It’s amazing how ferociously one can swing with one note.
Witness the Sonny Rollins composition “John S.” on his 1962 record The Bridge. Rollins, a consummate practicing and soul-searching musician, was fresh off a self-imposed three year exile, during which he spent evenings practicing his tenor sax on the Williamsburg Bridge. The Bridge is a triumphant return: Rollins playing is explosive and expansive. And on “John S.” he proves that pitch is not so important, without a solid foundation in rhythm.
The song begins with a gentle free-time intro played in unison by Rollins and the great guitarist Jim Hall (the band also features Bob Cranshaw on bass and Ben Riley on drums). After the intro, the band launches into the head at about 120 beats per minute, with an accented double-time feel.
The band is playing double-time, but Sonny Rollins is having none of it.
Rollins launches his solo with a triplet figure that lands on the down-beat. The triplet is a D minor arpeggio – A, F, D – and with the D landing on first beat of each measure, Rollins is basically swinging one note. This goes on for eight measures, and then he really goes to town, rhythmically altering that D from a legato slur to a staccato dack-a-dack-a-dack-a-dack-a Morse code signal for the next four measures. Then back to the triplet, and onward.
For all intents and purposes, one note for fourteen measures.
And that one note SWINGS like crazy. The effect is to slow down the feel of the song, despite the double-time accents. UnTIL the staccato figures in measures ten and eleven, that is, and then the feel of the solo catches up to the propulsive beat of the rhythm section.
One note, in the hands of a rhythmic master such as Sonny Rollins, can drag a song into the mud, or pull it ahead, often in the space of two measures. That is swing, and it can be absolutely ferocious.
If I haven’t bored you to tears with this post,