This post on the master drummer Lewis Nash contains the text of a DownBeat article that it was my honor to write about him in 2006, and a pair of WKCR interviews from that year and from 2005, and WKCR Musician Shows from 1993 and 1996. The 1996 Musician Show was a good one.
Lewis Nash (Downbeat Article):
Midway through a late Friday set at a half-full Village Vanguard during the dog days of July, Lewis Nash stated a medium-slow groove on the brushes as 83-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder improvised six lovely choruses on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair.” It followed a series of songbook tunes and blues, and Nash could easily have settled for keeping time. But he was not, as the saying goes, merely “digging coal.” Instead, on each cycle through the form, Nash executed a different pattern and timbre on the snare drum, imperturbably articulating the beat with crisp precision. The back-of-the-bar patrons might not have noticed the subtlety and ingenuity of Nash’s design, but Wilder did, and he tossed his drummer a nod and a broad smile as he lowered his horn.
It was not an anomalous moment. As Andrew Cyrille noted several years ago in a 5-star Blindfold Test evaluation, Nash, now 47, has “dotted all the i’s while coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.” After remarking that “all the great brush players like Kenny Clarke, Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe Jones would have to give kudos to that playing,” Cyrille added, “Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember whence we came and also what’s happening on the contemporary scene.”
If the vocabulary of the aforementioned masters and a timeline’s worth of hardcore swingers stretching from Max Roach to Edward Blackwell is encoded in Nash’s rhythmic DNA, so are ideas drawn from drumset abstractionists like Cyrille and Jerome Cooper, dance-infused grooves from the funk and R&B that Nash played in his pre-jazz years, and a bracing array of Afro-Caribbean meters. He weaves them together smoothly, conveying tried-and-true swing and Latin rhythms with idiomatic authority. Then he tweaks them, working with a full complement of pitches and intervals across the drumset to animate his beats, displacing figures normally articulated on one component and playing them on another, positioning his phrases to suit the overall architecture of each piece.
Nash titled his 1989 debut album Rhythm Is My Business [Alfa/Evidence], and continues to use the motto. The self-description is apt. He was one of New York’s busiest drummers in the ‘80s, building his reputation on prestigious gigs with Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, Don Pullen, and George Adams, and cementing it during a ten-year run with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. As the ‘90s progressed, Nash became an A-list freelancer, building a 300-plus album resume that includes Grammy-winners by McCoy Tyner (Illuminations), Nancy Wilson (R.S.V.P.), and Joe Henderson (Big Band); Gerald Wilson’s 2003 Grammy nominated New York, New Sound; important recordings by both Carters, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Horace Silver, Russell Malone and Regina Carter; and a slew of equilaterally oriented trios with Flanagan and such lustrous keyboard talents as Roland Hanna, Don Friedman, Kenny Drew, Jr., and Cyrus Chestnut.
“I am thrust into different situations day in and day out with people who may have completely different musical objectives and viewpoints,” Nash said last December from his Hudson Valley home. “I try to bring the same seriousness to each situation. If there’s written music, and time allows, I put the chart under a microscope. If you don’t assimilate the basic character of the piece, you can’t use your interpretative skills to be creative—you’ll still be hung up on how to get from this place to the coda.”
At the time, Nash was decompressing from a week in Osaka with a quartet of Japanese mainstreamers. That occurred not long after a one-nighter in Noumea, New Caledonia, with a pair of Hammond B3 organists, two weeks after he brought his own quartet to Taichung, Taiwan, for a four-night run. He was preparing for a week-long New Year’s engagement in Orvieto, Italy, to be followed by a three-day jaunt to Uruguay with pianist-composer Cedar Walton, an increasingly frequent employer.
“When you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid to try new things,” Nash said. “You’re manipulating time, beat, phrase, and timbre within a continuity of groove and feeling, so when the timbres change, people may not know exactly what you’re doing, but they know something feels and sounds different than in the previous chorus. I try for subtle transitions. There has to be a certain sense of freedom, of not the commonplace. Sometimes a little craziness is necessary to break through.”
In a recent conversation, saxophonist Steve Wilson, Nash’s partner on a dozen or so speculative improv duo concerts since 2003, observed that Nash’s attitude that a form is less a ball-and-chain than an opportunity to stretch boundaries makes his tonal personality a first cousin to that of Billy Higgins, who suited the needs of such antipodal stylists as Walton and Ornette Coleman with equal effectiveness while always sounding like himself.
“Higgins was always listening, and that’s how it is with Lewis,” Wilson said. “He’s deeply aware of everything happening on the bandstand, and he addresses the entire legacy of jazz and the drums—all the way back to all the way forward. Everything he does is out of the logic of where the line is going.”
Since 2000, no leader has collaborated more frequently with Nash than Lovano, both on his bop-to-free nonet and his more recent freedom-within-structure quartet with Hank Jones. “Lewis’ rhythmic attack is precise, but his phrases are lyrical, not just patterns that you play over,” Lovano said. “If I say something in a melodic phrase, he will answer and say something back at whatever tempo. His approach is refined, but his playing makes you want to jump out of your seat; it’s a force of nature, but that force changes on every piece.”
Tommy Campbell, like Nash a Sonny Rollins alumnus, remarks on his encyclopedic command of the lexicon. “Lewis makes the most intellectual and technical things sound so natural and effortless that you forget about what it takes to play it,” said Campbell. “He uses so many different degrees of character on one groove or style. For example, he must have 20 ways to play a shuffle. He does all the little things, too. For example, he never makes unwanted sounds when he’s changing from sticks to brushes to mallets. In 20-plus years I’ve never seen him miss or muff a beat. He can go from soloing to the groove as fast as anyone. It seems he’s always in both places; it’s all one thing for him.”
“Lewis will stay right in the pocket, while doing some of the most creative stuff being played,” affirmed bassist Peter Washington, Nash’s long-time partner in Flanagan’s trio. “A lot of guys feel swinging and grooving holds them back. To him, it sets him free!”
“I don’t know if I made a conscious effort to be adaptable,” Nash said. “I always played in a way that I felt would add flavor and variety rather than bring all the attention to me. I’m looking for the beauty in my instrument. There’s beauty in power as well. But a lot of sounds are available to utilize. People hear the tonal detail and clarity, and they tell me that my approach is like a percussionist in the symphony. But my concept comes out of hard-swinging jazz. I try to interject the energy and swagger of funky rhythms into swinging, straight-ahead music—although when you play the rhythms of R&B and hip-hop on a drumset tuned for playing jazz, the sound is not the same.”
Nash came to hardcore jazz rather late in the game. As a teenager he played football (cornerback) and played drums for fun in dance bands around Phoenix, Arizona, his home town, before catching the jazz bug.
“My mother listened to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and so on,” Nash said in July. A T-Bone Walker jump blues on the car stereo cosigned the statement. “I was less attracted to Rock elements in the drumming of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, and other guys who played fusion, than to the funkier, danceable things. My influences went from James Brown’s drummers or the feeling of Al Green’s Stax records to the people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. Fusion influences came later, as my knowledge of music increased, whereas that’s the first stuff some people from my age group got into.
“R&B wasn’t played as loud and hard in the ‘60s and ‘70s. More guys played time on the ride cymbal, like in jazz. Once disco and a certain period of funk became prominent, everything was on the hi-hats, and the bass drums and everything else got a fatter, heavier sound that you wouldn’t normally play in a jazz context, so the genres started to separate sonically.”
During the disco era, Nash, who majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State, was a fixture on the sparse Phoenix jazz scene, playing in local rhythm sections with hired gun saxophonists like Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper. He led his own combo, and wore bells on his ankles in a duo with saxophonist Allan Chase that opened for acts like Old and New Dreams, Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
On the strength of a grant to study drums with Max Roach and a concurrent phone call to audition with Betty Carter, who hired him on the spot, Nash moved to Brooklyn in the winter of 1980-81. There he joined a talented crop of young drummers who included Kenny Washington, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff Watts, and Ralph Peterson.
“We had a lot of leeway to pursue our individual approaches,” Nash said. “For instance, Art Blakey or Jimmy Cobb might influence how you kept time on the ride cymbal, while at the same time you’d study the solo concept of Max or Elvin. The major innovators from the ‘40s through the ‘60s dealt with a true swinging jazz conception that wasn’t terribly influenced by rhythm-and-blues, and didn’t drastically change that approach. But the advent of genre grooves from soul and funk and R&B, and the greater visibility of Latin and Afro-Cuban elements, caused the concept to adapt from the swinging, triplet-based ride cymbal feeling to a less linear straight-eighth feeling.”
Ensconced in New York, Nash refined his approach, going to clubs to watch Higgins, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Billy Hart, Victor Lewis and Freddie Waits, figuring out which techniques to use and which to discard. On the road with Betty Carter from 1981-84 and as an ongoing member of Ron Carter’s two-bass quintet and nonet for the subsequent decade, he found tough-love laboratories in which to apply his discoveries.
The singer insisted on precisely calibrated tempos and feels, but took great pains to discourage her young accompanists from playing sets by rote.
“My whole time with Betty, at every rehearsal, she stressed not to lean on clichés, to search for something fresh to play,” Nash recalled. “You knew you couldn’t go on automatic pilot; she’d turn and say, ‘You already played that; play something else.’ You’d be on edge, wondering what change of pace is coming.”
“Ron likes to use a lot of different colors,” he continued, adding that he considers the bassist a primary mentor. “He taught me a lot about tuning, and on some of his music I could be more percussionistic, and utilize finger cymbals, wind chimes and castanets. Steve Kroon often was playing percussion, and I incorporated what Steve did into my drumset.”
“Betty told me that he read music very well,” Carter said. “One thing to his advantage is that he plays the form. Many drummers don’t. I had Lewis take up vibes, to help him visualize the piano keyboard when he soloed. He did very well. He started to study composition, wrote some nice melodies, and expanded his view of the drums as more melodic than they normally are thought to be.”
“I tune the intervals wide enough to give the impression of melodic movement up or down a scale when I play a fill,” Nash elaborated. “I like to interject phrases not just to fill space, but to continue articulating the line I just heard the soloist play. If it’s a horn player taking a breath, I’m almost thinking of continuing his linear thought process until he returns the horn to his mouth, and maybe inspire his rhythmic direction.”
During the ‘80s, while Nash was refining these ideas, Marvin “Smitty” Smith developed ways to make complex meters flow with Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Jeff Watts began to merge the rhythms of timba with the patterns of Elvin Jones. Ralph Peterson, Carl Allen and Herlin Riley layered New Orleans streetbeats into swing feels. Younger drummers went to their gigs, copied them, and mainstreamed each vocabulary increment into next-generation argot. With the exception of a year of steady touring with Branford Marsalis, Nash played with established, older musicians “with one foot in the history of the music,” and interacted less frequently with his peer group.
“I wanted to immerse myself in the lineage, to interact with movers and shakers in the music from further back,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to lose my desire to be creative or forget how to explore.”
Some think that Nash’s impact on the younger branches of the drum tree is less pronounced than it ought to be.
“Most of the younger drummers weren’t in the audience when Roland Hanna and Ron Carter and Tommy Flanagan were playing,” Washington said. “But on every level, Lewis brought something to the drums as unique as the guys who played with Branford and Wynton or M-Base.”
“Once critics hop on a guy’s bandwagon, young drummers looking for someone to listen to will go that way,” Carter said. “Lewis isn’t flashy or domineering in the negative way that drummers can be. I can’t think of another drummer in any age category who plays brushes so well. Not many read as well as he does, and even fewer know how to tune the drums. But critics are less aware of these aspects, and they don’t tune into Lewis when they talk about drummers who are important and can take the drum scene another step, unfortunately for them and for the history of the drums.”
“My influence would have more to do with the sound of the instrument and the clarity of execution than any stylistic development,” Nash remarked, and younger drummers agree.
“Lewis can play with authority like Elvin Jones and also the way Vernell Fournier played with Ahmad Jamal,” said Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor, a former Nash student. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. He’s the most musical drummer of our time period, one of the musical drummers ever.”
“A lot of situations that I play in cause Lewis to pop into my mind,” said Kendrick Scott. “I’ve studied his playing so much that I think, ‘Oh, what would Lewis play right here? It would probably be perfect.’”
“We’re not supposed to stay where Tommy was,” Nash said during a January engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Coca, where a quartet under his leadership—Washington, pianist Renee Rosnes and vibraphonist Steve Nelson—was performing Flanagan-associated repertoire. “He gave us a carpet and said, ‘Okay, I’m giving you these tools; now what are you going to do with them?’
“Tommy didn’t necessarily want me to play in a way that was reminiscent of the ‘40s or ‘50s or ‘60s. He wanted me to play with him right now—which was the ‘90s. He was an open book. When I did things that come out of developments more recent than you might associate with his roots, he’d look up and I’d see him smile and his eyes gleam. If you remain open moment to moment with all your intelligence and skills, and don’t preconceive or predirect where you’re going, that’s as fresh and modern as you can be, whatever style you’re playing.”
In 1998, Nash decided that it was time to augment his numerous opportunities “to interject my ideas and musical viewpoint in groups where I’m a sideman” and construct a context to allow him “complete freedom to express what I feel.” He organized a septet, and booked himself into the Village Vanguard, the first of several Vanguard combos of various sizes, comprised of long-time associates and talented youngbloods. Building on his yearly Vanguard gig, he’s expanded his activity, and in 2003 and 2004 recorded the Japan-market CDs It Don’t Mean A Thing and Stompin’ At The Savoy, with Washington, Nelson, and pianist Jeb Patton. As of this writing, his 2007 calendar includes 10 weeks as a leader.
During the JVC Festival in June, Nash played the Vanguard with a quintet comprising Wilson, Washington, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and pianist Gerald Clayton. The less-traveled repertoire, spanning the ‘60s through the ‘80s, included well-wrought tunes by Walter Davis, Jr. (“Pranayama”), Don Pullen (“Sing Me A Song Everlasting”), Thad Jones (“Ain’t Nothin’ Nu”), Kenny Barron (“New York Attitude”), James Williams (“Alter Ego”), and Johnny Mandel (“I Never Told You”). Nash emceed and took a couple of drum features. Otherwise, he gave the soloists much rein, swung mightily, and functioned, as Washington noted, “as the same supportive, musical drummer.”
“Everything depends on how daring you want to be,” he said. “Parameters exist in any musical situation, and they force you to get the most from the least. You try not to limit yourself to ‘this is how you’re supposed to play this kind of music.’ You jump in, let your ears dictate, and keep all options on the table. I might borrow some sound or approach from an avant garde context that works in the middle of trading fours on a blues. Sound can cross genres and styles. It’s just a sound. It’s your job to figure out how to use that sound tastefully and in context. The more things you’ve done, the more you’ll be able to interject something new.”
Lewis Nash (WKCR, December 1, 2005) – re Nash-Wilson duo at Sweet Rhythm:
TP: [MUSIC: McCoy Tyner-Lewis Nash duo]
Duets. Lewis records so much and in so many different contexts and situations, that doing an hour on your work is like looking for the needle in the haystack. You’ll be quite present in NYC area in December and directly after the New York. Next week at Dizzy’s Room with Donal Fox and George Mraz. The following week is week one of Cedar Walton’s annual fortnight at the Village Vanguard with Roy & David. Then Umbria with Joe Locke. Then at Dizzy’s Room on January 10th with Flanagan tribute, with Renee, Peter & Steve Nelson. Frequent associates.
How did the duo project with Steve Wilson come to pass? You go back a ways, and you a few records with him on Criss-Cross in the early ‘90s.
LEWIS: That’s correct. Steve and I have played through the years in various situations. As far as the duo format, I enjoy that with the horns, and, as we just heard on the cut with me and McCoy Tyner, with the piano, and I’ve done duo with organ, of course, duo with guitar even. The duo situation is a challenge in many ways. In other ways, it’s pretty much just like any other time you go to play music. You deal with certain repertoire or whatever, with one another musician, and you try to make music as best you can interacting with that person.
TP: But this is a working duo, of sorts, and a duo you’ve both chosen to stick with. It’s not a one-off situation.
LEWIS: That’s right. Steve came to mind for me when I was thinking about doing this as someone I enjoyed playing with, number one, and also someone whom I felt I’d have a nice working rapport with musically for a number of reasons, not least of which is that his time is so great. So when someone has really good time internally, you can try a lot of different things which don’t necessarily have to spell out where you are metrically or in a form. A lot of times, Steve and I come out at the right place as if it just happened naturally. I don’t have to worry about making sure that I mark time for him when we’re playing. He’s one of the musicians I enjoy playing with in any situation, but particularly in the duo.
TP: How would it differ than playing in a rhythm section with Peter Washington or George Mraz, two of the master jazz bassists on the planet?
LEWIS: First of all, there’s a lot more space without the chordal instrument being there. How that would differ from a bass and drum situation is that the sound of Steve’s instrument, of course, won’t be in that bass range, to fill out some of that range I’ll often play different patterns or motifs between the low toms and the bass drum, things like that, to give some weight and low-end sound to the duo. Sometimes Steve will even play bass-type lines, whether walking or harmonically in the bass range. We basically try to give as much of a feeling of arrangement and orchestration as we can with the two instruments.
TP: You mentioned to me that your duo playing goes back to college days when you attended Arizona State University, where one of your fellow underclassmen was the saxophonist Allan Chase, who now runs the jazz department at New England Conservatory. I think you mentioned that you and he would open up as a duo for groups like Old and New Dreams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago…
LEWIS: Mmm-hmm. Sun Ra.
TP: George Adams and Don Pullen. So not all your fans may know that you have roots in that direction as well as creating modern extensions and variations on the masters of jazz lifeblood, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. People who played with those people appreciate your playing for your ability to put your own spin on what they did in an idiomatic manner, but they don’t necessarily know about that other aspect of your tonal personality.
LEWIS: Well, those were interesting times. It’s before I moved to New York. I was still going to college. It was a good time and a good place for me to experiment with some different things, and Allan Chase and I had a duo, and we played around Phoenix. We opened for those people you mentioned, groups like that. That’s when I first met Ed Blackwell, when he came to Phoenix, playing with Old and New Dreams. I met the guys in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was always open to fresh things. Even though, as you mentioned, a lot of fans and listeners may not be aware of that experience I’ve had in that realm, still I always try to bring, even to the more conventional (for want of a better word) situations I play in…I always try to bring a feeling of freshness and openness to those situations that you might expect in a more open musical situation.
TP: One thing that might also be surprising to some people is that you came to hardcore jazz fairly late in the game. You weren’t a teenage student of every record of Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. It didn’t really happen until college.
LEWIS: Right. In my high school years I was playing a lot of R&B, Funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown type stuff, and I was playing football and playing sports, and being a jazz musician was the furthest thing from my mind.
TP: Is there any connection between the way you developed—not starting early, but learning rudiments, time, vibe, etc.?
LEWIS: You know, I wonder. I don’t know if I can say with any certainty. But the fact that it was always something I did for fun and I never thought in those earlier days about “this is what I want to do for a living, this is what drives me, this is what I’m here to do”—I didn’t have those thoughts. I was a broadcast journalism major, and my mentor…I didn’t know him, but Max Robinson, who used to be on ABC News, the first African-American anchor. I wanted to do things like that, and follow in those footsteps. But the music started to rope me in.
TP: When did it start to become apparent to you that you were going to become a musician and not a voice?
LEWIS: I’m a voice on the drums, I hope. But I had a professor at Arizona State whose name is Charles Argersinger. He still teaches in Washington State now. One day he pulled me aside in the hallway at Arizona State, and he asked me point-blank: “Lewis, you’re not a music major, are you.” “No.” “You’re not planning to go into music as a career, are you?” “Nope.” He said, “I think you’re making a mistake.”
TP: Why did he think that? Did he say?
LEWIS: He didn’t really spell it out, but I assume he’d heard a lot of young musicians and people he felt had potential or didn’t have potential, and he probably… He did say that “‘I think you’re someone who could go somewhere in this, and you should think about it.”
TP: What qualities were people hearing at that time? You were playing in Phoenix in rhythm section, behind Art Pepper or Sonny Stitt. What were those experiences like? Were they harsh? Were they supportive?
LEWIS: They were demanding, but not harsh. I met Sonny Stitt on the stage. I played a week. We had no rehearsal, we just came in as the local rhythm section. Of course, he used to do that all the time. The first tune he counted off I think was Cherokee at some breakneck, ridiculously fast tempo, and that was, “Hello, I’m Sonny Stitt.” Those kinds of experiences for a young musician…it’s great. It just throws you right into the fire.
TP: As far as learning the correct tone… Were you thinking by that time of the way Max Roach might be handling this situation, or Billy Higgins, or Philly Joe Jones, or Shadow Wilson, etc.? Were you trying to bring any of that vocabulary to bear by that time?
TP: How did you do that without seeing them? Drums is kind of a visual instrument, isn’t it? You have to learn to put your body in position to make transitions and so on.
LEWIS: That’s true. I didn’t have very much exposure to these great drummers—I should say none—in terms of watching them. I didn’t see any of the great names drumming-wise… Actually, that’s not true. I did see and hear Dannie Richmond with Mingus in the late ‘70s, and Blackwell. But Max and Elvin, Tony Williams, until I came to New York, I didn’t have a chance to observe them up-close, the way we do, putting them under the microscope and watching every little thing they do.
TP: How did you pick up vocabulary?
LEWIS: What I heard on the records, I tried to emulate and find the best way to reproduce those kinds of sounds and phrases, and hope that what I came up with was close.
TP: you came out of Phoenix with Betty Carter, didn’t you.
LEWIS: Yes, I did. Another into-the-fire type situation. Freddie Waits actually recommended me to her. I had met him. He came through Phoenix with the Billy Taylor Trio.
TP: I recall you saying that she was very specific and precise about tempos and feels, but wanted you to be creative within those parameters.
LEWIS: That’s very correct. It’s a good way of putting it. She knew exactly what she wanted, and sometimes we didn’t quite know how to give her that in the best way, but we’d try to find it. It was a challenge to play with her at that stage of my career. It was probably the best thing for me then.
TP: The same could be said for a number of musicians in your generation who came up in that tough-love crucible that was the Betty Carter band.
[MUSIC: “Stomping At the Savoy”; “Tickle-Toe”; then with Celtic Jazz Collective, w/ Paddy Keenan on bagpipes]
TP: You were saying that part of the appeal of performing with Steve Wilson is his musicality, his time. You both share a quality of being extremely well-grounded in the fundamentals. He plays a lot of big band sections, studio things, but when it comes to improvising and doing something creative, he’s completely prepared to do that as well. You’re a few years older, but coming out of similar experiences. Last year, there was a month when you did a weekly duo at Sweet Rhythm. How did it evolve from beginning to end.
LEWIS: Each time we did it, of course, you build on the previous time in terms of ideas, the way things evolve musically. That was good for us, because we’re both busy doing so many other things, and we have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to the duo projects. So when we had that string of performances, that really helped us to solidify the sound we heard for the duo at that time.
TP: Did the sound evolve over the month, or did it remain on the template on which it began?
LEWIS: I don’t know if the sound evolved, but the way that we approached probably became freer than when we first started. We’re still trying to find that happy medium, that balance between freedom and the opposite of that…
TP: Freedom and form, or whatever it is. You’re the kind of musician who’s able to find freedom within form in situations that other people might handle by rote. You take those fundamentals and you always seem to find a new twist or some vocabulary of your own. How much do you work on that off the bandstand? How much comes to you when you’re on the bandstand?
LEWIS: I would say that a lot of it comes while you’re on the bandstand in the middle of the moment. But you have to be daring, brave enough to take a chance in a particular situation where it’s easy to play it safe. I’m always trying to make whatever I play be logical. Just because it’s logical doesn’t mean it has to be corny or rote. But some of the most creative things done in a musical situation I think can be considered logically a part of what’s going on without them being done over and over again or something common.
TP: But you play on a lot of one-off sessions. You might not have played with the person before. You might be seeing the music for the first time. A lot of money is at stake—studio time. How do you keep both processes going, the imperative of trying to do something to at least satisfy even yourself that you’re not doing it the way it was done before, but also fulfilling the function? Is it a process of logic really?
LEWIS: It really is. I think so. I can think of many recording sessions where just what you mentioned is the case. You’re seeing the music for the first time. You’re probably not going to play it again after that live, it’s just for this recording, but maybe the music is challenging in certain ways, maybe form-wise or changing meters or something you’re just not familiar with, or maybe it’s musicians who you don’t play with all the time, so you’re still trying to establish the kind of rapport in the studio playing. So when you have these kinds of challenges, you always fall back on your basic musicianship. For horn players, it might be: Am I playing in tune? Am I reading this part correctly? Am I making these changes? And so on. For me in the rhythm section: “Am I setting up the figures, or am I making the transitions in the music smooth enough so there’s a certain flow where the other musicians can do whatever it is they need to do? Am I helping make sure that everyone who’s playing feels a certain comfort zone that allows them to play to the best of their ability? Is the time feel steady? Am I helping them to feel whatever changes might be going on in the music to the best of my ability from the drums?
TP: A lot of people in jazz particularly, when improvising on their instruments, think of other instruments. Trumpeters think of saxophones, that sort of thing. In that regard, I’ll bring up a comment I once read from Max Roach, which is that you don’t play melody on the drums, you play rhythmic designs on the drums, which is a slightly different thing, and almost gives the illusion of melody. I don’t know if you would subscribe to that statement or not. But one characteristic of your tonal personality is that you play rhythmic designs within the flow of a moment. Can you talk about creating in that way?
LEWIS: The melodic impression comes from the fact the rhythmic variations that may be played on the drumset give the feeling of a melodic line in the way the rhythms are put together. Every melody has a rhythmic component. So when you’re expressing yourself in phrases which have the same types of rhythmic components that melodic lines have, then you’re going to give the impression that you’re playing a melody. But this kind of linear approach to playing the drums of which Max Roach was the founding father in the music is something that really attracts me. It’s something I like to do or attempt to do. I’m always trying to find a way to keep that approach to playing the drums somehow involved in the evolution of the music, so that’s not just thrown away or thrown out as something that was done in the past, but it’s being made to find a contemporary way… I don’t know if that’s the best way of putting it. But a way of today’s creative jazz playing or creative improvising, utilizing that approach to the drums as well as all the other ones.
TP: Try to parse that a bit. By “today’s approach to the drums,” are you talking about incorporating the way drummers play in contemporary dance-oriented music, or the broader rhythmic palette that’s more commonly available to jazz drummers now?
LEWIS: I mean that in the sense that a lot of other influences have become a part of playing this music, influences from the various so-called world musics, and also in terms of the more recent developments in drumming going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s with Tony Williams and Elvin and Roy Haynes, who has been a part of it, it seems like, forever—and still is. That kind of freshness, without losing the approach of that linear style. I guess always trying to find a way to keep that as a part of the equation.
TP: Playing 100-150 gigs a year with Tommy Flanagan for ten years, and many gigs over a long period with Ron Carter, would be a very good way of honing those skills and that sensibility.
LEWIS: I would say so, yes. And all of the recording sessions as well. Because there you have a chance to hear back right away things that you try, and you can go in and listen and say, “Oh, okay, that didn’t come out quite like I wanted it to; I can go back and try a different thing again.” So being in the studio a lot has been helpful in refining or defining whatever it is I’m trying to do.
[MUSIC: From Sea Changes, “Verdandi”; Love Letters, NTB]
TP: You’ve done five-six dates for Japan with this group (Chestnut-Mraz-Nash), and performed about a month ago at Dizzy’s Room with them. By the way, wasn’t Elvin Jones the drummer on the original performance of Verdandi, which Tommy Flanagan made a staple of his ‘90s repertoire. With Manhattan Trinity, it’s a configuration put together for the studio that becomes a working group. It must be very different when you do it live.
LEWIS: Yes. Especially since we hadn’t really established a live group personality yet. Everything had been done in the studio.
TP: And the producer gives you the tune list and tells you to do something with it.
LEWIS: Yes. But given the level of musicianship with Cyrus and George, we could pretty much do whatever we wanted and make it work. So it’s a great situation to be part of.
TP: We were talking about being creative and fulfilling the function in the studio. We’ll play now one Grammy-winner and one Grammy-nominee record that Lewis was part of. You performed on Nancy Wilson’s RSVP this year, which won the 2005 Jazz Vocal Grammy, and you appeared on Gerald Wilson’s 2004 Grammy-nominated date, New York Sound.
[MUSIC: Nancy Wilson, “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart”; Gerald Wilson, “Jeri,” from In My Time]
TP: Since 1998, you’ve been leading ensembles of varying sizes—septets, quintets, quartets, trios, been in the Vanguard, been at Dizzy’s at the Kaplan Playhouse. No records yet, though. Only a couple of dates with trios for the Japanese market on somewhat circumscribed repertoire. It seems every year that you’re doing more and more, gradually building up repertoire and a base of concerts on which other people can draw in recognizing you as a bandleader. What are your aspirations in this regard?
LEWIS: I think they are never-ending for someone who desires to continue to grow musically. I think about various things I’d like to do every day that I haven’t done yet. Wearing the bandleader hat takes a lot of work and takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s worthwhile to watch things come to fruition that began as just an idea or a thought. With that in mind, I’d like to do a lot more things in the future. Nothing specific comes to mind right now, but we have unlimited possibilities.
[MUSIC: Diaspora, from Blues for Marcus]
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Lewis Nash (WKCR, June 26, 2006):
[MUSIC: Kenny Drew Trio, Apasionata]
TP: That featured one of the most prominent drum-bass combinations of our time, Lewis Nash and Peter Washington, who’ve been playing on bandstands countless during the ‘90s with Tommy Flanagan, and are performing together this week in the Lewis Nash Quintet at the Village Vanguard. Since 1999, when you first seriously undertook leading groups and performing out with them… This will be your second group-leader gig this year on New York bandstands. You were at Dizzy’s Room in January. You’ve played often with a septet, and lately a trio as well with Steve Nelson and Peter Washington, and a duo with Steve Wilson. Is this quintet a new band for you?
LEWIS: The newness this week is basically having Gerald Clayton on piano. In the past, generally it’s been Mulgrew Miller or Renee Rosnes or no piano, and others on occasion. But Gerald is a fantastic young musician who is certainly going to make a name for himself. Many people are aware that he’s the son of bassist-arranger John Clayton.
TP: New repertoire this week?
LEWIS: A few things. We do have all this various repertoire in a soup, and each night, depending on the vibe or feeling, I decide whether we’re going to play it or not. Basically, this week is not so much about new repertoire, although I generally like to do a gig in town when I do have something new to offer. But I didn’t want to let a whole year go by without playing at the Vanguard. So this week really is about our creativity on the stage in the moment no matter what we play, because there won’t be any incredible unveilings of new material.
TP: Do you approach your role, your performance in any different manner when you’re leading a group versus playing as a sideman? Does your point of view become the guiding flow for the performances when you’re leading the group? Although of course, it would in other ways when you’re a sideman.
LEWIS: Of course, since it’s more or less my musical vision in that sense, I am providing some direction for how I want it to go pacing-wise and all of that. But I am actually trying to allow everyone else to establish a direction without dictating where I feel it should go. I don’t like that kind of dictatorial way of approaching it from a bandleading standpoint. I like to be open to the input from everyone else. So while I am selecting the set and the pieces, and kind of deciding how long they’re going to be and all that, I just give some basic parameters and then let everybody go where it’s going to go.
TP: You’ve also developed a circle of people around you, good friends with busy schedules who’ve made time to play on your gigs and help develop the sound of your band.
LEWIS: You bring to mind several things to me. For me, I was listening to and enjoying Bill [Stewart]’s interview on the way here, and some of the things you were talking about… As a sideman, I have a lot of different varieties of things that I’m really happy to do, and fortunate to be able to do. So I get a lot of different looks and feels, musically speaking, from all these different things I’m doing, so when I come to do my thing, I can bring elements of those various things to mind. But also, I don’t feel like I have to necessarily explore some of the other things that I explore in other situations to greater depth just because it’s my situation. I might feel like I can do some other things. And those things may change each time I play live as a leader. But I’m so satisfied that I don’t feel a need to explore so many different varieties of things in my own situation. I can concentrate on certain things.
TP: Has being a leader evolved your own drum technique or sense of flow as a drummer? Do you find that you do certain things that are idiosyncratic to you more readily than you would in sideman situations? Ways of hitting beats…
LEWIS: Not so much now. Maybe in the earlier years of deciding to do things as a leader, that might have been the case. But I’m not even sure then how much it was the case. Because so much of how I approach the instrument and how I approach making music with people is consistent, no matter what. So whereas there may be things I’m less apt to do in one situation versus another because of the type of music or the style or whatever, I think generally there is a consistent thread that you can hear running through everything. I can tell it’s me. Whether it’s a piece of music that’s quirky and out, or if it’s a piece of music that’s straight down the middle, swinging, I know how I touch the drums, I can hear that same consistency throughout that. I think that’s an important thing.
TP: You went out with Betty Carter in 1981. So you’ve been a working professional New York musician for 25 years. There’s 25 years of musical history that you’re part of now. In an overall sense, what are some of the salient things you’ve seen change in the musical ideas people are articulating now vis-a-vis 1981, when you came up. There are continuities, but it’s a very different world.
LEWIS: You could say that in many respects. I’m not sure I’d be the best arbiter of that. I came here in 1980 the first time, and I was going around to hear as much music as I could possibly hear. At the same time, I was taking some lessons with Freddie Waits. There were certain guys who were working quite a bit. Billy Hart seemed to be everywhere in those days; he was playing every week somewhere, or it seemed like two different places a night at times! Some of the greats were still leading bands—Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Betty Carter (whose band I was in). There were these kind of iconic leaders who were still around, and young guys wanted to be in their bands and hone their craft and whatnot. For me, I tried to bring a certain sensibility to the music. When I got here to play with Betty, before that in Arizona, I had been playing a lot of different things with people who’d come through town—Sonny Stitt and people like that when they’d pick up a rhythm section—but I also had an ear to the more exploratory things. I had a duo with saxophonist Allan Chase, and we opened concerts in Phoenix—before I even moved to New York—for Old And New Dreams, which is how I met Ed Blackwell and Dewey and Don and Charlie Haden. Then we opened for the Art Ensemble of Chicago, we opened for Sun Ra., playing this duo. I had bells on my ankles. We were doing a lot of interesting and exploratory things. So I always had an ear to those kinds of things. But what I realized was that I didn’t want to marginalize myself… I don’t know if that’s really the right way of putting it. But I wanted to take advantage of whatever I could get from the people who had been the movers and shakers in the music further back, the Betty Carters and Ron Carters and Tommy Flanagans and people like that. I didn’t want to not be able to associate myself with that lineage.
TP: You didn’t want to cut yourself off.
LEWIS: No. So I felt like, okay, at some point in the future, I can always… I’m not going to lose my desire to be creative, I’m not going to forget how to explore. So I wanted to make sure I immersed myself in where the music was coming from to such an extent that I had an opportunity to interact with these great players. So over time, I have fortunately been able to do that. People like Horace Silver and McCoy and all these different people I’ve played with, all of that has contributed to whatever it is I’m offering as a bandleader, I hope.
TP: Another thing I touched on a little earlier with Bill, we were discussing about the ways in which over the last 15 years odd meters and world rhythmic structures have become more part of the musical vernacular rather than slightly more exotic, as it was in the ‘80s. From your perspective, as someone who became established during the ‘80s, before people like Danilo Perez and Ed Simon came to town, and when Steve Coleman was just starting to deal with the things he did with Dave Holland… How do you see those developments affecting the rhythmic template of jazz these days? Has that changed a lot?
LEWIS: I think it’s just become more of a wide palette, I guess. The stuff has always been there, people have been exploring things from Max and Brubeck and various people in the ‘50s, and there’s already a precedent in world music. So I think the foundation was already laid for people to explore a lot of different things, whether it’s odd meters, whether it’s interesting and different harmonic ideas or structural things with tunes that are not necessarily 32-bar song forms of AABA. People have been exploring a lot of different things for a long time. What you have to learn how to do is incorporate all of it, and not be afraid of any challenges, and then also not be afraid to be basic, too. You can be complicated and simple, and both things work. Also, everyone has a different thing to contribute to this thing. We’re not all supposed to do the same thing.
TP: Did anything new happen in the last 15 years? How would say the sound of jazz in 2006… If you’d left the planet in 1990, came back now, and hadn’t heard any jazz since, what changes would you discern?
LEWIS: I leave the planet on a regular basis, but I do come back. You know, Ted, I really never think of it in those terms. But I suppose the same way there’s new technologies… If you left the planet, came back 15 years later, and the Internet. So I imagine for your ear, yes, but when you’re in it, you can’t hear or observe the changes so clearly, I guess. It might be like if you go away and come back home and see someone who was an adolescent when you left, and when you come back they’re grown up but it’s the same person. That probably didn’t answer your question.
TP: It didn’t, but that’s fine. As Charlie Parker once said immortally on that video, “music speaks louder than words.” In 2003-04, or maybe in 2004-05 you did a few recordings for M&I, the Japanese label…
[MUSIC: “Tico, Tico”]
What’s it like to play so much with the same bass player? You’ve played a lot with George Mraz over the years, with Christian McBride and Ron Carter. But the names Washington and Nash go together in a certain interesting way. How has it evolved?
LEWIS: There are certain vibes that you feel from musicians when you play with them for the first time. Even though I’ve played with a lot of different bass players, as you’ve mentioned, the special rapport I have with Peter… I have a special rapport with the other guys you mentioned as well. But with Peter, I don’t have to worry about whether he’s going to be doing what I need him to do to make everything come across like I’d like it to. You were asking me if I’m thinking about the directions of how things are progressing as we’re playing with my group. With Peter as the bass anchor, there are certain things I know are going to be in place, and I don’t have to worry about those things. They are unspoken things. It’s telepathic almost. So it’s kind of a comfort zone, a comfort level having him there that allows me to feel free to do a lot of things that I might not attempt.
TP: Can you name what a couple of those things might be?
LEWIS: He can sense when I’m orchestrating things a certain way and breaking the time, exactly what to do to keep the forward momentum of the time going, so it doesn’t seem like we both pulled the rug out from under everyone else. In other words, we kind of share the duties of keeping the forward propulsion of the music going. Also, sometimes I can just look to him and nod if I want to change the feel, and he knows to go wherever I’m trying to make it go. His ears are wide open. He picks great notes in his walking bass lines. I’m often keying off of the bass for the harmonic structure and framework of the tune much more than the piano comping or something like singing the tune in my head. I’m more focused on the movement of the bassline.
TP: I recall reading Max Roach saying that there’s no such thing as melodic drums, but there is such a thing as rhythmic design, and people sometimes confuse rhythmic design for playing melody on the drums. You seem always to be very conscious of rhythmic design within the forward motion. How has that concept evolved for you?
LEWIS: That rhythmic design that Max was talking about, in the sense he’s speaking about the melodic interpretation… Another word I’ve heard for it is linear. I tune the drums in a way that the intervals are wide enough that it can give the impression of melodic movement. If I play certain fills, and the drums are extremely close in the tuning, you don’t get the sense of separation and you don’t get the sense of movement up or down a scale. So if I tune the drums at wider intervals, then it seems to give more of an impression that I’m playing some types of melodic things. I like to interject phrases that are not just drum fills, but maybe necessarily a continuation of the line I might have heard the soloist just playing, except I’m articulating it on the drums, so when he takes a breath (if it’s a horn player), I’m almost thinking in terms of continuing his linear thought process on the drums until he puts the horn back to his mouth, and maybe inspire him to go rhythmically in one direction or another, rather than just a drum fill for the sake of filling space and very drum-oriented—I might make it more linear.
TP: Let me repeat a couple of questions I asked Bill Stewart before. I asked him early on in his career how aware he was of the history of the drums in reference to his own development, and, if he emulated other iconic drummers, who some of those drummers might have been. That led to asking him at what point he got beyond those influences and began to assimilate them into his own thing.
LEWIS: Of course, anyone who gets involved in this music at the drums is going to have to go through a certain group of players if they’re really going to say that they’ve studied the music and the history of jazz drumming. For me, in my earliest development, before I really started playing jazz, I was playing a lot of R&B and funk, and that’s pretty much what I was playing. So I wasn’t as… Coming from an R&B, funk and blues… My mother used to listen to a lot of blues—B.B. King and Muddy Waters and that stuff. Coming from that kind of background, I wasn’t necessarily as attracted to the Rock elements, the fusion stuff so much. Even though I could appreciate the drumming aspects of Tony and Billy Cobham and the guys who played in the fusion genre, I was more attracted to the funkier, danceable things at that time, in those earlier years. Then once I became aware of people like Max Roach and Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, Elvin, Jimmy Cobb, and all the various people, then I started to explore the possibilities of that approach to playing the drums. So my influences went from James Brown’s drummers and the Stax records, Al Green and that whole feel, to the guys I just mentioned in straight-ahead jazz, Kenny Clarke and those people who laid the foundation in jazz drumming. So in a way, I have less of the influences of, say, the fusion era, like Tony and Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette with Miles, in that context. That stuff actually came later rather than earlier, whereas for some guys that’s some of the first stuff they got into. Whereas for me, I got into the other stuff, and then I kind of backtracked. With my knowledge of music being a little greater, than I think I was able to appreciate and assimilate more of the elements of the more modern players…
TP: How would you assimilate vocabulary? Playing along with records and trying to replicate the style?
LEWIS: Yeah. Playing along. Because then you turn it up loud, or you have headphones and you’re playing along, and you can almost interject yourself into the band, in a sense. That’s one way of beginning to assimilating some of the vocabulary, just playing along.
TP: Were a lot of these guys coming through your town?
LEWIS: No, not that many people came through Phoenix. I didn’t see much.
TP: Probably you’d heard Ed Blackwell before you opened for Old & New Dreams.
TP: But seeing him probably put a whole different spin on what he was doing.
LEWIS: Definitely. But I didn’t get to see that many great players. Only towards the end, before I eventually came to New York in the late ‘70s… As I mentioned earlier, Sonny Stitt came through town and I played with him, and I’d meet and see other people that way. I heard Tony Williams with VSOP I think in ‘78 or ‘79. Yeah, I began to see and hear a few people like that. But coming to New York and being able to sit in the front row of the Vanguard to watch and listen to Elvin, yeah, there wasn’t anything like that going on in Phoenix, I’m afraid.
TP: Many young aspirants will be sitting in the catbird seat or the Vanguard this week, and get there when the doors open at 8:15 to get a bird’s eye view of Lewis Nash and quintet… This puts you together with Billy Hart, who as you said was playing everywhere when you came to town… Dark Shadows.
[MUSIC: “Dark Shadows:; Ray Bryant (RRB), “Glory, Glory”; Hannibal-George Adams, Cry]
We heard Lewis getting into a very African conception of the trapset. I think you said you heard Sunny Ade’s talking drummers and were trying to get that quality, as well as Edward Blackwell. And it doesn’t get any more fundamental than Glory, Glory.
We’ll hear recordings Lewis made with several people who recently passed on. Jackie McLean, and John Hicks, with whom you performed on three Joe Lovano nonet recordings. Did you ever record trio with John?
LEWIS: I didn’t record trio with John, but I made gigs in trio with him. He brought something special to any situation. But in the Lovano dates and in the nonet, John was such an integral part of the sound of that group.
TP: That nonet gig is an interesting one, because there’s lots of room for you to roam and travel rhythmically and sonics to weave in and out of. Since Lovano himself likes to play drums… Unfortunately, the only tracks that are applicable are 10-16 minutes…
[MUSIC: w/ Jackie McLean, “Little Melonae”]
LEWIS: It was an interesting date, because I think that may have been the first time that Jackie and Junko met, in the studio. Of course, that happens quite often in jazz anyway. I remember it very well, because I remember someone in the studio mentioning something about intonation, probably someone associated with the label, some peripheral person, and I remember hearing Jackie say, “I’ve played out of tune my whole life; why should I start playing in tune NOW?” I thought that was the funniest thing I had… It was tongue-in-cheek, it was just everything. It lightened up the session and allowed us just to go ahead and play. It was a funny comment.
TP: When you hear Lewis Nash, you’ll be hearing someone who’s embodied the experiences of playing on a regular basis, at one point or another, for ten years with Tommy Flanagan, on many occasions with Tommy Flanagan’s good friend Sonny Rollins, with Ron Carter for years, with Betty Carter, with McCoy Tyner, with Don Pullen, and with just about every significant musician who made a mark on jazz from the 1940s on up, and even going to a date with Doc Cheatham and Benny Carter and Hank Jones. All those experiences are encoded in Lewis’ playing and performance and presentation in one manner or another, and you should not miss him when he’s leading a band.
[MUSIC: w/ McCoy Tyner from Illuminations, The Chase]
Lewis Nash (Musician Shows, Feb. 10, 1993 and August 21, 1996):
[Lewis Nash, “106 Nix”; Tommy Flanagan Trio, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue”-Mraz-Burrell-Nash; Jimmy Heath, “Gingerbread Boy”; Art Blakey, “Wee-Dot”-Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, Curley Russell, Horace Silver]
TP: We’ll go into depth on some of the drummers who influenced you as a drummer developing your style and sound. And “Wee-Dot”…
LEWIS: That, of course, was the great, the one-and-only Art Blakey, who’s been such an influence on so many drummers. That record was I think the third jazz record that I ever bought with my own money. Even now, when I listen to it, it takes me back to that time when it was really fresh and I was hearing it for the first time and really tuning in to what Art Blakey’s playing was all about.
TP: I gather you didn’t tune into jazz until you were a freshman at college.
LEWIS: When I was in high school, during the junior and senior years, I played in an ensemble that played… They called it a jazz band. Stage band. Those school situations. Without really any prior knowledge. But I had been playing the drums for a while, and a guy who was in the band said they needed a drummer. I went, and I didn’t really know much, except I had heard TING, TING, TA-DING — I’d heard the ride cymbal pattern. But really no knowledge of any jazz history or anything. There happened to be a good teacher there who would bring tapes and records to school. But it still didn’t really reach out and grab me the way it did later.
TP: what were you listening to then?
LEWIS: I was listening to a lot of R&B in high school, and funk stuff – James Brown… At the time I was in school, it was between 1972 and 1976. So you had Kool and the Gang type groups, and Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament, that kind of stuff. Of course, before that, at home, when I was growing up, I heard stuff from Motown and of course James Brown and Stax and all that Memphis…
TP: That’s what your parents are into? Are they jazz fans?
LEWIS: no, there was no jazz in the house. Really. A lot of blues. My mother liked the Blues – B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Lowell Fulsom, I can remember a lot of those records. Johnnie Taylor. People like that. And a lot of gospel music. But not really any jazz.
TP: Were you playing drums, though?
LEWIS: I was playing the drums. I started, I was about 10 years old.
TP: Were you playing with your friends…
LEWIS: Garage-type bands, I guess you could say that. But I was playing in school with the concert band, marching band, that kind of stuff.
TP: So you developed a fundamental technique.
LEWIS: Exactly, and I started learning to read. Actually in the 4th grade I started, playing the snare drum at school.
TP: So when you got to college and were introduced to jazz, it was with somewhat of a clean slate, but yet you had this fundamental technique.
LEWIS: In other words, in high school when I was playing, it was a jazz group and we played what could be called jazz tunes, but I wasn’t personally drawn to it as much as I was later. Why, I don’t know. You never know why certain things are. But later, I was drawn to it with a vengeance.
TP: You’ve told an interesting story about your introduction to jazz, which would be a good one to share, I think.
LEWIS: Maybe you’re talking about the story in the record store. But I’ll backtrack a little bit before that. The first jazz album that I ever owned was a gift to me. At the time I was playing high school football, and I had a good game, so my brother-in-law said…
TP: What was your position?
LEWIS: I was a defensive back. Safety. So I had a good game, and he said, “I want to treat you to something.” So we went to the record store. He knew I liked music. I was looking up on the wall, and I saw this record cover with this guy looking hip, his face, you know, and I saw there was a song on there called “Killer Joe.” The only thing I knew about it was that we had played it. I didn’t know anything at this time about Benny Golson or the original Killer Joe or anything like that. It was a song that I remembered from stage band, that we played. And I remember on the music…this is an interesting aside… On the stage band music it said to play “swing a la Philly Joe.” I remember asking the band director who was Philly Joe. He told me and everything, but it didn’t really click in yet.
So I said, “‘Killer Joe’ – maybe I’ll get this record.” It was Quincy Jones, Walking in Space, and on there were Grady Tate, Ray Brown, Hubert Laws, a lot of different musicians. This was the first jazz record that I owned. After that, the first one that I bought with my own money… It was later; I was a freshman in college. I went to the record store. This is when you could get records for $3 apiece, or $2-something on sale. Anyway, I went in and the sales-person was someone I recognized from Arizona State, in the jazz department. He was a saxophone player. His name is Allan Chase. I said, “Allan, can you recommend something for me to listen to?” He went right over to the John Coltrane section and said, “Have you heard this?” He held up Blue Trane. He explained that the drummer was Philly Joe Jones, so here’s that Philly Joe again.
I get it, I take it home, and I’m in love with this record now. So I go back again. “Allan, I want some more stuff like that.” So he realizes I’m checking out Philly Joe, so he gets Milestones and Round About Midnight for the two Miles Davis disks. I take those home, and I listen to those, and I fall in love with those. Then I go back again, and I want something like that but different, or something like that I probably said to him. So he recommended Art Blakey at Birdland, Volumes 1 & 2, which was my introduction to Art Blakey.
TP: Did you then try to emulate that?
LEWIS: Well, of course. I started trying to figure out how these drummers were doing what they were doing, and how they got the music to feel so good and how they got to swing so hard, and how they got the sound they got out of the drums. Of course, it was a recorded sound, but you could tell from the records that they were really taking care of business. So I definitely emulated at that early stage as much as possible.
TP: But you weren’t able to see…
TP: A lot of musicians have a sort of visual continuity; you get up under someone and watch how they do it. But your early process was picking apart and analyzing recordings.
LEWIS: Well, in Phoenix, Arizona, there wasn’t very much to see in terms of the name people especially. There were some people playing there. But even at that point…I mean, I’d never been to a jazz club; I’d never been to a club, period. I was a late-comer to the whole thing.
I started listening to the records first, before I heard any really serious jazz being played on any level live. I’m kind of glad, because I don’t know what I would have heard first there. But there were actually some good musicians there who helped me, which we can talk about later.
TP: First, though, we’ll hear a solo from a James Brown record that’s dear to your heart.
LEWIS: This was the first drum solo, period, of any kind of music that I tried to learn. I don’t know exactly the year, but it’s the James Brown band doing “Soul Pride.”
[James Brown-Clyde Stubblefield, “Soul Pride”]
LEWIS: As I said, that was the first drum solo I ever learned. I listened to a lot of James Brown in that early period. We’d have dances in elementary school, and most of the stuff that would get the kids up to dance the quickest was the James Brown stuff.
At this time I was listening to some other drumming. The Meters and the drummer with them, whose nickname is Zigaboo. He used to play some interesting rhythms, and the sound of his drums. His snare drum sounded more like a really tight tom-tom. It was almost wasn’t a snare sound. It was like a field drum type sound or something. Anyway, those rhythms he played were really hip and funky, and I listened to a lot of that stuff during this period, too. Of course, not forget the standard R&B stuff, because I wasn’t listening to any jazz then.
TP: Were you listening to the drummers as well as the general sound?
LEWIS: I was focusing on the drums. I was playing the drums at the time, and I was trying to figure out how to do what they did and get the same sounds and all that.
TP: Any world music, African music?
LEWIS: Not at that time?
TP: We’ll move now to a set featuring Philly Joe Jones. “Two Bass Hits” is from the first Miles Davis record you heard. What was your impression on that first listen? [END OF SIDE 1]
LEWIS: [BEGINNING OF SIDE 2] …spent some time sitting down at the instrument and becoming a master of it. It felt great. It sounded like he was thinking about what he was playing. All of those things. I was completely taken. So for me, his solos and the stuff that he did behind other people’s solos was pretty much the peak of jazz drumming. Of course, I hadn’t heard that much at this time, but I figured how could anything be better than this? Anyway, I think we were talking about the things from Milestones that I liked the most. “Billy Boy” is one, of course, and the other one is “Two Bass Hit.”
[MUSIC: Miles Davis 6, “Two Bass Hit”; Miles-Coltrane 5-“I Could Write a Book”; Coltrane-“Lazy Bird”-1957]
LEWIS: That was from the first jazz record that I ever bought with my own money. It’s Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, John Coltrane, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, who we’re focusing on as a big influence on not only me but I’m sure ever other jazz drummer out there in some way.
But before that we heard “I Could Write A Book” from the Relaxing record, which featured Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe.
We could do a whole show on Philly Joe’s influence on me. There’s the stuff he did with Tadd Dameron, “Stop, Look, Listen,” that kind of stuff. With Hank Mobley, there’s Workout. I could go on and on with all the great things he’s done on record.
TP: Next we’ll hear Max Roach, primarily with Clifford Brown.
LEWIS: Of course, I’d heard his name before, going back to when I still didn’t know that much. Of course, the record which I had listened to with Art Blakey, Live at Birdland, featured Clifford Brown. So I wanted to get some more stuff with Clifford Brown because I thought his playing was great and I wanted to hear some more of it. So I was told — I’m not sure by whom, maybe Allen at the record store or someone else — about the Clifford Brown and Max Roach group, and that they had a lot of sides out and I should check out some of those. So that was my introduction to the group with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.
TP: What was your initial impression of Max?
LEWIS: How could he play solos like that, that made so much sense and were so creative? That was probably the first thing. His drums were tuned in such a way that they just flowed; they had a melodic thing about them. Also, how could he play so fast? Those were probably the first things that I thought?
[MUSIC: Max Roach-Clifford Brown, “Daahoud”; Max solo, “For Big Sid”; “The Drum Also Waltzes”-Drums Unlimited; Bird-Max, “Au Privave”]
TP: One thing we can say is that Max Roach turned the drumset into a concert instrument within the jazz framework.
LEWIS: Right. The things that Max did, we could probably safely say that they grew out of things that were done before, of course, by Big Sid Catlett and Kenny Clarke and drummers who were before him, and Max brought the soloing concept to another level, at least in terms of the way he approached the drum solos. He, probably more than anyone else during that period, put the drums in the forefront as a solo instrument.
TP: You’re a situation where you have to play styles from different periods, What’s it like for you to play in a pre-bebop context vis-a-vis the modernist drum context? Do you think of it that way?
LEWIS: I don’t consciously try to play, say, in a manner that’s pre-bebop, for example, for want of a better way to say it. The way that we play now can work with the older musicians because it’s an extension, and it’s not separate from it. As long as you’re aware of the tune and you’re aware of what the soloist is playing, and you’re interacting with them, then it really isn’t too out of character to just play the way we know as modern drumming, stuff that came out of bebop, with someone like a Benny Carter… It works. Max, as a matter of fact, came out of Benny Carter’s band.
Through Max… We heard Bird just a moment ago. We’re going back to this period when I was absorbing all this new information, and I wasn’t really yet aware of the chronological history of how things developed in the music. By listening to Max Roach with Clifford Brown, and then buying some more Max Roach records, and reading a little bit and finding out that he’d been playing with Bird in the 40s, I got to Bird through Max, in a strange kind of way.
TP: Freshman year of college, you’re a jazz neophyte. Talk about where you’d progressed with your jazz education by the time you were a senior.
LEWIS: I had been really listening a lot… By the time I got to that point, I’d met some musicians who were actually making a living playing jazz. And some of those people loaned me records, and they told me what things I should be listening for and listening to and that kind of thing. I spent a lot of time staying up late, just listening to records and trying to absorb about the music as I could. So I really went on a kind of accelerated learning process during that period.
TP: Were you playing in any jazz bands in college? Did that start then?
LEWIS: Yes. My first professional gig was with a guitar player who I just saw the other night, as a matter of fact. His name is Jerry Byrd, and he was in town with Freddy Cole. I think he’s originally from Pittsburgh. Anyway, he’s a guitar player who at the time was living in Phoenix. I think I was18 or something like that. I was in college at the time. He’d asked some of the musicians if there was a drummer at the school who they thought could handle this gig that he had, and they recommended me, and that was my first professional gig – with him. He played in a kind of Wes Montgomery style, I guess you could say. That was the beginning of my professional jazz gigging experience.
TP: And although Phoenix wasn’t a center of any kind, there were places to play.
LEWIS: Yes, there were a few places to play.
TP: Did you wind up being a regular in the Phoenix clubs?
TP: Who are some people who came through that you had a chance to work with, and some of the musicians on the local scene?
LEWIS: As far as who was there in Phoenix, there were 3 or 4 people who were really important to me. I mentioned Jerry Byrd, who was my first gig. Then he recommended me after that gig to another musician, a pianist named Charles Lewis, who is still there playing. Charles I worked with for a couple of years. He was important because he was the first person to… I’d go to his house for rehearsal, and he would let me work out things on rehearsal and on the gig that ordinarily many leaders might not have the patience for. In other words, I’m taking a solo, and it’s meandering and going nowhere on the gig, and he’d just let me kind of find my way out of it, back to the tune or whatever. He was really patient with letting me figure out what it is I should be doing at the drums in his group. We played a lot of straight-ahead music and also some Latin things. He was the first person to loan me records of Tito Puente and Larry Harlow and Eddie Palmieri. He would comp with his left hand on the Afro-Cuban type stuff and he’d play timbales with his right.
TP: So you were able to get a broad range of rhythmic experience. Were other musicians passing through town?
LEWIS: A few. First, I mentioned Charles and Jerry Byrd. Prince Shell was another, a pianist and arranger who used to lend me records to take home and make a copy of and bring back. He would sit down with me and have me listen to all different kinds of music. This is when I first started to listen to any other world music, whether it’s Egyptian music or music from South America or music from Africa. He was the first person I saw who had these different kinds of musics on record, and I would make tapes of different things. Of course, he had all the jazz things.
TP: Did you find you were able to incorporate that into what you were doing?
LEWIS: Not at that time, no.
TP: Next we’ll hear Kenny Clarke, represented by one selection. In all histories of jazz, observers talk about what Kenny Clarke and Max Roach did. But please put it in your own words…how Kenny Clarke and Max Roach opened up the beat.
LEWIS: It’s interesting to me… I’m sure the people who were around before Kenny Clarke and Max Roach did what they did would have their perspective. But for me, listening to this first and then going back and hearing what, say, Jo Jones and Sid Catlett and Cozy Cole, etc., did before this, is a different way of hearing it, I guess. In any case, the drummers began to lighten up on the bass drum considerably, and in some cases not play it all except for accents. The left hand started to be more active in comping in a way that was interactive with the soloist, and also interactive within the context…
[END OF SIDE 2]
TP: What did this do to the overall sound of the jazz ensemble?
LEWIS: It probably made it have a more open and freer sound and feeling, I’m sure. The soloists felt freer because the rhythm wasn’t locking them in as much. But it was still present and still swinging. The thing about the bass drum, what a lot of drummers…what we call “feathering” the bass drum now… We still play it, but it’s very light and it’s felt more than it’s heard, as opposed to in the 30s, when they were really playing it hard.
TP: I think certain drummers during the 40s and 50s who combined both the prebop and bebop styles, like Shadow Wilson or Osie Johnson, who generated incredible swing.
LEWIS: That’s right. You can’t categorize these things too particularly. Because there’s a lot of drummers who cover a lot of different ground and who fit into a lot of different situations.
TP: It’s perhaps a cliche or redundant to say this, but this music is really a continuum and styles meld into each other and overlap.
[MUSIC: Miles-Klook, “Walkin’”; Miles-Cobb, “Ah-Leu-Cha” and “No Blues”]
TP: Lewis, you said that you used to practice to “No Blues,” that you wore out several copies putting on Wynton Kelly’s solo. You know that solo very well.
LEWIS: I used to put on Wynton Kelly’s solos from this double record set, from Friday and Saturday night. This band was swinging so hard and Wynton Kelly’s solos were so great, I would just put them on over and over again and set up a ride cymbal and try to ride…play along — and I would play along with it, and make an attempt to get the feeling that he and Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers had in the rhythm section.
TP: A few words about Jimmy Cobb.
LEWIS: He was a very big influence on my approach to the ride cymbal feeling, and just the intensity, I guess you could say of the ride cymbal. I like to try to emulate the way he fit in particular with Paul Chambers. The ride cymbal pattern and the bass player walking can fit together in such a way that it’s like one – and it swings so hard. So I was really influenced heavily by Jimmy Cobb’s approach to the ride cymbal.
TP: Paul Chambers has been a prominent presence on this Musician Show, appearing on many of the tracks. You were speaking before about bassists – Paul Chambers, Sam Jones – and the idea of the rhythm section.
LEWIS: Speaking of the bass players, we heard Paul Chambers with Philly Joe and here with Jimmy Cobb – and we’re going to hear him again. It’s so important… As I was acquainted with the music early on, I started to see that the same names would start popping up on all these records, and the things that I liked the most, that I felt were really swinging the most, would generally have either one or two or all three of the same people on something else that I thought would have the same feeling. That would be Art Blakey with Paul Chambers or Philly Joe with Paul Chambers or Jimmy Cobb with Paul Chambers, or George Duvivier or Sam Jones… All the great bass players and drummers just could find a way to lock up with each other. As far as the things that influenced me in particular, there always seems to be a lot of Paul Chambers involved, with whatever drummer.
TP: But within the rhythm section, it’s not only the drummer; it’s the three in conjunction…
LEWIS: Working together. With Red Garland… Each of the pianists and bassists and drummers would bring something of their own,something different and unique to each situation. Always with that feeling, though – the real feeling of what jazz is all about.
TP: Many of our audience may be wondering where Art Blakey is. Here he comes. For reasons of time, we’ll take Art Blakey outside the Jazz Messengers, and hear him on two dates as a “sideman,” although of course he shapes the piece.
LEWIS: We’ll start with something from Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, which is one of my favorite records. This is Hank Mobley with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Art Blakey – “Dig Dis.”
[MUSIC: Hank Mobley, Dig Dis; Miles Davis-Cannonball, “Somethin’ Else”]
LEWIS: The great Art Blakey on drums. Those were great examples of how Art… I mean, Art is known for so much — for solos, for all of his intensity, and for his power. But he could settle into a groove with the best, and not have to do a whole lot of really ferocious, and just swing.
TP: And also shape the focus and flow of the piece through what he’s doing in an unerringly correct way.
LEWIS: The one and only.
TP: When d id you first see the Messengers and Art Blakey?
LEWIS: I first saw Art Blakey in 1979. If I’m not mistaken, the band at that time was Billy Pierce, Charles Fambrough, Valery Ponomarov and Bobby Watson. My mouth was open after watching him do what he did.
TP: By now, you’d been involved in jazz for a while. You were post-neophyte.
LEWIS: Yes. That was the first time I came to New York. I wasn’t here to live yet. I came during the summer-time; I was studying with Fr4eddie Waits. So I went to hear as much music as I could hear, and I heard him then.
TP: Around 1979, were you just getting out of college?
LEWIS: Mmm-hmm. I went back to Phoenix, and then I moved to New York finally in 1981, in the spring, the late spring, when I joined Betty Carter.
TP: How did she… She heard you in Phoenix? Somebody hipped her to you?
LEWIS: Freddie Waits recommended me to her. I came and played for her, and that was the beginning of a four-year relationship.
TP: I guess that was your opportunity to get into the post-graduate nuances it seems musicians need to have.
LEWIS: Just to be around the great musicians, so you can absorb what’s really going on. You couldn’t do that in Phoenix. Once in a while… You asked me about this earlier, but I didn’t really elaborate about who I’d played with passing through Phoenix. I had a chance to work a week with Sonny Stitt. I worked also with Jimmy Witherspoon. Johnny Coles came through. Not very frequently, but every so often there’d be groups coming through, and I had a chance to play.
Working with Sonny Stitt for a week was…I think I was 18 or 19… It was great. We met on the bandstand. “Hello, young man.” Then he stomped off “Cherokee” or something, really fast, and that was the beginning of the night.
TP: At the end of the night, you mentioned before, “Young man, you sounded good.”
LEWIS: Yeah, you know, I’m sure he was being cordial, being nice and encouraging. Anyway, I did have a chance to do that a few times. But once I came to New York, I was able…
TP: Next up is music with Roy Haynes.
LEWIS: Roy Haynes to me is perpetually modern. He was modern in the 40s, he’s modern now. I don’t know how he does it, but he just stays on the edge, and his playing is always great to my ear. To me, he had a certain spark that maybe a lot of people liked playing with him for that very reason. He had a way of really lighting up, getting things going, stoking the fires, or whatever kind of adjectives you want to use…
TP: Without necessarily being loud either.
LEWIS: No. He could play trio. He could play large groups. He could play with singers, as he did with Sarah.
TP: Drummers have so many different functions to play. Your current situation is a case in point. Last week, you’re playing behind a 12-piece group, playing Dizzy Gillespie forcefully, propelling the band. This week you’re with the Tommy Flanagan Trio. The following week you’ll remain at the Vanguard with Mulgrew Miller and Peter Washington. Can you speak about the different necessities, so to speak, when you’re working in those situations?
LEWIS: The thing last week with the 12-piece big band: First of all, you’ve got the 9 horns, and we had a strong trumpet section, with Faddis and Roy Hargrove and Claudio Roditi. That music required a really wide dynamic range and sensibility to play. Trio playing requires that as well. But you’re not going to get a trio to sound like a 12-piece band. I tuned my drums a little bit deeper to get some weight for the big band. I think I played with the sticks that were a little bit heavier, not all the time but some of the time. Conceptually, it’s not that much different. The idea is to swing and to color the music, and whatever is required in terms of that, and to make the accents and set up the band so that the horns come in in the right fashion, and really, like I was saying, be a sparkplug or the initiator of the feeling. That’s the same no matter what context.
It’s just a little more heavily weighted with the big band, I guess, and there’s more people up there so you have a lot of different ideas of where the time is. So the time function is a little more important maybe in the big band, in the sense that I have to make sure that everyone is hearing clearly what’s going on, and that everyone comes in when they’re supposed to, based on where my beat is, or the beat that the bass player and I are establishing.
TP: Do you do a different accompaniment for each player as you familiarize yourself during the week. I remember Art Blakey with the Messengers would give everyone a personalized backing.
LEWIS: That may be true to a certain extent. I think certain players make you feel a certain way if you’re playing behind them, the way they approach their solo, and after you get to know how a player does that, you can expect a certain feeling to come about when this person is playing and you’re playing behind them. Maybe some soloists will make you want to play a lot more, and some will want to make you play a lot less behind them, depending on what they hear at the moment. So that’s true, yes.
[Roy Haynes, “Snap, Crackle” (1963-Rahsaan, Flanagan, Henry Grimes); Haynes-Chambers-Newborn, “Sugar Roy”–PC, Phineas Newborn, Roy Haynes-1958]
LEWIS: I’d intended to bring a tape that had some things I listened to early before I even became aware of the jazz tradition…
TP: We would have heard Parliament, Stax-Volt…
LEWIS: I’m sure some folks will be happy they didn’t hear all that. But in any case, I wanted to play some of those things — the gospel stuff that I heard around the house, the blues and the early stuff. There wasn’t really any jazz around the house, but one of my older sisters had joined the Columbia Record Club, so they sent her a copy of Miles Smiles. I think that might be the first time I put on anything by Miles Davis. I don’t remember how old I was, 12 or something, I don’t know…
TP: So you actually heard Tony Williams first.
LEWIS: I mean, I put it on and I took it off, because I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I think “Orbits” is on it…
TP: “Footprints,” too.
LEWIS: Maybe if I had put on one of those. But I don’t know. I wasn’t ready for it.
TP: You were ready when you were ready. We’ve focused primarily on five drummers…
LEWIS: The ones who were an initial influence on me in my outlook on drumming. But there’s so many other ones who helped shape this way that I look at playing the drums. For example, Art Taylor, who played on countless recordings, and one that comes to mind that I bought earlier on was “Giant Steps,” and I heard “Countdown” with him, and that made me want to go and buy other things that he played on. Then there was Louis Hayes with Horace Silver and all other different situations with Cannonball, etc., who was a big influence on my approach. Vernell Fournier with Ahmad Jamal. Ed Thigpen – I heard stuff earlier on with Oscar Peterson Trio. Ed Blackwell. Also Roy Brooks (mentioning Horace Silver). Frankie Dunlop with Monk and Ben Riley with Monk and with other situations (Ben Riley I heard with Lockjaw Davis). I also heard with Lockjaw, on some of the organ groups, Arthur Edgehill and Al Harewood – some of the hardest swinging stuff with the organ and tenor. Tony Williams. We’ve just touched on a few. But the ones we talked the most about tonight were the ones who were instrumental in getting me interested in even doing this.
TP: We’ll conclude with (a) something featuring Billy Higgins…
LEWIS: Billy Higgins, definitely one of my influences, who I’m sure everyone recognizes as one of the greatest jazz drummers we have today.
[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “La Alhambra” – 1981-McCoy-Higgins-Herbie Lewis; Nash-Mulgrew-Nelson, “Monk’s Dream”]
[MUSIC: Lewis Nash, “Let Me Try”-1988]
TP: Today we’ll be interspersing recent recordings with Lewis, who is one of the most recorded of contemporary jazz drummers, and by people who have influenced him and whom he admires. A few words about your ideas in selecting the material tonight.
LEWIS: I wanted first of all to bring some of the things are best representative of what I’m doing now, today. That includes things by the Tommy Flanagan Trio, who I’ve been working with for the past five years, different things with all different size groups, from big band and trio, and I’ve tried to bring a variety of things style-wise that represent what I’ve been doing the past few years.
[MUSIC: Jackie McLean-Junko Onishi-Lewis, “Little Melonae”-1996; Lew Tabackin, “Wise One”-I’ll Be Seeing You-Concord-1992; Horace Silver, “Serenade To A Teakettle”-THE HARDBOP GRANDBOP, 1996]
TP: Three tracks from recent recordings featuring Lewis Nash, all showcasing different aspects of his sound and approach, and showcasing the versatility, creativity and precision that make him one of today’s most in-demand drummers.
Before we get to the first set of influences, let’s talk about the beginnings of Lewis Nash, the drummer. You came up in an area that isn’t exactly a hotbed of jazz, although I know there was someone. What was your first inkling of jazz music and that there is such a thing as jazz drumming?
LEWIS: Well, you’re right. Phoenix, Arizona, was not at that time, nor is it now, a hotbed of jazz activity. But once I started to play, there were people who were able to guide me and give me some direction. But the earliest memory I have of just playing the drums comes from stories that my parents and my older sisters tell me about me banging on the pots and pans in the kitchen, and putting together different sizes of cardboard boxes to get different sounds. I don’t remember much of that. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember any of that. I was probably 3 or 4 years old – 5 maybe. In any case, they tell me that’s what happened.
I do remember joining the elementary school band in the 4th grade, really based on watching a guy do a roll, and I knew that I didn’t really know how to do that. It sounded so nice, and I wanted to know how to do that. He said, “You should join the band and you’ll learn how to do this.” So I did. So from the 4th grade on through all of my schooling, I played in some sort of organized musical situation in schools.
TP: Did you have good instructors?
LEWIS: Very good, as a matter of fact. From the very beginning, I had teachers who stressed “practice-practice-practice.” So learning the rudiments…In drumming we have what we call the 13 essential rudiments, but it’s actually 26, and infinite amount of variations on all of those. But you’ve heard the terminology “paradiddle,” “5-stroke roll” — all those things are important to first just being able to articulate different stickings. When I say ‘stickings,’ for those of you who are not drummers, it’s just combinations of strokes with the two hands – double strokes, singles, etc. So I learned at an early age to practice and practice and practice.
TP: And got your 26 rudiments…
LEWIS: I’m still working on those.
TP: Can you recite them off… No, we won’t do that to you now. When did you start playing in little ensembles then, outside of say school marching band or whatever?
LEWIS: In a jazz sense, I didn’t really play until high school.
TP: Before that you were doing?
LEWIS: R&B. Funk stuff. The first bands I played in on a regular basis when I was in high school were bands covering tunes by groups like the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire and James Brown, people like that.
TP: Were you checking out Maurice White’s style, or the drummers who played with James Brown, and try to get some of that sound, make it idiomatic and personal?
LEWIS: Most definitely. The Meters. That stuff I remember from my childhood. I didn’t really begin to listen to jazz in the way that we listen — the way musicians listen, trying to assimilate and learn from the music that we’re hearing — until I was in college. I guess in a certain sense, I’m a latecomer to that way of listening. Before that, I was basically playing R&B and Funk, and I didn’t really have any idea that I’d be a professional musician.
TP: do you mean in high school you were trying to replicate the styles rather than put your own personality into it.
TP: You were an athlete, weren’t you?
LEWIS: I was a football player in high school, and track as well. Believe it or not.
TP: I believe it. How about a few words of elaboration? What was your position?
LEWIS: I played free safety. I was captain of the football team in high school. Most people can’t believe that when I tell them that now, based on my… I’m not 230 pounds and 6’5″. But I had fun doing it.
TP: How about track?
LEWIS: I ran… At that time we weren’t thinking metrically. It’s 400 meters now. But I ran the 440-yard dash, or run they used to call it. I had a pretty decent time.
TP: There’s some pain involved in that particular event.
LEWIS: Definitely. When you round that last curve.
TP: So the discipline that you applied also, I take it, went into your athletics as well.
LEWIS: I would think so.
TP: Does one have to be athletic to be a good drummer, do you think? I’ve heard some drummers talk about what they do as a form of dance or positioning to be set up to do the things they need to do.
LEWIS: I think to a certain degree that’s very true. You have to have stamina in order to do this. When guys are taking strings of 10 horn players taking solos, the bass player and drummer is back there still digging away through all of that. So it doesn’t require a certain amount of stamina and athleticism to do it.
TP: So through high school you’re not dabbling in music, but not really considering it as your life’s work. You get to college, and what happens?
LEWIS: Well, I got to college, and I started to… Of course, I was taking electives in the Music Department at Arizona State, where I went to college. All of this time, because I’ve been involved in playing the drums and playing music in school for so long, it just seemed so natural for me to continue to play, although I wasn’t looking at it as a career objective at all. But what happened was, several of the people in the Music Department would ask me why I wasn’t a music major and why I wasn’t thinking of pursuing music as a career. I had never thought of it. I didn’t have anyone in my family who was a musician. I didn’t really know anyone personally who made their living playing music. So it really never occurred to me that I could do that, or that I should do that. Plus, I had an academic scholarship, and I was trying to keep my grades up and all that.
TP: What was your major when you got to college?
LEWIS: When I first got there, I was a broadcasting major, believe it or not. Then I switched to marketing in the business school. What happened was, some of the local groups heard me play in the college jazz ensemble, so one of the local pianists asked me to play some gigs with him, and the word started to get around that there’s a guy who plays fairly decent over at the college, and I started to get more gigs. Then I started to learn from some of these players who were from other places. Some of the guys were from Chicago or from Philadelphia, and maybe they were in the Air Force or just happened to end up in Phoenix for whatever reason. So they would recommend things to me to listen to, who to listen to, and how to listen. That’s how that started.
TP: We’ll hear some of those things, beginning with Jimmy Cobb with Miles Davis. He was and is very much respected for the cleanness of his articulation, the articulation of every stroke. I know musicians refer about this when they speak of you. What did you glean from him?
LEWIS: Jimmy Cobb impressed upon me that the ride cymbal itself… Aside from all the other things he was doing on the drums, when I would put on this particular cut we’re going to hear, or anything from this record, which is Miles Davis In Person: Live, Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Jimmy Cobb’s cymbal beat would pull me in and I would just zero in on it. I used put on this and just play along with it with the ride cymbal, just so I could try to emulate what he’s doing. I still am, actually. But really, talk about clean, articulate and a deep groove, that’s a perfect example.
[MUSIC: Miles-Mobley-Kelly-Chambers-Cobb, “If I Were a Bell”-Blackhawk-1961; Miles-PJJ, “No Blues (Blues #2)”; Miles-Sonny-Klook, “Airegin”-1954]
TP: These tracks offered a great contrast for how different drummers can influence a rhythm section, or indeed the sound of the whole band. You were talking about the different groove – which is ineffable, yet I know you can articulate this – that was attained by Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe Jones. The whole character of the ensemble is different.
LEWIS: As you said, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate the subtle differences like that. But when you’re dealing with two great drummers, like Philly Joe and Jimmy Cobb, they played with the same group of musicians and brought their own color, shall I say, to it. Their own approach, their own sense of swing, their own sense of dynamics. Both of them made the group sound incredible.
TP: One thing I hear, which I’ll run by you and then take lumps… Philly Joe Jones is all angles, commentary, signifying, pushing, prodding; Jimmy Cobb has more of an even throughline in the groove all the time…
LEWIS: Again, you run into the problem of how to define these things. I can see what you’re saying, although in certain instances Philly Joe would just play in the way you describe how Jimmy Cobb would play – and vice-versa. They had so much variance in the way they approached the drum.
TP: You articulated some incisive characteristics of Jimmy Cobb. A few words about what characterized Philly Joe Jones as a drummer, and specifically what you garnered from him.
LEWIS: For me personally, I liked Philly Joe’s interaction with the group in the sense that his snare drum accents would be varied in dynamic level. He would play really subtle things, and then he would play a rimshot at just the right place. But more importantly than that, his technique was very clean and articulate, which I tended to like more, at the time I was listening to the two of them… When I wanted to focus on my soloing and phrasing and sticking, things like that, I would listen a lot more to Philly Joe’s phrasing. I think that he influenced me quite a bit the way he got around the drums, I guess would be the way I’d say it.
TP: We concluded the set with a track featuring Kenny Clarke – please encapsulate.
LEWIS: Kenny Clarke’s ride cymbal is probably for me one of the most identifiable sounds in jazz history. If I hear a recording and he’s on it, right away, just from the sound of that ride cymbal, I can tell that it’s him. The reason is the kind of forward momentum that it has. It’s constantly pushing… You almost don’t hear the in-between beats. You hear the quarter-note pulse. He’s articulating everything in between, but each of the quarter notes is evenly placed. Consequently it gives that forward momentum. He’s not leaning heavily on 2-or-4 in the ride cymbal or 1-or-3 – they’re really even. That gives a certain push to the music, the way he articulated.
TP: On the first two tracks, the bassist was Paul Chambers. Can you speak a bit to the way the drums and bass interlock?
LEWIS: A very important thing. I often say to young drummers, or drummers with less experience playing, that one of the best ways to figure out what to play and what not to play is to play with great bass players. You can say the same thing to young bass players. If they play with a great drummer, or a drummer plays with a great bassist, all of a sudden things become really clear if you do it on a regular basis, without even much verbal dialogue. Because this person has been doing this for so long, and in with such a high quality of players that it just tells you what to leave out and what to keep in. What we call the hookup between the drummer and bassist is very important. Nothing else is going to take off if that’s not hooked up. If the drummer and bassist are feeling the beat in different places and it sounds like it, nobody else in the band is going to feel comfortable.
TP: When we left off your biography, you’re in college, getting your chops together and your feet wet, as it were, in the desert, in jazz music. Let’s discuss the events that to your becoming a professional drummer. Did the decision come suddenly to you, or did it gradually seem like the logical thing to do?
LEWIS: More like that. As I said, I started to get calls from different professional musicians around the city, and they continually were asking me what I planned to do with music. I really didn’t have any plans with music. I planned to do something else. I didn’t really know what else then. But enough musicians who had the kind of knowledge that I respected, and also who I felt had my best interests at heart, continued to tell me that I should really seriously consider thinking about music as a career choice, based on my abilities and potential. At some point, I suppose I started to listen more closely and I started to think about that. Really, even at the time I came to New York, I still hadn’t wholeheartedly… Well, not at the time I came but just before I came to New York, I was still going back and forth about what I should do. I think I had decided that I wanted to play music, and I knew I wanted to come to New York and see what was going on. But being in Phoenix and having never been to New York, it was vague about what to expect.
Actually, the first time I came was in 1979. And at that time, I was studying with Freddie Waits, who had come through Arizona with Billy Taylor’s trio and I heard him there. We established a rapport and I stayed in touch with him. So I came and studied in the summer of 1979. I went back to Phoenix. After that, having come to New York and experienced that, then I knew. After that, there was no doubt what I had to do. So it was just a matter of preparation to come back. What happened was, Freddie Waits recommended me to Betty Carter, so I came back to work with Betty.
TP: Did you come after Clifford Barbaro?
LEWIS: No. Kenny Washington and then Greg Bandy.
TP: What became apparent to you in studying with Freddie Waits in New York that you had to do to prepare yourself to be a New York musician?
LEWIS: There was a certain kind of intensity that I hadn’t really experienced. When I came in 1979, I went out to the clubs. I went to the Vanguard to see Elvin. I sat right in the front. I was of course like run over by a freight train – there was so much power and so much finesse, too. I heard him play brushes live for the first time. I couldn’t believe it, what a great brush player Elvin was, because I’d always associated him with the sticks, of course. Although there are examples of his playing brushes on record, it was hearing it live that really made me realize what a master of the brushes he was.
I had a chance to hear so many different players. The thing that really hit me was how intense it was. It doesn’t mean that it was too serious. I mean, the guys were having fun. But there was just a certain head that the guys got into when they went onstage to play the music. I realized that even though we’re enjoying it, it’s a serious business, and you have to be serious about your art form and you have to be serious about your instrument. So I went back to Phoenix with all of that in mind, and thinking, ok, I have to get back here at some point.
TP: You had a very thorough apprenticeship with Betty Carter, who’s nurtured many of our strongest younger musicians for several generations.
LEWIS: Right. From 1980 to 1984 I was with Betty. It was one of the best things that could have happened to me at that time in my life.
TP: How does she impart information to a drummer? She incorporates a lot of dynamics in her phrasing and in her tonality. What was it like to adjust to that?
LEWIS: One of the first things she talked about, even in the first rehearsal I ever did with her, was color. She said watch her for color. By that, she was talking about the dynamic changes. Maybe she’d want a sudden shift in dynamics from extremely soft to extremely loud in a couple of beats. I always had to keep my eye on her for direction where she wanted the music to go. It wouldn’t be the same every night. So I learned about the spontaneity involved from working with her. And she loves to groove, definitely, so I really had a chance to figure out what it means to establish a deep groove. I had help, of course. Curtis Lundy was playing bass at the time when I was in the band. I played with several different pianists in her group – Khalid Moss, Benny Green. But she always stressed the fact that she didn’t want things to sound the same, or she didn’t want us to start thinking in cliches. Always searching for something different. I think she still approaches it that way. She probably always will.
TP: Lewis works in many situations, but he’s been the steady drummer in the Tommy Flanagan Trio for five-six years now. We’ll hear a preview of the most recent Tommy Flanagan Trio… [etc.] Speaking of bassists, I guess you and Peter Washington have developed a strong rapport over the years as well.
LEWIS: Definitely. I can’t say enough good things about playing with Peter Washington over the past several years, with Tommy and all the other different groups. So yes, we’ve established quite a rapport.
TP: Talk a bit about the dynamics of playing in different groups? What specifically do you have to pay attention to when you’re playing in the trio?
LEWIS: Well, in the trio, I think you have right away a wider range of possibilities available. Because the sound, the air space I guess you could say, is not filled with other instruments. You have no horn players. You have no other chordal instrument. So the piano trio has a lot of flexibility with that dynamic range. You can play extremely soft. If I lay out somewhere, it gives another texture. This could apply to any other group, too, as well, but especially in the trio. When I change cymbals, for example… We do that in all situations. But in a trio, it seems to stand out more.
TP: In the Tommy Flanagan Trio, how responsive is he to the drummer, and how much does he lead you in terms of what you play?
LEWIS: There’s a whole lot going on there. I love playing with Tommy. I don’t see how any drummer could not enjoy playing with Tommy. The reason I say that is because rhythmically Tommy grew out of the Bud Powell school. Of course, he’s a lot more than that. But I’m just saying that to say that the rhythmic sense is really keen, and he hears drums immediately. If I play something that he likes in comping, he’ll either…he doesn’t have to play exactly what I play, but he could answer it in a certain way, which he does, or he’ll play something equally rhythmically interesting for me to react to. People continually make comments to us about the rapport between the drums and piano, which I think is a great observation and a great to our listening abilities.
TP: I think you and Peter Washington need to devote all your focus and attention, because he will change tunes or play introductions that take you in unexpected directions.
LEWIS: No question.
TP: We’ll hear “Verdandi.” It was a feature for Elvin Jones on its original issue, from 1957.
[MUSIC: Tommy Flanagan 3, “Verdandi”-Sea-Changes-1996; TF3, “Let’s”; Oscar Peterson-Ray Brown-Lewis, “St. Tropez”; Ray Bryant-Ray Brown-Lewis, “Dr. Freezee”–Double RB-1996]
LEWIS: “Verdandi” has another title, “Mean Streets.” actually, all of the drummers who played with Tommy have played that feature with him – Arthur Taylor, Kenny Washington. It’s a staple of his repertoire.
TP: This doesn’t seem to happen so often with drummers as, let’s say, with a tenor player who has to play “Body and Soul” or an alto player playing a Charlie Parker tune. In emulating the drum solo repertoire, you have to find a different path, a different tack. Talk about the challenges.
LEWIS: hmm. You’re right. I guess there isn’t a particular tune that you have to play on the drums necessarily. But I suppose… You’re talking about soloing in particular?
TP: particularly in emulating a solo that’s part of the drum canon.
LEWIS: In general, you have to study the phrasing of a great soloist in order to emulate it. For me, in the modern sense of soloing (when I say “modern,” I’m talking about from the 40s up to now) there’s a certain linear approach. Some people might call it melodic, and some people might say they hear melodies when you play this way. But that’s just to differentiate from a rudimental approach, let’s say, the way drummers were playing in the 30s – a lot of snare drum technique and things like that. Then, when you get further into the 40s with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Denzil Best and Shadow Wilson, people like that, even before that with Big Sid Catlett and people like that…it changed that rudimental approach to drumming to something more lyrical. I think most of us today base our styles, where we might be trying to evolve personally, on that approach rather than the snare rudimental way of playing.
TP: Do you think that the term “melodic drumming” is an accurate term? Does one play melodies on the drums. Max Roach is known for playing this way, but he’s also been quoted denying that he plays melodic drums, but rather plays developmentally on rhythmic patterns.
LEWIS: Right. I think probably the reason that’s said is because we have a limited amount of tones available at the drumset. We don’t have 88 keys and we can’t really play chords. So maybe that’s what he’s talking about. But I think you can give the effect of a melodic statement. But it’s a rhythm instrument. So when all is said and done, we are dealing with rhythmic variation of different pitches.
TP: Let’s talk also about the unique aspect of the trap drums. Have you studied much hand drums, for instance?
LEWIS: No, I haven’t actually. Just a little bit, but not very much.
TP: Perhaps it seems like a rudimentary question, but can you talk about the challenge of creatiing a unified whole out of what’s indeed an assemblage of separate components?
LEWIS: As you know, the instrument that I play evolved here in the United States, and it had its start in…guys would put together different pieces, from, say, a marching bass drum and a snare, and just suspend the cymbal in a certain way. That evolved eventually into what we call the modern drumset. The way we look at it today, or the way I like to look at it, is as one instrument. So oftentimes, when I’m practicing, I try to make the parts, my two hands and my two feet, contribute to one whole rhythmic motion. As you can see, it’s difficult to say in certain terms exactly what it is that we’re doing. But I think you want a unified whole to come from these four parts, and the four parts can play four different dynamic levels at the same time, or they can even play four different rhythms at the same time. They can play high and low tones, and that gives a different feeling. Ed Blackwell was someone who I used to watch with such admiration doing that kind of thing.
TP: Almost motionless, too.
LEWIS: Yes. He sat down one time and was showing me: “Your right foot does this, and your left foot does this, and your right hand this and left hand that.” There are books about four-way coordination and four-way independence. But it’s one thing to play something out of a book, and it’s a whole other thing to play something that makes somebody want to dance, and it’s still demonstrating this four-way coordination and independence. It’s really coordination. It’s not really complete independence, I don’t think. It’s not operating independently. They are co-dependent in a certain way.
TP: Back to the two features for you in that last set, “Verdandi” and “Dr. Freezee,” are those notatable, strictly. You’re a fully trained musician, who reads music. In learning those solos, is it by ear or do you notate what they’re doing?
LEWIS: It’s both. You can transcribe drum solos. It’s been done. I’ve done it, and there are people who are very good at doing that. I’ve had some of my solos transcribed, but it’s really hard to play them back because you’re playing spontaneously at the time you play it, and somebody puts it in front of you to play, it’s kind of a shock to see that… The first thing out of your mouth is, “Is that what I played?” It’s a challenge even to play your own ideas when they’re written down. But yes, all of those things can be notated.
TP: In the next set, we’ll return to influences, turning to Max Roach, who more than any drummer has turned the art of playing trap drums into an art form, particularly through his amazing solos. Some of those solos were first premiered on a mid-60s recording for Atlantic called Drums Unlimited, and we’ll hear “Big Sid,” dedicated to Sid Catlett.
LEWIS: My first introduction to Max’s playing was I believe the quintet with Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, “Daahoud” and all of those tunes. It really was a pleasure to hear somebody phrase and be creative on the drums in a solo context like that. I hadn’t really heard it done that way before, at the time I first heard it. He was a major, major influence on my whole approach to soloing on the drums, as he was on Philly Joe, and his own contemporaries, and all of us through the whole lineage.
[MUSIC: Max Roach solo, “For Big Sid”-1965; Art Blakey & Messengers, “Mosaic”; Jamal-Crosby-Fournier, “What’s New”]
TP: When “What’s New” came on, after the thunder and sturm und drang of “Mosaic,” Lewis was saying, “Yes, shhhtttt….”
LEWIS: I really enjoy listening to Vernell for a few different reasons. One I’d have to say is his touch. Here we go again with one of those terms that could mean a lot of different things. But the way he touched the drums in that trio with Ahmad Jamal is like artwork to me, especially the use of the brushes. It’s just a classic sound. It’s a way of playing the drums which is…the groove is deep, yet there’s lots of color, there’s lots of space, there’s definition, it’s not wishy-washy but it’s still light and airy at the same time. Or, he could play heavily when he needed to. He’s one of the guys who you really feel the bass drum; when he accents something, it has weight to it. I always liked the way Vernell used the bass drum in that trio as well. Those are a couple of things I like about it.
TP: I think one aspect of New Orleans drummer is the emphatic integration of the bass drum into the kit, which probably comes from the function of the bass drum in parade drumming. Idris Muhammad has described his concept as deriving from standing between the bass drummers in the marching bands in New Orleans.
LEWIS: Right. Idris is another drummer who, when you hear him play, you feel the weight of the beat. I remember the first time I heard him play, I could feel his ride cymbal in my chest. It’s that kind of weightiness to the beat. And the groove is first and foremost with most of the drummers who are out of New Orleans, and especially in those days…and even now.
Another thing about Vernell is that Ahmad would change direction pretty quickly, and it seemed like nothing passed him by. Even though he was just basically playing time, the little subtle things that he would do are really the things that caught my ear in that trio.
TP: Art Blakey also got a low sound from the drums, a heavy sound, though never ponderous, of course. “Mosaic” is one of many classics by the Messengers, and millions of words have been uttered about Art Blakey. What are yours?
LEWIS: Well, he’s probably the first… Actually, the first time I went to the record store with my own money to buy a jazz record, it was Art Blakey. Is that true… Well, near the first time. I think I might have gotten Milestones or Round About Midnight first. But somewhere in that very beginning stage, when I first started to buy records, I bought Live at Birdland with Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson, that group, and right away I said “Wherever this style came from, I love it and I need to buy some more of this.” So I went back to the record store and said to the salesman… You have to remember, at this time it’s all new to me. I am trying to figure out what’s going on. The guy who worked in the record store happened to be going to college with me. His name is Allen Chase…
TP: Who is a distinguished, and is currently Chairman of the Jazz Faculty at New England Conservatory.
LEWIS: That’s right. We went to school at the same time. The first time I went in there, he asked, “Do you know who Philly Joe Jones is?” and “Do you have any John Coltrane records?” I said “no.” I wasn’t really familiar. I’m in college at this time already. It’s kind of a late start. But that’s what it was…the first one I bought was Blue Trane. Philly Joe was on there, and Trane of course, Curtis Fuller, Lee Morgan, Kenny Drew. I went back and I said, “I want some more of this kind of music,” so he recommended to me with Philly Joe Milestones and Round About Midnight. Then I went back again and he said, “Ok, a different drummer; try this one, Art Blakey” – and it was those Live at Birdland sessions. It was a good thing he knew what he was talking about. The salesman can lead you astray sometimes.
For all the times I heard Art on record, I didn’t really feel the impact until I actually saw him and heard him live. It was really overwhelming to watch him and hear him and just feel what he could do with the music. One of my biggest influences of all time is Art Blakey. He could mold young musicians, could make inexperienced musicians sound experienced. He could make a boring chart sound exciting. He could just do all of that. There’s recordings of Art where he doesn’t necessarily play as hard as…you know, with all of that ferociousness that we attribute to him. There’s a Hank Mobley record called Soul Station that’s Art Blakey, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Hank, and Art plays some really subtle things on there. He just grooves, stays down pretty…
TP: He was a real link as well to what you described as the premodern sound of drums. He kept the primal essence of a big band drummer like Chick Webb with the modern phrasing and vocabulary.
TP: Can you speak a bit to the utility to a contemporary drummer of the pre-war styles of drumming. You were distinguishing before between one as more rudimentary oriented and the other being more complex and linear. For example, when listening to Sid Catlett, Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, Jimmy Crawford, other top drummers of the period, what do you take from it and how does it filter into what you do?
LEWIS: Let me think. Those drummers played for dancers a lot, probably most of the time. They knew how to make someone just leap out of their seat onto the dance floor, because the groove and the feeling and the propulsion was just so…
TP: Chorus lines, too.
LEWIS: Exactly. I guess if there’s anything I would get from them aside from the great beat that they had, it was just the ability to make music feel a certain way so that people would want to dance or clap their hands or shout or whatever. In a certain sense, we’ve gotten so involved in ourselves in terms of our chops and how creative we’re being and all of this, and we forget to make people feel something. That doesn’t mean that we have to simplify everything. We can still be complex and still be creative and all that. But around the world, people still love to dance. I don’t think that’s ever going to stop.
TP: Sometimes they’re dancing to drum machines.
LEWIS: Well, that’s too bad.
TP: But the drum machine will never replace a jazz drummer.
LEWIS: It sure won’t replace Art Blakey; that’s for sure.
TP: The next two tracks feature the rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, who function like a well-oiled machine as the cliche goes. First is from Hand In Hand, Mulgrew’s 1993 recording for Novus – “Leilani’s Leap” with Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone; and Steve Nelson on vibraphone.
[MUSIC: Mulgrew, “Leilani’s Leap”; Lovano-Mulgrew-McBride-Nash, “Little Willie Leaps”; Eddie Henderson, “Dark Shadows”; JALC with Lewis, “Things To Come”]]
TP: “Dark Shadows” featured the double drums of Lewis on left channel and Billy Hart in the right, with Eddie Henderson on trumpet, Kevin Hays and Ed Howard…
Let’s talk about playing lucidly at the tempo on “Little Willie Leaps.” One thing about the 1940s and bebop is that tempos like that have not been played before or even since. Once Roy Haynes was up here with his son Graham, and I asked Graham if he had a question, and he asked, “How did you play those tempos?” So that’s the question. Playing something logically, lucidly, organized, like that.
LEWIS: Well, I don’t know if there’s one secret; there’s probably a couple. I played tempos that fast when I first came to New York and played with Betty Carter. So I got a jump start, so to speak, on those. Betty would take things at breakneck tempos like that, and then all of a sudden she’d be at a ballad so slow, as Kenny Washington likes to say, you could go out for a cup of coffee in between beats. She had all the extremes. So I had a lot of practice playing at those tempos. Also, another person who likes to play those kind of breakneck tempos is George Coleman. You have to not take it so seriously. I find that if I smile…just take your mind off the fact that it’s moving along that quickly. I know a lot of people are probably saying, “Yeah, sure.” But it really involves trying to relax the rest of your body. Not so much your hand and your arm that are playing the tempo, but the rest of you. Not letting your shoulders tense up. Breathe. Don’t hold your breath.
TP: Is that the case for all tempos? To what extent now are you counting or actually thinking specifically about the rudiments of what you’re doing?
LEWIS: You start to feel the tempos. Max used to play tempos like that, and even faster, and Sonny Rollins. In those days I guess it was something everybody did. Not many people do it these days. But you don’t really count. You have to feel where the pulsation is. At those tempos you can’t be counting 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4. It’s like you feel certain parts of the pulse, and you keep the momentum going, and you keep a certain cycle of pulse going, I guess would be a way of saying it. Remember the forward momentum I was talking about with Kenny Clarke? The same thing. At this tempo, you have to keep the momentum moving forward. With those hits that were going on in that “Things To Come” that we heard, the horn players all had to have great time in order to execute like that – and they did. That’s another thing. Everyone has to have great time, not just the drummer.
TP: The drummer helps, though.
TP: The track featuring you and Billy Hart together shows some of the delights and difficulties of jazz in the studio. You’d be hard-pressed to think of two more imaginative drummers than Lewis and Billy Hart, with contrasting styles, but across a wide range. You went in the studio and were presented with the music and had to figure out what to do on the spot.
TP: So in that situation, you didn’t have an opportunity to work with the music for a few days and get something going.
LEWIS: That happens quite often in the studio. Even if you have a rehearsal a couple of days before, if it’s not a working group… All of us who play could give examples of how a piece of music has evolved over a period of a tour for several weeks or even several months of playing music, from where it was when you first got the piece of music. So oftentimes, a studio version of music hasn’t evolved to the place where it’s going to be. Miles Davis’ group in the 60s with Ron Carter and Herbie and Tony and Wayne is a perfect example of how the music could evolve through playing live. If you listen to some of the things at the Plugged Nickel sessions, that music that they played and played on subsequent nights; after they’d played it a certain way, the next night they’d add something else, take something else away. That’s across the board with all groups and all pieces of music.
TP: Yet, being a contemporary in our day and age, with the marketplace being what it is for recordings and the type of travel you have to do, you’re faced with that situation a lot — going into a studio and being presented with music to play. How do you stay fresh and creative in a situation like that?
LEWIS: You have to be daring. And to be daring in the studio is really a trip, because oftentimes, in order to make something work, you have to play much more simply than you might have thought after… You play something, and you go in the booth and listen to the playback, and you say, “Hmm, I’m playing too busily here” or “I’m playing too much in there; I should leave more space.” So it’s an editing process that goes on. But even doing that, we don’t want to make the music boring and too much the same. So you have to carry with you a spirit of daring, to try things, because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. The sound of surprise, and this creative thing that we’re supposed to be carrying on is to do something that hasn’t been done quite that way. Maybe not everything, but something out of a piece of music has to…
TP: Having internalized hundreds of thousands of different sticking and timbral combinations, you come up with variants just by dint of having played so often.
LEWIS: Right. I think one thing that helps in the studio is the level of the musicians involved, and the comfort level they have with each other also allows… Even if it’s the first time and they haven’t played the music on the road, it allows for a lot more freedom and creativity because the trust factor is there.
TP: Speaking of a live band, a superior recent document of same are the two Joe Lovano Quartet recordings, both taken late during a week at the Vanguard. On “Little Willie Leaps’ you did some rather extended exchanges with Joe, and you were mentioning that people don’t necessarily realize the demands that are placed on a rhythm section. You once related to me a story from the days you were playing with Sonny Rollins, that someone timed you playing about 40 minutes of exchanges with him at some point.
LEWIS: We played fours at least 30-35 minutes; someone timed it close to 40. It’s the first time I’d ever done that, and especially on that level with somebody like Sonny. I would think to myself every time we’d get to a four…we were exchanging fours, and after a while, after maybe 10 minutes, 15 minutes, I felt like I couldn’t come up anything…I wasn’t thinking of anything new to play — and just when that thought would come to my mind, Sonny would play something rhythmically that would lead me to something else to play. So the guys out front can definitely be a big inspiration to us in playing the drums.
TP: Lewis could not let a Musician Show without presenting music by Arthur Taylor and Elvin Jones, both with John Coltrane, who could take 40-minute solos himself in the band with Elvin.
LEWIS: I really miss A.T., and I’m sure the whole jazz community does. I feel fortunate I had a chance to listen to him many, many times live. The last time that I recall here in New York, I actually was on my way somewhere else and I had to get there, and I stopped in for one set and I ended up staying all night and I never got to the place I was going because he was playing so great. One of the greats of all time.
[MUSIC: John Coltrane-Flanagan-Chambers-AT, “Countdown”; Coltrane 4-Elvin, “Liberia”]
LEWIS: Those rolling triplets. Elvin is one of my favorites of all time. The feeling is just like a drum ensemble in complete agreement with each other. I don’t have words to describe it. It’s just a great feeling listening to Elvin play. You have to pay attention. You’ll get lost listening to Elvin if you’re trying to count and everything, because sometimes you can’t count. You just have to feel where his pulse is coming from. I’ve seen horn players start looking at each other, like, “Where are we?” Because it’s complex, but it’s really simple at the same time in a certain sense. By “simple” I mean direct. Not uncomplicated, but direct. Elvin states the beat. Tommy Flanagan talks to me a lot…well, he doesn’t talk to me a lot, but I’ve asked him, and he told me how he likes playing with Elvin. There’s a certain feeling he… It’s one of those things again; here we go again. It’s hard to really say why. It’s just a certain feeling that he gives that probably allows Tommy or whoever it is who likes playing with Elvin to be more themselves.
I think that’s probably part of the art of accompaniment, or the reason why people like to play with you. Not so much that they like what you play (I’m sure that is a big part of it), but you playing with them allows them to play the way they like to play.
TP: It’s as though your individual stamp creates a dynamic space or aura that gives whatever is going on its particular vibration.
LEWIS: For sure.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to play things by all my favorites. I’m influenced by so many people, including my peers, who of course we can’t get to. But Frankie Dunlap, Frank Butler, Billy Higgins, Ben Riley, Charlie Persip, Connie Kay, Mickey Roker, Tony Williams, and names I haven’t called who I’m sure play a big part in my whole outlook on this thing. I’d like to thank all of them.
TP: We’ll conclude with a duo by Lewis and Kevin Mahogany, emulating the drums with his voice, on “Confirmation” on Double Rainbow.
[MUSIC: Lewis-Kevin Mahogany, “Confirmation”]
[END OF CONVERSATION]