 3rd and 7th of each chord) have been assigned to the right-hand mallets, with the left hand assigned a bass line:

ex. 7

One may take advantage of the rhythmic activity provided by the comping patterns, especially at slower tempos, by simplifying the rhythm of the bass line. This example pares the bass line down to half notes (playing the root of each chord), but when combined with the comping rhythm, the stylistic elements of the music are still communicated to the listener:

ex. 8

At slower Bossa Nova tempos, one may apply slightly more advanced four-mallet technique, as in the next example. Here, the bass line is played by the left-hand's outside mallet, freeing the inside mallet to fill out the chord voicing along with the right-hand's guide tones. We're cheating a little bit by playing an inversion of the D7 chord, keeping the pitch "A" in the bass line. Still, with the voicings above, the harmony is clearly stated:

ex. 9

By starting with basic stylistic elements of Bossa Nova and Samba, a vibraphonist can create a series of variations on the material, providing many different ways in which one can accompany in these styles. As always, players should use their ears, both to learn from other musicians who have mastered these styles, and also to make one's own creative choices.

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