Aug 12, 2014

Dotted-Eighth/Sixteenth Figures in Swing

Below are the opening bars to "Satin Doll," as notated in three different charts. The first is from Ellington's own lead sheet, the second from the "official" published sheet music, and the third is from the old bootleg Real Book. Would you play the rhythms in the first three beats any differently? I wouldn't.

Ellington's lead sheet:

Published sheet music:

Old Real Book:

I can recall more than one occasion, when I was playing tenor in a big band, when the lead alto chose to interpret a dotted-eight/sixteenth figure as though it meant what it said: three-fourths of a beat, one-fourth of a beat. This put the rest of the sax section in an impossible position. Should we follow him, and ruin the groove, or should we ignore him, play with a nice normal swing feel, and make the section sound out-of-synch?

The dotted figure turns up more often in older swing charts. I could guess that to musicians of those days, it just meant "long-short." One thing I've never really figured out is why some swing charts are notated mostly with normal eighths, and then, for no apparent reason, a dotted-eighth/sixteenth figure is occasionally thrown in. One time in a thousand, it might sound right to actually observe the figure, and play closer to three-fourths/one-fourth. Usually it makes no sense.

In relatively modern charts, swing beat is usually notated as normal eighth notes. Sometimes you'll see a note at the top of the chart that says "swing," sometimes not. Sometimes you'll see an indication at the upper left of the chart like this:
The "triplet" idea isn't quite right, either. It's impossible to notate swing beat in a way that is mathematically correct.

At a slow tempo, eighth notes will approach a true triplet feel (the first eighth around 67% of the beat, the second around 33%). However, notating it as triplets would be visually cumbersome. Better to just show eighth notes, with a note at the upper left that says "12/8 feel."

At a medium tempo, swing eighth notes are usually played closer to a three-fifths/two-fifths ratio. Obviously, notating it accurately would be out of the question (quintuplet sixteenths with the first three tied, and the last two tied? What a reading nightmare!)

My music notation program has an option to adjust "percentage of swing" on playback, and 60% seems about right at a moderate tempo. That's my take, and I think it's pretty mainstream.

At a very fast tempo (think "Giant Steps" or "Cherokee"), eighth notes become virtually even (50%).

Summing up, here is my advice: When you see a dotted-eight/sixteenth figure in a swing chart, ignore it, and just play the music.

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