Tag Archives: Jeff Watts

For Jeff Watts’ 56th Birthday, A DownBeat Article From 2002 and an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2004

In honor of master drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ 56th birthday, I’ve appended two pieces that it was my honor to write about him for DownBeat more than a decade. On top is a Downbeat feature piece written on the occasion of his second release, Bar Talk, in 2002 (the Zinc Bar, which figures prominently in the piece, was then on the north side of Houston Street). Below it is an uncut Blindfold Test that Jeff did with me in 2004.

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Jeff Watts (DownBeat):

When he isn’t on the road with Branford Marsalis, Michael Brecker or his own increasingly busy group, Jeff “Tain” Watts often plays in the cramped environs of Manhattan’s Zinc Bar, a low-ceilinged shotgun basement on the north edge of Soho where an international mix of New York’s finest workshop various projects. In the front section, patrons and waitresses vie for elbow room in a narrow aisle between a well-stocked bar and a long line of dime-sized banquette tables. The tables run past a 10’-by-5’ performance area between the waitress station and a sheetrock wall that conceals a pair of dimly lit restrooms. No matter how esoteric the material, the bands never stray too far from a groove of one diasporic origin or another, the better to keep the party going. Watts knows how to play the room and push the envelope as well as anyone.

The Zinc Bar’s skronky-cosmopolitan ambiance figures prominently in Bar Talk (Columbia), Watts’ 2002 release. Consider the CD’s cover photo. Shot in tones of boudoir red, Watts, in a leather jacket, perches over a drink, perhaps anticipating a round of conversation with Jean-Claude Rakotoniaina, a Madagascarian charmer and bon vivant who until recently mixed and poured $10 mojitos, caporinhas and martinis to a varied clientele. Watts signifies their profound banter—“He’d say, ‘Tain, you are the man’; I’d be like, ‘No, J.C., you know you’re the man!’”—on “JC Is The Man,” a singable five-note hook propelled by the drummer’s urgent, insouciant beat.

“Vodville,” which follows, celebrates another archetype of bar culture. Dedicated to the principle “in vodka, veritas,” it opens with onomatopoeic variations on “Giant Steps” by Branford Marsalis. This, Watts explains, “symbolizes the early stages of drunkenness, when guys suddenly are enlightened and aware of deep things.” There follows an abstract minor blues form where, “the conversation becomes more base; the time starts to slip around; the tempo speeds up; then the drunkard tries to make his way home, perhaps in denial about his drunkenness. In the third part the guy’s at home, drunk again, trying to cop a plea and pledging not to do this any more. Of course, the cycle starts all over again.”

For the remainder of Bar Talk, Watts eschews further exploration of the nuances of lush life. But he frames himself with an assortment of environments—a Brazil-inflected paean to Stevie Wonder; a tenor burnout by his two primary sources of income; a nasty blues; two harmonically luxuriant ballads; a post-bop evocation of Billy Higgins; even a contemporary-styled tune with a torchy lyric—that artfully convey the range of skills, predispositions and stylistic idiosyncracies that make Watts perhaps the most influential hardcore jazz drummer of his generation. He’s a storyteller, adept at extracting melodic motifs from challenging harmony and weaving his signature metric shifts and superimpositions organically into the form. He’s a drum virtuoso who plays with volcanic flash, but also intuitive taste, and he sustains a constant dialogue with bandmates Ravi Coltrane, David Budway and Paul Bollenbeck. On the heels of his 2000 leader debut, Citizen Tain, Bar Talk documents how deftly Watts, 42, has morphed himself from flow-shaping celebrity sideman to leader with an inclusive vision.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing in general!” Watts exclaims with a raucous laugh from his spacious Brooklyn apartment. A video of the Miles Davis Quintet, circa 1967, flickers on the television. “I want to be able to interface with almost any type of musician. Stretch jazz vocabulary abstractly, but keep elements that are heartfelt and centered—music anyone can understand—and always keep what’s raw. I want to deal with the whole world rhythmically. As drummers, our prime function is rhythm. So we should know as many as we can.

“I’ve questioned my rationale for writing music or addressing stuff on the instrument that isn’t straightahead jazz,” he continues. “It took me a long time to resolve this. Maybe because I felt for so long like I was in the trenches trying to save the world with jazz, there’s an unspoken guilt about loving a simple song with three chords, or one groove and two fills. But when you analyze things in fusion or things Miles Davis did that people find questionable, often it comes down to a different base rhythm. But if there’s a dance and invention and interaction and a group sound and a certain level of quality, then the jazz thing is still there.”

Perhaps Watts retains a fresh attitude to jazz became he discovered it so late. Immersed in funk, r&b and fusion as a Pittsburgh teenager, he matriculated at Duquesne University as a classical percussion student, anticipating a future in the studios. Then he met Steel City trapset giant Roger Humphries, transitioned from a devotee of Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and George Duke into, as he puts it, “a jazz head,” and transferred to Berklee College of Music. There, Watts encountered a cast of talented, ambitious peer-groupers—including Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Greg Osby, Kevin Eubanks, Wallace Roney, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Cindy Blackman and Gene Jackson—eager to investigate the future upon a solid bedrock of tradition. In the fall of 1981, Marsalis, aware that his trumpet-playing younger brother was looking for a drummer to play a few gigs, recommended his friend.

“I always felt that Tain was the guy,” Branford says. “I liked how he constructed his comping behind soloists at jam sessions. As opposed to being a complete, thorough historian of the music and playing all the right things at the right time, he played strange things at the right time, imposing his fusion influences on a jazz context. I appreciated that and thought it would be great for Wynton’s band.”

“My brother liked Tain,” Wynton Marsalis recalls. “There were no auditions. Kenny Kirkland had an apartment, and we started rehearsing. At that time, they knew about jazz and kind of liked it, but they were mainly into fusion. I was into jazz. I liked Tain because he was funny, but he has a phenomenal level of talent and intellect. He’s a master of form, with perfect pitch and tremendous reflexes. Over the years, he developed a vocabulary that only he plays. All those pieces with time changes and different meters came from playing off of him, because he could do it. It forced me to shape my lines that way, too.”

“When Wynton started his thing, we stepped up the learning game,” Branford says. “Tain talked to Tony Williams and hung out with Art Blakey. He hooked his stuff up. When we first got to New York, he didn’t know how to play four-on-the-floor. His cymbal sound was OK, kind of splashy. He would hit the cymbal for hours, getting that together. Then he spent time learning Max’s stuff, then Art Blakey’s, one person by one person. The more you do that, the more sophisticated your language becomes, so eventually you can play almost anything. But on top of that, he was doing it his own way.”

Watts describes himself as less apt to break down his major influences stroke-for-stroke than to create something that outlines their essence. “Perhaps I’ve helped people to operate within the tradition but also independently of the tradition,” he notes. “Early study in jazz drumming tends to focus on bebop because it was so codified. Each guy had a signature vocabulary—a certain set of licks—that you can use to try to create the illusion of being melodic over a form. You can get hung up on someone like Philly Joe Jones, and it dictates how you approach a tune. I gravitated to drummers like James Black, Ben Riley, Frankie Dunlop and Papa Jo Jones, who aren’t out of any specific bag, but just swing and make commentary. This freed me up. Wynton pretty much specifically asked me to find things that Tony Williams didn’t play. We used that music and got ideas from it, but it was important to work on a voice.”

That voice has inspired two generations of esthetic descendants as a gateway into jazz lineage. Watts combined the vocabulary of Billy Cobham and Narada Michael Walden with the vocabulary of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. He found ways to codify the equations of metric modulation, or pure polyrhythm (Vinnie Colaiuta defines this as “playing an alienated group of notes evenly dispersed throughout a given number of beats”), into a consistent improvisational style. “During my second year at Berklee, I skimmed Gary Chaffee’s books and figured every polyrhythm that I would need,” Watts says. “Once again, rather than learning all the specifics, I made my own decisions. That informed the more linear style of my earlier playing with Wynton.

He sings a rhythm with an abstracted second-line feel to demonstrate his point. “Kenny Kirkland would comp that a lot in Wynton’s band to give things a disjunct feeling. People call it playing five, but it isn’t. It’s playing eighth notes grouped in five; it goes over the bars, resolves in a different place, and makes the music flow differently. By 1984, I wanted to do some things that transcended jazz vocabulary, and I started to experiment, play a pure five beats or seven beats over four beats or three beats. To this day, a few recordings are really radical on that end, like Live At Blues Alley and parts of Marsalis Standard Time, Vol.1, as well as Gary Thomas’ first record and Geri Allen’s The Nurturer. It’s like a 20th century classical music device, and it’s evolved and become more complex. People aren’t afraid now to use pure polyrhythm for the ensemble or for soloing.”

Still, the fact that Watts became a household name among jazz cognoscenti during the first decade of his career had less to do with what he played than with whom he played it. He remained with Wynton Marsalis until 1987, went on the road with George Benson and McCoy Tyner, rejoined forces with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland after their sojourn with Sting, and moved with them to Los Angeles in 1992 for what became a three-year stint on Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.” Out of the fray, Watts began to compose, figuring out ways to translate his take on modern trapset vocabulary into the compelling narrative he presents on Bar Talk.

“I had fun for maybe the first year-and-a-half—and then it became a job,” Watts relates. “I was in purgatory. But looking back, it was almost like a paid sabbatical. Wynton was always encouraging me. He said, ‘Write it, and if it’s halfway done, we’ll play it and make it right.’ But I didn’t have a lot of theoretical knowledge, and I was shy about composition for a long time. If I’d stayed in New York I might not have had the time to open myself up and pursue it. Being denied a lot of playing opportunities and access to a pool of musicians made me focus on other routes. And living next door to Kenny Kirkland was not a bad impetus.”

“Kenny and Jeff would work from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., then they could leave and do whatever the hell they wanted,” Branford says. “They were always in one another’s houses. Kenny had the Mac set up with the software, Tain would go in, and they would just write tunes, work on things, and play gigs from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., maybe get a full eight hours sleep, and still wake up in time to get to work.”

During the ’80s, Watts had supplemented polyrhythmic explorations with tutorials in Afro-Cuban music from Kirkland; these led to marathon master class listening sessions and occasional gigs with Jerry and Andy Gonzales. He continued his homework in L.A.’s dynamic Latin community. “I sat down with people, got some specifics and actually implemented the vocabulary,” Watts says. “Playing Latin music is a bridge to an African sensibility. It helps you get away from bar lines and conventional phrases; you feel a basic heartbeat, but then you cut it up. You have the freedom to create from nothing—a personal world of music with just the drums.”

Watts resettled in New York in 1995, well-prepared to tackle the Pan-American rhythmic mix of Danilo Perez, with whom he played and recorded for two years. “Tain had done enough homework where now it was just a matter of execution,” Branford says. “He was able to apply what he had already peeped and find out if things worked or not. Danilo was smart enough to hear that Tain would bring more of a jazz dynamic than most Afro-Cuban drummers.”

“People will always emphasize authenticity,” Watts says. “But some Latin and quasi-ethnic folk call me because they also want something that doesn’t sound like what they’ll get from somebody from their country. Now I’m not afraid to add some American stuff or things I make up. People are taking chances compositionally, and you want to make it sound real within the first 10 minutes, to let them know they’re on the right track.”

Watts put some Tainian mojo on a recent no-rehearsal hit at the Zinc Bar with an Afro-Jazz sextet led by Nigerian-American bassist and Jazz Messenger alumnus Essiet Essiet. He propelled the band with four-limbed variations on a set of vernacular juju rhythms that Essiet had shown him a few years earlier, ratcheting the intensity, conjuring from the trapset a sound not unlike that of the talking drum choir with King Sunny Ade and his African Beats.

His playing recalled a comment by Brecker, Watts’ frequent employer since 1997 and himself an avid drummer. “Tain has come up with a new language on the drums,” Brecker says. “When I’m not playing, I stand next to him every night, transfixed, and hope some of it will sink in. Sometimes I think I understand it, then when I sit down at the drums, I can’t do it.”

On “Like A Rose,” the final track of Bar Talk, Brecker constructs an ingenious variation on a stutter-step rhythmic modulation that occurs after the bridge, a construction inspired by Meshuggah, a Swedish heavy metal band Watts admires. The leader brings forth his soulful alter ego, Juan Tainish, to sing an affecting lyric reflecting the side of Watts “that’s almost corny, that loves unapologetically sweet things, like Stevie Wonder and Elton John ballads.” He wrote it on the road last year after a nostalgic conversation with Sting – appropriately, at the bar – at the Central Park after-concert party during Sting’s Desert Rain tour.

Watts and Sting go back to Sting’s ‘80s quasi-jazz period with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, when Watts unsuccessfully auditioned for the band. “In those years, when I was immersed in jazz, I listened to a lot of things, but kept a mental log rather than actually address stuff I’d want to incorporate into a contemporary style down the road,” he says. “Branford had been telling me about the audition for months. But I was a wild and crazy guy, and as the months went by I was just in the street doing my thing and doing my jazz gigs. The night before, I went to Branford’s house, grabbed four Police records, put them on cassette, went to the rehearsal the next day and jammed with Sting, Darryl Jones and Branford. To make that transition at that point of my life, I would have had to spend some time.”

Fifteen years later, Watts remarks: “I want to practice a lot, and see what happens if I’m studious and conscientious. I might as well find out before I’m 50. Most of what I’ve done has been through musicianship as opposed to technique. I want to change my approach and get better purely in a drumming way; instrumentally, I want to refine everything and not be limited by lack of preparation.”

Well aware of what he’s accomplished, Watts anticipates his next phase. “Dave Holland said in Down Beat a few years ago that he writes tunes, records them and plays them on the road to find out what he can do on them. He uses that knowledge to determine what he writes later. I look forward to being in that artistic cycle. I get a percentage of it from my very close sideman associations, because I usually end up shaping the rhythm. But being able to write stuff, get it recorded and play it with people you choose—having control entirely over your musical world—is a cool thing.”

 

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Jeff Watts Blindfold Test (2004):

1. Chucho Valdes, “Sin Clave Para Con Swing” (from NEW CONCEPTION, Blue Note, 2002) (Valdes, piano, composer; Yaroldy Abreu Robles, congas; Lazaro Rivero Alarcón, bass; Ramses Rodriguez Baralt, trap drums) – (2-1/2 stars)

That’s like some quasi-progressive, Latin-based… I guess a lot of stuff that I began to become aware of maybe in the early ‘90s, people utilizing odd time signatures but still retaining clave structure. It comes into some of my writing, some arrangements I do, and of course, on “The Impaler.” It’s stuff I got from talking with various, mostly Cuban musicians, and also stuff that Danilo Perez started to experiment with, maybe in conjunction with but maybe as a reaction to stuff that was going on in Cuba. It’s a logical progression. If you have Latin jazz musicians listening to early jazz… It’s mostly a combination of fusion and what happened with jazz in New York in the ‘80s, stuff that we were experimenting with in Wynton’s group, and also Steve take on permutations of structure and time. So it’s a natural progression with Latin jazz musicians to try to use this to get to something else or whatever. Sometimes it really works and it feels natural; sometimes it can be kind of gimmicky. But I think that the end result of this experimentation will be down the road, probably in the next five or ten years.

But this particular one? It was cool. There’s kind of a problem that exists with…well, even in a lot of jazz tunes. Not enough of the material that’s used for the exposition is actually improvised on. And it’s cool. It’s not etched in stone. Something can be an introduction to something, to take you into a vibe, and then cats can solo on whatever material they choose. I kind of prefer when it actually uses some of the material that’s in the exposition. But it’s fine. I really don’t know who it is, though. Pianistically, it didn’t sound strong enough to be someone like Chucho, but then again, it could be. And I’m not familiar enough with his writing to say that it’s him. It’s definitely not Danilo. It didn’t strike me as being someone like Ed Simon or even Luis Perdomo. Those are the obvious culprits that come to mind. I’m not really sure who it is. It was just coming from a whole lot of places. Then there’s the little swinging kind of section on one chord that comes in, and it’s just kind of there… I’d be interested to know if this is part of a suite or if it’s just a straight-out composition.

The drums were fine. It’s not someone like El Negro, and I don’t think it’s Robbie Ameen, and I’m very sure that it’s not Dafnis. There’s like a couple of different schools of this type of drumming that are around. Those guys I just mentioned, even though they have very different styles, were they want the drumset to come from is more folkloric, as opposed to… From the sound and instrument choices, this feels like someone reinterpreting, for an example, I’ll say Dave Weckl’s contribution to that style or whatever. It’s more of a fusiony style, more somehow American-sounding than folkloric sounding, just from the choices of drums and cymbals and the way that they played. Do I have to give this stars? [LAUGHS] Unfortunately, 2 stars compositionally and 3 for the performance. So 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It was Chucho?!!? Sorry, bro. It’s from his last record ? I’ll pick it up. I know there’s some stuff on there somewhere.

2. Donald Harrison, “Heroes” (from HEROES, Nagel-Heyer, 2004) (Harrison, as, comp.; Ron Carter, b; Billy Cobham, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Kind of a little poem. The alto was the antithesis of a Kenny Garrett or someone like that. It’s kind of a folky and open vocal sound kind of thing. The approach reminds me of Miguel Zenon or someone like Myron Walden, but I don’t really think it’s either of them, and I can’t venture a guess on who it is. The drums? There’s more than a handful of guys now who are coming out of a Jack DeJohnette type of thing or whatever. When I hear that sound, I kind of grade it on a different scale. I look at it creatively as opposed to looking for a serious swinging thing. And I can safely say that this was not swinging at all, so I have to throw that out immediately. But it’s cool. Because a lot of stuff that I really, really enjoy by Keith Jarrett is not swinging in the traditional sense. So it doesn’t necessarily not mean a thing! Imagine playing that for Lou Donaldson!!! But anyway, it’s cool. It’s not my flavor. I probably would have played it like a little groovier or put some kind of thing on it. It kind of floats around, and then it starts walking. It never gets to a real THING, which is cool. It could be something from Europe that I haven’t heard, from the ‘70s or something like that, or it could be something from almost anywhere now that I haven’t heard. But it’s loose and open, and sound-wise and melody-wise it felt like it was trying to come from a folky kind of place—an earthy place. But whenever it was time for the drums to do something besides kind of swing, like to actually play some stuff, it felt like he was just trying to see what he could fit into that space as opposed to trying to speak or groove or whatever. But it’s cool. Should I try to be generous? I should be honest. 2-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, Billy!!! No!!! No!!!! I didn’t say anything bad about Ron Carter. Donald Harrison? Are you serious? I’m glad you didn’t tell me before, because it would have influenced me, because I would have been merciful to Billy in some capacity. That just wasn’t it, man. And everybody knows he can do it. If he keeps doing this for a couple of years, it will be a whole nother thing. I love him so much. He’s so important to me, man. I can’t kiss his ass enough. But damn, Bill! He’s trying to do his thing, man. It’s cool.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, No. 2” (from TALKING AND DRUM SOLOS, Atavistic Unheard Music Series, 1946/2003) (Baby Dodds, solo drums) (3-1/2 stars)

Nice press roll. Felt pretty good. The character of it sounds like some early jazz stuff. My first thought was of somebody like a Baby Dodds vibe. I don’t think it’s Big Sid. Chick Webb came to mind, but it didn’t seem virtuosic enough for him. He feels a little more aggressive than that. It sounds like an older drummer, but something about the kit sounded like it was maybe something later in their career, because it sounded like there were at least three tom-toms. That’s about it. It was cute. It could easily be somebody I love, but it sounds like it’s later in their career or something like that. Or it could be Cyrille or someone like that, who is more associated with the avant-garde, kind of messing around with an older style. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] Oh, my first thought. Get down, Tainish!! Go ahead!! What year is it? So it’s late in his career. I’m BAD, man!!

4. Stefon Harris, “Red-Bone, Netti-Bone” (from EVOLUTION, Blue Note, 2004) (Harris, vibraphone; Marc Cary, keyboard; Casey Benjamin, as; Anne Drummond, fl.; Darryl Hall, bass; Terreon Gully, d; Pedro Martinez, percussion) (3 stars)

Lovely. Oh, yes, indeed, a very fine selection. I’m not really sure who it is. The Rhodes kind of puts it in a time space, but then as I listened to the drum sound, with the thicker hi-hats and higher snare, it put it later—like at least late ‘80s to today. The presence of the mallet instrument, the vibes or marimba or whatever, put me in mind of the Caribbean Jazz Project, but it doesn’t have to be that. At first the alto put me…it didn’t put me anywhere. It sounded like a few guys. But when he went to the altisimmo, then it put me in mind of Paquito, obviously. The tune is cool. It’s kind of good for summer festival listening, have a couple of rum drinks and walk around and look at some bikinis and stuff like that. It serves its function. The tune is cool. It’s fine. It’s not trying to be ground-breaking. It’s just an excuse to have a good time. The arrangement was cool. It was pretty much all in clave. And I have no idea who it is. There’s a lot of other Latin Jazz I would purchase first, but it’s fine. But maybe it’s the drummer’s thing. Then I would look at it differently. It’s not? Well, it could be Mark Walker or someone like that. That’s who I thought of. [You thought it was a Latin band.] Didn’t have to be. They had a couple of breaks that… I mean, I know them, so they can’t be that deeply folkloric! But it’s cool. A very hefty 3 stars. [AFTER] That’s Blackout? Really? Well, with those guys, that’s not bad. I’m sure there’s some funky stuff on the record and other stuff. Pedro Martinez sounded good, and for that to be Terreon, that’s really cool. He just called me right before you came. He’s up the street having some soul food. It was well done, and over the scope of the whole record and what Stefon is trying to do, it’s fine. Terreon took a lesson from me when he was in high school, and his attitude was really cool. He’s staying really open, and he functions pretty decently in a number of contexts. I guess his real strength right now is he can really play some up-to-the-minute hip-hop and funk and stuff like that. He checks out what people program, and also a lot of R&B, so he’s up on some Timbaland and stuff like that, trying to get that effect and those sounds on the drums. So this level of Latin drumming from him, that’s pretty good.

5. Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b; Lewis Nash, d) (3 stars)

That was cool. I’m a lot more liberal than in the past. Everybody has to do what they have to do to get to what they’re tryin’a do! Piano trio. Tasty. People that can all play. It was tight. I don’t know what to think about it. There’s something about that that’s cool. It was trying to have that standard of whatever it is that the piano trio has, that sound or whatever. It’s almost like it was trying to break through its traditional gloss and be a little bit modern at the same time. It didn’t really work like that, but I could feel it kind of trying to break out of those confines. Cool tune. Snappy. Peppy. I have no idea who the pianist is. But he sounded good. The bass player sounded good. The drummer’s like a younger person, but somebody that’s heard Philly Joe, knows about that, and has good hands. For some reason, I don’t think… It’s not Lewis Nash. Greg Hutchinson came immediately to mind for some reason. He came to mind, and with some of the stuff that was happening on the cymbals, I thought about Winard Harper, and at the beginning, before I heard the sound of the cymbals and the cymbal beat, I thought of Billy Drummond for just a second, but I don’t think it’s him. I dug the solo more than the actual stuff in the rhythm section. They were playing beboppy things, but once in a while, some of the independence would indicate someone has heard some stuff that’s more modern. But then at the same time, it had a skippy kind of cymbal beat, swinging, but it’s not completely laying it down at that tempo. But I’m sure it’s somebody I really like. I’m stuck in that 3 star zone. It’s cool. [AFTER] Wow! Nash. Okay. I guess I haven’t listened to Lewis in a long time. I thought it was him, but then I felt like it wasn’t. I knew it was somebody who good, though, professional and cool. There’s kind of a bouncy thing that drummers play whenever the tempo gets reasonably fast, and the challenge of it is to have… Even though you’re skipping in between the primary notes, the challenge is to have that quarter note really laying with the bass and stuff like that. And it didn’t seem like it was quite doing that. The grace notes were bounced out as opposed to being articulated. It makes you have to lean on the bass a little bit. I just didn’t associate that with Lewis. Well done. That makes me see the tune in a different way. It’s a good blowing tune, but the melody is actually almost like some funk or something like that. I guess you could put it in the hardbop zone.

6. James P. Johnson, “Victory Stride” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (James P. Johnson, p., comp; Ben Webster, ts; Vic Dickenson, tb; Sidney deParis, tp; John Simmons, b; Sid Catlett, d) (5 stars)

Early ‘50s? I don’t know what it is! The tenor player could be Coleman Hawkins. But I have glaring holes in my knowledge of early jazz. The drummer was great. He’s easily one of the great ones, whoever he is. When this vibe is on… Papa Jo comes to mind, even though a lot of the stuff I have him in, he’s already moved on to the ride cymbal as opposed to the hi-hat, so I don’t have enough examples of him wearing that thing out. But the touch and the wit reminded me of him. It could be some old guy from New Orleans that I haven’t really checked out. But it felt like that. The tune is fine. Just some real swingin’, swingin’ stuff, man. The cats are completely in control. The tune is cool. It could be a riff written on another tune. But that’s what it’s about. That shit was swingin’. I’m sure some people had fun dancing to it, too. The level is pretty obvious. I don’t want to be like because this is some old, bad shit, I’m going to give it 5 stars, but I know it’s on a certain level, so I’m just going to do it. [AFTER] That’s Big Sid?!! Damn. Well, I said somebody from New Orleans. He’s from Chicago!? Well, you got me. It’s somebody bad. Somebody playing the drums. Big Sid. Ben Webster!? Oh, man, I’m all jacked up. I’m all messed up. I have a good record with these things. I don’t like this. It’s fair game, though. The only recording I have with Big Sid is Pops’ Symphony Hall. I guess I’ve heard too much of Ben Webster playing ballads and not enough of him just all-out swinging. You got me. It’s cool.

7. Andrew Cyrille, “AM 2-1/2” (from C/D/E/, Jazz Magnet, 2001) (Cyrille, d; Marty Ehrlich, as; Mark Dresser, b) (3-1/2 stars)

Ah, tricky-tricky! I thought it was good! I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody sounded good, I thought. The obvious thing when you hear an alto and the piano isn’t there, you think of an Ornette vibe. But it had that vibe, in a more tonal kind of way. I liked everybody on there, and I thought the song was cool. It feels like it comes out of the Ornette kind of conception, but it’s more contemporary. But it had that sound. I liked the drummer. He was tasty and light and cool. He was playing some simple stuff that was cool. It reminded me of Higgins, in a way. It almost sounded like it could be him, but later. But something tells me it’s not. I don’t know who it is. 3-1/2 is not terrible, right? It was pretty good. A nice 3-1/2. [AFTER] Really? Wow, that’s cool. They had a nice vibe on it. The composition was cool. It was cool.

8. Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez & Robby Ameen, “The Moon Shows Red” (from EL NEGRO AND ROBBY AT THE THIRD WORLD WAR, American Clave, 2002) (Ameen & Hernandez, drums; Jerry Gonzalez, tp; Takuma Watanabe, arrangement, string direction; Hiroyuki Kolke String Quartet) (4 stars)

That was kind of fresh. The rhythm was interesting. Sounds like two drumsets playing together. The strings were kind of hip. It had an experimental quality to it. It would actually be nice in a film. I don’t know what kind of scene. But there’s a lot of activity. It’s pretty obviously Jerry Gonzalez! [LAUGHS] My teacher, who I love so much. It’s great. It’s finding more vehicles for expession, and it’s cool. Of course, he’s a master conguero and bandleader. But he has a distinctive trumpet tone and style. I’m not sure if this is his record or not, though. I haven’t heard how deep he’s gotten with his flamenco thing. But they were trying to do something. I liked it. There was a lot of stuff going on, but it wasn’t random, and it had a vibe. The two drumsets give it a looseness but also a steadines. I’ll give it 4 stars. [AFTER] Is it like “Deep Rumba”? Oh, it’s their record. I like those things Kip Hanrahan does with Robbie and Negro. I have a few of those “Deep Rumba” things. Nice piece of music.

9. Fly, “Child’s Play” (from FLY, Savoy, 2004) (Jeff Ballard, d; comp; Mark Turner, ts; Larry Grenadier, b) (4 stars)

Wow. That was very cool. Some more tasty, Latin-based music. He had a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know what to think about that. At the beginning, the horn had an alto type of flavor, but then as the solo went on, it sounded more like a tenor, and just the way he was playing reminded me, for some reason, of Joe Lovano, but I don’t think it was him. Somehow it could be David or someone like that. It sounds like this branch of that music. The drummer definitely reminded me of Antonio Sanchez, for some reason, in the choices that he makes. For that music, these days, he’s kind of like the Tony Williams of that school. He tends to play drums a bit more open-sounding, cymbals that are less dry, and he tries to control their attack with the stick pressure. I liked the stuff at the beginning, with the kalimba and things like that for texture. It was a really good performance, so 4 stars. [AFTER] Really! Wow, that’s Ballard! There you go. They made some music, it’s cool.

10. Marcus Roberts, “Cole After Midnight” (from COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, p; Thaddeus Exposé, b; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, d) (3-1/2 stars)

Stumped once more. Not a clue. But it’s one of those things that’s in two places at the same time. The sound in most of the playing feels like an older guy, who’s pretty proficient on the piano, but the structure of it is kind of different from a time standpoint. It’s like they’respending 12 beats on each chord, which gives it a different feeling. It still has a nice feel to it. The drummer for the most part is functioning like a percussionist, just giving it little accents. He doesn’t really lay down very much functional time until right before the end. But it sounds like some kind of early experimental group. Sounds like early ‘60s, in a way. They were trying to mess around with some stuff. It’s an older vibe with a little twist on it. I enjoyed it. 3-1/2 stars. Who the hell is that?

11. Ramón Vallé, “Kimbara pá Ñico” (from NO ESCAPE, ACT, 2003) (Valle, p., comp; Omar Rodriguez-Calvo, b; Liber Torriente, d) (3-1/2 stars)

It’s a Latin fiesta here. The writing is kind of modern and cool. The playing is loose. It’s in clave, but it’s kind of loose, like a jazz kind of texture on it. Some of what the piano player is playing reminds me of Danilo, but for some reason I don’t feel it’s him. But the architecture of his solo reminds me of him. I don’t know who anybody is. But I liked it, and I’ll give it my hefty 3-1/2 star rating. [AFTER] More of them damn Cubans! He sounds like he’s listened to Danilo. Sounds like he checked him out, definitely.

12. Chick Corea & Three Quartets, “Quartet No.2, Part 1” (from RENDEZVOUS IN NEW YORK, Concord, 2001) (Corea, p, comp; Michael Brecker, ts; Eddie Gomez, b; Steve Gadd, d)

It’s a live recording. Pretty obviously Michael Brecker or someone who loves him deeply. So Mike is there. At first it sounded like a piano improvisation, then everything came in. There were some harmonies that were extracted from Monk, but then it went to a few different places. Other than that, the bass solo was somebody. I couldn’t really place them. At first, I thought it was Patitucci or someone like that, but as it went on… I have no idea who this could be. The only thing I could think of was perhaps a live version of Charlie Haden’s group or someone like that. [Any idea who the piano player is?] No, I don’t. I really have no idea. The drummer sounds like somebody I know and probably like, but as soon as they started swinging, he was playing kind of an open hi-hat on all four beats, and at that tempo, that’s kind of strange. So I’m thinking it’s a younger guy trying to do something to make it different. They were going for it, but something about it makes me want… Michael took a nice solo. The piano player can play. 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] I should know that. And that did come to mind. That’s well within Gadd’s style. But it didn’t sound like Chick to me. Cool.

13. Dave Douglas, “Catalyst” (from STRANGE LIBERATION, RCA, 2003) (Douglas, tp., comp.; Bill Frisell, g; Chris Potter, ts; Uri Caine, keyboards; James Genus, b; Clarence Penn, d.)

The drums were cool. The drums were right in between kind of playing some fusiony rock influenced stuff, but kind of loose. It was never really like locked-in. But I think that’s the effect they were going for. Easily some Miles “Bitches Brew” influenced stuff. Obviously not Miles. The guitar reminded me of Scofield for a second. The tenor player reminded me of someone like Chris Potter, so my off the top of my head guess would be some Dave Douglas type stuff. But I’m not really sure. It could be a lot of people. I don’t have Dave’s records where he experiments with that; I’ve just been reading stuff about that direction being there in one of his many bands. I couldn’t guess as far as the drummer’s identity. It was kind of splashy and loose, and kind of in a groove—not really in a serious, serious groove. 3 stars. [AFTER] Clarence Penn. That would match my guess. The thing about the drums that made it contemporary, something as simple as hearing a splash cymbal. Clarence is cool. He usually plays the appropriate thing. He can be creative, but then he can play out of bags and stuff like that, and that’s cool. But the bass definitely sounded like James to me. It had that air, that little excitement that was around that period of Miles. It got that color.

14. Horace Silver, “The African Queen” (from THE CAPE VERDEAN BLUES, Blue Note, 1965/1989) (Silver, p., comp; Woody Shaw, tp; Joe Henderson, ts; Bob Cranshaw, b; Roger Humphries, d) (5 stars)

Thanks for the gift. That’s got to be Horace Silver with Joe Henderson, and I guess that’s Woody Shaw, and I’d think you’d give me some Roger Humphries. Something about the crispness and the different style of placed me in that direction. I only have SONG FOR MY FATHER, and I’m not sure if this is on that or CAPE VERDEAN BLUES or whatever else Roger recorded with him.it was good for me to grow up seeing somebody like Roger Humphries. At the time I grew up, there was a big separation between this mythological world of jazz musicians and what was actually going on at the time. Because a lot of people didn’t come through Pittsburgh then. Prior to my moving to Boston, Roger was the prime evidence of there being virtuosos in the world who played the music. Actually, right after I first found out who Bird was and who Trane was and started to listen to that stuff, my pianist, David Budway, told me, “Well, if you want to learn to play this stuff, there’s a guy who lives on the North Side who will take you as a student.” It was Roger Humphries. His number was in the phone book, and I called him, and I went to his house. Mostly we just talked, and he showed me a few things, and I’d practice and he’d be across the room shooting pool with his friends. Then I’d go to his gigs and watch him. He chose to be in Pittsburgh and deal with his family, and yet still, I can say that there’s no one substantially greater on the drums today. Roy Haynes sounds better than ever in his seventies, and Elvin Jones the same way, but there’s not a significant difference between them and Roger Humphries. He makes me proud to be from Pittsburgh and all that stuff. He’s a beautiful person. Very much involved in education today, making sure that people understand the essence of what the music is about and that they have a good time with it. He gives them a good reason to love it. I gave Sid Catlett 5 stars, right? I’ll give this 5 stars, just because!

You got me, bro. You got me a couple of times. That’s all right. I’ll be ready next time.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer

For Lenny White’s 66th Birthday, An Uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2010

For drummer Lenny White’s 66th birthday, here’s the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that I conducted with him in May 2010. His remarks were unfiltered and trenchant. We did this in a high-end midtown recording studio, which I mention because of Lenny’s comments on how the positioning of the drums in the mix of several of these recordings affects our perception of what the drummers are doing.

 

Lenny White Blindfold Test (Raw):

1. Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (LOVE LETTERS, Sony, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass)

This is one of the six masters. This is the history of jazz right here—the living history of jazz. Do I have to say who it is? Roy Haynes. He’s the living history of jazz. He’s played with everybody, done everything, and he’s one of my six heroes. The others are Philly Joe, Max, Elvin, Art Blakey, and Tony. It’s Roy Haynes! That’s all you’ve got to say. All the drummers that I named transcend the instrument. They’re not drummers. They are musicians who happen to play drums. Because they have such a unique approach to playing music, they don’t play just drums—they play music, and the drums are the instrument that they use to interpret the music. 9 stars. I’m not even listening to the other cats. No disrespect, but Roy commands such attention when he plays the instrument… Is that Christian on bass? I wasn’t listening to the piano player, so I didn’t hear his solo. Is this Marcus Strickland on tenor? No? I’ve got to tell you a true story with Roy Haynes that helped shape my musical life. Roy Haynes used to have a group that he called the Hip Ensemble, and every night, the last tune he would play on the set would be the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At the end, he’d go, BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, and he’d play a drum cadenza. He was playing at Slugs’, and he knew I was there, and said BAH-DAH-DOO-DAH, BRRMMM, stopped, and called me up on the stage, and had me play the drum cadenza. That’s all I’ve got to say.

2. Jason Marsalis, “Puppet Mischief” (from John Ellis & Double Wide, PUPPET MISCHIEF, Obliq, 2010) (Ellis, tenor saxophone, composer; Marsalis, drums; Brian Coogan, organ; Matt Perrine, sousaphone)

Is it Dave Holland’s band? No? That’s very interesting, because of the use of the tuba, and they can negotiate their way through 7/4 pretty seamlessly. The drummer is playing within the music, doing an admirable job within the music. I haven’t a clue. It’s cool. He’s not getting in the way. You know what’s interesting with the younger guys? I think they’re very technically proficient, but there’s no particular emphasis on a sound—an identifiable sound, whether it’s choice of cymbals, or how they tune their drums, to the point where I say, “Oh, I know who that is” immediately. It sounds great, though. 3 stars.

3. Kendrick Scott, “Short Story” (from REVERENCE, Criss-Cross, 2009) (Scott, drums, composer; Mike Moreno, guitar; Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Derrick Hodge, bass; Kenny Dorham, composer)

Is it Tain? No. I like it. He’s killing. I like the organic sound of everything. It sounds great. My only problem, sometimes, is how the recordings are today. See, what drives the music is the ride cymbal. A lot of the guys now play more drums than play cymbal. See, I don’t get a sense of the real hard drive with the music with a lot of drums. It got it when they were playing in open 7, but when they started to swing over the changes it didn’t work as well. From that standpoint, I’d like to really hear some hard swinging. 5 stars. Kendrick Scott? A new guy. But when they start to play straight-ahead stuff, it’s a little weird. From another perspective, what music is, is how you break silence.
So when you make a statement, it better be good. If you’re coming back from silence… That’s why it’s a little strange. There’s this flood of music, and then the music has to compete with movies, it has to compete with games. So the emphasis is not on art, like it used to be, or the art has been fragmented.

4. Brian Blade, “Joe Hen” (from John Patitucci, REMEMBRANCE, Concord, 2009) (Blade, drums; John Patitucci, bass, composer; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

John Patitucci, Joe Lovano, and Brian Blade. I don’t know the record, but I know them. It’s ok. 4 stars. I like Brian’s playing. [If I run this entry, it would be nice if I had a little more than “I like Brian’s playing.”] What is it that you want me to say? [Just your response…] Let me ask you what do you think? [Of this piece.] Yes, and Brian’s playing. [Open, interactive piece, Brian’s responding on a dime like he always does…] Everybody that you’ve played me so far has done exactly the same thing. Everybody’s responded and played, and it’s great. The drums sound great. The sound is great. The thing about it is that conceptually…what defines concept, or helps make up concept, is your choice of cymbals, how you tune your drums, and hopefully that will come out in a recording. This is recorded well. The drums sound fantastic. In conjunction with the music, it still sounds great, and all of that. I think it’s great. 4 stars.

5. Dafnis Prieto, “Si o Si” (from SI O SI QUARTET, Dafnison, 2009) (Prieto, drums, composer; Peter Apfelbaum, tenor saxophone; Manuel Valera, piano; Charles Flores, bass)

You’re giving me all these weird time changes. I like this, though. Great composition. Is it the drummer’s composition? Tain? It’s great. I love the composition. It shows that drummers can be musicians, too. That’s why I think I know who it is, but I don’t want to say yet. Is it Jack deJohnette? No? Who is it? Dafnis Prieto? Nice, man. You can tell that he wrote this composition. Very musical. It says something when someone comes here who is not from the United States, and they take their culture and adapt it to jazz. He’s not trying to play jazz; he’s playing jazz within his culture, which is cool. Oh, it’s live. I really like it. Who’s the piano player? [Manuel Valera.] Are they all Latin? [The tenor player isn’t.] It’s killer. Very believable, very honest, and they were going for it. It’s not as much as Roy Haynes, but 6 stars. Whoo!

6. Teri Lynne Carrington, “The Eye Of The Mind” (#2) (from Tineke Postma, THE TRAVELLER, EtceteraNOW, 2009) (Postma, piano, composer; Geri Allen, Fender Rhodes; Scott Colley, bass; Carrington, drums)

Great-sounding recording. Whoever this is has been influenced by Jack. Unless this is Jack. No? Oh, Teri Lynne Carrington. The statement was accurate. I thought it sounded great. It’s kind of hard for me, because I don’t want to sound cynical or jaded, but I have such… The best way that I can explain it is that jazz is not a style of music to me. It’s my heritage. The reason why I say that is that those six heroes I mentioned all took me aside and told me things about how to interpret and represent the music. I got a lot from listening to their records, but it really made sense when they said what they said, when you sat and listened to somebody and they’d say, “Ok, you see that? This is how you make that turnaround.” Or, “You see this? This is what you need to…” Every one of those guys I mentioned actually did that with me. So they gave me their perspective of how to represent the music the right way. That’s why for me it’s a heritage. Everything you’ve played is a very good representation of where the music is today, or where it’s going. But you haven’t played anything yet that was a true sense of swing from the perspective of all of those guys that I named, and all those guys that I named, maybe with the exception of Philly Joe and Buhaina, they took the music from a straight-ahead swing situation, and amped on it, and made it into something else, to what this is right now. But I still haven’t heard that link back to those guys yet. I’ve heard great representations of what the music is today, but with the exception of what I just heard with Teri Lynne, I can’t say where the influences of the drummers have come from. She sounded great. 4 stars. You haven’t played me anything that I did not like and which sounded bad—and was a bad representation. And I would hope you wouldn’t write about either! It’s just from the standpoint that what keeps a music pure is that there’s a source point, and you can trace the lineage from A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and it goes down the line. But when there’s an offshoot that is something that doesn’t have a point on the chain, it becomes something else. Now, it might be totally valid. I’m not saying that nothing else is valid. That’s not what I’m saying. Just that to this point you haven’t played me anything where I can see a link. The reason I haven’t been able to recognize some of the people is because I don’t hear those influences in their playing. When you played me Roy Haynes, I knew who it was in a second.

7. Ali Jackson, “Dali” (from Ted Nash & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, PORTRAIT IN SEVEN SHADES, JALC, 2010) (Nash, composer; Ali Jackson, drums)

Does anybody play in 4 any more? Not a clue. Don’t know who the band is. It could be Gil Evans—I don’t know. There’s not too much the drummer can do, because he’s playing in odd time, and it’s pretty much arranged—so he’s kind of in handcuffs. Is it a ‘50s or ‘60s recording? [Neither. It’s 2010.] Whoa! I was just thinking of how far back the drums are. [Ali Jackson with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.] That’s really interesting. See how far back the cymbal is? I know Ali, and I like his playing. But this doesn’t represent his sound. They’re probably all great musicians, but there’s no drive. You can’t hear any drive. All you hear is the bass, but the drums have no drive.

8. Ernesto Simpson, “We See” (from Manuel Valera, CURRENTS, MaxJazz 2009) (Valera, piano; James Genus, bass; Simpson, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

This must be the piano player’s record. That’s all you can hear. You can’t hear any drums. Well, you can hear the drums, but you don’t hear any cymbals. When was this recorded? A year or two ago? The piano is so out in front, you lose perspective. I spent a week playing with Danilo and Avishai Cohen when he was doing the Panamonk stuff in the ‘90s, and I had a ball. It was great. [Did you play Afro-Caribbean music, salsa, when you were a young guy?] I did a lot. I played in a band called Azteca. I actually did a record called Afro-Cubano Chant with Bob James, Gato Barbieri, Andy Gonzalez, Mike Mainieri, and Steve Berrios, and we did all stuff like that. We played Lonnie Hillyer’s “Tanya” from the Soul Sauce album, Cal Tjader. But I don’t know about this…

9. Cindy Blackman, “Vashkar” (from ANOTHER LIFETIME, 4Q, 2010) (Blackman, drums; Mike Stern, electric guitar; Doug Carn, organ; Benny Rietveld, electric bass; Tony Williams, composer)

This is Cindy Blackman. This is her Tony record. I don’t like the sound of the recording, but I love what Cindy’s playing. The recording is weird. No clarity. Cindy knows how to tune the drums, she has a great choice of drums and everything, but I don’t really get that. It sounds muddled. It sounds like drums and guitar. You’ve got to be able to HEAR the drums. That’s Mike Stern on guitar and Doug Carn on organ. I knew it exactly because I know the music and I knew they made the record. The guitar is way too loud. I’ve been reluctant to do a tribute album for Tony. His playing comes out so much in me, I didn’t think I had to do that. I’m not saying that Cindy shouldn’t have done that; I’m not saying that at all. But I’ve managed just to be able to trace through him and find what I needed to find. And anybody that listens to me play can hear his influence on me. If there’s any negative about this, it’s the sound of the recording. That’s all. 4 stars. It sounds like the snare drum and bass drum in the mix. There’s a whole bunch of stuff she’s playing that you miss. Cindy’s playing some great stuff, but you don’t hear it. Who’s the bass player? [Benny Rietveld.]

10. Paul Motian, “Abacus” (from LOST IN A DREAM, ECM, 2010) (Motian, drums, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Jason Moran, piano)

Ringing snare drum. See how far back the bass drum is from the snare drum. These engineers and producers make jazz records try to sound like pop records. Jazz music is ambient music like classical music. You need to hear the air around the instruments, and then you hear it in direct proximity. You don’t hear a first violin louder than the viola. It’s a section. It’s a drumkit; you should always hear the whole kit, not the snare drum louder than something else. Is this a younger guy? [No.] I didn’t think so. It’s Paul Motian, but it sounded like Roy Haynes, from some of the things he did. I liked it. 3 stars.

11. Jeff Watts, “Caddo Bayou” (from John Beasley, POSITOOTLY!, Resonance, 2009) (Beasley, piano, composer; Brian Lynch, trumpet; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone; James Genus, bass; Watts, drums)

Finally we have somebody swinging. Same thing, though. The cymbal is not loud enough. The music doesn’t swing if you don’t get… And the guy can be really swinging, but it suffers in the mix. I believe what happens is that guys are set to play, and they’re not content enough to make the band swing just playing the ride cymbal. They want to play a whole bunch of drums, and it overpowers everything. So the producers that make these jazz records bring down the drums because they’re afraid that it’s going to overpower everything. But you miss the ride beat. It doesn’t swing if you don’t hear that. It just sounds like a rolling thing. You hear the bass, but you hear the low end of the bass. You don’t really hear any finger noise. And you hear the soloist way up front. So the rhythm section has this rumbling thing, nondescript. Is this one of them new trumpet players? Now, let me ask you a question. Listening to the drummer, who is his influence? [This sounds more coming out of Tony with Miles than anything else, at least in intention.] No way. Because the stuff Tony played, he played off of a ride cymbal. [Is that from the recording or the actual vocabulary the drummer’s playing?] A little bit of both. I mean, the stuff that Tony played was so intricate, it wasn’t just a rolling thing. There was great coordination between hands and feet, and a ride pattern. It was the cymbal beat which keeps the rhythmic perspective, so that when he played some other stuff, it was really amazing, because he played it against and coordinated with the cymbal beat. This just sounds like it’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, but there’s nothing to keep it focused. I don’t know who it was. 2 stars.

I honestly think that the recording made Tain’s contribution suffer there, because I know he has more of a cymbal ride beat than that, because you couldn’t hear it. That’s what made me say what I say. [This is  illuminating for me. Because so many records sound like this, I’m used to projecting what I hear live onto the record, and it becomes like a ghost sound…] See, the problem is it’s as if you went to a jazz club and heard a classical orchestra, and you got used to that sound, so that when you went back and heard a classical orchestra in a correct auditorium, you’d say, “Wow, that’s really interesting, because I’m used to hearing it in….” One of the things that is important in maintaining the history and giving the right perspective about the music is how you record it. When I listen back to the records I came up listening to, the Blue Note records and Columbia records, it had a sound that we all loved and got used to hearing, and it was a quality sound. It didn’t sound bad. That sounded bad. {Is that because of compression?] I think it’s basically attitude from the producer and the engineer. The engineer gets the sound, but the producer says, “This is the sound that I want,” and the artist usually leaves it up to the producer. Or maybe the artist doesn’t know enough to say, “Hey, let’s use this amount of compression on the piano, let’s use ribbon mikes on the cymbals so we can get a sweeter sound.” They don’t take that impetus or study enough to get a great-sounding record. And if the record doesn’t sound good, how are you going to get what it is you want to get across to people? Today we listen to music on phones! It’s like, “Please!” It’s gotten to that point. So I think basically what made Tain’s sound suffer for me was the way it was mixed.

The reason why I became a producer was out of… I was so disgusted playing on someone’s session, and someone sitting behind a glass telling me to do this, and listen to the sound, and the sound sounded horrible. I said, “Man, I’ve got to think and do my homework to find out what it takes to have a good drum sound, and record it.” If I want to make records, then I’m going to need to know how to make my drum sound. I didn’t want to be at the mercy of someone else, to say, “Ok, that sounds good.” No. So I had to take control.

[These aren’t self-produced recordings, but are independent labels, producers who have a point of view, so I’d suspect they think they’re putting some effort into the sound… For example, Paul Motian is on an ECM record; Manfred Eicher puts out a very curated sound…] Yes, and that sounded eons better than the last one. [But you were critical of the sound on that.] No-no. The point is… Yes, I have my opinion. But that was much more of a representative sound of what the music was like. It was a live recording. He had a very open bass drum, and I don’t know who decided, but some producer decided, “We don’t want to have ringy drums like that, we don’t want the snare drums to ring, so we’ll put tape on it and do this and do that.” Motian probably took control and said, “No, this is my sound, this is what I want to…” That’s why I said I knew it when I heard it. Roy Haynes plays a big open bass drum like that, too.

See, Ted, I just want to go on record as saying that what I say is not gospel. It’s just my perspective on it. When I am asked about it, I say what my perspective is. It took me a while to decide to record a record again, because I had listened to what the landscape was and thought about it and said, “Well, do I really want to make a statement in this particular landscape?” My statement is a lot different than what I just heard. But it’s my statement, and I take pride in how to make my instrument sound and how to mike it and all of that. I would hope that would come out in my recording. That’s why I’m so critical about the sound, because I don’t want great artists to make statements and for them not to be heard—and I’m talking about not to be heard while listening. It’s one thing that you don’t hear the record, but if you don’t hear the statement that they’re making while the record or CD or MP3 is being played…

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Lenny White

For Branford Marsalis’ 55th Birthday, A DownBeat Feature From 2008

For Branford Marsalis’ 55th birthday, here’s the final cut of a DownBeat feature that I wrote about him in 2008, and a link to an uncut Blindfold Test that we did in 2002.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

“It’s important to have cats who can push you and let you express yourself through the music, to actually play anything you want,” said Branford Marsalis, the afternoon of his quartet’s first concert gig of 2008.

The saxophonist sat on his hotel room floor in White Plains, N.Y., slicing a grapefruit and an apple. Outside, the rain came down in torrents, as it had throughout the morning. Airline delays jeopardized the arrival of bassist Eric Revis, who lives in San Antonio, and pianist Joey Calderazzo, who lives in North Carolina, not far from Marsalis.

Already it had been a busy day. Having arrived the night before, Marsalis practiced for an hour or so before catching a ride through the downpour to nearby SUNY-Purchase to lead an 11 a.m. master class. Striding across an open mezzanine to the music building with neither a hat nor an umbrella, he was sanguine and philosophical. The roads had not flooded, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a Brooklynite, was driving up. “We’ll play duo if we have to,” he remarked.

This circumstance would be fascinating, but unfortunate. For one thing, the quartet plays the New York area infrequently, and the Pepsico Theater, the world-class facility on campus, was almost sold out. For another, as evidenced on Braggtown (Marsalis Music), the quartet’s most recent release, it’s a singular unit, able to generate and sustain seamless, organic dialogue through an array of emotional and structural environments—affirmative blues connotations (“Jack Baker”); lyric tone poems (“Hope”) and Euro-Classic homages (“Fate” and “O Solitude”); inflamed spirit talk (“Black Elk Speaks”); kinetic, complex Afro-diasporic rhythms (“Blackzilla”).

The master class transpired in a quasi-amphitheater with a giant pipe organ, in front of which Marsalis sat on a bench and, without ceremony, asked for questions. For the next hour, he addressed a slew of topics—practice procedures, the art of record-making, current favorites, how he filters non-jazz styles into his conception. Then he sat for an interview with a student researching a thesis on Kenny Kirkland, the pianist in the quartet’s first edition, which coalesced in 1988. Marsalis responded to a series of questions about Kirkland’s idiosyncracies, musicianship, position on the piano influence tree and self-destructive habits that eventually killed him in October 1998.

Back at the hotel, Marsalis returned to the subject. “I’d heard Kenny play with Angie Bofill when I was at Berklee, and was talking about how bad he was,” he reminisced. “My next-door neighbor knew him, and I got his number and called. He answered the phone.

“‘Hey, Kenny Kirkland, my name’s Branford Marsalis. You might have heard of my brother, Wynton Marsalis, who’s in New York. We want to come play with you,’” he continued. “He laughed. I must have sounded like the biggest hick—I mean, in terms of my diction and dialect. He said, ‘Cool. I live on 30th Street, right down from the train station.’ Me, Victor Bailey, Donald Harrison, Smitty Smith, Lance Bryant, maybe a couple of other people, got on the train, went to New York and rang his doorbell.’ We had our jam session with Kenny Kirkland.”

Around this time, Marsalis, whose Berklee roommates included drummers Marvin Smitty Smith and Gene Jackson, met Jeff Watts. “A lot of people thought Tain was unorthodox, and didn’t like to play with him,” he said. “But I gravitated toward him immediately. I was listening to Lester Young and Wayne Shorter, and he had just started listening to Elvin Jones, but his sensibility came out of fusion. He knew how to play different time signatures, played ideas through them, and you always knew where the beat was. When Wynton started his band, I thought Tain would be more effective than Smitty for the music he was playing, and I told him to hire Tain. When Tain and Wynton split, I was waiting for him.

From 1988 to 1992, when Marsalis brought his troops to Los Angeles to form the core of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” house band, the quartet was the hottest band in hardcore jazz. All members possessed formidable chops, and could swing with the best, a quality less evident on their studio recordings than on a 1989 bootleg of a tradition-centric set by the quartet at the Village Vanguard. Marsalis’ personal charisma, conceptual flair and pop culture cred from proximity to Sting and Spike Lee persuaded jazz-ignorant audiences to applaud his every move, and his superb, insouciant musicianship attracted a generation of aspirants.

Comparing the ’89 Vanguard document to Braggtown’s polymath erudition testifies to Marsalis’ personal evolution after leaving Leno in 1996. He hit the shed hard, and focused on classical repertoire to increase his scope.

“At 37, I started working on the Ibert Concertino, and within the first half-hour came face to face with virtually every weakness I had,” Marsalis said. “On the first page, there were five or six notes—low E, low D, low C, low B, low B-flat and low C-sharp—that I couldn’t even play. I spent years learning to control them. Now I’ll write songs in the lower range, and I play those notes instead of subtoning. I don’t have to rely on one thing to get the job done—i.e., my strength is playing really fast, so I’ll play really fast on every song, and only play songs that allow me to play fast. We can play fast songs or slow songs; happy songs or sad songs. My possibilities are much more expansive.”

Marsalis bedrocks experimental elaborations of modernist vocabulary—Keith Jarrett’s rubato ebb-and-flow of the ‘70s; non-western and Euro-Classical repertoire; the ways in which John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins created narrative from the outer partials; the overtones and harmonics of speculative improvising—with specific tradition tropes. He deploys tension-and-release, insists that the ride cymbal not only swing, but ring, and wants a thumping bass to drive the band, notions that he assimilated while a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during the early ’80s. Watts orchestrates and propels the flow with a global array of beats and Blakeyesque force.

“The requirement is not to sound like an old man, but to use the music of the old men to get where you’re trying to go,” Marsalis said. “Then it sounds like we’re having the same conversation. Musicians use Wynton as an example of some stodgy old codger who’s criminally narrowing the definition of jazz, but we share the exact same philosophy. My band plays a style that doesn’t allow people to say that and sound intelligent at the same time. The more I listen to the old things, the more modern my music is. It’s a wealth of information. If the word is ‘neo-traditionalist,’ then I’m a neo-trad.”

As if to signify on that remark, Marsalis’ cell phone blared the fanfare of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey.” Rob Hunter, his road manager, informed him that Revis and Calderazzo had landed and were en route. Marsalis donned his overcoat, took his saxophone case and went to the lobby to await their arrival.

Watts sauntered in, soon followed by Revis and Calderazzo. After a perfunctory exchange of ritualized insults and salutations, Marsalis hustled Calderazzo and Revis into his rented car and drove through the rain to the theater for the cover photo shoot, with Watts tailgating. After the shoot, two hours ahead of hit time, they returned to the hotel and convened in Marsalis’ quarters.

“I was new to checking out jazz when I met Branford,” Watts recalled. “I played with him on some cool recitals, and we did maybe three gigs outside of school, but mostly we hung out socially. Then he moved to New York. I was walking by a pay phone on the fifth floor of the dormitory, and somebody said, ‘Jeff just walked by,’ and connected us. Branford told me, ‘You’ve got to leave school because my brother started his band, and you’re going to be in it.’”

Marsalis interjected, “He said, ‘OK, cool. Later.’”

“I was aloof in those days,” Watts said. “I moved to New York, we got on Wynton’s group, grew up as musicians and developed a vocabulary together—and separately. Since I didn’t have much vocabulary, he’d anticipate my figures and play them along with me. Trying to dodge him set me up for a portion of how I play now—I try to take melodic stuff and other ideas out of context and move them to different places, but still have them serve the function. When we got together after Wynton, it was comfortable immediately, since so much of my conception came from playing in conjunction with him and Kenny.”

“In Wynton’s band we thought it out as it happened,” Marsalis said. “We developed our philosophy, our basic premises. One idea was to play songs the way classical musicians do, where you jumble a bunch of notes, and they don’t have to be in time if the musicians all can hear it.

“There’s a drum ensemble in Bahia called Timbalada that’s like the brass bands in New Orleans,” he continued. “I loved a certain rhythm on one of their first records, so when I was in Brazil I asked them, ‘How do you count this out?’ They said, ‘We don’t understand the question.’ I said, ‘When you start this rhythm, do you count on four or on one?’ ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ After 20 minutes, they understood. ‘That’s not how we work,’ they said. ‘We’re not limited by counting. This is the first rhythm and this is the second rhythm.’ I realized that the entire thing is one long rhythm, like a conversation. It’s not counted out, not subdivided, not parsed out in bars. That’s where ‘Lykief’ came from. It’s not in a time signature. Bar lines separate the melodies, so they can understand where the target points are.”

In 1988, Revis, 20, was one of many youngsters taking notice. “They were my idols,” he said.

Marsalis pretended to vomit, and Watts uncorked a howling laugh.

“Eric’s sound is the sound of doom—big, thick, percussive,” Marsalis said. Recruited for Marsalis’ 1996 Buckshot LeFunque tour after apprenticing with Betty Carter, Revis was, Marsalis said, “raw as hell, but he won me over with his determination and desire. He had a rough time at first. All Kenny wanted was strong, solid quarter notes, not all those hip extra beats, and he went off on him. ‘Why did you hire this cat?’ I said, ‘We’ve all been where he is, but I like where he’s going.’ Right before Kenny died, he said, ‘Yeah, Revis is getting it together; he’s going to be all right.’”

Kirkland’s legacy made life complex for Calderazzo, already an established professional for 11 years when Marsalis hired him.

“Wynton came on the scene when I was 17,” Calderazzo said. “I had never heard anybody like Kenny, so he was an instant hero. I was 14 when I met Branford and Tain, visiting my brother at Berklee.”

Marsalis interjected. “Being from Louisiana, Berklee was funny then, because the whole race issue in the South had started to develop a sophistication, and up north it was different. All these black people would have a jam session in this practice room, and all the white guys would stand outside the door and look in, but never enter, like we were going to eat them or something. Tim Williams, who ran the sessions, said, ‘Let them stay out there.’ Joey saw us, and he was jumping to see in, so we saw this head going up and down. He started knocking, opened the door and said ‘Can I come in?’ ‘Yeah, come on in. What do you want to play?’ ‘Moment’s Notice’—and he burned. It didn’t take on any racial connotations in his mind. He wasn’t scared of black people.”

“I hung out in the Mount Vernon projects,” Calderazzo added. “They weren’t too far from where I grew up in New Rochelle. I hung out with all the races.”

“Until today,” Watts shot back.

“The first few weeks were rocky,” Calderazzo recalled. “In some ways, I was probably the wrong guy. We were on the road a few months ago, and I heard Kenny on some bootlegs on the Internet,” Calderazzo said. “I remember saying to Tain, ‘I’m Chick.’ That’s how I felt when Chick replaced Herbie in Miles’ band.”

Part of the problem, Calderazzo noted, is that Kirkland’s tunes, which had specific voicings, were staples of the quartet’s repertoire, and he felt ill-equipped to play them. A burning player with an encyclopedic command of harmony, who had played with Michael Brecker since 1987, he was unaccustomed to Kirkland’s predisposition, as Watts put it, “to put his energy into the ensemble to give the music a certain resonance and vibration rather than put himself on display.” An even bigger obstacle was decoding the aesthetic that governed the quartet’s gestural procedures.

“I was playing the wrong style,” Calderazzo said. “Plus, I wasn’t swinging. I’d never played anything slow. If Michael or Bob Berg or whoever it was played a blues (I’m naming white guys, but a lot of black musicians also), it was, 1-2, 1-2-3,’ and play all your shit on it. With Branford, it was ‘de … dank, de … de … dank,’ and I either played quadruple time or sounded bad at best. We were doing it one time, and Tain was laughing.”

“You played something so bad that I looked at Tain, and Tain was looking right at me at the same time,” Marsalis interrupted. “That’s what was so funny.”

“I could have just played double time,” Calderazzo injected, “which nine out of 10 guys would have done, and it would have been …”

“You’re fired,” Marsalis retorted.

“I tried to accommodate …”

“You’re fired.”

“… my lovely boss.”

“Later Joey comes up to me and says, ‘That’s fucked up; you’re laughing at me,’” Marsalis said. “I said, ‘Learn how to play it, and then can’t nobody laugh.’ Then he went on and he got it.”

“I don’t get laughed at any more,” Calderazzo said.

“You went and got it,” Marsalis repeated. “He did the work. He got the records. He didn’t go away sulking or whining. That fire comes out in the music. Sometimes we’re playing gigs, and it’s like the last tune we’re ever going to play. More lately than before.”

“This band has little to do with personal performance,” Calderazzo said. “Until a few years ago, my career was all about, ‘How did I play?’ The band could play badly, but all that mattered is I played my ass off. During the last nine years, I’ve worked harder than in my whole career at just learning and accepting and trying to get better.”

For Revis, Calderazzo’s Miles Davis analogy was entirely apropos. “When I first got into music, everybody was checking out Wynton’s band, and nobody could figure it out,” he said. “With all the time permutations on Black Codes, it was like calculus, and I was trying to navigate ii-V-I’s in a reasonable fashion. Later, I started to understand that to call it math-based is a misnomer.”

“We didn’t play based on paradigms,” Marsalis said. “Tain is a melodic player, not a rhythmic player. It isn’t theoretical. You can’t count it. He would just hear shit, and throw it in. It was like one was his enemy. It would go on and on, and if you didn’t know where you were, you were dead. Whenever drummers sit in on our band after hearing Tain, they play loud and bash, just like an American in Europe asks a question, and when they say, ‘I don’t speak English,’ they speak louder and slower, like that’s going to make everything cool.”

Marsalis parsed the distinction between technical facility and conceptual understanding.“With the proper amount of time and patience, anybody can learn how to play a bunch of runs,” he said. “But I wanted to get certain things I hear in old records. In 1941, Duke Ellington’s band was playing with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away, and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp, no mike or nothin’, That’s the sound I want. The bass player had to think about the team.”

Revis: “I’ve had this argument with several bass players. They say, ‘Why can’t we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.’”
Marsalis: “Then get a guitar!”
Revis: “This misconception that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated from anything? Does Charlie Haden? The band allowed me to actualize my own voice. I knew the earlier records, and went through a period of thinking that was the sound. Jeff and Kenny encouraged me not to try to sound like that, but to play myself. That gave me courage to interject my personality after I adapted and served the function. I’d been checking out a lot of ‘avant-garde’ music and playing gigs outside of Branford’s band, and the first time I went into my Peter Kowald or William Parker bag, Branford was like, ‘Man, what are you doing?’”
Marsalis: “Ottawa. That was hilarious. Joey was out with Mike, and couldn’t make the gig, so my dad played it. When Eric started playing, I was like, ‘What in the hell?’”
Revis: “This is like bragging on family, but we do things better than any band out here. We can play sensitive or go to the wall. Every record, Branford has a concept of exactly how and where he wants it done, how he wants it to sound. He works quick, so it’s two or three takes, and you’re stuck. But even if you don’t understand it in the moment, in hindsight, it always sounds great.”
Calderazzo: “Everybody in the band has something to say. We’ve learned to play together—and on a fast level—at all times. Rhythmic, harmonic and melodic information flies across the stage all night long.”
Marsalis: “But I don’t think anybody’s listening. People come to me and say, ‘I love your stuff.’ Then they’ll mention Bloomington, Trio Jeepy, Requiem. They don’t say anything about Eternal, Braggtown or Tain’s records. And it was 10 years ago when cats started saying, ‘Man, you was killin’ on Bloomington.’ Historically, this is what happens. Given that fact, just play. I’m not going to play for accolades. I’m playing for you all.”
Calderazzo: “I spent all my years, you know, wanting it. Now I don’t care! I started playing solo piano. I’ll stay home and play.”
Revis: “I’m not saying I don’t care. But it’s kind of funny that certain things are heralded and certain things aren’t.”
Marsalis: “When I was with Wynton, people said I sounded like Wayne Shorter. ‘All the badass saxophone players out there, and that’s who you want to sound like?’ Now, what are they saying? ‘Wayne is the greatest! Wayne is the man.’ This is just how it is.”
Revis: “It’s like Keith’s band 30 years ago with Dewey and Charlie and Paul Motian. Nobody gave them any love up until damn near now.”

There was no lack of love from the sold-out house when Marsalis and crew strode onstage. With neither rehearsal nor sound-check, the quartet was in game shape, slaloming through the fiendish twists and turns of seven assorted burnouts and ballads with crisp spontaneity and formal command.

Not that they had been idle: A week before the concert, Marsalis convened them in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to record a Ned Rorem composition, “Lions (A Dream),” with the North Carolina Symphony. This came several months after a San Francisco performance of “Focus,” the 1960s Eddie Sauter–Stan Getz collaboration.

“These projects force us to think differently,” Marsalis said from North Carolina Central College in Durham three weeks later. “Those musical and emotional experiences enter the repertoire. On the Rorem piece, our job was to create a dream-like sequence—it occurs in a peaceful setting, and in the middle a lion shows up and eats the people—and to give it the looseness of a jazz band playing a tune, but keep that beautiful, serene quality. Then the orchestra surrounds you and swallows you whole. You can’t just play as loud as you want, or the way Trane would play ‘I Want To Talk About You.’ You can’t start thinking about the changes. You’re thinking, ‘What is the emotional content of what I’m trying to do?’”

He related an esthetic dispute with Delfeayo Marsalis, his younger brother and long-time producer, about the orientation of his next recording, on which the quartet will interact with an orchestra. “Delf’s idea of the record was based on Charlie Parker With Strings, Clifford Brown With Strings, Wynton’s Hot House Flowers,” Marsalis said. “I heard it differently. He said, ‘Well, it’s about you.’ I said, ‘No, it’s about the group, and now the group includes 35 strings.’ I don’t want to play solos while the strings play whole notes behind us. I want to highlight the malleability of jazz. A jazz combo is like an insurgent group, and an orchestra is like a large military. We’re small, agile and mobile. They’re not. So give them the meat, and we’ll react to them, as opposed to the orchestra reacting to the jazz band.”

Asked why the quartet performs less frequently than it once did, Marsalis responded, “I have a pile of theories. For one thing, there’s a perception of us that stems from me—arrogant, cocky, thinks he’s better than everybody, thinks he knows everything, neoclassicist. Name it. That perception, combined with promoters thinking that the challenging style of music we play does not sell a lot of tickets, combined with our refusal when we go to Europe to let them record us and own the rights in perpetuity.

“Plus, with what I have to pay these guys to keep them, it’s hard to bring them into clubs, because I won’t realize any real profit,” he continued. “It’s a good investment, though, because if we want to let people know what we’re actually doing, the clubs are where we need to do it. I don’t know what good buzz is actually worth, but on our club tour in Europe a few years ago, we got more buzz within the first three days than we’d had in years. But being in clubs too much also makes it difficult to establish a clientele, because people think, ‘I’ll catch him next time; he’ll be back next month.’”

Marsalis states that Watts, Calderazzo and Revis hold the key to the quartet’s future. “I leave them an option to quit if they don’t think it’s right,” he said. “If Tain starts getting a lot of gigs with his band, and that’s what he wants, how can I fault him?”

Should that occur, Marsalis added, “Clearly, I would do something else. Play more classical music. Play with a trio. More likely, now that I’m at Central, I’d get some youngsters and start over—these church kids have endless possibilities. But ultimately, we’ll always have to find each other, because right now there are no other musical situations.” DB

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Filed under Branford Marsalis, DownBeat, Eric Revis, Jeff Watts, Joey Calderazzo, Tenor Saxophone

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Andrew Cyrille from The End Of The ’90s

I don’t recall exactly when master drummer Andrew Cyrille joined me to do a DownBeat Blindfold Test—maybe 1998 or 1999. In any event, his responses were incisive, on-point, and thought-provoking. Here’s the uncut transcript of the proceedings.

* * *

1.  Steve Coleman & Council of Balance, “Day One,”  Genesis, RCA, 1997. “Day One” (1997), with Miguel “Anga” Diaz and George Lewis. (four stars)

The thing that struck me the most were the lush harmonies.  It sounded like some kind of electric piano using some kind of synthesized accordion-sounding timbres sometimes.  The piece reminds me in some ways of Stanley Cowell’s Piano Choir, Handscapes; I know it’s not that, but it kind of reminded me of that.  It’s hard to tell who the drummer is because he or she is playing so much within the context of the accompaniment to the arrangement, and with all those polytonalities which dominate it’s kind of hard to hear anything that would identify him distinctly.  There is good interplay with the horns; it’s really good.  I’m going to take a guess.  It sounds like it could be something that Andrew Hill has done.  I’ve never heard this piece, but it kind of sounds like him.  I was trying to figure it out.  I said, “Gee, I’ve heard that sound before,” the way the piano player is playing — and as I listen to it more, it kind of does sound like Andrew.  So I’ll take a guess.  Could it be Billy Drummond on drums. [“There’s a large percussion choir and a trapset drummer.”] That’s kind of what I thought, too.  But see, sometimes… Well, it didn’t sound like it there, but you can also do percussion nowadays with synthesizers, but perhaps not on this.  It sounds a little too organic; I agree with you.  It sounds like they’ve been playing in 6/8 for a good portion of the time.  I’d give it four stars.  I can’t tell you exactly who the drummer is. [That’s a Steve Coleman thing for a 30-piece big band with Cuban drummers; the drummer is Sean Rickman and the pianist is Andy Milne.] I thought of Steve Coleman also.

2.  Milford Graves, “Ultimate High Priest”, Real Deal, DIW, 1991. (Graves, solo percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s my man.  That’s Milford.  The recording is very good.  You can tell the sound of his various pitch…the sliding of tonality that Milford gets from the way he tunes the drums and the way he strikes them with the sticks, etc.  It’s almost like a rubber sound.  A lot of it comes out of the sound of the tabla also, which he hears a lot of what he does coming out of that.  Fantastic polyrhythms, energy, creativity, clarity.  Good chops.  Yeah, only Milford does this kind of thing like that.  I don’t think you can find an original like him.  Five stars.

3.  Billy Higgins, “Shoulders”,  Mosaic, Music Masters, 1990.
Rashied Ali. [No.] This is a person to me who if it’s not Max Roach, has been listening to Max Roach.  It sounds like some of the constructs Max would play.  He’s playing very good antiphonal phrasings, got a good control over dynamics, techniques.  Knows what he wants to play.  Strong.  Good use of space.  Could be Billy Higgins. [You got it.] Four-and-a-half stars.

4.  Tommy Flanagan Trio, “Verdandi,”  Sea Changes, Evidence, 1996. (Flanagan, piano, composer; Lewis Nash, drums; Peter Washington, bass.

I’ll take a guess on that one, and I think that might be Lewis Nash playing drums, with Tommy Flanagan, and maybe Peter Washington on bass.  Lewis is dotting all the i’s, and strong.  He’s up on the one!  He’s doing what he’s supposed to do in relationship to that music, and you know where he is all the time.  And of course, he’s coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.  I would say all of the great brush players like Kenny Clarke and Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe would have to give kudos to that playing.  In honor and with dedication… Because I could hear it, that Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember from whence we came and what’s happening on the contemporary scene, I’d have to give him five stars for that.

5. Tony Williams, “Sister Cheryl” (#1), Live In Tokyo, Blue Note, 1992. (four stars) (Williams, drums; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ira Coleman, bass)

Whoever that was, it sounds like…there was something in the sound of the drums… By that I mean that he had tuned the drums a certain way, and he was playing with the tones that he tuned the drums to.  And he was playing his song from within.  It was a very spiritual-sounding solo.  Melody drums.  It was very easy listening.  It sounded very smooth.  He had very good dynamic shapes, the highs and the lows, the space.  There was not a lot of flash and technical splash.  And the playing was in 4/4, but it sounded like he was playing from a triplet matrix.  You could count something like that in a 12/8.  It was very good control. It reminded me in some ways of something Michael Carvin would do, except that Michael’s touch is a little heavier.  But it sounds like something that might come out of Michael Carvin.  Or maybe even Idris Muhammad.  It was like an Ahmad Jamal kind of piece; it reminded me of the piece “Poinciana” with Vernell Fournier playing the rhythm where he’d play on the bell of the cymbal the “and” of the count, like the one-AND-two-AND-ting-ting, and then he would play that other rhythm in the left hand off of one of the toms, like the small tom on the left side, and then of course with mallets.  It was a very good introduction to the horns.

Now, I’ll just take a guess and say it was Idris Muhammad maybe with some kind of arrangement by John Hicks on piano.  I’m not sure. [AFTER] Really.  Ooh.  I’m surprised, because Tony usually plays with a lot more rhythmical complexity.  But now that you say it, I could understand why it is Tony.  That was very good.  In this case, I think Tony wanted to reach some people in another way, not in his usual way of playing the drums.  I’d give that four stars.

6. Evan Parker-Barry Guy-Paul Lytton, “The Echoing Border Zones”, 50th Birthday Concert, Leo, 1994.

That was very interesting.  They got great phonics, and very creative saxophone playing.  It started off in such a brooding-like manner, and the players were really listening to each very closely, I can tell, coming in and out of each other in terms of who was playing what sound, and one would add or lay out… In other words, they were extrapolating very well together, editing, giving-and-taking with each other.  It reminded me of some kind of organic mass which was percolating over some kind of heat, maybe like before a volcano erupts.  It sounds like these guys have been playing with each other for a while.  I think the bass was aiming more for the kinds of harmonics that he could get out of the instrument, things that normally people wouldn’t try to get in the more traditional mainstream way, and out of his aim for harmonics that kind of projected his sense of rhythm, and consequently, melody.  In other words, it’s kind of reversed.  It would seem as though he would get the rhythm first… Well, maybe, too, that’s part of it, but then you would get your melody and then you would aim for your harmonics. But it sounded as though he was going for the harmonics out of which he got his rhythm. But one could say, too, that you can’t have any kind of motion without rhythm being first, because in a sense, that’s what rhythm is — it’s movement. 5 stars.

Now, it kind of sounds like it could be somebody like Evan Parker, and of course the bass playing could be somebody like Barry Guy, and I think the drummer’s name is Paul Lytton.  I can tell these cats have been listening to each other for a while.  It kind of comes out of that Peter Kowald direction of bass playing, but Kowald is heavier.  I was going to say, it’s that kind of European style of total improvisation.  I’d give that five stars.  Because those cats were intense, and they were dedicated, and they were thinking.  It’s very interesting, the kind of sounds that they were getting.  I liked that.

7.  Charles Moffett, w/ Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Charnett Moffett, “Sunbeam” , General Music Project, Evidence, 1997/1994.

That was a very interesting, like Middle-Eastern theme.  They started off with a nice three-quarter melody, and the drums came through very clear.  There’s a good strong and clear saxophone solo; the phrasing was strong.  The piano did a lot of long-metered playing against the up tempo of the drums.  Of course, you can play fast, but you can play fast in what they call long-metered or an augmented style, which means that you play it twice as slow, and in that way the sound of the drums came through.  It kind of reminded me of the drums being the clothesline on which the laundry of the other voices were being hung.

I can’t exactly tell you who the drummer was.  His solo didn’t knock me out that much.  I don’t know.  The piano playing sounded to me a little like Geri Allen.  I couldn’t tell you who the other musicians were. [Charles Moffett, Charnett and Kenny Garrett] Kenny Garrett came to mind, and I can hear the strength of the playing.  It sounds like the kind of strength that Kenny Garrett plays.  But I didn’t hear some of the familiar kind of things I’ve heard Kenny Garrett play.  Now, I haven’t listened to Kenny Garrett a great deal, but I’ve heard him some, so I have some feeling for the weight of his sound.  It came to mind, but I just didn’t say that was him.  Geri I’ve been listening to for a while, and there are some licks she plays that are identifiable — I’ve played with her on a number of occasions.  I’d give that one 3½ stars.

8.  Idris Muhammad-George Coleman, “Night and Day”, Right Now, Cannonball, 1997.

Sounds like Blackwell. [LATER] Now, whoever that drummer was with the saxophone player… Certainly most of these guys have a command of the Bebop language.  At first I said it was Blackwell because of the high tuning of the drums, and in a sense that kind of playing comes out of the Max Roach playing of songs, melody drums that remind you of what the song is, even though Max plays more patterns that he’s developed over the years and they’re weighted in certain ways.  It sounds like this guy was a little more flexible, but thinking with those kinds of constructs as far as drums playing a song.  The thing about this guy — as I listened to it more — and Blackwell, was that Blackwell’s rhythmic inflections are different.  How he assigns his rhythms, the weight… Of course, Blackwell plays a lot of different kinds of polyrhythms, especially in the solos.  This guy played polyrhythms, but they weren’t as independently coordinated or as complex as Blackwell would play the rhythms.  Of course, Blackwell invented those rhythms and he played them to a T, his way.  I mean, they were there when he wanted them, and any time he decided to issue them, they were there.  But this fellow didn’t sound like Blackwell, even though the way you think about tunes like this is more or less the same.  I mean, there’s a pattern to the tunes, so you just improvise according to what you hear and what you think on the instrument that you have.  This duet also reminded me what Philly Joe Jones and Sonny Rollins did some years ago on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.”

I’m going to take a guess.  It could be Phil Woods and Bill Goodwin.  No?  Then I’m off on that.  But I will say that the drummer was interpreting “Night and Day with the language of the drums, and it was very clear that the tune was right on the money. [AFTER] Very good.  I’d give that four stars.  Right on.

9.  Max Roach & Anthony Braxton, “Spirit Possession” (#5), Birth & Rebirth, Black Saint, 1978.

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Max Roach! [LATER] I think it was with Braxton.  Max’s quality has always been of the highest order.  You kind of know that it’s Max becaue of the weight of his sound and, of course, how he tunes the drums also.  Max tunes his drums high, let’s say in comparison to Art Blakey; Blackwell listened to Max a lot, and he tuned his drums high also.  Max plays a lot of stuff.  In this particular piece I heard him playing in several different meters.  The opening number, of course, sounded to me like it was in 6/4.  But the outstanding thing about it was where he was laying his bass drum and sock cymbal, where he was placing those beats, and it was almost like a 5/4 rhythm, but he just added the extra beat which made it 6.  If you listened to it again and had to take one of those beats out and have it repeated, it would be like a 5/4.  Max plays a lot of those different kinds of rhythms.  Then he went on to something that had the classic bebop drummer’s pattern of SPANGALANG, SPANGALANG; a lot of us say that is dotted 8 and 16th in the written nomenclature.  Some people would like to think of it as the quarter-note triplet with the middle triplet missing followed by the quarter note.  It’s just a matter of interpretation.  The feeling is just about the same.  I guess one could think about it in 6… Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms if amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know he has to work on it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums.  And I know he has to practice that.  He has to work on it.  That’s why it comes out with such clarity and such weight.  His independent coordination has always been excellent.  He is a motif and a theme constructionist, and doing that on the drums, he usually lays down some kind of musical melodic rhythmical bed for the players — in this case Braxton, the soloist — to feed off of or play from.  Much of his thought process reminds me of traditional African drumming in terms of repetitive ostinato.  The only thing is, with him it’s that it’s being done from the African-American perspective as far as the trap set — or, as he calls it, the multi-percussion set — is concerned.  He is a consummate theme-and-variation improviser.  Braxton was playing typically Braxton, but playing off of the rhythms that Max was laying down as a foundation.  For the person that Max Roach is and my great admiration for his enduring ability and for the contribution that he has made to the jazz scene and to jazz drumming, I’d have to give him five stars plus on that one.

10.  Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley, “Stylobate 2,” Leaf Palm Hand, FMP, 1988.

You know, I don’t even want to say the guy’s name! [LAUGHS] Because he means so much to me.  He’s part of what my life has been for many years.  Cecil Taylor, of course, on the piano.  The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm as, say, a Max Roach would.  So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, give-and-take.  There wasn’t a lot of the polarity which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic, and generates another kind of feeling also.  I think usually in improvisation a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.  I can’t say there was anything wrong with the way this drummer was playing, which says that he was listening very closely to what Cecil was doing, and there was a certain kind of synthesis that was coming together, a certain kind of unison.  Sometimes unisons are good, but sometimes they don’t make for the most interesting of listening, like when you have, again, these contrasting poles.  Like, for instance, the way Coltrane and Elvin used to play with each other, which made for some fantastic magic.  Could the drummer be Tony Oxley?  For the drummer, I would say 3½-4 stars.

11.  Jeff Watts, “Wry Koln” Citizen Tain, Columbia, 1998.  W/ Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland.

The way it started out was very interesting, the contrast of fast and slow themes moving to swing.  At first, because of the construct of the drummer’s rhythm, I thought maybe it could be Blackwell and Joe Lovano.  But as it moved into the piece, it’s probably somebody else.  A lot of the time it seemed the drummer was leading the rhythmical changes between the swing sections, the Latin sections and the tempo changes.  It sounded as though the drummer is a studied and educated musician in both the traditional and contemporary ways of drumming, with a good feel, and he has an excellent knowledge of how to augment the melodic sound of the instruments with the sound placement from the drums.  Because you can hit the instrument in so many different places to get various I would have to say drum melodies or drum pitches, drum variations.  Obviously, this person has been playing the instrument for a long time, because he knows where those sounds are and he knows where to go get them.  It’s almost like his thinking and technique in terms of knowhow to get those sounds are simultaneous.  So that takes some time being with the instrument to know how to do that, and to really make music and not just noise… We can talk about that, too, but I’ll just leave it right there for now.  There were elements of free playing.  It was like bebop and beyond.  And to me, in a sense, the concept, though different from the kinds of rhythms, melodies and harmonies that Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton played, the interplay kind of reminded me of them — though this music was not avant garde in that sense.  It sounded like these guys had been playing together for a while, too.  I don’t know if they had been playing together as long as Parker, Lytton and Guy have been together.  I say that because maybe the level of improvisatory interaction among the players could have been — I don’t know — a little more intimate.  But sometimes, when certain things are being played in a certain way, there’s not a whole lot you can do that’s outside the parameters of the given.  I’Which doesn’t take away from the excellence of what they were doing, because I think they knew what they were doing and they knew what they wanted to do, and they pulled it off.

I’ll take a guess.  It could be Jeff Watts with Branford Marsalis or maybe with Joe Lovano, or maybe it could be Billy Hart with Joe Lovano. [AFTER] For the acknowledgements of these fine gentlemen of jazz, who are carrying the information forward, I’d say four stars.

12. Kenny Barron-Roy Haynes, “Madman”, Wanton Spirit, Verve, 1994.

Here the piano was the lead voice in terms of the direction and description of the music, and the drummer was playing what he heard in relationship to that.  In this case, in some ways, the piano sounded like it had a McCoy Tyner perspective, with the left hand playing that heavy bass-like accompaniment and the right hand playing the melodic lead.  Sometimes I heard the left hand and the right hand being played in unison.  I don’t know the name of the drummer with McCoy.  I haven’t heard them for a while.  But they have quite an integration together with the sound.  I’ll take a guess.  Was that Horace Tapscott and Billy Hart? [AFTER] I was way off on that one.  I could hear that now.  I’d give that 3½ stars.

13. James Emery, Gerry Hemingway-Kevin Norton-Mark Feldman “Standing On A Whale Fishing For Minnows” (#7), Spectral Domains, Enja, 1998

That sounded as though it had an Asian flavored melodic theme.  But as the piece moved forward, it lost that flavor to some degree.  In this case, I thought the drummer played the music very intelligently.  It was an extended form, and I thnk there had to be a lot of reading done in many parts of the arrangement.  I think as the piece went from section to section, the drummer gave very good support and he played on parts of the instrument that made the sound that was on top come out very clearly.  In other words, there was no obfuscation in terms of what he was playing with his accompaniment.  I thought, too, that it was very good writing biy the composer.  It sounded like it could have been almost a through-composed piece.  But it did sound, too, like there was a lot of improvisation interspersed, so it wasn’t a through-composed piece, but there was a lot of composition that you had to have your head on and your eyes clear in order to know what was happening.  I’m sure they rehearsed this a number of times, and it came off very-very well.

The composer could be Henry Threadgill, that ensemble, with maybe Reggie Nicholson or Pheeroan akLaff or J.T. Lewis.  Or maybe, it could be somebody like Dave Holland.  No?  Well, I thought of Muhal, but it didn’t have any piano. [AFTER] Very good.  See, I’m not familiar with too much of their work.  But for the work and the effort and the music put forth, five stars.

14. Lovano-Holland-Elvin Jones, “Cymbalism” (#6), Trio Fascination, Blue Note, 1998. (3 stars)

The saxophone player sounded like somebody who came out of the Sonny Rollins tradition.  I’ll take a guess.  It was Joe Lovano.  This recording reminded me somewhat of the dates that Rollins did with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach.  The bass player sounded like…it could have come out of the walking bass lines of somebody like Mark Dresser or Mark Helias.  I don’t think it was Mark Dresser; the way he plays his pizzicatos is a little heavier.  Helias is not as percussive-sounding, let’s say, as Dresser is, but they kind of think similarly of that approach to walking bass in free playing.  This is what I guess you’d call freebop.  It could be somebody like Dave Holland, too.  I’m not sure.  As far as the drummer is concerned, I had a feeling that it could have been Jack de Johnette, but Jack plays fuller than that, playing more around the drums and getting different kinds of rhythms and shapes out of the drum set, with the bass drum accentuating beats in different places.  As I continued to listen, I really couldn’t tell who the drummer was because he sounded rather generic.  There was no solo for me to say, “Okay, this was so-and-so who I’ve heard before.”  I can’t tell you who that was.  What I could say, though, on a positive note is that the drummer played his role well.  He didn’t take anything away from the music.  But I don’t feel he added a lot to the music either to give it, in a sense, that other polarity I was talking about, to make you want to listen how both people were dialoguing with each other or how the group was dialoguing with each other.  Three stars. [AFTER]

15. David Murray/Sunny Murray, “A Sanctuary Within, Parts 1 & 2”, A Sanctuary Within, Black Saint, 1991.

David Murray is the saxophonist, which is obvious from the characteristics.  I’ll take a guess in this case, and say who the drummer is.  In this particular piece moreso than the duet in the first part, I think I can identify the drummer because of the way he accompanies and how he places the beats, assigns his rhythms, and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is kind of there.  Sometimes you find the meter, and by that I mean count.  I’d like to say that was Sunny Murray. [Why was it harder on the duo?] Because it seems as though Sunny usually accompanies more space, and his sound variety is wider.  His highs and lows are more definitive.  And to me, it sounded as though playing in that context, he plays with more space, as I heard him.  What was very interesting, too, is that the way the piece started out sounded as though it came out of a rhythmical shuffle, or shuffle rhythm, out of which the drummer got his perspective to play freely.  So in that sense, one could say there was a certain kind of meter.  But more so than that, because meter to me simply infers that you have a certain number of counts per bar.  You count to 5 or you count to 3 or you count to 12 or you count to 12 or you count to 16 or you count to 2 — etcetera.  There’s always an upbeat and a downbeat, and however long the phrase is with that kind of concept of playing in terms of meter, as far as composition is concerned… But in this case I got the information of the shuffle, but it wasn’t any particular placement as far as the number of counts were concerned.  I’d have to say it was more of a rhythmical thrust, which had a beginning, it had its conclusion when Sunny decided that he wanted to stop or he wanted to start again.  Of course, there was the attack, which is like the one.  But there was also a resolution which came where he decided he was going to stop it and do something else.  Then eventually out of that I heard the feeling of the shuffle, of his free playing.  But I couldn’t really tell you that was Sunny from the duet part.  But as far as the ensemble accompaniment, it was definitely his characteristics.

[David Murray obviously is the saxophonist.  I think the drummer is Sunny Murray because how he places the beats and assigns his rhythms — and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is there.  I couldn’t really identify Sunny from the duet in the first part, but with the ensemble in the second half he played with more space, with a wider sound variety, more definitive highs and lows — definitely his characteristics.]

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I would have to say the music that you offered me was challenging.  It was a variety.  Most of these compositions I never heard before, but I’ve heard almost all the players… I know Formanek a little bit and I know Hemingway quite a bit.  Even though I know Gerry in another way also, as far as the kind of sounds he gets from his drums.  Because he tunes his drums a little differently also, and a lot of the music that he composes, or that I’ve heard him compose in the past comes out of the sounds that he gets on the drums and how he integrates that with the sounds he wants from the instruments.

Also, I didn’t realize that there were as many duet recordings in existence as you offered here.  Really!  Of course, a lot of them were in context of larger ensembles, but still there were a number which, if you didn’t edit, sounded as though they were just duets with a rhythmical voice, the drums, and the melodic (and perhaps harmonic, if you want to use the piano) voice of the horns.  I didnt hear was trumpet-and-drum duets or maybe even flute-and-drum duets, or a lot of string duets.  Well, there aren’t too many recordings with drummers and bass players and drummers and violins playing together… You covered the broad palette of perspective of the music, with the tradition coming out of Swing, Bop, Neo-Bop to the combination of the “Avant Garde” unto itself.

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On the 63rd Birth Anniversary Of Michael Brecker, A 2000 DownBeat Article

In 2000 I had the honor of writing a long cover story for DownBeat about the extraordinary tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker on the occasion of his then-current CD, Time Is Of The Essence. He’d joined me several years before on WKCR, and, as the ’00s progressed, I was asked to write publicity bios for several of his recordings. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for five years—today would be his 63rd birthday.

* * *

Michael Brecker (Downbeat Article):

At fifty, Michael Brecker is perhaps the most copied living saxophonist, During his thirty years as a professional improviser, he’s made his mark on every conceivable musical circumstance, from hard core jazz to hard core pop. Brecker no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, but a few holes remained in his resume at the beginning of 1999.

For one thing, the tenor saxophonist had never explored the capacious sonic field of the organ-guitar rhythm section, a mainstay for any young saxman coming up, as Brecker did, in an organ town like ‘60s Philadelphia.  Nor had Brecker, whose debt on every level to the John Coltrane Quartet is no secret, ever locked horns in a studio with drum innovator Elvin Jones, a lifelong hero.

Brecker rectifies both gaps on Time Is Of The Essence [Verve], his third consecutive release devoted to full-bore improvising.  Hammond futurist Larry Goldings and guitar icon Pat Metheny frame the leader’s urgent declamations, while elder statesman Jones and two descendants — Jeff Watts and Bill Stewart, cutting-edge tradition piggybackers with their own trapset dialects — sculpt the rhythm flow on three selections apiece. Goldings, a proactive comper and imaginative soloist, trumps the leader’s ideas and tosses out intriguing postulations; Metheny, an infrequent visitor to the organ function, plays with bluesy feel and spare discretion.  With a tone whose muscularity is less buff and more fluid than some years back, Brecker plays with characteristic blue-flame-to-white-heat clarity, a hungry master searching for — and often reaching — the next level.

For Brecker — who came of age when seminal language-makers like Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were alive and creative, when today’s “classic” Blue Note albums were hot off the presses — the search seems to involve reaching out to younger musicians like Watts and Goldings whose aesthetic embraces investigating and revitalizing the tradition, not exploding it.

“That’s an interesting point,” Brecker responds when I propose this idea to him.  He’s tall, fit, bald with a trim salt-and-pepper goatee, stylishly spectacled.  He speaks in measured tones belying the sturm und drang that characterizes his tenor saxophone voice.  “The dynamics of the musical scene were quite different when I first arrived in New York, and we were coming from a different place.  The advent of the newer generation of musicians allows me to play in the jazz tradition in a way that doesn’t feel retro.  It feels fresh.  ‘Time Is Of The Essence’ involves a certain amount of looking back.”

Brecker’s comfort level with the organ dates to childhood; his father, Robert, a lawyer and semiprofessional jazz pianist, even brought a Hammond B3 for the household.  “My father and I played it a bit,” Brecker recalls, “and my brother Randy got pretty good on it.  I listened to organ records by Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott with Stanley Turrentine, plus my Dad took me to hear Jimmy Smith in Philly, where organ trios played all over the city.  Every day as a teenager after school I played drums along with Larry Young’s Unity, which Elvin is on, and both saxophone and drums along with Coltrane records like A Love Supreme.  I played a lot with Eric Gravatt, an incredible drummer who was living in Philadelphia then, who later played with McCoy Tyner and Weather Report,  He exposed me to a lot of things I hadn’t heard, and different ways of playing.  We did a lot of duet playing, just drums and saxophone.  He used to set an alarm clock for an hour, and we’d improvise straight through — killin’!”

We’re sitting in the cluttered conference room of his management suite high above Times Square.  The closed windows cannot mute the blare of traffic and rattle of nearby construction.  Distracted by the cacophony from the street, Brecker lifts his lanky frame from the chair, strides to the window and peers up and down to ascertain that it indeed is closed.  A row of meteorites, from the private stock of manager Darryl Pitt, who sells them, lies on a shelf against the wall.  Brecker looks for one, picks it up, ponders it, has me feel its dense heft and smooth metallic bottom.  We marvel at the wonders of the universe, then return to the table to continue the third degree.

“Why this record now?  I can honestly say I don’t know!” he laughs.  I didn’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, now it’s the millennium and it’s time for an organ record.  I just knew that I wanted to record with Larry Goldings.  His sensibility reminds me of Larry Young.  I love everything about Larry’s playing — his sound and sense of time.  He’s funky as hell, and has a comprehensive harmonic palette that’s unusual for an organist — possibly because he’s also a superb pianist.  I thought it would be fabulous to couple him with Pat, which turned out to be a natural.  Pat plays compositionally, melodically, intensely; he he has his own sound which blends with mine in a way that pleases my ear.  I love Pat’s thinking process, quick and very decisive.  My last three records have all been jazz, where you have only a few days to resolve problems, unlike more produced records with electronics where the mixes are more convoluted and complex.  When I’m sitting on the fence Pat will express very firm opinions and force me to make a decision.”

Brecker credits a five-week European tour two decades ago with Metheny, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack deJohnette, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden, documented on ‘80/’81 (ECM), as a pivotal transition in a career during which he’d played with Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, the Brecker Brothers, and on several hundred studio dates as the most in-demand session saxophonist in the world.

“I’d moved to New York in ‘69,” he notes, “and became involved in a loosely organized association of about 25 creative players who had been playing in each other’s lofts that was basically led by Dave Liebman with the assistance of Richie Beirach,” he relates.  “It was called Free Life Communication, and we put on our own concerts, playing a lot of very free music.  It was a special time to be in New York.  That’s when the so-called boundaries between what was then Pop music and Jazz were becoming very blurry, and those of us who experimented with combining R&B rhythms with jazz harmony began to develop a music that was a fusion, if you’ll excuse the word, of various elements.  The music was fresh, exciting, powerful and exhilarating.  We really had no word for it; at the time it was loosely referred to as Jazz-Rock.  The culmination of that for me was the group initially referred to as Dreams, which recorded for Columbia.  Our milieu dispersed because we started getting gigs, and we all left that loft scene and branched out.

“During the tour with Pat, Charlie and Jack I experienced freedom differently than in the early New York days.  It was such an open environment; the way they interacted, the way the music was conceptualized made me feel a tremendous sense of freedom, like I could play anything.  There was a type of communication in present time on stage that I hadn’t experienced before.  Something about it caused a directional shift in my approach to playing.”

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Metheny clarifies the point. “I’ve heard Mike and some of his friends say he came back from that tour a changed person, which makes me feel really good!  “I wrote that music for the way I imagined he sounded.  His first Impulse record had basically the same band as 80/’81, and we took up where that record left off.  Mike has evolved into a great composer, which you could see coming with the Brecker Brothers.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing is really advanced.  Very little three-horn writing in any sphere today approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record 25 years ago.  I go to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that hip.

“Michael’s music is so dense, the hardest music I could imagine playing.  That’s true on all three of his records I’ve been on, and it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on them.  He finds ways to play straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I look up to Brecker the way I do to Herbie Hancock.  They remind me of each other in that both are so advanced harmonically that it just isn’t an issue.  I would aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom.  Tales From the Hudson is the date I point to as the most satisfying I’ve done as a sideman in the past few years, or maybe really ever.  To me, that kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way the record felt as a whole, is what Modern Jazz is in the ‘90s.  The new one is a continuation, and compositionally it’s the best of them all.”

Brecker’s dance to the vivid beats of the different drummers on Time Is Of The Essence takes the session beyond being just another well played all-star date.  “In the last few years I’ve played a lot with Jeff Watts, which is enormous fun,” he remarks.  “He plays conversationally, constantly feeds me ideas and responds to ideas in present time, gets rhythmic layers going without sacrificing the swing.  Bill Stewart has taken the drum scene by storm.  He’s come in with his own language, a sensibility on the instrument that I’ve never heard.  He has a dry sense of humor, great warmth, tremendous dynamics.  He’s a groove-master, also a conversational player but in a different way than Tain.  It’s interesting that both Bill and Tain are tremendous composers, and I think that carries over into their playing.”

During a Brecker-Metheny brainstorming session, the guitarist, recalling Unity, suggested including Elvin Jones.  “I thought it was a great idea,” Brecker relates.  “I’d sat in with Elvin one night at Slugs in 1970 or ‘71 when Frank Foster and Joe Farrell were playing with him, and later I met him over dinner at a friend’s house, but we hadn’t really played.  I was thrilled to have him, because he’s one of my idols, and such a consummate artist in every way.  The beat even felt wider than I expected, like an open field.  It feels like utter freedom playing with him.”

Reciprocating, Jones asked Brecker to join a first-class edition of the Jazz Machine for his 72nd birthday week at Manhattan’s Blue Note in October, allotting his guest a ballad feature per set, which included “Body and Soul” and “Round Midnight.”  “I had a lot of fun, and learned a few things, too,” Brecker remarks.  “By the end of the week I was using a less notey rhythmic approach, leaving more space, generally playing less, which seemed to allow the music more room to breathe.”

Not that Brecker’s present sound is anywhere near serene or spare.  Yet a quality of intuitive reflection — perhaps the term is mature wisdom — inflects his locutions on recent recordings and guest shots.  The latter occur with increasingly less frequency than the years when he accumulated most of the 525 sideman appearances cited in the February 1998 discography from http://www.michaelbrecker.com, which reads like a history of ‘70s-‘80s Pop and Fusion — Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Chaka Khan, Lou Reed and dozens more.

Why did Brecker’s sound become an iconic signifier of the period?  “My roots were a combination of jazz and R&B,” Brecker reflects matter-of-factly. “I grew up in Philadelphia listening to Miles and Trane, Clifford Brown, Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman (I could go on and on), as well as R&B and Rock.  I genuinely loved them both, and happened to have a sensibility that let me go in many directions.  It was never my plan to end up in the studios — not that I had a plan.  It really started through the horn section in Dreams.  Randy is so great in so many different contexts, and he already was established in New York.  Dreams made a couple of records for Columbia, became known as a section after a few more records, and a there was a chain reaction.”

But there’s more to Brecker’s aura than felicitous timing, superhero chops, and enviable ability to size up a situation instantly and conjure an apropos, often poetic response.  It’s called respect, manifested in study and preparation.  Consider his duo with Richard Bona on the young Cameroonian bassist-guitarist-vocalist-drummer’s recently issued Scenes From My Life.

“If Michael was in my country, people would call him a wizard!” Bona exclaims.  “This piece, ‘Konda Djanea,’ is a 6/8 rhythm from the Oualla people on the west coast of Cameroon.  There is a certain way to phrase it.  You cannot just blow anything; it’s going right to the heart.  I didn’t send him tapes before we went in the studio, because I didn’t want him to get familiar with it.  I wanted him just to bring his own thing.  I knew he could blow on that, and it happened exactly how I heard it!  Michael has listened to this music for years, has learned it and understands it.  And not just music from Cameroon, but a lot of different music.  He’s a very serious, open-minded musician with a high level of understanding.”

Pat Metheny agrees with Bona’s assessment.  “Sometimes I hear people put him down — ‘Oh, it’s technical and all flash,’” he says.  “I’d like to see any of them follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced, and very few musicians on any instrument can do it.  It’s because he’s deep!  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  He can just keep going, the way Herbie Hancock can.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.”

Bassist John Patitucci, a friend and collaborator for close to twenty years who has employed Brecker on 6 albums, is well-positioned to analyze the saxophonist’s mystique.  “Michael is a darn good drummer in an Elvin kind of style, and he can swing,” he observes.  “From a rhythm section standpoint, time is the communication link, the mode of speech; his time is flexible and incredibly strong, which is very appealing.  He’s got the history of the horn in his playing, yet he was able to forge a personal sound and statement, which is very hard to find among post-Coltrane guys.  His sound was always very fat and warm; maybe it’s a little darker now than before.  I’m sure any composer who has ever worked with him is impressed with his ability to assimilate a melody emotionally and lyrically, and deliver it with power and vulnerability at the same time — there’s a personality attached to it.  He’s an influence in all styles, which is also rare; not many real jazz musicians are able to internalize the stylistic nuances of other musics.  Michael is very self-effacing and self-critical, but a brilliant human being, yet very approachable, which is rare for someone that brilliant.  For instance, he’s coached me extensively in African music — what records to get and so forth.”

Brecker’s coach was Barry Rogers, the pioneering trombonist with Eddie Palmieri, and a member of the Dreams horn section.  “Barry was my first close friend in New York,” Brecker recalls.  “I miss him.  He was older than me, and he took me under his wing, helped me feel comfortable living in New York.  He was the first to play me African music (out of Guinea, to be exact), and I was smitten by it.  He was the first to play me Cajun music and Latin music.  Barry could take music apart and analyze it very well, and he experienced it on a very deep level, spiritually and emotionally, with tremendous excitement — a very basic instinct that I was attracted to.  We have certain similarities.  I definitely don’t have his ability to communicate excitement, but we were excited by the same things — a certain rhythmic and harmonic tension and release that gets my skin going, that reaches me, as it reached Barry, in a deep emotional-spiritual place.”

In middle age, does Brecker now find he can access the spiritual fount of invention more readily?  “I can’t comment, even off the record,” he says.  “There’s so much going on in that area.  Isn’t that weird?”  Is he doing non-musical things in preparation?  “Yes.”  His regimen?  He utters some nonsense syllables.  Exercise?  “Absolutely.”  Meditation?   “A bit.”  Anything else?  He folds his lower teeth over his upper lip in a mock grimace. “It’s personal stuff.”

Moving from metaphysics to the tangible, Brecker still spends plenty of time in the practice room.  “When I’m on the road, it’s difficult to practice,” he says.  “I try go to soundchecks a little early, and practice before the gig, at the gig.  I don’t like to play in hotel rooms because I’m self-conscious about bothering other people.  When I’m home and have the time and some ideas, I enjoy practicing.  I enjoy the experience of learning new things, then watching it come out in the playing.  I never really work on technique per se.  Sometimes I practice simple things, filling in holes in my knowledge.  I always write down a list of new ideas, like interesting note relationships, and I work on them at home.  Eventually it comes out in my playing.  It comes out better when I don’t try to force it, but just try and learn things and then let it take its course.”

Brecker’s immersion in African music reached another level during Paul Simon’s 1991 Graceland tour, when he met the bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, and the Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini.  “Having the opportunity to be around them was like a door swinging open, because they were a direct source I could ask questions to,” he says.  “If we were listening to something, I’d first ask where one was, what the words meant.  I’d ask about the structure, the meaning of the rhythm, whether they were hearing it in 6 or in 12 or in 3 or in 4 or in 9.  Armand would tap the rhythm on my arm as he heard it, which often was very different from where I was hearing it.”

Does he see himself blending African tropes with his recent more vernacular-oriented style? “I’m actually looking at it fairly closely right now, though it’s difficult for me for me to articulate it just yet.  But it does play a big part of my music in the future.  Jazz has its origins in Africa, so the aesthetic is built into the music automatically.  At the same time there’s been constant back-and-forth cross pollination; you hear the influence of jazz in African music today and vice-versa.  Even saying ‘African music’ is misleading because it’s so wildly diverse, with so many varieties coming off the continent.  In conceptualizing a future project, I’m thinking more in terms of musicians that I would play with.”

That open-ended intersection of personalities is what we hear throughout Time Is Of The Essence.  “Compared to other instruments, the saxophone is relatively easy,” the four-time Grammy winner and father of two muses.  “Because it’s possible to play so much on it, what’s difficult is learning to edit.  Certainly my playing is more relaxed than it’s ever been,  Maybe some of that is just through age, growing up a bit.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Michael Brecker, Tenor Saxophone

A Drummers Memorial Roundtable on Billy Higgins on WKCR, May 7, 2001

For this writer, any gig that included drum master Billy Higgins was a must-see. I can’t think of another musician who consistently embodied the principle of playing with an in-the-moment, creative attitude while always attending to the function at hand. Although Higgins joined me on several occasions at WKCR, we never did an in-depth interview, so I can’t post a face-to-face conversation, But four days after his death, I had an opportunity to host a memorial broadcast at which a cohort of his peers and acolytes — Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash — came to the studio to talk about the master, their remarks juxtaposed to taped interviews with Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, and Winard Harper. I incorporated some of their remarks in an obituary that ran in DownBeat.

In recognition of Higgins’ 75th birthday, I’ve posted that obit below, followed by the uncut transcript of the conversation.

“Seeking Light Through Sound”:

Billy Higgins, whose consistent brilliance at the trapset and unfailing humanity made him one of the most beloved figures in jazz, died on May 3rd at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California, of complications resulting from liver and kidney failure. He was 64.

Perhaps the most recorded hardcore jazz drummer of his generation, Higgins made consequential albums with — among many others — Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, James Clay, Paul Horn, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Cecil Taylor, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Simmons, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Hank Jones, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman and Charles Lloyd.  And from 1975 until not long before his death he toured and recorded extensively with the Cedar Walton Trio alongside bassists Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams.

Higgins was born in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1936. He received early master classes in rudiments and aesthetics from Johnny Kirkwood, who had played drums with Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington, and he kept those lessons in mind as he analyzed contemporary recordings of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. In high school in the early ’50s, he workshopped with Cherry and alto saxophonist George Newman; in 1955, they joined forces with saxophonist James Clay, a recent arrival from Texas, in a working band called the Jazz Messiahs. Clay knew Ornette Coleman from Texas, and introduced his young cohorts to him; during this time Higgins became close to Ed Blackwell, and when Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1957, Higgins began to work with Coleman.

Higgins joined Coleman for his epochal Fall 1959 New York debut at the Five Spot, and appeared on Coleman’s seminal early recordings Something Else!, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change of the Century and — alongside Blackwell — Free Jazz (later he played on Science Fiction [1971] and In All Languages [1987]; he continued to perform with Coleman until the summer of 2000). He was soon one of New York’s most in-demand drummen, impressing all camps for the relentless swing, supreme taste, and creative ethos he brought to every performance. In 1960 he made the first of dozens of Blue Note sessions, stamping his distinctive feel — an organic homebrew of second-line rhythms, fly-like-the-wind swing propulsion, primal church backbeats and African talking drums — on a sampler’s feast of boogaloo classics like Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

Andrew Cyrille described the Higgins effect during a drummer’s roundtable conducted on WKCR during a 33-hour memorial broadcast: “There was his touch, the way he tuned the drums, and his great showmanship, but what I loved most of all was Billy’s beat. It seemed able to fit any person’s style. His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline, and it had all different sizes and weights. It was so elastic and relaxed from the inside, and it would give and take and expand. I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.

“He was a very educated drummer, who knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play. His polyrhythms were amazing. Higgins was a risk-taker. The element of surprise is the essence of jazz, and he was one of its great exponents.”

Higgins had cat-like reflexes, and he knew the art of dialogue. To witness him with his vonce working — smiling broadly, eyes aglimmer, dancing with the drumset, navigating the flow with perfect touch, finding the apropos tone for every beat — was a magnetic, seductive experience. As Ralph Peterson put it, “This man was in his bliss every moment that he played the drums, and that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.”

As Lewis Nash remarked: “Often we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency. But the greatness that we attribute to Billy, in addition to his mastery of the drums, comes from his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality.” Higgins focused incessantly on spiritual matters after 1977, when he became a Muslim; he found in Islamic tenets sufficient structure and discipline to overcome a long-standing heroin habit. He spent the remainder of his life giving back. After moving back to Los Angeles, Higgins founded the World Stage, a community center on Deegan Boulevard in Crenshaw, near Leimart Park, devoted to the study and performance of jazz. The club’s logo: “Seeking light through sound.”

–Ted Panken

Billy Higgins Memorial Broadcast (WKCR, 5-7-01) – (Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash Live in the Studio; Taped interviews with Billy Hart, Lewis Hayes, and Winard Harper):

One thing we can note about Billy Higgins is the tremendous consistency of innovation and creativity and imagination and commitment with which he approached every musical situation.  I can never remember hearing him off.  Ralph Peterson, who is the first of our numerous Billy Higgins drum brethren of various generations…

PETERSON:  Disciple.  He was truly the teacher and I am still the student.  He continues to be the teacher through the legacy he’s left.  Consistency is one of the things that amazed me about him, his ability to maintain himself regardless of the musical context he was playing in.  It was just incredible.

What was your first exposure to Billy Higgins’ music and when did you first have an opportunity to see him perform?  Because seeing him was a very special thing.

PETERSON:  Well, I first discovered Billy Higgins’ music through my educational experience at Rutgers University.  I was not a jazz baby when I got there.  So I first heard Billy Higgins on a Lee Morgan record called The Procrastinator.”  The relaxed feel; it amazed me how he could generate so much energy and forward motion, but still stay relaxed.  And then when I met him, we were at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.  I had seen him play a couple of times in New York, and one of my favorite stories is… I enjoyed Billy most at Bradley’s, when there was no drums in the club and Billy would pull out a pair of brushes and snatch the phone book from behind the bar, and swing the duo — now a trio — under the table with just a pair of brushes and a New York telephone book.  To possess that much musicianship and invention and brush facility, to be able to play a full night of music… Because once he started playing, no one wanted him to stop.  So it was like a master class every time yu were near him.  And he was very warm, he was very friendly, he had a very loving spirit.

Then when I saw him play the set, again I was reminded of the importance of enjoying what you do.  Because his moniker, “Smiling Billy” Higgins… I mean, this man actually truly enjoyed every moment that he played the drums.  Deepak Chopra talks about finding your bliss.  He was always in his bliss when he was playing the instrument.  And that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.   I can remember him in Sweet Basil playing a 5- or 10-minute solo with just the found of the brush waving in the air.  You could hear…

You could hear a pin drop.

PETERSON:  You could hear a pin drop.  I wanted to use the Art Blakey saying, but this is radio, so I can’t.  You could hear a pin drop on cotton!  You know what I mean?  And it was amazing, the sound, the invention that he was generating.

An interesting story… He didn’t know me very well.  I was in Japan with OTB, and my daughter was maybe 3 months old.  And she, in her inventiveness, rolled out of the loft bed one afternoon while I was away.  Being the concerned father, without giving it much thought, I’m ready to pack my bags and go back home.  And it was Billy who reminded me how soft the bones of a child are.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  If your lady says she’s okay, she’s okay.  She probably hit the floor and bounced.  And then we laughed, and  that was okay.  Him and Lou Rawls did  a lot to settle me down.  Because it was my first trip out.  I had met so many people at that festival, and Billy was one of the most accessible of the mindboggling superstars who were at the first couple of Mount Fuji festivals.

I miss him.  We didn’t have an ongoing communication and relationship.  But whenever I saw him, he was always concerned and pleasant with me, and I always tried to hear him when I was in New York.

Could you talk a bit about what Billy Higgins contributed to the vocabulary of the drumset?  What will he be remembered for in terms of his approach to drumming and how he helped to advance the vocabulary?

PETERSON:  He advanced the vocabulary by representing the highest examples of the combination of drive, swing and relaxation and dynamics — appropriate dynamics.

It was like he was beyond style.

PETERSON:  Well, in a sense, he had become a style.  To me, he was an icon.  He was a pillar.  I was taught you can only go as far forward as you’ve been back, and you heard him talking about meeting Buhaina and Philly Joe… When I listen to Higgins and Roy Haynes, what I hear is the marriage of the drive of Buhaina with the delicate dance of Roy Haynes, and combined and synthesized through Billy Higgins’ own experiences that made it unique.  He also played with a really deep snare drum, which I love the sound of.

And also assimilating the totality of second line rhythms through associating with Edward Blackwell and blending it into the jazz mainstream in a singular way.  Maybe that’s what helped him be Billy Higgins with Ornette Coleman and Cedar Walton and any situation he came into.

PETERSON:  Well, his flexibility.  His flexibility was testament to the depth  of his musicianship.  He could play second line, he could play the boogaloo feel, because he understood that the boogaloo feel came from second line.  And with that understanding, you can do more with the rhythm than just sit there and play backbeats.  There’s a deeper understanding about what goes on.

[MUSIC: w/Lee Morgan, “Stopstart” (1967), then a taped interview with Billy Hart follows]

You’re about four years younger than Billy Higgins, and your professional career started about a year after he came to New York with Ornette Coleman, so I’m wondering when you first recall hearing him and what  impression he made on you.

HART:  The first time I heard him was on the Ornette Coleman record.  It took me a long time to hear him in person, but I was already moved by the Ornette Coleman record.  Then after that I heard a Donald Byrd record which is the first record I ever heard Herbie Hancock on, and I’m still to this moment influenced by that record.  There were certain patterns he played that were uniquely his own.  I mean, anybody could have played it, but it’s the combination of how he put it together that made me think that he had an extraordinary mind.  Well, it was genius as far as I was concerned, like Elvin or Max.  It was something that was simple, but nobody else would have thought to do it, and it worked perfectly for that kind of musical situation, which was to become more important in the years to come, with the Coltrane band and the way we play today.

What do you mean by that kind of musical situation?

HART:  I don’t want to be too academic about it.  But there are certain kinds of chord progressions, let’s call them vamps, that are used as a bridge between musical thoughts.  That’s not like the common bridge.  In other words, a lot of times you’ll have an area, a motif or a vamp, and the common thing is to play some Latin thing over it.

So he found ways of making those sorts of progressions flow and swing.

HART:  Oh yeah, but in a totally unique way that swung, that musical significance that we refer to as swinging, which has a musical significance that causes euphoria.  Depending on how you want to relate to it, you can go into  some deep meditative thought pattern or you might just jump up and start dancing.

He could make you focus on him just because what he did was so vivid.

HART:  That’s right.  He was like any other kind of prophet.  He used words that you understood, but the message was so clear and so profound that it was awe-inspiring.

When did you finally get to see him play?

HART:  I guess after I moved to New York in 1968.  That’s when he was playing a lot with Art Farmer and Jimmy Heath, not so much with Walton in those days… Well, he was beginning to play with Walton, because Walton was in those bands.  Like, Jimmy Heath and Art Farmer together had a band, then they had one separate, then… Just those kinds of things.  And Lee Morgan.  I  moved there just as he was finishing up with Morgan.  When there was a lot of things happening in Brooklyn with Freddie and Lee…

How did hearing him play in those situations correlate with what you’d heard on records?

HART:  I heard everything that I’d heard before, and I moved more to hear it in person.  But to see his body motion and actually hear it live, you could see that the textures he used, the way he actually touched the instrument was with the grace of a great dancer, like a great tap dancer like Bojangles, or a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov.   He just had this amazing touch on the instrument.  If he hadn’t played with any of the wisdom I mentioned before, you would still be moved just by the sound he would get out of the cymbals or the snare drum or the bass drum or the tom-tom.  His knowledge was beyond his age.  It was like he had been here before or something.  It was like if somebody lived in 3000 and came back to this time and played.  He seemed to have total knowledge of what this thing is.

And having observed in the flesh and on recordings over the subsequent three decades, in what ways did his concept and playing grow and evolve?  In a palpable way, as opposed to what happens to people as they get older and wiser.

HART:  That’s an interesting thing.  There’s guys like Miles, who you didn’t realize how far ahead he was until you realized, when he was with his third rhythm section, the one with Tony and Herbie, that he was actually playing that same way when he was with Red and Philly Joe.  You just didn’t realize how advanced it was.  And the same thing with Higgins.  I’m sure Higgins progressed, but as the rest of the world began to catch up with him, you began to realize how advanced he had always been.  I was a younger guy, so I was basically ready to jump from Max to Elvin to Tony.  But now I realize that the bridge between Elvin and Tony for me is Higgins.  There’s an understanding of what the drums do and the purpose for having the drums in the first place, for what the drums do, not only for the music but for people, just for humankind, that goes back even before the invention of the drumset… Higgins seems to have been very much aware of that.  I don’t know how subconscious it was, but in his playing he seemed to be very much aware of that, and he was a very important process in the evolution of the instrument.  I’m trying to think about how I can say it in another way.  As we move more towards a world view of music and of drumming, as we are more and more interested in the South American rhythms as an evolution from Africa through South America  to here, as we get more advanced or more progressive or whatever, we realize we are really going back and studying all those musics from before.  And Higgins’ contribution seems to be some kind of innate awareness of that in advance.

To paraphrase, you’re saying that he’s  united many different strands of rhythm, or maybe he got in some sense to the primal or universal rhythm in his playing.  And his playing did seem universally applicable to any situation.

HART:  Yeah, that’s why.

From Ornette Coleman to very straight-ahead, tradition situations. Anything that involved some swing.

HART:  Well, you call it swing, but what I’m saying is it’s a rhythmic sophistication that causes a euphoric reaction, and on a folk level that reaction can go anywhere from sensual feelings, to partying, to dancing, to actual meditation… That positive feeling can actually cause healing.  I sincerely believe that’s one of the main purposes for rhythm, if not for music period, to cause that kind of healing effect.  Higgins seemed to be very much aware of it.  The thing is so profound, that a bunch of us talk about it.  It might have been something that he inherited from his parents or his grandparents.  I think he talked about his mother and his grandmother in certain messages that he got in relationship to that kind of thing.

Could you give some personal reminiscences?  You became friends.

HART:  I would like to think so.  I certainly adored him.  But if I was his friend, then there were so many other people because he was so friendly.  I would say, “Well, Higgins, can I help you, man?  What can I do?”  He’d say, “Just your friendship is sufficient.”  Basically, he just showed me things.  He talked to me about things.  He talked to me about things about the drums and about music that if you came in late in the conversation you’d think he was talking about religious and spiritual kinds of things.  He was moving.  He was like a prophet, like Coltrane.  He actually said things that will stay with me for not only how I play the drums, but how I live my life for the rest of my life.

One thing we can imply is that there’s a griotic quality in the way Billy Higgins passed on knowledge.

HART:  He seemed to know the whole history of the function and the purpose of rhythm.  He seemed to have that in his head…or in his body.  Because I never heard anything he played that didn’t mean anything.  It seemed like everything was in perfect place, like he had already pre-composed it, although we know that it was totally extemporaneous.  It was like he could quote profound historical reasons for a positive way of living with every beat.

You also mentioned his connection to second line rhythms, and of course, he learned a great deal from Ed Blackwell when he was young and later was friends with Vernell Fournier.

HART:  I didn’t know about Vernell so much.  But he seemed to have embodied the New Orleans wisdom or knowledge or legacy without having grown up there or having been born there.  It seems as much part of him as if he’d lived there.

[BY NOW, JEFF WATTS AND LEROY WILLIAMS WERE IN THE STUDIO]

Jeff Watts, you’re about 40, came up in the ’70s and ’80s, when your jazz consciousness was formed.  When did you first become aware of Billy Higgins music via record and when did you first see him play?

WATTS:  I first began to collect jazz records around 1978 and 1979, just obvious things like Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach.  By a certain point I was able to identify people like that and Roy Haynes, but every once in a while I would get fooled, because I would hear a drummer who would have a certain sound in his cymbal beat that had like a street thing in it, and it was kind of reminiscent of Art Blakey but something was different about it. [END OF SIDE] I kind of became able to identify his style just through a process of elimination, just through seeing the range of things he was able to do.  I think a lot of the things that are going to be said about him are going t be a bit redundant, as far as unique touch and his spiritual quality and the way he could conjure up things that are African and play beats that… Like many of the great jazz drummers, they would tend to put a personal stamp on things from the Caribbean and Latin America, find their own ways of playing Latin music that would in turn influence the Latin drummers.  Things like that, and the boogaloo beat he played that’s unsurpassed that I think people will be sampling twenty years from now — if they’re still doing that stuff.

But I didn’t see him much until I came to New York, and seeing him is a whole nother trip, because you see how he goes about doing his thing.  The ease and the economy of motion he had… Probably the closest thing for me to seeing someone like Papa Jo Jones, someone that I  never got to see in person — that ease with the instrument.

Whenever you’re trying to learn about this music, at least the way my mind works, I’ll try to put things together and get a combination of this and that.  But after seeing the breadth of his wisdom and his career, I’ve started to recognize someone who had a very organic relationship with life and with music.  Even though he had a lot of specific information under his hands and in his mind, at the moment when he interacted with the music it was like an environmental thing.  Whatever he was in the middle of, he would just find something really special for that music, something that you couldn’t just figure out.  A lot of is experience, but a lot of it is just having a very natural relationship with life and with people.  You’d see how he interacts and talks with people that I’m sure he never met before, but he would just be like a regular brother and very-very cool.

Leroy Williams, you came to New York in the late ’60s, after coming up in Chicago, and you and Billy Higgins moved in similar circles.  What was your first exposure to his music, and what do recall about the regard in which he was held amongst New York drummers and musicians at the time you arrived?

WILLIAMS:  I heard Billy on records when I was living in Chicago.  It had to be in the ’50s.  When I came to New York, I was introduced to Billy through Wilbur Ware, who was an old friend.  Billy was living in Brooklyn at this time.  We used to go out there and play.  Chris Anderson was staying out there at the time, and Wilbur and Billy, so we used to go out there and play, and talk about music to a smaller degree.  Billy and I never did really talk about music.  Billy had a way of just saying little things, “Did you hear that?”  “Did you get that?”  “See what I mean?” But we didn’t really go into the music, about any paradiddles, any bam-bam, drum stuff.  It was just being around Billy.  We had a nice rapport.

I remember one of the first times I met Billy we were talking about Chicago, and Wilbur was telling Billy, “Now, Leroy’s a church boy, you know.”  Billy said, “I know.  I can tell by the way he plays, he is.”  Billy said, “I am, too.”  So we always got along fine.  Most of the time me and Billy talked, it was about spiritual things.  Not so much about the drums.  We knew that.  But it was another level we used to talk.  Every time we’d talk at length,, it would be in that area.

And knowing him over the years… One point Billy Hart made and what is well known about Billy Higgins is the way in which he incorporated second line rhythms.  Did he ever talk about his assimilation of Ed Blackwell or Vernell Fournier into what he did.

WILLIAMS:  Like I said, we never did talk too much drum talk.  Billy was one of those guys who absorbed things, and he’d grab stuff out of the air like most of the great people.  Some people just can do that, and he was one..  So we never really talked about comparing drummers.

From your perspective over 30 years, did you notice an evolution in his sound?  His growth as a musician.  Billy Hart’s impression is that he almost came out fully formed in a certain way, and played with such tremendous consistency over his forty years.

WILLIAMS:  I’m sure he grew.  Everyone grows. I’m sure he grew.

PETERSON:  One of the marks of a true master, like Leroy Williams, is the ability to teach without teaching and to teach by example.  Thinking back through my relationships with other master drummers, they were also master teachers, because there was never this technical drummistic discussion about how to play the instrument.  You just kind of shut your mouth and watched them, and your questions were answered before you could even form them.

The other thing is, the notion that he arrived wholly perfect in his approach:  Well, the depth of his mastery comes in the span of time and music that he covered, and the consistency, where the music around him seemed to be changing radically, but all these musicians kept coming to him for this consistency which had to be changing with the music.  But it wasn’t anything stark or radical or abrupt.  His ability to subtly adjust and conform to a change in musical direction is not something every drummer can do.  It’s not easy.  And to do it and maintain continuity of self…

WILLIAMS:  To me, Billy played the same way.  But you grow within what you play.  But the same… I don’t care who he played with, whether it ws Ornette, Monk, Dexter — he played the same way.  The beauty in that is he was so whole and strong in his thing.  It was cool.  Like Ralph said, people just came to him because he had that good beat, swing and taste.  And that can cover all of it.  Billy had that all the time.  But he grew as a musician and he grew as a person.

WATTS:  I can’t add much to that.  We’re all saying basically the same thing.  But it sounds like he had found the keys for getting inside of music.  If there was some kind of equation, he had like a universal equation for getting inside of some music — period.  Just like they’re talking about him teaching without getting into specifics, teaching by example… One example I have of that which is profound, without getting into specifics… He was working somewhere, probably Sweet Basil… I was kind of checking out his drums a little bit after he played, and I started to touch upon the tuning of his tunes.  I wasn’t really trying to get specific.  But the thing that he said was really deep.  He said, “Well, when you tune your drums, just make them sound like a family.”  How deep is that?  You can’t get no heavier than that, especially with something like the drumset, which is all these different instruments that are put together to make one sound, and then sometimes it’s like a choir, sometimes it’s like a melodic line, sometimes you’re trying to sound like a bunch of people playing.  But just to take all these different instruments and make them sound like they go together and that they belong together, without getting into specifics, “Oh, this is a minor third” and this is like that and “I loosen the bottom head.”  Just as long as they go together.

[BH, “Mirror, Mirror”, HIGGINS-CEDAR INTERVIEW, then “Alias Buster Henry”]

[ANDREW CYRILLE and WINARD HARPER ARRIVED AT THE STUDIO]

Andrew, did you go to see Ornette Coleman during his initial engagement at the Five Spot?

CYRILLE:  No.  Actually I played at the Five Spot with Walt Dickerson and Austin Crowe and I think Eustis Guillemet opposite Ornette, but the drummer was Ed Blackwell, and I think Jimmy Garrison played bass.

But it was ’61 when Jimmy Garrison was with Ornette.

CYRILLE:  That’s right, and [Charles] Moffett was playing drums.  I think I had gone down there when he first came to New York, and the place was abuzz with musicians talking about the pros and cons of what they were hearing.  That’s when Ornette had his plastic saxophone.  I didn’t speak with him then.  I just listened to the music.  I met him personally some time after that, at Cedar Walton’s house.

When did you become aware of him as a significant tonal personality in the music?

HARPER:  That happened over the years.  When you first hear somebody, you hear them for the first time, because there was a certain magic going on with that music, and he was an integral part of what was happening.  But as I heard him over the years, I understood the breadth and depth of his musicianship.  It was just fantastic.

To me, very often, drummers keep bands together.  You can tell a great band through listening its drummers.  Great drummers make a great band sound perhaps even greater.  And he was somebody who really infused what he knew about music and about drumming into the music of Ornette Coleman.  I was impressed.  I was impressed with the whole thing, and him being a part of it.  I had never heard anything quite like that.  So just observing him and listening to him, it took me someplace else.

I’d like you to describe his stature among New York drummers in the ’60s and ’70s.

CYRILLE:  Well, since I was part of that history with Cecil and Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray and Beaver Harris and cats like that… Billy was one of us as far as the avant-garde was concerned.  He could swing, too; that was the other part of it.  That piece “Buster Henry” shows how he could play freely and just follow the sound.  You heard that in the rubato passages, and then when the signal was given, when he played those four-bar introductions and went back into the metrical melody… He was gifted in that respect.  So as far as the New York drummers were concerned, he was just one of the cats who was doing what we were doing at that time.

Both schools of the New York drummers.

CYRILLE:  Both schools.  Exactly.  I’d see Billy all over the world in different places, and he was always very respectful.  He’d come and listen to me, he liked music, etc., and he’d comment on some of the things I’d do.  I remember him sitting in on stage when I was doing a duet with Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, in England one year.  I remember another time I went over with Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins, and he and Cedar came into the club to listen to us play.  Very respectful.

I remember him most for something that was done not too long ago for Dennis Charles, when a group of us drummers assembled to play in tribute to Dennis, and Billy was the conductor of the choir.  We drummers don’t get an opportunity to play with each other too much; I wish there could be more of that… [END OF SIDE] …Warren Smith and Jimmy Hopps came by, and I played with the group.  He conducted the band.  We decided what we were going to do before we went up to play, and he said, “Okay, we’ll do this-this-that, when one drummer stops we’ll do another thing, when another stops, we’ll do this — you go first-second-third.”  It was very organized.  And it was just beautiful to be able to play with him, not only just listen to him.  That was  a treat.

If you were to describe to somebody the dynamics of his approach to the drums, what would you emphasize?

CYRILLE:  Probably a lot of the things that were said already, because there’s probably a common denominator among us who play drums who understand some of the things that go into the science and the art of playing.  Number one, to me, that I loved about him was his beat.  He had that beat that seemed to be able to fit any person’s style, and he would listen, of course.  To me, sometimes drumming is like a person being a tailor.  You fit somebody to the max with some clothes.  You make them look better than they are… [EVERYONE LAUGHS] You just take them someplace else.  He was just one of those kind of people.  That’s the way he played.  His touch, the way he tuned the drums.  Plus he was a great showman also.  He could get up there and do some stepping.  Not only would he attract you with the music, if you closed your eyes he was still magnetic, but if you opened your eyes, that was  something else again.

As a civilian, I can attest to numerous situations where without him doing anything overt to call attention to himself, I’d find myself watching him play time.  Just isolate on that and you could be fine for an hour!

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  His time was just about impeccable.  His independent coordination.  His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline that you could hang clothes up on, and it would have all different sizes and weights. It was right there.  So I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.  He would just give and take and expand.  It was so elastic and so relaxed from the inside.  It was like sleeping on a mattress that was heavenly!

[BH, “Hocus Pocus” & “Molly”]

[I PLAYED A TAPED INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS HAYES]

You and Billy Higgins were practically the same age, and your careers started at about the same time.  You were in New York before him.  I’m wondering when you first became aware of him as a drummer and the impression he made upon you when you did.

HAYES:  Well, we’re about a year apart.  I first became aware of Billy Higgins when he was appearing with Ornette Coleman, and they were appearing at the original Five Spot.  I went down several times.   And Billy Higgins impressed me.  The music he was playing was something I wasn’t too familiar with at the time.  Ornette is such a unique person, and Billy was swinging right through it and with that good feeling that he had when he first came to New York with the group.  I was very impressed with him.  So we became friends, and we stayed friends from that time ever since.

What would you say was distinct about his playing vis-a-vis the general vocabulary of drumming in 1959-60?

HAYES:  I would say his ability to use the facilities that he had so well.  He had a certain sound that’s so important, a distinctive sound that was his own.  He was very creative, and he really loved to play.  You could always tell that was Billy Higgins playing drums when you listened to him in person and when you heard him on recordings.

You’re talking about his touch.

HAYES:  His touch and the way he used the facilities that he had.

How would you describe the set of influences that he incorporated into his own singular sound?

HAYES:  I don’t know who influenced him exactly.  But we had opportunities to practice together several times, when we both lived in Brooklyn.  This was in ’59-’60-’61, something like that.  Billy had his way of doing things, and we enjoyed each other’s playing a lot.  A period of time went by, and then when he was appearing with Lee Morgan and I was appearing with Freddie Hubbard, we had some battles of the band in Harlem at Count Basie that were very interesting.  A lot of people came and were aware of it; that was a lot of fun.

How would you describe the evolution of his sound as he got older?   People say he always had a wise-beyond-his-years quality, extreme maturity musically even at a very young age.

HAYES:  He did.  And to me, Billy never changed that much.  The way he sounded when I first heard him with Ornette and the way he sounded with Cedar Walton… And him and Cedar played together for many years, and David  Williams on bass.  He sounded pretty much the same.  He had so much creativity that he made everyone that was in his presence hear his drum style and what he projected.  He put smiles on everyone’s face.  When Billy was smiling, he made the audience smile and naturally the guys in the group were smiling.

I would just like to say that Billy will always be here, because of that sound he left, so he always will be appearing on records, and we never will  forget Mr. Billy Higgins.  I’m glad that I had an opportunity to know him and be his friend while he was on this side.  Like Cedar Walton said to me one time, if Billy couldn’t play, he’d rather be in another place anyway.  So I’m glad that Billy was here and we all had an opportunity to experience his personal feeling that he brought to this art form.

[RESUME LIVE WITH LEWIS NASH]

Lewis, as a younger musician, when did you first hear Billy Higgins and what was your first opportunity to see him play?  What were your impressions at the time?

NASH:  I think the first time I heard Billy on a record was on the Eddie Harris recording that had “Freedom Jazz Dance.”  [The In Sound] That was the first time I heard him to my knowledge.  After that, the first time I heard him in person was when I was working with Betty Carter and was on my first tour of Europe, and we had gone to a festival in Stockholm, Sweden.  Billy was there with some type of all-star group.  That was the first time I had a chance to meet and talk to him.  The way it happened was interesting, because I didn’t know he was there, and we had gotten to the hotel and checked in.  I walked around town a little bit, then I came  back to the hotel and I was walking  back to my room, and I was passing by this other room next door to mine, and was practicing on a practice pad.  I knew chances would be that it was someone I might know or would like to know, so I got my courage up and went in and knocked on the door, and lo and behold, Billy Higgins opens the door.  He said, “Come on in!  Come on in, young brother.”  Then I went in, and he had his practice pad and everything, and I introduced myself and told him I was working with Betty Carter.  He immediately made me feel like I was in the presence of someone I had known my whole life.  I think that’s the feeling everyone has given on this broadcast, and what I heard on the radio on my way here, is how welcoming and warm Billy was.

I’d just like to say that the greatness that we attribute to him is something which comes from the feeling he gave.  Oftentimes we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency or how they play n instrument or whatever.  But with Billy, in addition to his proficiency on the instrument, it’s his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality which makes  people call him great.  I think that is really a wonderful tribute to him.

If you were to step back and look at him analytically, as a scholar of the drums, how would assess his contribution to drum vocabulary?

NASH:  That question has so many facets to it.  He’s definitely a link to roots for me.  I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  But at the same time, very modern, very fresh and very in the present moment.  When I think about how I personally hear Billy, or how I heard him when I first started listening to him, I would hear a ride cymbal beat that I could only describe as wide.  I know the drummers know what I mean when I say that.  And although I never got a chance to meet Kenny Clarke personally, his ride cymbal beat reminded me of Klook’s ride cymbal beat, and it had that same kind of dancing and forward momentum and all that.

He had that connection to that root, and then the way that he would play the Latin-influenced things or the boogaloos was very…the only word I can think of is organic, primal… Very rooted.  And when you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things, because you know you’re rooted.  I think Billy probably had that feeling, and he was able to go in so many directions because of the rootedness of his playing.

WILLIAMS:  I agree totally.  Billy had that.  And that’s what all the great people have.  Once you have the foundation, then you can do anything.  You can play anything, because everything is “okay, bring it on, bring anything on.”

In the phone interview with Billy Hart, he commented that he saw Billy Higgins as a link between Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.  What’s interesting is that there are certain people who young drummers cite as the influences on whom the building blocks of vocabulary are built — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams.  They all love Billy Higgins, but they might not necessarily cite him as in that list of people.  Yet his influence seems to have been just as great.  Which perhaps goes back to your comment about the feeling he projected.

NASH:  It’s hard for us to find the words for us to really describe that part.  One way I could say it is, we talk about Smiling Billy, but for me, even before I met him, in listening to records, not seeing him smile, I had the same feeling.  It’s not that the smile itself is making this happen.  It’s what he’s doing, and he is infused with the spirit of joy and everything so he has to smile.  But you feel that without knowing that he’s smiling while he’s actually doing it, or you don’t have to see him smile to feel the joy that his playing gives you.

WILLIAMS:  Well, the feeling is the most important element in the music, and Billy had that.  Not everyone has it.  A lot of drummers, piano players, bass players…everyone doesn’t have feeling in the music.  That’s what made Billy Higgins great.  Aside from all the other things, he had the right feeling.  He had beat, swing, taste, all of those things.  Those are a lot of things to have in one person.  Some might have this, that or the other, but it’s rare when you can find someone who has all those components.  And he loved to play.  He loved music.  And that’s the other ingredient.  He loved to play.

CYRILLE:  I would say he was a very educated drummer also, because he knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play.  He knew what to play on the drum to give the music a certain kind of shape, a certain kind of feeling, a certain kind of weight, a certain kind of lightness sometimes.  I could tell, too, from listening to him that a lot of his technique and a lot of things he played came from Max and also came from Philly Joe Jones in terms of his phrasing — and then there was Billy Higgins also.  I think Ralph Peterson spoke about Art Blakey.  All of us studied all of the masters, and sometimes you can hear direct quotes.  And sometimes I would hear quotes from Philly from people like Joe and Max, but of course they would be with how he would deliver.

I like these analogies with sports, etcetera, how a cat might use a baseball bat to get a hit.  You might use somebody else’s technique in order to hit the ball to left field or do a bunt or whatever, or you might do all of that.  So that meant he had to study and he had to experiment with that kind of stuff in order to get it down so that he could do it.  It seems to me that there was hardly anything that he couldn’t do, because he was cognizant of the instrument, the science of drumming as well as the art.

Did Billy Higgins ever talk to any of you about the impact Edward Blackwell had on him in the ’50s?

NASH:  I never had a talk with him about that.  But with what Andrew just mentioned about Billy having to study and dissect what had happened before him drumistically speaking, there is a similarity.  I remember talking to Blackwell, and he did mention, along the same lines Andrew is talking about, how he loved Max Roach.  It’s obvious.  You can hear it.  But he really made it a study and a science.  Probably, since they were both playing with Ornette during a certain time and they heard each other, they might have talked, but I can’t say if there’s anything specific that Blackwell influenced Billy to do.

Jeff, you said before that your early impression of Billy Higgins was that he brought out a certain Africanness in his feeling.  Could you extrapolate more thoughts on that quality in Billy Higgins’ playing?

WATTS:  A lot of the things  that come out in drumming are byproducts of what the music requires.  So I think a lot of the way that the drumset has been changing and maturing over the years is kind of like American drummers and drummers around the world also, but just trying to get back to various aspects of West Africa and things like that.  So when you’re trying to get a comparison between his attitude about the drums and Ed Blackwell’s thing about the drums, the parallels that they may have with regard to that specific style are demands that were created by the instrumentation and the music of Ornette Coleman, just to be able to converse on another level harmoniically from the drums, implying from rhythm harmony and direction and things that are components of African music.

There’s a wide variety of things he was able to do.  I’m just going to be redundant.  A lot of it is force of will, having the strong spirit he had.  I doon’t know how to break it down…

CYRILLE:  Keeping with what Jeff said, the polyrhythms he would play were just amazing.  Blackwell played a lot of polyrhythms also.  But Higgins was a risk-taker.  He wasn’t afraid to go after something.  So you go after it, you make it; sometimes you don’t; but you keep on trying.  To me, his creativity was in the fact that he did take these risks and he would come up with these things.  I’d go watch him play, and he’d start playing something on the rim of the drum, and breathe-in, breathe-out, etc.  He’d go for it.  Just do some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.  Just the element of surprise.  That’s really what was so great about him, and all the great drummers also.  That’s in a sense what the essence of jazz is all about — the element of surprise.  What is this guy going to do next?  And he was one of the great exponents of that.

NASH:  The beauty of it is that you know you’re witnessing something happening in the moment, that he’s not preconceiving it, he hasn’t worked it out.  He sometimes wouldn’t know where it would be going, and he’d just be going.  So you’re following him as he’s finding out where it’s going to go.  That’s exactly right on the money about that.

CYRILLE:  That’s where the fun comes in.

WATTS:  The intention is… Especially when you know him a little bit and watching him play, you know that the intention of the whole thing is very-very  pure and very-very sincere for creation and for beauty and things like that.

NASH:  I thought he had great reflexes, in responding to what was going on at the moment.  He would do just the right thing to enhance or really put something over well.  He knew exactly what to do.  It might be a cymbal crash really loud at just one spot, or it may completely drop out.  He just knew what to do.  His timing was incredible..

He always seemed to read the soloist’s mind; before they got where they were going, he’s be there.

WILLIAMS:  Billy could hear, and that’s very important in music, especially drumming but in all music — to listen.  Billy had that.  You listen before you act.  All the great people are great at that.

CYRILLE:  But in addition to that, it’s what you see in your mind as you are listening and how you fill those spaces up.  A lot of times, we as drummers fill in the spaces.  Cats play a line, then they stop for a minute, and you give them something to keep moving, give them a little push.  And those little pieces of music that he would put in, moving from one phrase to another, were also very magical and wonderful.

WILLIAMS:  Like they say, it’s not how much you play; it’s what you play.

CYRILLE:  It’s what you play.  And a lot of time cats say, “Man, I’m gonna cop that, I like that…”

WILLIAMS:  But they would play it in the wrong spot!

WATTS:  And then that touch becomes important again.  So that he would be able to hear across the band and hear what’s happening.  He was one of those special people, like a lot of the great ones, capable of getting that maximum intensity, but at a low volume or at the volume he chose so that everything he was effective.

[MUSIC: E. Harris, “Love For Sale”; “Molly”]

WATTS:  I’m going to tell a very brief version of a story.  I was at a music festival in Vancouver, Canada, and he was playing with Cedar Walton and Charlie Haden in a trio in an old theater.  I think they were playing some standard at a tempo about that fast, and Charlie Haden toook a very long solo over the standard.  Billy was just playing time with the brushes very softly behind him, for a long time, with a very big smile.  This is something that from another musician would almost come across as a gimmick, but just knowing how my man was about music… He played the brushes very-very soft, then eventually the audience took their attention away from, and  he’s sitting there with this smile, and you can hear the brushes SH-SH-SH… Eventually people started to really check him out, and after a while he wasn’t even playing.  He was sitting there smiling, making that noise through his clenched teeth.  It was like theater, and it was so hip.  It was also swinging very-very hard, too.  Just that he could project that.  And I was sitting in the balcony, in the rear of at least a 900-seat hall.  It’s just something about who he is.

But I’m very honored to pay any kind of tribute I can to him.  His music will liveon.  He was a beautiful man, a beautiful person, and I’m proud to have known him, and God rest his soul.

NASH:  There’s not much I can add, except to say that I’m also very happy to have had a chance to be around him, to talk to him, to learn from him, to sit under him while he was playing at Bradley’s, the Vanguard, Sweet Basil or wherever it might be, and to be able to take whatever I got from him and continue to grow, to use that as part of my food, so to speak, and nourishment in the music.  I will continue to pray for his development.  I believe sincerely that we continue to develop as souls once we leave this plane, and I hope that he’s reaching even newer heights, wherever he is now.

WILLIAMS:  I’m glad you called me to come on.  At the benefit they had for Billy a couple of weeks ago, I bought a t-shirt with Billy’s picture on it,  and on it they had a bag with Billy’s logo for his club in California.  I’d never seen the logo and I’d never been to the club.  But on the logo it says “Seeking light through sound.”  I thought that was Billy all the way.  “Seeking light through sound.”  So I want to leave that for Billy.

CYRILLE:  I always used to see him, and I would always say “Hug the Hig.”  I’m just so happy that I had so many opportunities to meet him and to hug him.  He was a great, great drummer, and I used to call him the Swing-Master.  That’s one of the things that I’ll always remember him for, in terms of his ability to swing.  He enhanced my life just by being the person that he was and  from the music that he gave me.  I listened and I’m still learning from some f the things he’s done.  I could perhaps try to incorporate some of those things into the music that I play.  Because it’s rich.  Jewels.  So all I have to say is, “I’m glad Billy Higgins was is here among us to give us so much, and he will always be with us.  Even after we’re gone, he’ll still be here.

[TAPED INTERVIEW WITH WINARD HARPER]

You became quite close to Billy Higgins and he was somewhat of a mentor to you.  What was your first knowledge of his playing and musicianship before that time?

HARPER:  Actually, I came into contact with Billy’s playing at an early age.  Both my brothers play trumpet, and some of the first drummers I heard were Max Roach, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins —  all that work Billy did with Lee Morgan.  So his playing was already in my head early on.

What seemed to you distinctive and special about his playing?

HARPER:  The main thing that always stuck out to me about Higgins was his spirit.  As a person, you always look for things or find things that are kind of in yourself to latch onto.  His spirit was something that struck me as the something that I also saw in myself.

That feeling came through the records, through every beat he played.

HARPER:  Right.  Well, that was the biggest thing about him.  Everybody will talk about him and assess the things he’s done, what made Higgins what he was, was his spirit.

Let’s continue with the circumstances of you meeting him and becoming friends.

HARPER:  By the time I left Atlanta and came to D.C., and started playing a lot of the jam sessions and things around town… I had never really seen him play at that point (I was 18 or 19), and a lot of the people around D.C. who I had the opportunity to work with said “Your playing reminds us of Billy Higgins.”  I said, “Oh yeah?”  I knew I’d listened to him a lot from the Lee Morgan records my brothers had.  Then finally, a few months later, he came to town and played the One Step Down, and the proprietors at the club wanted me to meet him and introduce us and tell him what they thought about me.  And at the same time, Higgins needed some drums to play.  So I got the opportunity to loan him my drums, and he played the drums there at the One Step, and that’s how we met.

Talk about the evolution of your friendship.  Was he a mentor to you?  Would he give you hands-on information?  Was it more philosophical and spiritual?

HARPER:  I think our relationship was more on the spiritual side than anything.  Like I said, that’s the biggest thing about him, was his spirit.  In meeting him, i saw some things that was similar to myself.  Then by the time I got to New York and I was working with Betty Carter, sometimes we would be on the road and we’d be in the same city, he’d be working with Cedar or somebody, and Billy would come by and pick me up and take me to prayer service.  At the time I wasn’t really interested in anything.  I was studying different things.  I had also done some studying of Islam, but I didn’t know that much about it.  And Higgins was the biggest introduction for me, because I felt like he embodied everything that would be a good example for someone.  So he’d take me to prayer service and we’d talk about it.  Maybe a couple of years later I ended up taking jihad and becoming a Muslim, and that was the biggest thing.  Then we would get together and make prayer together, the prayer service.  That was a big part of his life.

Did he relate the rhythms and phrases and vocabulary he played to tangible aspects of his spirituality, within Islam?

HARPER:  Yeah, kind of a little of everything.  Because he was the kind of person who would see things within everything he did.  A lot of his spirit in his playing also came out of his family background.  From talking with him, his mother was a very spiritual and religious person.  She told me sometimes they would have gatherings at the house, and she played something as well.  So that rhythm, too, was something he grew up with and it came out in his playing.

Can you talk more about the way your relationship evolved over those years?

HARPER:  As I said, when I was on the road, he’d come get me, him, Carl Burnett, whoever else we’d be hanging out with… We’d be hanging out and we’d all end up going to prayer service.  Then I guess out of my interest in the spiritual things we just kept at it.  We got to the point  where he would come over and have dinner with my family, play with my kids, talk to my family about Islam, and we stayed close from that.  Then we’d get together sometimes and play the drums and trade ideas.  He’d show me stuff and say, “I thought about this, I’m thinking about this.”  It just evolved.  We became good friends t the point where whenever I got to L.A., as soon as I got off the plane, that was usually my first move, was to call Higgins and go over to his place that they have over in Leimart Park, World Stage.  That place over there, if nobody has ever been, that’s a nice community.  I wish we had a Leimart Park everywhere.  It’s a place that when they first took me over, when you rolled up the street,  You could hear African drums over in the park.  There would be some brothers playing the djembe drums..  There’s like a dance troupe and African drummers.  It’s like a little plaza.  And across the street from his place was a place where they have African dance and African drummers.  It’s almost like an arts community.  And when it’s not happening over there, it’s happening over at Higgins’ place, the World Stage.  He’d have everybody in there playing some sort of instrument.  Drums… I went by one night, man, and kids were in there, their parents, their grandparents, and everybody was playing something, and taking turns and just having a ball.  It was a very community kind of thing which would take you back to the African roots, and made you think about the villages and everybody participating and everybody being there dancing and singing and playing.

So he had a very functional approach to music.

HARPER:  Right.

Did he ever talk to you about his influences, the people who inspired him and whose vocabulary he built on?

HARPER:  A little bit.  Out of questions that I would ask him, I knew that he had a relationship with Ed Blackwell.  Billy was around the music very early evidently.  I remember from doing some rehearsals with Dexter Gordon — and from Billy confirming it — that Dexter dated Billy’s sister at one time.  He used to be there on the porch I guess wooing Billy’s sister, when Billy was a little kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old.

So he was born into the music.

HARPER:  He was definitely always around it, from what I understand.

I thought an account of your last conversation with him might be a good way to conclude this conversation.

HARPER:  Like I said, Higgins’ spirit was just so strong.  I think that’s what really stands out about him, is that he was full of love.  Everything he did was full of love, and he made you feel comfortable.  I remember the first time he needed a transplant, I had my band out working in L.A., and I would go by the hospital everyday.  When you went into the hospital room, he almost made you feel like you were the patient.  Because you’d come in there to see him, to cheer him up, and it ends up being the other way around.  And I remember calling him up for one of the last conversations we had..  I said, “Look, is there anything I can do for you?  You need anything?”  “Best thing you can do,” he said, “is play the drums.”

[MUSIC: Cedar Walton, “Ironclad”]

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