Tag Archives: Lewis Nash

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.

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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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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer

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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Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, WKCR

Matt Wilson’s Uncut Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

A day late for Matt Wilson’s birthday, but hopefully not a dollar short, here are the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test that I conducted with Matt in 2001, at the offices of Palmetto Records.

 

 

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1.    Marcus Roberts, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (from COLE AT MIDNIGHT, Columbia, 2001) (Roberts, piano; Jason Marsalis, drums; Thaddeus Expose, bass) – (4 stars)

This is great.  I really like it.  I don’t hear any hi-hat, so I think it might be Leon Parker.  But that’s not the only reason it might be Leon.  Just sort of the feeling.  But I heard this recording of this trio from San Francisco, and Jaz Sawyer was playing, but I don’t think it’s Jaz.  Oh, this is swinging.  It’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.”  That’s obvious!  The bass sound is great.  Is it Jacky?  The answer is no!  I like this, though.  I’m trying to feel…just by the sound of the piano player.  I like the environment.  They set up this nice environment, and they keep this nice vibe.  Also, there’s sort of this backwards Ahmad feel.  I don’t like to describe music usually in terms of somebody else, but it has that kind of left turn there.  I dig it. Great selection. It’s a newer recording. I know that.  I have to say it was Leon Parker.  No?  [Because there wasn't the hi-hat?] Yes, but also just some feel things I heard that reminds me of Leon.  But just the great upbeat vibe.  Leon to me has that great sound on the upbeat, plus it has a great 1 and 3.  There’s this great feeling of the upbeat and downbeat.  It’s like nice balance. 4 stars. To me, the great thing about playing a standard is that it’s a barometer in a certain way.  That’s the great thing about playing them.  That’s why I love playing them.  It’s this way of seeing what someone can do with common material.  It’s like someone who wants to go see someone else play a role in an Arthur Miller play, for example, who wants to see Brian Dennehy’s interpretation or somebody like that. I think that’s really great, especially somebody knows the tune and can do something with it, and again, maintain a vibe.  It wasn’t like they were playing “What Is This Thing Called Love” to play over the changes of it.  They were really trying to play a thought, a shape of a composition. [AFTER] Wow.  I heard this trio live about three or four years ago at a festival, and the vibe wasn’t anything like this on the tunes that they were playing that night.  But I totally dig Jason’s playing.  When I heard him before in other instance and in this case… He’s got that great feel, obviously, but also it has a lot of depth.  I also like Jason’s playing on Los Hombres Calientes.  In fact, once, when we were playing the same festival at Lawrence University, Jason peeked his head in at my band, the wild band, and we were in the middle of some kind of freakout kind of tune, and he appeared to really dig it.  I know he’s into a lot of different things.

2.    Charles Earland, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (from SLAMMIN’ & JAMMIN’, Savant, 1997) – (Charles Earland, organ; Bernard Purdie, drums; Carlos Garnett, ts; Melvin Sparks, g) – (3 stars)

This is a great old jazz tune!  I know there’s versions of this.  I’m trying to go by the sound.  I know the vibe of the drummer.  I can’t quite place him.  It’s definitely an older player because of the cymbal sound.  Also it has more of a 2 and 4 oriented vibe to it.  Nice.  Sort of a Grady Tate-esque vibe, in a certain way, but a little… [DRUM SOLO] This part is great.  Yeah!  I can almost always tell how generations are.  I know this is a different generation by how they’re playing swing.  Swing is changing.  But I can’t quite pinpoint who it is.  Could it be Louis Hayes?  It has that crispness and that nice sort of surge to it when he goes to swing, and his snare drum ability… I wouldn’t even venture to guess on the guitar player. Because people have done this one before (Jimmy did it, etc.), it seems to me like there’s other tunes that you could do this same… It seems a little recreative rather than creative.  But that’s cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  In this instance, the organ trio doing that tune with that vibe seems to me… I’ll give it 3 stars just because the feel was cool, especially from the drum end.  Whoever was playing there has a lot of depth.  Especially with the second-line, the march feel.  It made me wonder who it was, because they switched cymbals at certain spots, in the middle of the form. [AFTER] Wow!  The other thing that made me think it might be someone with more of a funkish… I knew it was not Idris.  I know Idris’ playing pretty well.  But in this case, Bernard, the cymbal sound was smaller.  I know he uses a smaller ride.  The swing in Bernard’s case has definitely… Jason has a great 1-and-3, and Bernard’s feeling is similar, but during the swing part it was a pretty heavy 2-and-4.  It’s a good connection with him and Charles.  “Deacon Blues” to me is one of the greatest drumbeats ever!  Anything he plays on with Steely Dan.  And I heard him play by himself once at this workshop, and just play that upbeat shuffle feel.  It was amazing.  I would like to have heard another cut of this record where he was playing a shuffle.  You can tell that his feeling comes less from the ride cymbal than from the bottom.  His ride cymbal was sort of less defined.  I knew it was an older drummer by the sound of the cymbal, but by the feeling of it, it was hard to tell.  But man, it was great.  Bernard rocks, man!

3.    Dafnis Prieto, “B. Smooth” (from John Benitez, DESCARGA IN NEW YORK, Khaon, 2001) (Prieto, d., composer; Luis Perdomo, el.p.; John Benitez, b) – (3 stars)

This kind of playing and this kind of music is something I really respect.  But years ago, out of survival, I realized I was never going to be able to play like this.  I just didn’t have this ability.  Sometimes I think you just have to realize things you can do and can’t do, and this kind of music or this style of approach with kicks in this sound is something I realized I was never going to be able to do!  I respect it, though.  It’s really great, and I dig it.  But I don’t hear this sound either for myself. I’m trying to figure out who it might be.  Is it my man Mark Walker? [It's the drummer's composition.] I had a feeling it might be.  I mean, it’s very Chick Corea influenced, especially the Electrik Band period, which when I was settling into hearing great acoustic drummers, Blackwell and Higgins — that’s when I was studying that stuff.  The tune has some very hip rhythmic concepts.  I hear stuff more from a melody concept always.  Even rhythms I hear as melodies, so sometimes the stuff becomes a little busy for me.  The sound is dry also. [AFTER] All those beats in there that I didn’t know existed!  I have respect for all people’s efforts, and again, like I said, there was a point in my life when I realized that this is something I didn’t have the capability of doing, or even feel I could even get close to.  So I went in a completely different direction, when my friends were sort of into this vibe in college.  But it’s funny how — fortunately and unfortunately, I guess — there are any number of people that this could be.  Because there’s people who have played in the Michel Camilo school of playing.  There’s Dave Weckl and there’s Joel Rosenblatt and people like that.  They’re all brilliant players. [You think it might be somebody in that area?] Yeah.  Am I totally wrong?  [First you have to give it stars.] 3 stars, just because the musicianship is so great. It’s hard for me to be a critic.  But if nothing stood out to be that unique to me in this vein.  I mean, if I heard the opening and then all of a sudden I heard it go in the middle to a completely different departure, then I would go, “Wow, this is a really…” It’s kind of like playing a standard again.  But this is the kind of thing where to me they sort of stay in that vein, and it’s hard to discern from other things I hear in this style of music.  Again, it’s more of a personal affinity.  I don’t really hear that sound perception.  But I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] Wow!  He’s a bad… If I heard him live, it might be a different vibe.  The recording, to me… I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about him, and unfortunately he came to town around the time that my boys were born, so I haven’t been able to get out.  I know he’s got so much together.  It’s nothing against the playing on the record per se.  Who else is playing?  Oh.  Again, I have to attribute it to my personal ignorance.  I’ve played with Luis, and I love Luis Perdomo.  I’ve called him to do my Arts and Crafts band.  Again, if I heard an acoustic version… Again, it’s my own prejudice.  It puts me into that feeling, and it’s hard for me to discern, because… Again, the playing was great and the composition was great, but nothing really… Probably if I heard the spectrum of the record, I’d understand it more.  I had a feeling for a second it might have been Luis, because it shifted differently than most people who play electric keyboards.  I want to hear Dafnis again.  Also, Benitez is someone I’ve always been fascinated by and have always wanted to play with.  I hope some day I can, because I would like to be part of that sound.

4.    Hank Jones, “Allen’s Alley” (from Ray Drummond, THE ESSENCE, DMP, 1990) (Jones, p.; Drummond, b; Billy Higgins, d) – (3-1/2 stars)

The cats are going for it!  Wow. [LAUGHS] Well, I like it when people improvise, drum-wise, over changes like that.  He or she plays over the bass, and that’s something I’m really into.  I like accompaniment, and I like hearing people play over that architecture with accompaniment. It got strange in a spot, but still it had a lot of feeling, and then when the person blew by themselves… But nothing stuck out to me, nothing overall that made me really get up from the seat.  It was a nice version of “Allen’s Alley,” but I’m not sure who it is.  Sound-wise, it’s hard for me to tell.  From the recording, it’s hard for me to tell who the drummer might be.  There were parts that felt amazing, and other parts didn’t feel so great to me.  3-1/2 stars.  The feeling I get is that this probably was one take, and they just did it and it felt great to them, which is what’s important. I get the overall feeling, and I’m not a very good analyzer.  Again, I’m curious to see who it is. [AFTER] You totally got me there!  I would never have thought it was Billy.  I’m not saying I’m an authority on any of these guys.  I felt I’ve checked out enough Billy Higgins… I didn’t know it was Ray, but I had a feeling it might be Hank.  Again, it might be more of just the recorded sound for me, from where I’m used to hearing Billy’s sound be.  But man, I’m such a Billy Higgins fan… I screwed up!!! But it was a real stumper.  Sound-wise, the way the hi-hat didn’t sound as much to me as Billy does usually.  It wasn’t a good representation of his sound. He’s one of my true heros.  But again, the overall feeling of the piece is what they were going for, so they probably heard it back and thought, “Man, that’s cool.”  That’s what I listen for in records, is that feeling of, hey, man, it’s a version, and it’s a great version at that time.  To me, Hank Jones is one of the reigning kings of the music still living.

In hindsight, you think you know something, then you’re not sure.  To me that’s also a great compliment, that I didn’t know somebody that I had checked out so much.  But I didn’t even hear the things I would identify… It’s great that I had heard something I didn’t know was him, and that makes me even more excited I think than if I got it.

5.    Donny McCaslin, “Mick Gee” (from SEEN FROM ABOVE, Arabesque, 2000) (McCaslin, ts; Jim Black, drums; Ben Monder, gtr; Scott Colley, bass) – (4-1/2 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Jim Black. I’m not sure which band this is.  But I’m sure I’ll figure it out. [LAUGHS] This is great.  My man can shift on a dime!  I’ll probably be wrong!  It won’t be Jim.  No, it has to be.  If it’s not, I’m going to leave!  I’ve known Jim for so long, and he has a very identifiable concept.  To me, sound is the king in music.  When you can identify someone’s sound, like you hear Mel Lewis or you hear Elvin Jones. Also, turning on a dime, making these shifts, and he does it with such artistry.  That’s acoustic bass.  It sounded like it could be Chris Speed on tenor saxophone.  I like this piece a lot.  I like changes that grab your attention, not necessarily always for… This had a lot of episodes in it.  I call this episodic composition.  I sort of compose this way, too, where I think more about episodes.  And when you have great players like this who can make great transitions, or they all of a sudden… From the drum standpoint, that’s a real key to this kind of playing, that Jim does so well, and other guys like John Hollenbeck, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey.  They’re able to negotiate the transitions so it can have that fluidity between sections that are really disjointed.  Or not.  That’s the other thing, that they made these shift sometimes, and they did it so it was a real surprise, almost as if it was edited.  Overall, I can tell that these dudes have checked out and are open to a lot of different kinds of music, and they’re trying to figure out ways to integrate this all into one sound.  They made a good sound together.  That’s what I was digging.  I heard it more really as one, which I thought was nice. The music was really meeting in the middle.  I liked it.  4-1/2 stars, because it was exciting.  Again, it had these mood shifts.  I don’t know how it falls in the rest of the record, but hearing that composition would intrigue me to see what they could do to border around that or what other kind of textures they could explore, and whatever kind of… But again, his identifiable sound is amazing. [AFTER] I was going to say Ben Monder, but I wasn’t sure about Scott’s thing.  That’s the record Donny did for Arabesque.  I’ve wanted to get it, but haven’t checked it out.  It’s fantastic. I know Donny’s sound quite a bit from playing with him and from past things, and this is totally different.  His vibe is so amazing.  All these guys have such a great, positive vibe.

6.    Edmond Hall, “Royal Garden Blues” (from THE BLUE NOTE JAZZMEN, Blue Note, 1944/1998) (Sid Catlett, d.; James P. Johnson, p; Ben Webster, ts; Sidney deParis, tp; Vic Dickenson, tb; Jimmy Shirley, g; John Simmons. b) – (4-1/2 stars)

[SINGS ALONG] Well, I know it’s “Royal Garden Blues.”  And I know it’s somebody who made the transition from traditional music to swing on the cymbal.  To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about jazz drumming that not a lot of people talk about, the people who were able to go from where it wasn’t much ride cymbal to where the ride cymbal is.  Because in the beginning he plays ride cymbal.  I love this music!  When I hear this stuff now, the collectiveness… It didn’t feel so separated.  It was really togetherness music, where they were there, creating that sound together.  To me, this is what really great improvisers do, is make that team feel.  I hear some hi-hat in there, too. [AFTER] The person I’ve been checking out lately in this vein is Zutty Singleton, but it’s not my man Zutty.  Zutty had this vibe… I was expecting the China cymbal.  But also the up feel…it had a more Chicago feel to it.  And the little breaks… Was it Gene Krupa?  The way those snare feels…those upbeats… [You're on the right track.] Was it Davey Tough?  No.  It has a Chicago feeling to me because it was less Charleston oriented and more upbeat oriented.  4-1/2 stars.  I love collective improvising.  To me, the whole buzz of this music is the playing and hearing of it, and the feeling of people doing it together, more than, “Oh, this guy was great, the way he plays over this.  The feeling of a band.  This music in some ways can lend itself to that automatically.  But this was different to me.  These guys were really throwing it out there to each other.  You could tell their connectedness.  Again, one of the things that I think is interesting in the development that is not addressed as much are those guys that went from earlier jazz styles, even as far back as Papa Jo, that era of guys who went to the bigger cymbal.  When the cymbals got bigger and they went to that ride cymbal feel, that had to be a pretty radical change for all those guys.  And they did it so amazingly.  That’s what Dizzy Gillespie said about Davey Tough… He had one of the greatest time feels ever.  One of the things he thought might have gotten Davey sort of depressed is that he was not able to get that top cymbal feel the way the other guys did.  He had the ability to swing a band with a smaller cymbal, but the bigger cymbal vibe he didn’t get. [AFTER] There was a little something that didn’t make me want to say it was Sid, but I was pretty damn close!  The feeling from these guys is just the liquid sound.  It oozes out at you.  It doesn’t come at you in any sharp sort of way.  Music is making sound with somebody else. These guys made that sound together, and it sounds like this beautiful wave coming at you.  The thing I got from Sid is a big sound perspective. He was a big guy and he got a big sound, but it wasn’t loud.  I couldn’t tell; I didn’t hear him live.  But again, making a big sound with somebody to me is what master musicians do.  They make a great sound with somebody, and their sound will still be true…they make a great sound with whomever, they’re playing with.

7.    Steve Berrios-Joe Ford, “Bemsha Swing,” (from AND THEN SOME, Milestone, 1996) (Berrios, drumset, timpani; Joe Ford, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The timpani player is making those changes. It’s great.  Max plays timpani on the Riverside recording of “Bemsha Swing.” Whoa! Go, baby! [AFTER] That’s 4-1/2 stars.  Again, it’s a different perspective.  I’m trying to figure out who the soprano player was.  But whoever left that big space of sound there, man, that to me just made it.  That’s also something that Dewey does so great, and I think sometimes players… This is just a reference to the soprano player.  If you don’t feel something playing it, don’t play til you feel something.  And this person did that.  They waited.  At first I thought maybe it was a strange thing, but then I realized, wow, these people are really playing for that moment.  And whoever is playing drums (because I don’t know), I loved it because it’s pretty open over the bar line in a lot of ways.  I know it’s not, but it has this rough-and-tumble Paul Motianesque kind of vibe where it’s so playful.  The whole thing was very playful.  That’s what I really liked about it.  It wasn’t belabored, it wasn’t long, it was nice, precise… Not “precise,” because that’s a terrible word to use in music.  It said what it was going to say and they played this tune wonderfully.  Wow, that’s wonderfully. [And you have no idea who it is?] I don’t know why I shouldn’t… I was a percussion major in college.  I can play timpani! [Was it the same person playing timpani and drums?] I have a feeling it might be, because it sort of sounded like the drums and the soprano played first.  I don’t know how it was recorded. [AFTER] That’s amazing.  This is the kind of thing that I’m pretty intrigued by lately, is hearing people like Berrios and Benitez, because I feel sort of ignorant of their conceptions of playing. I’ve heard Steve so much, and the colors he can create… And his beat really swings.  You can tell he hears the drums as melody; he hears melody in rhythm.  That’s one reason why I was really drawn to this.  It has a warm feeling.  And he played it kind of wild.  It was pretty loose.  But the beat was still swinging.  The reason I compared it to Paul, which is a great compliment, is it had that sort of rooted…it had a lot of depth, but at the same time anything could happen.

8.    Misha Mengelberg, “Kneebus” (from FOUR IN ONE, Songlines, 2001) (Mengelberg, p; Dave Douglas, tp; Brad Jones, b; Han Bennink, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

It’s Dave.  Is this the new record with Han and Dave and Brad Jones and Misha?  I had to get one in there!!  I love music that is moving together, but also if you sit and listen, you hear little worlds in it.  Misha has a great world… We did a triple bill last year at Cooper Union with Dave’s quartet and my band and Misha playing solo.  And he creates a zone.  All these guys — Misha, Dave, Han (especially Han) and Brad — have an ability to create worlds, to dialogue within what’s going on.  Sometimes, how music comes together in that way is that the dialogues just cross over. They just got through this masterfully.  One of the great things about Dave, other than just the obvious, is his ability… The roles are less defined.  He’s always just in the music, playing… Han sometimes can be a little over the top…which is cool, man.  The hell with it.  He’s living life.  What the hell! But he swings his ass off.  I think Brad is a good pairing with them. [MISHA SOLO] Whoa!  This feeling of music could only happen with everybody… Which is the true case of any of it.  But it’s carefree.  I don’t think they’re really worried about playing a 5-star record.  They’re just here to play this music.  It’s so for that moment.  It’s almost as if my daughter, who is 4, made music with three other 4-year-olds who all had the ability to make really great sounds on their instruments, they would make music that sounded like this.  To me, that’s the ultimate compliment, where it’s playful, it’s adventurous, but it has a lot of depth.  It’s not cute.  People might think that.  But it’s not.  It’s for real.  Definitely 4-1/2 stars, with an extra half-star for Brad.  You don’t hear bass playing with Han that much, and he’s really playing parallel with him.  It’s amazing.  Dave is one of the reasons I moved to New York.  He’s a real inspiration.  He’s always present, which is one of the main things I appreciate about him.  You can hear in Han within a little bit of time Sid Catlett and all these influences emerging from him.  Things are emerging from him all the time.  I like this. It’s quite not so… I love those Clusone records that they did.  That’s some of my favorite Han stuff.

9.    Steve Coleman, “3 Against 2″ (from TRANSMIGRATION, DIW-Columbia, 1991) (Steve Coleman, as; Greg Osby, as; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, d; David Gilmore, g; Kenny Davis, b) – (4 stars)

Wow, I like that.  A twist!  Is it Reggie Washington on bass?  I love Reggie Washington.  It’s surprising rhythmically and texturally.  For a while, I was kind of feeling it would be cool if they went to a different section, but the more they do this cycle, the more I’m digging it!  Just keep cycling this thing and see where it can open up to.  Whoa!! Again, this is something that I knew I couldn’t do a long time ago.  But I totally dig it.  Man, this guy can play over a vamp!  Is it Gene Lake?  I know it’s Steve Coleman.  The percussion setup made me think it was maybe Smitty.  Is this one of those JMT re-releases?  I love to hear Smitty in this kind of vibe!  I listened to those M-BASE records in college, the ones that are being reissued on JMT, some with Smitty but some with Mark Johnson. 4 stars.  Again, it had surprises to it that made me… It’s almost like seeing a movie where you go, “Okay, when is it going to move on?” and then you realize that part of it is the cycle coming back again and coming back again… After a while, you go, “Oh, wow!”  For a while, I thought it would be cool not to go back to that break every time.  I wouldn’t even know how to analyze what that was, with that metric modulation stuff.  But then when Smitty played over the vamp… Again, it’s a departure from the sound concept that… The percussion stuff gave it away.  I kind of knew it was Smitty from the percussion setup.  He was a big influence on me from those records like “Seeds of Time,” where he used percussion stuff.  I think in Jim Black’s case, too, or Mike Sarin, that era of guys started to involve using percussion along with the drums, or different colors with the drumset per se… He was a big influence to all of us on that.  Wow, Smitty! “Tonight Show,” baby.

10.    Bill Carrothers-Bill Stewart, “Off Minor” (from DUETS WITH BILL STEWART, Dreyfus, 2001) – (Carrothers, p; Stewart, d) – (4 stars)

That’s Bill Stewart.  I can tell by the hi-hat lick at the end of the bridge.  Is this him with Carrothers?  I’m doing better!  Bill has a very identifiable sound.  Even though recording doesn’t… I hear a little bit different sound with Bill.  But I can tell by things he does, the way he negotiates sections of a tune, that it was him.  One of the things I really love about Bill Stewart is that he’s totally committed.  Whatever he plays, he’s totally committed.  He just goes for it!  Not that everybody else doesn’t.  But his sound is… He’s a good Midwesterner.  Yeah, this is great.  4-1/2 stars.  It doesn’t sound like a duo.  It doesn’t sound like they’re just playing duo to play duo.  They both have that sense of adventure, that sense of orchestration.  Again, the roles are less defined.  They’re just both playing… It’s almost like an orchestra.  It’s great.  All these guys we’ve been listening to, it’s borderless.  It’s just music.  I don’t think anybody would care if they played “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry” or a Monk tune or whatever.  They’re going to allow great music to happen with whatever is thrown out there. To me, that’s the sign.  I love that.  It’s warm.  This is a really warm-feeling recording.  He also has a great sense of drama that I love. It’s grounded, but it feels carefree.  It has fringes. I like that. It’s like the Western coats with the fringe on them.  That’s how I feel music should be.  The fringes can fly off the side along with being centered.

11.    Fred Anderson, “Hamid’s on Fire” (from ON THE RUN, Delmark, 2000) (Fred Anderson, ts; Hamid Drake, d; Tatsu Aoki, b) – (4 stars)

For a second, I thought it was Pheeroan Aklaff, but there are parts that make me think it’s not.  The feeling is great; I love the tenor player’s sound.  I feel I should cop this one, but I can’t throw a name out for some reason.  I’m dumb!  It’s powerful.  I like it. Whoever was playing drums definitely has that ability to sort of percolate freedom at the same time of maintaining this pretty deep groove.  Like, dance over the top of the stuff without it being… Like, swing is such a big picture, and they’ve obviously checked out… It’s also music that is seriously committed to that moment.  But you’ve got me.  4 stars. I’m trying to figure the tenor player; his sound is so familiar.  He sounds older to me.  I think they’re all older players. [AFTER] I’ve heard Hamid live and I’ve heard a few recordings, but he’s someone I’d like to check out more.  I said Pheeroan at first, but it seemed a little too melded-together.  I hear Pheeroan as a little cleaner, in a certain way.  I’m not real big on citing who someone has checked out, but in hindsight I can say Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille and that feeling.  Also you can tell he comes from a hand drumming feeling.  Also, there’s a Dennis Charles vibe in there, a little more over the top.  But I knew it wasn’t those guys by the sound of the drum itself.  The sound was looser.  Man, Hamid is great.

12.    Cyrus Chestnut, “Minor Funk” (from SOUL FOOD, Atlantic, 2001) (Cyrus Chestnut, p; Christian McBride, b.; Lewis Nash, d) – (4 stars)

Wow, that’s great!  Again, this is the kind of music that makes me take notice. The piano player is great.  Is it Nasheet Waits?  I love Nasheet, but from the bass drum sound, I didn’t think it was him.  The bass drum sound seems a little dead.  That’s why it’s a little hard for me to get.  Is it Lewis Nash?  Whoo!  I’ve checked him out a lot, and there’s a few things he did… He does a really cool thing.  His playing has a great horizontal feeling and a great vertical feeling. That’s one of my favorite things about him.  Also, he can negotiate these breaks so creatively.  I can also tell by his tom-tom sound a bit.  4 stars. When people play hits together, it can be a little laborious — it feels heavy.  They did it in such a way that it was warm-sounding.  It didn’t sound frantic.  Then, of course, when it opened up, it was great.  I’m trying to think who the piano player might be. [AFTER] Wow, that was really hip.  Both Lewis and Christian have the ability to hug a tune.  When you get hugged, you feel everything, but you also feel those arms around you.  You feel the whole picture.  That’s what Christian can do so well in music, again, that is both horizontal and vertical.  The head was about these hits.  I would never have gotten that this was Cyrus, but I love the sound he gets from the piano.

13.    Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove”  (from WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss Cross, 1999) – (Riley, drums; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Wycliffe Gordon, tb; Victor Goines, ss) – (4-1/2 stars)

The soprano player is great!  It’s moving all over the place.  I love that.  The drummer has a great sound.  He’s dancing, man.  This guy playing soprano is a great improviser.  It’s really expressive.  Talk about rhythmic feel, too.  Wow.  Everybody has a great sound.  I hate to speak like these are all in the same range, but they all give me that same sort of feeling of joy.  When this piece went to the second section, it lost that joyous feeling a bit.  The opening section, with the bass solo was amazing, and the trombone melody with the soprano fills was great.  The bridge sounded compositionally like, “well, we should do something.”  But to me, that didn’t really take away.  Because when it goes back to that vamp vibe, it’s so strong.  And the bass player is giving it that horizontal and vertical motion, that ability to sort of percolate ahead. It’s great.  4-1/2 stars. I’m trying to get it by the sound of the drums and percussion together, which makes it a little hard for me to know who it might be. Is it Adam Cruz? [AFTER] Wow!  I’ve played with Wycliffe a lot lately, but I haven’t heard him in this… And Victor Goines!!  That was really great.  We document this stuff for recording to capture a moment of expressiveness, and in this case, the groove not only is happening, Everyone’s sound and how it worked… I love the dialogue between Wycliffe and Victor.  I’ve never heard Victor live, but I’ve heard him with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on television, and he blew me away.  I love playing with Wycliffe live; I’ve been playing with him a lot with Ted Nash.

It’s interesting that regions still produce a sound.  I’m from the Midwest, and I feel that in some ways Bill Stewart and I have a similar sound.  And Jason and Herlin, being from New Orleans, have a groove underneath that is different from everybody else. To me, the uniqueness of this music is still what makes it really interesting.  Hamid’s feel, when you know that he’s also a hand drummer and you can tell that feel.  Smitty’s feel of being able to play really swinging but also really happening funk; he has a roundness to his funk that straight funk players don’t have because he has that swing feel.  That’s one of the most interesting things to me, are those regional characteristics and the surprises.  Han Bennink’s feel from Europe, a totally different perspective than Lewis’s feeling with Cyrus.  Or Dafnis, from Cuba. It’s intriguing to hear someone like Steve Berrios or Bernard play in these different feels.  They’re still themselves.

I’d like to hear all of these again, not to recreate comments… Not that I have to know who they were, but just to get it out of the way so I can relax and check it out.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat

Paul Motian & Steve Nelson

Not saying I’ll make it (the best laid plans and all that), but it’s my intention to go to the Village Vanguard this evening to hear the final night of  Paul Motian’s week-long MJQ homage with Steve Nelson, Craig Taborn and Thomas Morgan. I’m very curious about this gig. This collection of personalities can play it straight or deconstruct – what will they do? With no disrespect to any other vibraphonist on the scene, Steve Nelson is my favorite on the instrument amongst a cohort of equals — everything is taste, after all. Comparing him to Joe Locke or Bobby Hutcherson or Gary Burton, or Stefon Harris (wunderkind Warren Wolf is getting there, and Tyler Blanton…and let’s not get into an hierarchical name game anyway, or I might get a mallet upside my head) is an endeavor about as useful it was for Robert Friedlander and I when, during games of baseball card war in the mid ’60s, we’d fight over whether Willie Mays trumped Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson. Steve plays with such freshness in so many contexts, and his snaky rhythmic feel  is singular. So for my first post, I’ll  paste below a piece I wrote about Steve for DownBeat in 2007 that never made it into print. Now, this is a penultimate final draft, not the FINAL-final draft, and I would have worked more on the ending. But anyway, here it is.

* * * *

“The next young cat is going to play inside, outside, jazz, classical, play the blues, be a good reader, play with everybody—a total command,” said vibraphonist Steve Nelson last October, reflecting on the future of his instrument. “It might be a she, I don’t know. But somebody is going to take the vibraphone to a different level.”

More than a few distinguished members of Nelson’s peer group opine that although Nelson, 53, is neither a serial poll-winner nor a frequent leader of sessions, he himself is the most completely realized and original performer on the vibraphone and marimba to emerge in the wake of ’50s and ’60s pioneers like Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Burton, Walt Dickerson, and Cal Tjader. One such is Dave Holland, Nelson’s employer since 1996, with whom Nelson was preparing to embark to Asia and Australia for two weeks of gigs.

“I’ve always looked for players who are very deeply rooted in the tradition, who can move the tradition into new, contemporary areas, and Steve is one of those people,” Holland said. “The reason I use a vibraphone in my quintet and big band is because he exists. He’s an original thinker who comes to conclusions one wouldn’t expect, and he’s used our compositions as a vehicle to break new ground for the instrument.”

Upon his return, Nelson would enter Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a week with Wingspan, pianist Mulgrew Miller’s sextet, adding another chapter to a two-decade tenure with the band. Asked to describe Nelson’s qualities, Miller was effusive. “Steve has no limitations,” he remarked. “I can write just about anything, and he’ll make it sound beautiful. He’s definitely a swinger, but even more important is his creative fire. Like Kenny Garrett, he was already an individualist early on; they played like they were old souls already.”

Joining A-team bass-drum tandem Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, Miller plays piano on Sound-Effects [High Note], an inexorably propulsive, blues-tinged eight-tune recital that is Nelson’s first leader date since 1999. The repertoire, recorded over the course of an evening and realized mostly as first takes, includes three Nelson originals and five jazz standards, including “Night Mist Blues,” by Ahmad Jamal,” “Up Jumped Spring,” by Freddie Hubbard, and “Arioso” by the late James Williams, another frequent Nelson partner and employer throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Others who recruited Nelson for record dates or retained him for consequential tours of duty during those years include Kirk Lightsey, George Shearing, Kenny Barron, Donald Brown, Geoff Keezer, David “Fathead” Newman, and Nash.

“It was happening from the first beat,” Nash recalled of the session, which could stand as a contemporary paradigm of 21st century hardcore jazz aesthetics. “It expresses how Steve felt right then. He could easily make a record of very adventurous, modern things which are pushing the envelope in various ways, but a musician like him doesn’t feel he HAS to do that. He can go into the studio and play how he wants to play.”

“It’s a matter of the highest difficulty to play those tempos and get that kind of flow and phrasing and interplay and sound, to make the vibraphone breathe and sustain that good, swinging groove,” Nelson said in response to a comment that perhaps, given the opportunity to conduct a few pre-studio rehearsals, he might have recorded the “adventurous, modern things” to which Nash referred. “It’s not as basic as some might think. Milt Jackson did it very well, but very few people have done it, including myself. I’m trying to get to it.”|

Nelson’s protests to the contrary, his colleagues are emphatic that the 53-year-old vibraphonist-marimbist has “it” in abundance. “Steve is one of the great improvisers I’ve played with in the sense of taking chances and breaking new ground,” Holland stated over the phone from Japan. “I’ve played with him night after night, year after year, and he never fails to surprise me. Last night, for example, he did something I’ve never heard him do before, which was to use a very fast tremolo and play the voicings percussively around the rhythms that [drummer] Nate Smith was playing, which created an amazing effect. He finds so many different ways to create tonal textures with mallet combinations—we all turn our heads sideways to see the voicings he’s playing, because we can feel them. He has roots in the blues which always seem to come through somewhere, no matter what we’re playing, and he grasps all the great traditions of accompaniment through having played with so many of the great piano players.”

“I almost put him in another category than other musicians I play with,” said Chris Potter, Nelson’s bandmate with Dave Holland since 1997. “I don’t know where he channels from, or how he conceptualizes all this stuff, but I’ve played countless gigs with Steve, and I never know what he’s going to play. He’ll go along normally, then turn completely left. Or not. You just don’t know. It’s true improvisation, reacting to some inner dictates that he has access to.”

“He’s a wonderfully economical player who can say a lot with very little,” said Smith. “He’s a very abstract thinker in his comping, his rhythmic responses to odd meters, but it all makes sense, and he paints beautiful pictures with the soft and beautiful tunes he brings to the band. They say still waters run deep, and he’s the perfect example of that saying.”

The still waters metaphor also applies to Nelson’s gestural vocabulary—he coils over the keyboard, jabbing and weaving with an economy of moves to create asynchronous punctuations that bring to mind Thelonious Monk’s pouncing comp, or Muhammad’s Ali’s motto, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” “The only thing that touches the vibraphone when you’re playing is one little piece of your foot, so you use all the wide space around you,” Nelson explained.

Nelson brings to bear a full complement of rhythmic acumen on Stompin’ at the Savoy and It Don’t Mean A Thing [M&I], both inventive Nash-led trio dates for the Japanese market on which Peter Washington plays bass. “Steve understands that the vibes are melodic as well as percussive,” Nash remarks. “He builds ideas not only harmonically or linearly, but through dynamics—he knows when to strike the bar to make it speak in a certain way. He double-times and plays across the barline; the shapes of his lines give the illusion that you’re hearing polyrhythms, because his rhythm fits on top of the primary pulse, which creates a tension. He’s extremely knowledgeable about chord structure and harmonic theory, which allows him to be free even on the most basic harmonic structures. He makes even the most tried-and-true songs sound fresh. But when he plays in situations with different meters and uncharacteristic harmonies, or vamps and ostinatos over one harmonic framework, he makes that work, too.”

The sum result, stated Keezer, who deployed Nelson on four of his ‘90s dates, is “a completely original voice—home-made might be the word. I don’t hear him coming heavily out of Milt Jackson or Bobby Hutcherson, or any other vibraphonist, but more taking that postmodern language that Woody Shaw, Mulgrew, and Kenny Garrett use, and translating it onto the vibes. His free time sense is the quality I hear now in Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter, which suggests that they could play anything at any time and it would sound right. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s a mark of mastery in playing.”

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There are reasons why Nelson, a virtuoso musician who has made consequential contributions both to the development of speculative improvising and the tradition, is less visible to the broader jazz audience than his talent warrants. For one thing, as Nash comments, “People see with their eyes, but they don’t hear with them, and you don’t necessarily match Steve’s reticence and understated personality with this kind of musicianship. He’s not jumping up and turning somersaults and flips.”

Another reason is timing. Like Bobby Watson, Brian Lynch, Fred Hersch, Steve Coleman, Joe Locke, and David Hazeltine, all tradition-to-the-future virtuosos born in the middle to late ‘50s, Nelson cut his hardcore jazz teeth with local mentors on his home-town’s indigenous jazz scene. For Nelson, out of Pittsburgh, this occurred at the cusp of the plugged-in ‘70s, with such local heros as drummers Roger Humphries, Joe Harris, and J.C. Moses, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, saxophonists Eric Kloss, Nathan Davis, and Kenny Fisher, guitarist Jerry Byrd, and Nelson’s direct influence, a steelworker named George A. Monroe who played vibraphone in the Milt Jackson style.

“The guys in Pittsburgh were great musicians, and I could use everything they taught me when I went to college,” Nelson recalled. “Mr. Monroe was the father of my high school buddy. I heard him play one day, and I fell in love with the sound of the vibes. He started teaching me, and thought I had some talent, so he kept on teaching me. Taught me things on piano that I could copy directly—lines and so on—and a lot of tunes. Coming up in Pittsburgh, you learned your standards, and I still enjoy playing them.”

“Steve was an amazing younger player, perhaps the brightest student I ever had,” recalled Kenny Barron, who taught Nelson at Rutgers, where he earned the nickname “absent-minded professor,” during the ‘70s. “He came to Rutgers being able to play—he knew all my tunes, and I started using him in my group.”

“We were trying to be dedicated, but it was a difficult time to maintain your focus,” Nelson recalled. “But as we moved along, we got caught in the whole Young Lions thing of the early ‘80s—we weren’t older, established guys either at the time, and we never really got a chance to expand as leaders and get our names pushed out there.”

In a certain sense, Nelson’s versatility and open attitude, his dedication to serving the dictates of the moment without concern for their “progressive” or “conservative” implication, may also work against his recognition quotient in a climate when complexity and genre coalescence are in high regard.

“It wouldn’t be that different,” Nelson said in response to an observation that, given several preparatory gigs and rehearsals, Sound-Effects might have explored some different areas. “I might write a 12-bar blues with different harmonies and extensions, but it would still be a nice, medium tempo blues. I think the most important thing you can do is to play what you love. If that happens to be ultra-modern or ragtime, or something in between, that’s great. But if it’s from your heart and it’s honest, then you’re contributing to the music. Herbie Hancock was always one of my favorite musicians, because if you put him in a blues band, or a funk band, or a straight-ahead band, he’ll play the heck out of all of them. A really good musician can contribute, no matter where they go.

“When I joined Dave, I was starting to think about the unique qualities of the vibraphone. Rather than transfer piano chords or guitar chords to the vibes, what intervals can I create? How can I space things to exploit the vibraphone as a percussive instrument? On piano, you have all 10 fingers. The shape of the vibraphone keyboard gives you different intervallic ideas; with the four mallets, you can get different ways to voice chords—I guess you could call them dissonant—that you might not otherwise think of. Those intervals allow you to use space more effectively than with other instruments. I can hit a chord, and let it ring out over the band, which leaves a lot of air for the drums, with their advanced rhythmic concept, to respond to, then the soloist puts something on top.”

Nelson added: “Although we’ve had a lot of impact on other bands playing in odd meters, to me, the real important aspect of Dave’s thing is the interplay and free flowing of ideas that his structures encourage.”

He recalled an early 2007 engagement with Kirk Lightsey at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard that provided an opportunities for conversation in notes and tones. “We played ‘Temptation,’ which contained wide-open areas between the melody for segues, and we had to listen hard,” he said. “Now, Kirk has a different tone and touch on the piano than Mulgrew Miller does, but I don’t make conscious adjustments for either of them. Now, with George Shearing, the concept was the sound of the band, rather than interplay. You’re playing at a such a soft dynamic level with the guitar and piano, that you’re inside each other’s sound—it’s like a spiritual happening. Truth is, I loved it. With any musician, if you play what you hear, it magically works. If you have the basic building blocks of musicianship together, you’ll be able to play with anybody.”

Which provoked a final question on this ideal sideman’s future plans.

“It’s becoming more important to me to be a leader, because you develop your own ideas, and want to put them out there,” he responded. “But the truth is that learning how to play that instrument is my central focus. Not many of us play vibraphone. There aren’t a lot of method books to go through. You wind up trying to play like saxophone or trumpet, or do other things that people ask, but I don’t know that we always think so much about how to create a language and a sound for the vibraphone itself. If I ever figure it out, I’ll write a book!”

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Filed under DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Steve Nelson