The Rhythmic Adventures of a Groove Keyboardist
Matt Jenson
Matt Jenson

By Matt Jenson

I love groove music, where each band member has a part to play, and unless members are given a solo, they don’t deviate from it. Well-known examples of groove music are found in the recordings of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley,* James Brown, and many others. While some musicians get bored playing a groove part, I don’t. I like the discipline of sharing the pocket with other musicians and getting the audience moving. One of the most basic human impulses is to find deep meaning by uniting with higher, universal forces that confirm our connection to nature, truth, and eternity. Humans have always used repetitive rhythm, groove, and drums to open the door to that “communification.”

Great drumming and groove legacies have been bequeathed to us from around the globe, but those that influence my favorite music come from the African diaspora. Don’t ask how a kid like me growing up in a tiny town in rural New Hampshire got so bitten by jazz, blues, reggae and Afro-Cuban music, but the bite was deep. After teaching and performing these musical styles for many years, I came across a little rhythm called “the bubble” that perhaps ties them together—at least from a keyboard player’s perspective.

Musical ExamplesThe Bubble!

This technique is distinctly Jamaican and defines sounds in the roots reggae style. The rhythm comes directly from the pre-reggae style known as ska, where the keyboard, guitar, and sometimes horns play the upbeats, heavily accented (see example 1). Circa 1968, reggae came along and literally cut ska in half and put those upbeats in a subordinate but important position in the left hand on the Hammond B3 organ. This is the bubble: a low-pitched tone (often played with only the B3’s left-most drawbar activated) that is felt more than heard. Without it, the groove is hollow. The right hand joins the mix by accenting the “chop” or “skank” on organ or piano doubling the guitar on beats 2 and 4 (see example 2). The bubble helps define whether a reggae tune is played with a straight-eighth note or swing-eighth shuffle feel.

I have not been able to find explanation of how the bubble came to describe this musical technique and rhythm, but it has inspired a Jamaican dance move for women where only the hips and belly are engaged, with no shortage of sexual nuance!

Examples of Bob Marley’s use of the bubble-- Bob Marley and the Skatallites playing “Simmer Down” with a ska groove:

Marley’s “Real Situation” features a slower reggae groove with swing-eighth notes:

His “Rat Race” is an example of the groove played with straight eighths:

Cuban Grooves

Another one of my groove music loves is old-school Cuban son music from the 1950s. The cha-cha-chá, has a piano pattern that is almost exactly the same as the reggae bubble. For years when playing this style in my Latin dance band and as a freelancer, all the Latin players would look at me with a confused glare when I played the cha-cha-chá but none could tell me what was wrong.

One day, when demonstrating this style in my Latin piano lab, though, it hit me. The bubble is intact, being played in the left hand on the piano with attacks on all upbeats, but the right hand is accenting beats 1 and 3 instead of beats 2 and 4 as found in reggae (see example 3.). I coined the term “cha-cha-chá bubble” but I always warn my students that this is not a legitimate Afro-Cuban music term and that if they show up at a Latin jam session and tell everyone that they’re going to play a cha-cha-chá bubble they will likely get skeptical looks. To hear an example, listen to Patato-Changuiti-Oreste playing “Descarga en Faux”:

Flat-Tire Love

Earlier in my career, I played with bands that specialized in traditional blues, old-school r&b, and southern rock. Hands down, my favorite groove was then and remains the flat-tire shuffle. The shuffle’s sound is reminiscent of a car with a flat tire flopping down the road, ker-flump, ker-flump, ker-flump. The basic rhythm played on the piano is—you guessed it—the bubble. When the groove is played well, there is a sweaty, rough drag where the left hand hits upbeats together with the snare drum. The right hand is free to play fills, a comping pattern, or a solo (see example 4). For a great example of the flat-tire groove, check out Bobby Blue Bland’s “Further On Up the Road”:

Don’t ask why, but I love to bubble. Wherever there’s a bubble, that’s where I want to be. When the part is locked in, the bubble complements the other instruments in the band. For me, it’s a door that can lead to that ecstatic connection to the divine. Is anyone out there with me?

Assistant professor Matt Jenson is a keyboardist, singer, composer, and arranger. He holds a master’s degree from New England Conservatory of Music and studied with Eddie Palmieri, Geri Allen, Dave Holland, and Ran Blake. Jenson leads the Afro-Latin salsa band Combo Sabroso and reggae band the Liquid Revolution. For more information, visit mattjenson.com.