Tag Archives: Ralph Peterson

R.I.P Master Drummer Ralph Peterson (May 20, 1962-March 1, 2021) — A 2012 Downbeat Feature, a DB Blindfold Test from 2000, and Three Liner Notes

After a long struggle against the ravages of cancer, master drummer-educator (and composer, bandleader and trumpeter) Ralph Peterson succumbed this morning at the age of 58. He was a warrior, a force of nature, and is deeply missed. 

I’ve posted several pieces that I was honored to do with and about Ralph over the years.

2012 Downbeat Article, titled “Protecting the Truth”

Toward the end of the ’80s, Ralph Peterson related, Art Blakey—who first employed him as second drummer in the Jazz Messengers Big Band in 1983—came to his house repeatedly for dinner and a chance to bounce Peterson’s daughter, Sonora, on his lap.

“He liked my curry,” Peterson recalled in March. Dressed in loose sweats and sneakers, he sat on a piano bench in a compact Times Square rehearsal studio, directly opposite the former karate champion Anthony “Mafia” Holloway, his companion on the ride in from the Boston suburbs. After the interview, they’d continue on to Philadelphia, where, the next morning, Peterson—who recently earned his third-degree black belt—would referee and Holloway would senior-arbitrate a sport karate tournament held under the auspices of a regional league that Holloway runs.

Peterson cupped his belly. “You can see I’m still good at cooking,” he joked. He added that it’s his Thanksgiving custom to invite a holiday-stranded students at Berklee College of Music, where he is professor of percussion, to his house for dinner. “I cook for days in advance,” he said. “Last time, after we played, I started wondering why I was looking to New York for the next crop of talent. I’m sitting here in the incubator! The apprenticeship system in New York is different than when I got here, when you could still develop in bands and clubs. That’s fine, but after a while, God gives you lemons and you have to make lemonade. You’ve got to try to carry on this tradition and protect the truth about what the music is from wherever you are on the playing field of life. As long as I’m around, I’ll have something to say about that.”

To demonstrate his latest thoughts on the subject, Peterson opened his MacBook and pulled up the artwork for The Duality Perspective, the second release on Onyx, his imprint label. It follows Outer Reaches, an organ-two horns program that is a fresh, idiomatic, ferocious-to-reflective meditation on the legacies of organ visionary Larry Young and trumpet prophet Woody Shaw, and the drummers who propelled them—specifically Elvin Jones and Tony Williams—refracted through Peterson’s across-the-timeline drum conception.

The Duality illustration shows a circle containing two overlapping, yin-yang circles, one black with a white dot, one white with a black dot. Peterson’s profile nestles in the crook of a tree amidst branches that spread outside the circumference, tagged with names of the current personnel for the two primary vehicles that he has used over the decades to document his musical production. The fully-leaved branches shooting rightward represent his sporadically-working sextet (Sean Jones, trumpet; Tia Fuller, soprano saxophone; Walter Smith, tenor saxophone; Zaccai Curtis, piano; Luques Curtis, bass); four narrow budded sprigs on the left signify his Fo’tet, comprising Berklee wunderkinds Felix Peikli on clarinets, Joseph Doubleday on vibraphone, and Alexander Toth on bass. Six roots firmly planted at the bottom are for Peterson’s prime mentors from his own formative years—Blakey, Jones, Michael Carvin, Paul Jeffrey, Walter Davis, and Bill Fielder.

“You could lend either color to either band,” Peterson remarked. “I’m the common element that binds them—the solid high-impact of the sextet and the almost translucent sound of the Fo’tet, which someone once described as a steel fist in a velvet glove.”

Both sounds entered the jazz lexicon via five individualistic albums, all long out of print. They were recorded between April 1988 and August 1990 for the Japanese label Somethin’ Else and issued domestically in quick succession by Blue Note, which, as part of its mid-decade relaunch, assembled the hand-picked “young lion” sextet OTB (Out Of The Blue), for which Peterson propelled three dates with a big beat so evocative of Blakey’s that insiders dubbed him “Baby Bu.” (A decade later, Jones himself cosigned Peterson’s authoritative assimilation of his language, when, coming off surgery, he called the acolyte to cover for him—“just in case”—during a week at Manhattan’s Blue Note.)

On V and Volition, Peterson presented his quintet music, with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Geri Allen and bassist Phil Bowler. The songs contained striking melodies and meaty harmonic structures that inferred the most progressive thinking of the ’60s. Peterson animated them with a host of rhythmic strategies, articulating thick four-to-the-floor swing, asymmetrical meters at once highbrow and elemental, ebullient Afro-Beats, and an unorthodox conception of the second line groove—Peterson calls it “funk with a limp”—that he’d developed prior to OTB with the Harrison-Blanchard Quintet. Throughout the proceedings, he displayed high musical acumen, sustaining consistent dialogue with the soloists, responding to their twists and turns while also anticipating their next moves.

These albums were widely influential amongst Generation X’ers, as was Triangular, an interactive trio recital with Allen and bassist Essiet Okon Essiet that Peterson describes as “part-Monk, part-Bud Powell, and part-Eric Dolphy, while reflecting my love for Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill.”

“They profoundly affected me and a lot of people I was coming up with,” said bassist Eric Revis, who played in Peterson’s quintet between 2001 and 2003 with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Jimmy Greene and pianist Orrin Evans. “The seminal record of that time had been [Wynton Marsalis’] Black Codes (From The Underground), but this was different, with all these different time signatures, beautiful melodies, and an attitude that was so in-your-face. A lot of records then had not-very-good tunes and cats who could play the hell out of their instruments. This was one of the few where everything fell together.”

“That quintet was the next sound,” said drummer Eric Harland. “I liked the way Ralph and Geri would weave in and out of odd meters without it feeling as if you were counting to, say, an Indian raga or tal. He was just allowing himself to exist within the music. On those OTB records, he was playing over the stuff like a piano player. I loved Ralph’s fluidness, that he wasn’t bound by the theory of jazz drumming. His approach sounded organic, not patternistic; he was playing what he heard.”

In 1989 and 1990, Peterson established the sonic template he would chase for the next decade with Presents the Fo’tet and Ornettology. Joined by Don Byron on clarinet and bass clarinet,  Carrott on vibes and marimba, and Melissa Slocum on bass, he drew on lessons learned during late ’80s engagements with older experimentalists like Henry Threadgill and David Murray, constructing programs that involved “looser interpretation, less harmonic constraint and giving free rein to the primal elements of music.” Toward that end, Peterson orchestrated the interpretations—the repertoire mixed venturesome tunes by Fo’tet personnel with challenging items by Billy Strayhorn, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman—with rubato drums-and-cymbals tone poems and, as he puts it, “deep grooves that make you want to dance but you trip over yourself because it’s not quite symmetrical.”

“Within my generation was this notion that swing only moved a certain way, in a certain time signature, with a certain feel,” Peterson said. “But the people who said that didn’t know jack about the way music swung in Trinidad, or Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, or Brazil. If you listen and your body starts moving beyond your conscious control, you are under the influence of swing. It doesn’t have to be based on ding-ding, da-ding-ding, da-ding.

“An element of the ultra-conservative approach was too pristine for me. It didn’t have the energy of the motherland and the fire and fury of what we’ve survived as people in the Middle Passage. On the other hand, while I appreciated having no-holds-barred, I was also taught the importance of being able to express that level of freedom within the harmonic construct. I was looking for something that would be a little bit of both.”

As this period of creative efflorescence was unfolding, Peterson was beginning to unravel. As he puts it, his use of various mind-altering substances “stopped being cute” and “the darkness of it accelerated.” He made several attempts to reverse the implosion, documenting his recovery efforts via the Fo’tet—with Wilson playing soprano sax—on The Reclamation Project, a high-level 1994 session comprising all original music, and The Fo’tet Plays Monk, from 1995, comprising creative treatments of nine of the pianist’s gnarlier lines.

“I don’t hide my addiction and what I’ve overcome from my students,” said Peterson, who traces his sobriety to May 24, 1996. “Students have come to me because they feel safe. Once you build that kind of trust, you can teach something about music, too. That’s the way I trusted Walter Davis.”

A contemporary of Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins whose formative years coincided with the height of New York City bebop, Walter Davis Jr. was a pianist who was close to Bud Powell, and whose tunes were staples of the Messengers’ book. Davis began hiring Peterson soon after he’d graduated from Rutgers University. “Walter taught me the tradition of Bud and Monk,” Peterson said. “He thought of trio in a triangular manner, not that the bass and drums lay down a carpet, but always a three-way conversation.”

Peterson also garnered bandstand experience on gigs with Davis and Rutgers professor Paul Jeffrey, a saxophonist who music directed for Monk during the ’70s. (Peterson played Monk’s funeral with him in 1982.) The young drummer took full advantage of Rutgers’ superior music faculty. “All the music from V and Triangular were writing assignments from my keyboard harmony class with Kenny Barron,” he recalled. “Through Bill Fielder I gained a fascination for how McCoy Tyner seemed to speak in a language all his own, for how could I get all of my music to sound different and the same at the same time. Certain harmonic passages were therapeutic. They could change the way I feel. Whenever I found something like that at the piano, I wrote it down, and it became part of a composition.”

The son of a police officer who rose to be mayor of Pleasantville, a New Jersey village adjacent to Atlantic City, Peterson took up trumpet in fourth grade. He describes his early drumming personality as a self-taught “basement experience.” Gifted at track (he ran the 400-meter hurdles) and basketball, he committed to music when his knees and ankles started to fray.

Initially a trumpet student at Rutgers, he quickly persuaded drum professor Michael “Thabo” Carvin to take him on, beginning a profound master-apprentice relationship.

“Michael told me to pick someone and make him my guy,” Peterson said. “He’d watch me sit in their space as long as I could, as deep as I could go. Then he’d tell me to divorce myself—“don’t play that any more when you come into my room.” That forced me to learn somebody else. When I came back to my guy, the two were connected. It’s the process Tony Williams referred to in his 1979 Zildjian Day interview, when he was asked if he had his own style. He said that he was just playing what he thought Max Roach and Art and Elvin would be playing if he were them.

“That’s what I teach my drummers now. They name guys who are younger than me, and I say, ‘OK, but do you know who they listened to? How can you effectively copy them if you don’t know where they came from? Then you’re tracing a lineage.’ That’s what some young players don’t understand about the importance of music as art as opposed to as popularity and product. One is not going to be around in 50 years.”

Reinforcing that sensibility were components of Carvin’s pedagogy that transcended technical particulars. “Thabo taught me that all drumming is sleight of hand, like a magic show. If you watch videos of Papa Jo Jones, it doesn’t look like he’s playing the things he’s playing. Before I knew who Papa Jo was, Carvin took me to his apartment—we’d clean it, and he’d fix some eggs. Later, it registered how important those moments were. I’d hear Thabo call someone ‘young talent,’ and remembered that the great-grandmaster of all drum-set drumming had called him ‘young talent.’”

Closing in on his 50th birthday and his 16th year of sobriety, Peterson, whose daughter is now 25, and has two grandchildren from his second marriage, talked the talk of someone comfortable in his skin.

“I almost killed myself trying to be somebody else,” he said. “I failed miserably in every conceivable aspect. Being a law enforcement officer’s son who went for music. Trying to figure out how not to be completely swallowed by my love for Art Blakey. Having the same experience with Elvin. Looking for a place. Where do I fit in? Am I playing enough? Am I swinging hard enough?

“Now I’m not making things happen; I’m letting them happen. I’ve stopped trying to be the mighty oak. There’s a tune on my new record called ‘Bamboo Bends In The Storm.’ I’ve started to fold my arms and let storms in life blow over. I’m more comfortable, too, because I feel less ignorant. As my musical IQ increased, my desperate need to cover shit up with velocity and pyrotechnics has rolled out like the tide. The dialogue is multi-directional within the group, not binary with soloists. It’s more thoughtful. It’s more considerate. But I still push music to the edge of the energy envelope, because I believe that’s where creativity is. You can’t be ultra-creative in the center of the comfort zone.”

Those dynamics mark Peterson’s playing with Zaccai and Luques Curtis on the sextet tracks of Duality Perspective and on their 2011 release The Completion Project (Truth/Revolution), which offers him the opportunity to lock in with percussionists Pedro Martinez, Rogerio Boccato and Reinaldo De Jesus. It’s evident that the drummer—who played alongside percussionist Pernell Saturnino during a 1999 engagement with David Sánchez—has devoted much energy toward assimilating the fundamentals of Afro-Caribbean drum dialects.

“Pernell pointed out that the first word in ‘Afro-Caribbean’ is not ‘Caribbean,’” Peterson said. “I started to feel clarity—that I have a relationship to timbales and music of the Afro-Caribbean culture because I was born into it. Instead of trying to be the African-American who was attached to the Caribbean piece, it’s OK that my grandmother was born in Trinidad and raised in Barbados. A thread runs through the music of that region back to West Africa. I may not play the Afro-Cuban grooves in 7 and clave the way the Cuban purists believe it should be done. But it didn’t start in Cuba. It actually started in Guinea and Senegal. My affinity for loving Art and Elvin is born of that same thread. So I’m accepting me. I no longer have anything to prove.

“Why you play something is more important than what you play. Don’t check out the thinnest, newest branch on the tree. If you dig into the root instead of being distracted by the fruit, the root will teach you what the fruit means. Then you can push forward.”


Ralph Peterson Blindfold Test (5-2-00):

1. Art Blakey, “Splendid,” AFRICAINE, Blue Note, 1961/1999, (#3) (5 stars)

Starting me out easy, right? I mean, Wayne and Lee and Bu, so then I guess my assumption would be Jymie Merritt on bass. [Who do you think the pianist is?] Cedar? No, not Cedar. Let me listen for a minute. Oh, yeah, Walter Davis! Hearing the way he comps. [It’s his tune also.] 10,000 stars for this. It doesn’t get any better, it doesn’t swing any harder than this. Well, what can I say? Art is probably, besides Michael Carvin, the most influential drummer on me directly — my playing and my ideas as a bandleader, man. So he taught me a lot. And just the way him and Walter set up on the groove on this thing is so deep! Walter played piano like a drummer. Especially when he comped, with his whole rhythmic approach, it was very percussive in nature. Walter gave me my first hit in New York at the Jazz Cultural Theater. I miss him a lot. He used to call me up at 7:30 in the morning and ask me the bridge to certain ballads. He didn’t just deal with me purely like a drummer. He always encouraged me to develop as a musician. Yeah, Humphrey. From New Jersey, too.

2. Roy Haynes, “Shades of Senegal,” PRAISE, Dreyfus, 1998 (#9) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Haynes. It doesn’t take long to hear. I mean, he’s got a language that he speaks. When you study these drummers, they kind of speak with a certain language. He’s got a very distinct kind of dribble in the left hand, and the way he works around the tom-toms with his right hand. I could literally SEE him when I heard that. The one thing I love about Roy’s sound is he plays a wide-open bass drum sound. The way Roy freed up the whole hi-hat thing is just amazing. Releasing the confines of the 2 and 4 thing, and creating such a dance with his ride cymbal, and then playing accents and having his hi-hat be a part of the coloring mechanism as opposed to the timekeeping mechanism. I’ve got to play later; I can get some ideas! Buhaina and Roy both get 5 stars. I mean, these guys are the grandmasters that made what little bit I play possible. So certainly 5 stars.

3. Freddie Hubbard, “Thermo,” THE BODY AND THE SOUL, Impulse, 1962/1996 (#9) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] “Thermo”!! I mean, Bobby Bradford called Freddie the natural. The way stuff comes out. A line like that is really not easy to play on the trumpet. So for it to even be conceived by a trumpet player begins to defy the odds. Whoo!! My awareness of Freddie’s recordings narrows it down to one of three cats — Ray Appleton, Clifford Jarvis or Louis Hayes. Neither one? Wow. The ride cymbal is something. I’m really into the sound of the ride cymbal. I should know this record. Ow!! Philly!!! The way Philly plays the shuffle is distinctly different from the way Art plays the shuffle. And the way Philly resolves structural points. His BASH-ti-dit-BASH. But it’s the cymbal sound that threw me. Very rarely have I heard Philly on such a dry sound. [Maybe it was a different pair of drums.] [LATER] Again, how can you not give the grandmasters five stars? I’m sure we’ll get to something…

4. George Coleman-Billy Higgins, “Thou Swell,” I COULD WRITE A BOOK: THE MUSIC OF RICHARD RODGERS, Telarc, 1998 (#11)

Is that Clifford Jordan? No. Junior Cook? No. Let me stop guessing. Got me. [AFTER] I’m not going to make any excuses, but the recording doesn’t sound like Billy. It’s a recent recording? [PLAY “Lover” FROM THE SESSION] That feels more like him. It’s in the context of the rest of the band. Which is easy to say after you know it’s him! But I didn’t recognize him. I’m not going to make any excuses. The thing about the masters is that although they have very distinctive sounds, they can also be very deceptive and play the things that you expect to hear them play. That’s what made them masters. You couldn’t hear them coming around the block. You know what I mean. So I’m not going to make any excuses because Billy Higgins faked me out. It won’t be the first time! [LAUGHS] 5 stars for the playing, but it might lose a star on the recording.

5. Dave Douglas, “Zonish,” SOUL ON SOUL, RCA, 2000 (#11). [Featuring Uri Caine, piano; Joey Baron, drums.] (4 stars)

Is that Cyrille? [No.] Is it Geri Allen? Paul Motian on drums? You got me again. [You should know who the piano player is.] I should know him because I play with him? Oh, it’s Uri Caine. Then this must be Dave Douglas’ record. I still don’t know who that is on the drums. Uri is such a versatile cat. He’s such a deep writer. It’s not Pheeroan. [LATER] Oh, it’s Joey. Okay. I like Joey’s inventiveness, his willingness to take risks. I was fortunate to be a part of the beginning of the rise to power of Dave Douglas. I think in a lot of ways it began with Uri’s TOYS record, which was a really both inside and outside statement for Dave, and things seemed to take off for him right after that record. I know he was real active on the downtown scene and all of that. I have a lot of respect for him. Plus he can read, man! He can read his ass off. I’d give it 4 stars.

6. Herlin Riley, “Blood Groove,” WATCH WHAT YOU’RE DOING, Criss-Cross, 1999, (#9) [Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Victor Goines, soprano sax] (4 stars)

This sounds like it’s on the same label as Roy’s record was on. {It’s the same studio. Can you tell which studio?] Systems 2. [LAUGHS] So this could be a Dave Holland record. But it’s not. Wow. Ray Anderson? [No.] He’s got good hands. It made me think of Billy Kilson. [Do you have any sense of what part of the country the drummer is from?] No. [He’s from New Orleans.] James Black? So it’s newer than that. Herlin? So this is Wycliffe. Victor Goines? I like it. I like the way it dances. I’m not crazy about the mix. The piano is kind of distant. Herlin took a great solo; it sounded good. Herlin’s a great drummer. I’d give it a solid 4 stars. It has a nice dance to it, and it wasn’t necessarily overly New Orleans in its feel. It didn’t suggest anything overly New Orleans to me. What it suggested was somebody who has indulged and indulges in funk drumming of some type — or has been influenced by funk drummers certainly. And to hear James Black and have it be Herlin is kind of a natural outgrowth. James Black is probably the most influential drummer of the last 20-25 years. Black’s expansions to me were along the same lines of what Al Foster has developed and contributed in terms of independence, in terms of riding on the bell. Riding on the bell I got directly from Al Foster and James Black, and it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate. But it’s also something that came from my funk drumming roots. Black had such a… He’s so deep musically, man. He played more than one instrument, and his writing exhibited that. And his playing, the way he would develop a drum solo, you could hear it. The thing that I’m hearing right off the top of my head is his solo on “12’s It” from Branford’s record that I recorded on in the early ’80s.

7. Jerry Gonzalez, “Little Rootie Tootie,” Rumba Para Monk, Sunnyside, 1988 (5 stars)

Knowing that you know what instruments I play, my first guess would have to be… Oh, it’s obvious. That’s Jerry, “Rumba Para Monk.” Berrios. Larry Willis. I forget who else was in the band. I always wanted to play with this band. I’m trying to develop my bilingual tours. The little stint I did with David Sanchez did a lot to open me up as far as understanding. I had a lot of intuitive and instinctive ideas about how the shit should go, but working with Pernell Saturnino I got a lot of clarity. What I’m listening for, I’m trying to discern the difference between bembe and aguacua. I believe this is the bembe. I was recently playing at Sweet Basil with Henry Butler, and Jerry came down and played, I got up and played trumpet, and we had some fun. Jerry’s a good trumpet player. He inspires me, man. He gives me hope. I’m getting closer and closer now to calling myself ready to do a record, and I’m very interested in anybody who might be interested in that recording. I’ve actually developed a book and I’ve got commitments from a whole host of drummers and other musicians who believe enough in my trumpet playing to be a part of it. I even got a title for it — “Switch Hitter”! The way Jerry forwards the Afro-Cuban tradition and merges it with elements of American music, he deserves 5 stars. Because Jerry is teaching. That’s the thing I really appreciate. He’s raising awareness, not just about his music, the music of his culture, but the music of American culture, and it opens doors. It opens doors for people in his culture who might want to explore more deeply the music of Monk, and because of that, there’s a greater chance of them falling across the “Fotet Plays Monk” record. So it’s all part of the same… We’re all really part of the same effort. There’s no competition. 5 stars

8. Andrew Cyrille, “A Tribute To Bu,” GOOD TO GO, Soul Note, 1997 (5 stars) [James Newton, flute]

This hand drum thing is throwing me. Now, this sounds… That’s not Carvin. Michael sounds different than that. Is hearing any more of it going to help me? It’s a beautiful sound on the pattern he’s got going. It’s funny. It’s not necessarily a sound that I would have, but it’s working for them, and especially on the thing that they’re creating. [Do you know who the flutist is?] No. I’ll tell you one thing, though. Those are uncoated drum heads. Clear, without a black dot. That’s about the only thing I can say with any kind of safety, though. [LATER] That’s Cyrille! Wow! [And it’s called “Tribute to Bu”] Mmm, okay. I can hear that. This was recorded in Milan. Generationally speaking, my guess wasn’t that far off the mark. As he built it up towards the end it was like he got more lows on it or something. Cyrille always has been supportive of what I’m trying to do. Certainly a mentor, somebody I respect and appreciate. Definitely 5 stars. I have always been able to identify Cyrille through his cymbal work. So the fact that there wasn’t a lot there to identify is kind of what threw me. His cymbal sound has always been very clear. And it danced like Roy, but it had more of a drive like Bu. I mean, I can only talk about the way I identify guys, which is how I hear that they combine certain kinds of approaches that I identify. It may not have anything to do with what they’re doing, but it’s how I hear.

9. Kenny Barron, “Sonia Braga,” SPIRIT SONG, Verve, 2000 [featuring Eddie Henderson, trumpet; David Sanchez, tenor sax; Billy Hart, drums] (5 stars)

Is that Claudio Roditi? Oh, then he did something that only two cats play and make it work, and that’s Freddie and Eddie! That bent thing coming down. [But Eddie is a sideman on this.] Kenny Barron? So that has to be Ben Riley. No, not necessarily. I heard that cymbal. Oh, that’s David! You play with a cat for three or four months, you know… [Who’s the drummer?] By a process of elimination here… Lewis Nash? Oh, Victor Lewis! No? You got me, then. [LATER] Jabali’s another guy who’s like Cyrille; always has supportive energy for me. I remember introducing Jabali to my daughter when she was still just an armful, and how sincere he was when he told her welcome. And then there are specific experiences that I’ve had with Jabali that really endeared him to me, not just as a player, but as a part of that generation, like Carvin, that taught me not to be afraid to take risks; to understand the tradition and the history of it but don’t be afraid to take some risks. And just the way he’s playing this piece is beautiful. It’s perfect. Especially with that feel, that South American kind of lope to it, it’s not easy to keep. Man, 5 stars. You have to raise the bar now. You have to give the first two 5½ and everything else that I called 5 is 5. All of the original music on my first two records were writing assignments for Kenny Barron’s keyboard harmony class when I was at Rutgers. He taught me a lot! [LATER] After you get in touch with who it’s written for and about, and listening to the way they play it, oh my God, you just want to go have a cigarette after it’s all over!

10. Jeff Watts, “The Impaler,” CITIZEN TAIN, Columbia, 1999 (5 stars)

Tain. I played this tune in Brecker’s band, so… One of the things I appreciated most about this record is the way it opened Wynton back up. It was just nice to hear Wynton play on the edge of some shit again. See, I remember the first time I heard Tain. He was with Wallace Roney at Rutgers. Wallace came out on a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition concert, and brought Tain with him. And there’s shit that he plays, that he has played, that I’m still developing. Clearly, I’m not one of these cats whose ego is so large that I got too much shit happening to acknowledge one of my contemporaries, and how he kind of validated a lot… You know, a lot of the things…the risk-taking that I was experimenting with, I found validation in, or confirmation in Tain’s doing similar types of things, with time and structure. One of the projects I would like to do in the future is to do a record of drummers’ music, and I look forward to Tain’s contribution to the record. He’s already talked about being willing to do that. Tain’s one of my favorite drummers to play trumpet with, surprisingly enough, as weak as my chops are. I know that I’m going to play my best playing with him. He makes you play your best. You’re either going to play your best or you’re going to fold the fuck up and go home. And he brings it every time. And I believe in that in music. Plus, his acknowledgement to his R&B roots with this bass line I have a real appreciation for, too. Where he extracted this bass line from came from one of my favorite R&B bands. Remember the Ohio Players? Remember “Skin Tight”? That was one of my favorite pieces. This is “Skin Tight” in seven! And I heard it right away. But it’s relevant to the title! “The Impaler”! [LAUGHS] You know what I mean? I’m also very curious and interested in Afro-Cuban styles outside of the realm of four. The whole platform of the Fotet is the addressing of swing outside of the realm of four. So I’m really very much into anybody who is willing to explore and take some risks in that area. I mean, I love Tain. He’s a friend of mine. He’s seen me through a lot of phases in my life, and always been supportive of me. I must say it, he’s one of the few cats in my generation that I will go out to hear. Because he has the ability to both play the room and push the envelope. You know what I mean? Sometimes… You’ve got to play the room all the time, but sometimes when there’s music happening, playing the room has to not be the first consideration. Of all of the recordings of Jeff that I’ve enjoyed in terms of his sound… There’s a clarity here that I appreciate in terms of his ride cymbal. Let me say that. But I would have liked to have heard a little more room sound in his drum sound. Of course, knowing where they recorded it, that’s a big room, and there’s a lot of room sound in there. Five-and-a-half stars.

It’s also amazing… I think it was commendable for Tain to kind of be as patient as he was for putting his record out as a leader. Let’s hope that the shelf life of his first record… My first record didn’t do bad, mind you. But one of my issues these days, and something that I think is going to come into its own resolution as a result of today’s technology, is this whole idea of putting records out of print and then telling artists that the records aren’t selling. You know what I’m saying? One way or the other, I’d like to get my other eight records back in the pipeline. And I know this isn’t about me, but one of the things that I’m frustrated about as a leader is the consistency I’ve tried to have as a leader putting out records. Nine records, man. And I haven’t had a BAD review on any of them. Volition was the weakest really because of two things, my condition and the fact that the record company was cutting corners on material, so that in the transfer… If you listen to the Japanese pressing of Volition and listen to the Blue Note pressing of Volition, they sound like two different records in terms of impact. And where you lose… There was some pretty intricate writing on there that needed to have its impact there for the statement on the CD to be effective. Making a record… This maybe you can put in. Making a record as a leader is easy — relatively. Being a bandleader is the shit that takes work over the years. I’m grateful for the success I’ve had, but I’m wishing for more success even than I’ve had. Being able to hold the band together for ten years, like I did the Fotet. But that ain’t no easy thing. And the music NEEDS us to be bandleaders, needs me, needs Tain, needs drummers to be bandleaders. God forbid… The grandmasters are not going to be here forever, and a lot of them aren’t here. And I don’t know when the industry is going to wake up and recognize that every real shift in the music’s evolution has come as a result of innovation in the drum chair which has forced the music to change, and start to pay attention to drummers as bandleaders on a consistent basis.

11. Bill Dixon-Tony Oxley, “Indirizzo: Via Cimarosa Sei,” PAPYRUS, Black Saint. (4 stars)

My first instinct is to say a guy named Jan Christensen, just because of all the myriad of sounds that I’ve heard so far. Triangles and… Hugh Ragin and Tani Tabbal. [Good guess, but no.] [LAUGHS] You’re faking me out here! [The trumpeter is an older guy.] Lester Bowie and Don Moye? [No.] Okay, I give up. [Before I tell you who it is, how many stars would you give it?] I feel like it’s going to be a setup now! [No.] I liked it! I liked the expansiveness of it. Four stars. [AFTER] It developed nicely, and there was a lot of sounds that I could identify. There was clearly a dialogue between the two, and I could appreciate that. It wasn’t just like anti-music. It kind of had a starting point and it went somewhere, and it almost came back to the original sparse energy. A lot of cats in my generation can’t even sit still long enough to hear that!

12. Cindy Blackman, “Sword of the Painter,” WORKS ON CANVAS, High Note, 2000. (4 stars)

Wow. Cindy. I mean, the hommage to Tony Williams is clear. She’s bad, man! My God! The hands, the ideas. It takes a lot of work to go that deeply into somebody’s playing and still maintain a sense of yourself. And it may not be apparent to non-drummers, but to me, that’s just who Cindy is. That’s the way she is musically. She’s not chasing anybody. I’m talking about Tony. And now, more than ever, thank God for Cindy Blackman, because now the sound stays alive, and the thing can move forward. I would have liked to hear something involving a little more harmony. Four stars, just on the strength of her playing. Maybe lose a half-star for compositional depth, so 3½-4 stars.

I am trying and I am trying to teach my students to listen long enough to learn something, to find something to appreciate. You know what I mean? Of course, nowadays, there is less of an assumption that if something is recorded, it’s recorded because it’s good. 35 years ago, you could assume that anything that was on record was good, was worth having. If you couldn’t hear it yet, you just had to keep growing as a player until… I didn’t like Joe Henderson the first time I heard him. I couldn’t identify with his sound. I was so deeply entrenched in Coltrane that the difference in the sound was disturbing to me! Now, needless to say, he’s like one of the most influential not just players in terms of style, but in terms of solo construction. I mean, he’s one of the master architects of how to build an effective solo.

13. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Circuito IV,” ANTIGUA, Blue Note, 1998.

It certainly goes a lot of places rhythmically. I’m wondering if… This is something I’d have to listen to over and over before I could really appreciate it for what it was doing. Because it’s well-executed. There’s a lot of really hard shit being played. But it seems almost fragmented, in a way. And that may be the point. That may be exactly the point. I’m completely clueless on this. It might be Tommy Campbell on drums. [It’s not an American band.] Is it Irakere? [You’re warm.] Chucho? [No.] But the trumpeter sounds like Arturo. You got me. [AFTER] I’d give it 2½. In my observation, Gonzalo represents the beginning of a new and disturbing phenomenon in terms of trends with people getting record dates and being put on the front lines as leaders. And what’s disturbing is that they haven’t spent any time in the trenches playing with a wide variety of different kinds of musicians that proved that they can play with anybody else besides themselves or play anybody’s music but theirs. I mean, you put Jack deJohnette with anybody and he’s going to make them sound good, if they can play the instrument at all. And I’m not speaking so much to his Cubanistic expression. But to herald him as this icon in the broader category of jazz without him having the experience… Danilo spent more time in the trenches. David spent more time in the trenches. I remember doing a record with David that never came out, back out in Sorcerer Studios before they remodeled the motherfucker. And not like I’m looking for everybody to have paid the kind… It’s not a dues-paying thing. It’s an experience thing. Because it comes out in the playing. [Before knowing it was Gonzalo, you would have said the same thing about it, that the music reflected the same things you’re saying?] In terms of its fragmentation, yes. A lot of the musicians of Latino heritage have a thing about how we as American jazz musicians don’t spend enough time investigating what it is that they do. Having spent a little more time now, and having experienced how much more there is to learn, I’d say to an extent they’re right. However, the backhanded kind of addressing of the concept of swing as it relates to 4/4 in American jazz music is not being addressed in reciprocation. It’s just not.

14. Don Byron, “Bernhard Goetz, James Ramseur, and Me,” ROMANCE WITH THE UNSEEN, Blue Note, 1999 (4½ stars)

I played this with Don. This must be the project with Jack. Don and I have been talking about doing some playing again together. During this Uri Caine project, we got in touch with what we appreciated in each other’s playing. On projects like these, you have four cats really playing their ass off at the same time, but not always necessarily together. The problem is, the industry supports these projects over bands. Now, Jack is one of my favorite drummers. Conceptually, the way he plays the ride cymbal… I can’t hear his ride cymbal here the way I would like in the mix. He’s got a very distinctive touch, and I would like to have heard him. And the cymbals that he’s playing are specifically designed to cut. So the fact that they didn’t make it past the final mix is a little disturbing. But Jack comes through. He’s the kind of player you want to build what you’re doing around. You don’t call Jack deJohnette to get him to conform to what you’re doing, and that’s actually the kind of drummer that I believe I’m developing into. You’ve got to kind of have some awareness of what it is I’m bringing before you call for it. Now, there are exceptions. David’s gig, Betty’s gig. Nobody, including me, expected me to keep that gig for nine months. You know what I’m saying?

Don is a great musician, and has an incredible musical personality. I enjoy playing with Don more than I enjoy listening to Don. Because Don gives you so much to feed on and feed back to him… Of his records that I’ve heard, I haven’t heard a lot of people disrupting what he’s playing and forcing him to like DIG into some stuff that he hadn’t maybe prepared for, even in the prior musical moment. You know? That’s one of the reasons I’d like to get back to playing with him, to bring that… I think that’s what we both got in touch with, playing in Uri’s Bach project together, is what’s possible musically along those lines. The clarinet needed Don Byron. Four stars, with another half for Jack.

15. John Swana, “Pure Bliss,” TUG OF WAR, Criss-Cross, 1999. [feat. Byron Landham, drums]

I said Carl Allen, and then I guessed Louis Hayes. Let me shut up and listen. I feel I know who that trumpet player is, but I can’t put my finger on it. Tom Harrell. No? Shit!! [Someone you’ve probably played with a fair number of times.] Let me hear the trumpet solo again. Is that Dwayne Burno on bass? [Yes.] I like it. It’s swinging, it’s got some little funny shit in it in terms of the time, these little 3/4 bars… Terrell Stafford? I give up. [LATER] Swana! I knew I’d heard them fuckin’ lines before, man! [LAUGHS] Oh, so that can only be one of three drummers, then! [LAUGHS] Kenny? Billy Drummond? Shit. [I’m sure you know him pretty well.] Greg Hutchinson? [LATER] Oh, Byron! Okay. I should have made the Philadelphia connection. Byron’s a great drummer, man. He’s very tasty and a great sense of swing. But see, I wish there was something about Byron’s playing that told me who he was right away. I mean, some cats are known for being known right away. Some cats could be any number of a half-a-dozen cats because of their pliability; not because of a negative, but because of their versatility. And Byron kind of falls in that category. I like Swana, man, except that he don’t give up no lines, man! He don’t share none of that information! [LAUGHS] I’ll give it 4½ stars, man.

Usually I either hear it right away, or I use my powers of deductive reasoning to figure out who it is. Swana was not… It bothers me, because like I said, we’ve played together, and I knew the lines! Some of them I have tried to cop!


Liner Notes, Ralph Peterson (Back To Stay) – Sirocco Jazz:

“My life condition will be apparent in my music always,” says Ralph Peterson, the 37-year-old drumman-composer-bandleader who has endured no small measure of inner turbulence. Fans will note that the ambiance of Back To Stay, his ninth recording, is marked by the focus and indomitable energy of a spirit in balance. “Like a wood nickel, I keep coming back,” he continues. “I’m in the game for the long haul now, and I’ve figured out that the key to winning the game is staying in the game.”

You don’t enter the mix without talent and individuality, qualities Peterson’s peers cosigned even before he emerged in the mid-’80s as co-leader of the high visibility ensemble OTB and as a member of the Harrison-Blanchard Group. Sustaining a band keeps you in the fray, and Peterson’s decade-old Fo’tet, featuring a signature soprano sax-vibraphone front line, is the platform by which he expresses deeply held musical principles. The current iteration features reed-master Ralph Bowen — the leader’s OTB bandmate and presently Director of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, where Peterson is Jazz Drums Professor — in the soprano chair long occupied by Steve Wilson (presently busy with Chick Corea’s Origin), joining Fo’tet lifers Brian Carrott and Belden Bullock. On Back To Stay, all navigate Peterson’s challenging structures and explosive postulations with grace and bite, while tenor powerhouse Michael Brecker — who for a good chunk of 1998-99 fed off the drummer’s distinctive mix of primal drive, intellectual hunger, mastery of fundamentals, big ears, and penchant for swinging ebulliently through any situation — chimes in with a pair of spot-on statements.

“I’ve always loved soprano saxophone, and if they’d used it in my high school marching band, I probably wouldn’t have played trumpet,” says Peterson, who matriculated at Rutgers through the Brass Department. “Sopranos don’t project as well as trumpets, but they occupy the same timbral area. With Ralph Bowen, you’re talking about the highest level of musicianship and competence on all the saxophones. The speed at which he reads and interprets harmony is frightening sometimes, and he’s got great time and a warm sound. As a player with the ability to play on every harmonic sound from a tune, he’s learning now that he doesn’t have to, that he can weave melodic and rhythmic addressing of the harmony.

“Brian Carrott’s approach to the vibraphone is rooted in the African balafon tradition as opposed to the xylophone tradition. His rhythmic and melodic approach is angular, not linear. When I play a rhythm, Brian understands it, and can complement it without mimicking. He plays great piano, and teaches piano, so his harmonic prowess is not to be questioned. And he’s an amazing soloist and comper for himself.

“It’s important in my band for everybody to concentrate, but the way that I write time signatures and bass lines makes it essential that the bass player’s concentration be unshakable. Belden Bullock’s sound and concentration are superb.”

Peterson states, “I believe I was predestined to be a drummer.” Raised in a musical family, he first hit the traps at 3. “My early playing was a basement experience,” he recalls. “I played with records by James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelics, where the beat was powerful and primal. I ran 400-meter hurdles and played basketball in high school, but I committed to music when my knees started going south on me and I got a stress fracture in my right instep; I’d wanted to play since I saw Sonny Payne with the Count Basie Orchestra when I was 13. But my interpretation of Jazz didn’t venture very far beyond Maynard Ferguson’s Primal Scream until I was out of high school. I’m not a jazz baby. I’m a funk baby who came through the Fusion realm of George Duke and Stanley Clarke.

“When I got to Rutgers, I failed the percussion audition because I didn’t know rudiments; I had never really studied the instrument. I learned how to read what little bit of rhythms I could from my trumpet studies, which began in fourth grade. Once Michael Carvin at Rutgers finally believed that I was a drummer and let me study with him, I began to learn about Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach and Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, who I had heard of but didn’t know why. One reason I started playing trumpet is because the horn lines were becoming more interesting in the ’70s than the drum beats! After you cop, what’s next? Here was drumming that I couldn’t imitate after hearing it once. Discovering these guys, who were playing stuff I couldn’t do, reawakened the searching spirit, and it’s been awake ever since.”

While in college, Peterson began an ongoing gig in pianist Walter Davis, Jr.’s trio, and worked in Blakey’s two-drummer big band; proximity with the mentors evolved to enduring friendship. “Art became my idol not only as a drummer, but as a bandleader and a molder of men; he mentioned to me that he was in my playing, and I didn’t have to try to emulate him any more. Walter taught me the tradition of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and how to play trio in a triangular manner, not that bass and drums lay down a carpet, but always three-way conversation, with input and dialogue and conversation from all the components in the ensemble. That’s how the music was when he was 17 playing in Bird’s band, and I perpetuate that tradition.”

In the manner of Buhaina, on Back To Stay, Peterson brings in a composition from each Fo’tetista in addition to his four originals and three interpretations of iconic jazz standards.

The explosive title track features authoritative duelling saxophones from Brecker and Bowen. The leader explains: “It’s set up in cycles of 6-bar phrases, while the bass line is built around a 7/4 vamp that happens 8 times; though it’s asymmetrical in a conventional sense, it’s actually very even. The melody reminds me of the minor pentatonic sound of McCoy Tyner. It’s a wide-open, fun tune to play on. Michael stepped in without a rehearsal and played it cold, which is amazing. His playing has a lot of conviction; he knows the direction he wants to go. The challenge for me in his band was to take him there but show him a different route, and I think we did it.

“‘Surrender’ is a tune that anyone can walk away from the gig singing. I adapted Tony Williams’ ‘Sister Cheryl’ rhythm, paying tribute to his influence on me. There’s a spiritual peace, a centeredness that comes as a result of surrender, allowing the universe to happen instead of trying to make it happen. It’s a principal part of the lifestyle change I made with regard to recovery.

“Inner Evolution,” an open blowing tune with a minor connotation, “also has 6-bar phrases, on which the challenge is trying to make an asymmetrical structure (dropping the 3/4 bar in the middle of a 4/4 phrase) swing.”

“‘Apple’s Eye” is a love song, about a special person and the special place they have in my heart. The harmonic pattern is after Toots Thielemans’ ‘Bluesette.'”

Belden Bullock’s “From Within,” a sweet melody with a bluesy 7/4 Funk-Swing feel, has “blowing changes that remind me of Bobby Hutcherson and Joe Henderson on Blue Note in the Stick-Up era.”

Ralph Bowen’s “Did You Notice?” showcases the composer’s keening soprano sound. “It’s in a very peculiar meter, 3/2, which gives you an idea of the way Ralph’s mind works!” Peterson laughs. “It was challenging to read, posing the challenge to transition smoothly from the straightahead section to the floaty Latin section, where I’m playing a bastardized combination of a songo and a rumba.”

Carrott’s “Hidden Treasures” “starts very cool, placid, then takes off into a rhythmic section where I get an opportunity to play djembe and cowbell. That was my first Fo’Tet experiment with percussion, and it’s a glance at things to come. Lately I’ve been playing with David Sanchez, which is a refreshing challenge, and I’m getting a true understanding of the rhythms of Latin American culture. Each speaks differently, and evokes a different spirit. Like Michael and Walter and all the people I’ve loved playing with, David insists that I bring my own thing. It would be silly to expect me to play stone-cold as if I grew up in the Afro-Cuban Latin drumming tradition.”

Peterson addresses 4/4 swing on a bright-tempoed version of Duke Pearson’s infectiously melodic “Is That So?” “My concept of 4/4 is to play each beat like the first beat, rather than accenting the one,” Peterson says. “That’s how I interpret Jimmy Cobb’s approach to ride cymbal; it carries the intensity and focus of the first beat through the rest of the bar.”

John Coltrane’s “Miles Mode” and Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” debuted on John Coltrane (Impulse-21), “one of the records that I used to play with for hours and hours and had two or three copies of when I was in college. On ‘Miles Mode’ we fragmented the phrases, inserted 3-bar drum breaks between the first, second and third statements, and changed keys with each soloist.”

Brecker offers an elegant declamation on “Soul Eyes,” caressing the lovely melody with a nuanced, capacious sound, while Peterson presents a trumpet voice that reminds you of Blue Mitchell in tonal aspiration, and Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard in harmonic content and phrasing, overdubbing his solo over the rhythm section. “Drums and trumpet is like yin and yang for me, two sides of the same element,” Peterson notes. “Things come out on each that I can’t get to on the other.”

More than anything, Back To Stay displays Peterson’s mature mastery of the rhythmic metanarrative. “It’s dangerous when you start trying to downplay the role of drums in music,” he declares. “I play with a lot of intensity and energy, but someone who says I play loud isn’t listening to me. I don’t play any one way all the time; each rhythmic approach is designed to awaken the spirit differently.

“I’m starting to connect with John Coltrane’s influence spiritually. His life changed, and towards the end of his life, his focus of expression changed; similarly, my life has taken a turn where spiritual concerns outweigh material concerns and prestige and notoriety. Believe me, I’ve got an ego like everybody else’s. But being a musician used to be what I was; now it’s simply what I do. What I am is a father and a son and a brother and a sponsor. The press and records could stop, but those things will go on. And they connect me with the power given me, the gift to play music — it closes a circle.”


Liner Notes for The Art Of War” – Criss Cross:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 500 B.C.

The nostrum “life begins at 40” may or may not be a universally applicable truth. But it’s incontrovertible that, as he approaches his fifth decade, the drummer-composer-bandleader Ralph Peterson has attained a certain equilibrium — call it self-knowledge — that is manifest in his music.

“The strongest sword has to go through the hottest fire,” Peterson remarks. “My mettle has been tested, and I’m still here. One thing that’s kept me here is are the philosophical concepts of The Art of War and Book of Five Rings, and the unifying principle that you can’t fight when you’re mad. Likewise, you can’t do business when you’re angry. I had to get in touch with the things I was angry about in my twenties and early thirties, when I thought I could change the world. My illusions were shattered and I didn’t necessarily respond well. But I survived my responses, and came to realize that I could only change me, and whatever effect I had on the world would be my change of the world.”

Mirroring his hard-won philosophy of how to wage the jazz battle, Peterson titled his latest release The Art of War. Recorded in one seven-hour session following a three-day workshopping stint at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, it marks a turning point. Since 1990 Peterson has primarily expressed his musical vision with the front-line configuration of clarinet or soprano saxophone and vibraphone on numerous well-regarded recordings with the  pianoless Fo’tet. Here he returns to the two horns and rhythm quintet format that kicked off his recorded oeuvre [V-1990], with an approach that he describes as “Blakeyesque but with the edginess of Miles.” In doing so, he emulates the career path of Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, two primary mentors and style models, who both were pushing forty when they began to stamp their tonal personality on bands comprised of generation-younger musicians.

The link is palpable. Peterson is used to comparisons with Blakey; one of his first gigs after matriculating from Rutgers was second drummer in Buhaina’s touring big band, and he’s filled Blakey’s chair for numerous units comprised of Jazz Messengers alumni. Then, about a month before this session, Elvin Jones, recovering from surgery, called Peterson to cover for him during the maestro’s week at Manhattan’s Blue Note, which the acolyte did with panache on three occasions.

“I demand a lot of interplay between the soloists and the rhythm section, and the drummer in particular,” Peterson responds. “I’ve noticed in the last decade that the role of drummers has become de-emphasized towards support-and accompaniment rather than  interplay and dialogue. Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams put out a lot for the soloist to deal with rather than providing a magic carpet for them to ride on. I think it’s important for younger players to experience that; it molds them into leaders with strong concepts, and there are fewer and fewer outlets. I worked with [pianist] Walter Davis, who was shaped and molded first of all by Bird, but then through his association with Art Blakey, and his influence on me conceptually is what I try to pass on.”

Peterson took his time piecing together all the elements of this unit, which will tour in the 2001-2002 season. Each is twenty-something, and each is well-equipped  to navigate the primal complexities of Peterson’s sonic landscape. He conceptualized the band as a vehicle to do something with his good friend, the pianist Orrin Evans, a veteran of four Criss-Cross dates whose voice Peterson internalized on a succession of Evans gigs since the early ’90s. Then came bassist Eric Revis, whose “energy and strength” Peterson experienced first-hand when sitting in with the Branford Marsalis Quartet at the Village Vanguard one night.

“I literally began to salivate at the prospect of a rhythm section with Eric and Orrin,” Peterson says. “Both guys play past their instrument, and what they hear includes drums. That fits my conception of trying to connect components of the drumset with the rhythm section and soloists, the ride cymbal’s connective link with the bass being the link between pure rhythm and pure harmony. Orrin’s harmonic sense is growing, and he’s found the courage to reach as a pianist in a way that I haven’t heard since the mid to late ’80s. He has the potential to become a new voice.

“Eric has an incredibly strong, centered beat, and a huge sound. Some younger bass players who are into the high-bridge, gut-string sound — a la Paul Chambers or early Ron Carter — lose note distinction. But Eric articulates his notes. His ability to play with Jeff Watts testifies to his concentration level. I need somebody who is strong enough to not always go with me. Everything I do ain’t always correct! I’m trying to play on the edge, to find new ground, so I need somebody who can hold it down, so to speak.”

The powerfully built Peterson (the “funk-with-a-limp” anthem “Freight Train” is titled for his nickname at karate school) next recruited a pair of five-tool power forwards for his front line. Since emerging from Hartt Conservatory of Music in 1997, Jimmy Greene has steadily ascended in the jazz meritocracy by dint of his centered tone, penchant for playing around and behind the rhythm with fluid assurance, and gift for conjuring memorable melodies and developing them into cogent stories. Peterson initially heard Greene’s pure soprano sound and fleet alto sax on jobs with David Weiss and the New Composers Ensemble, and experienced his tenor on a subsequent European jaunt with Tom Harrell. Other credits include work with Horace Silver, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital, Lewis Nash and Harry Connick.

Jeremy Pelt is one of New York’s busiest young trumpeters, thanks to a huge sound, flyspeck reading skills, and comfort zone with a wide range of styles and functions that he traverses with finesse and authority. Testifying to Pelt’s skills are recent jobs with the Jimmy Heath Quintet, the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band with Louis Hayes and Vincent Herring, Lonnie Plaxico’s Sextet, and the Mingus Orchestra. Peterson — he started out on trumpet and continues to deploy it as his second voice — heard Pelt play the senior recital of one of his drum students at Rutgers University, and was instantly impressed.

“Jeremy and Jimmy know how to dip into the tradition but move forward,” Peterson explains. “There’s only 12 notes, and we have to study what’s behind us in order to move forward. A lot of cats who can’t play in a certain traditional style, use choice as an excuse for not being able to play in that style. I’m a player who’s always had a foot in both camps. That’s been a double-edged sword, because a segment of the in-cats took exception to me playing with the out-cats, and vice-versa. But that quality is what I’m looking for. Not that the quintet won’t play outside or not play odd meters, but we’ll try to do it in a way that suggests a certain band tradition.”

That comment perfectly describes the clarion title track, which could have been a Blakey flagwaver. “The battle continues,” Peterson laughs. “The Brigadier General has been gone for a while, but the warriors are still present! The harmony that underlies the melody after the grand pause in the beginning is based on the motion between the tenor saxophone and the piano over an F-minor chord.” The second section is based on an odd-metered phrase that Peterson worked out on trumpet; he credits Graham Haynes, Jerry Gonzalez, Gary Thomas and Steve Coleman as inspirations.

“The Choice Not Taken” is an introspective tune with a sweet melody and bossa feel that features mature solos by Greene (soprano), Evans and Pelt. “Deepak Chopra’s book How To Know God says that the difference between one person being happy and another miserable often has to do with the choice not taken,” Peterson states. “Life is meant to be lived and mistakes are meant to be learned from. I’ve accepted responsibility for my choices, and I have no regrets, I’m real peaceful and settled, and this tune is in that spirit and mindset.

Peterson’s other four originals on The Art of War are of the old wine in new bottles variety. “That decision comes from the concept of protracted warfare, fighting over the long haul,” Peterson explains. “My Blue Note records are out of print, and people have asked me where they can hear these tunes. The simplest answer is to re-record the material — add something, take something away.”

“Freight Train” comes from a date Peterson co-produced with bassist Kevin Harris a decade ago, while the floaty, Shorteresque “All My Tomorrows” is from the 1994 Fo’tet record Reclamation Project. Of the latter, Peterson remarks: “I did a gig in Philadelphia with Orrin, Avishai Cohen and Ravi Coltrane, and I had to write a second part for this. Writing for two horns is more delicate than writing for three, because you have so many options in harmonization and so much more room to go wrong! The tune is not built on the II-V-I progression, so writing everything in thirds just was not going to work. The under-part could very well be the melody.”

Orrin Evans asked Peterson to include “Smoke Rings,” which debuted on Triangular, a 1988 trio date with Geri Allen and Phil Bowler. “This was inspired by and dedicated to Dannie Richmond, who when he wanted a cigarette would holler, ‘Hey, baby, smoke rings’,” Peterson recalls. “I blew the dust off it and wrote a three-horn arrangement in Don Braden’s Contemporary Standards Ensemble. It’s a 24-bar blues with a 4-bar tag. It doesn’t have a feeling of resolution until the very last section, which leads to the turnaround which brings us back to the feeling of tension and unsettledness. The thought behind that sound is that I never want to get so comfortable that I lose my searching spirit.”

“Monief” [V], is another oft-requested Peterson original. “This is a live gig tune,” Peterson declares. “Every time we play it, it comes out different. A 17-beat bassline pattern grouped in two bars of 5 and a bar of 7 holds it together. To move from that into swing and back out is something we never tried in the earlier manifestations.”

In the manner of Buhaina and Elvin Jones, Peterson makes originals by his bandmembers members an integral part of the mix. Jeremy Pelt — who shows beyond-his-years lyricism on the tender “Portrait of Jenny,” his own choice for a ballad feature — displays his knack for expressing romantic yearning in music on “Inner Sanctum.” Then Pelt turns around with “Apocalypse,” a Branford Marsalis-esque burnout line which, the leader notes, comprises a bar of 5/4 and five bars of 3/4, turning the tune into a 20-bar structure in 4/4 time.

The album concludes with “Big Jimmy” by Orrin Evans, which Peterson played at a much faster tempo on Captain Black, Evans’ 1997 Criss-Cross date. “I wanted to slow it down to get to the meat of the tune — the changes and the phrasing,” Peterson says. “Plus, we’ve got a Big Jimmy in the band!”

Thus ends a cannily-planned opening salvo by Peterson and his band of seasoned young warriors, whose friendly jousting brings to mind Karl von Clausewitz’s postulation, “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” Their maturity and cool passion evoke Sun Tzu’s adage, “The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought; it is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”


Liner Notes – Ralph Peterson (Tests of Time) – 2001:

It’s no coincidence that Ralph Peterson opens his third Criss-Cross record — it’s his 16th as a leader — with a homage to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and ends it with an evocation of the procedures of Miles Davis’ still pathbreaking mid-’60s quintet.

“Buhaina and Miles are the two most influential bandleaders, the two shining examples of leadership,” says the 41-year-old drummer. “The realization of their concept was contingent — dependent almost — on the strength of the sidemen.”

In the manner of his idols, Peterson devotes a good chunk of Tests of Time to imprinting his inimitable tonal personality on the original music of his young leaders-in-waiting. The result is a triumph of group improvisation, validating Peterson’s comment several years ago that “horn players have to decide whether they’re going to play through or play over my stuff — and playing through is the best way.” Confronted by one of the most challenging drumming personalities of the era, one defined by oceanic power and restless intellect, Peterson’s men respond to his protean musical moods with grace, authority and uninhibited imagination.

“Each record shows more cohesion, because I think they understand where I’m trying to go with the band,” Peterson says. “I’m learning not to be so locked into my own convictions that I ignore a good idea. These guys have a lot of good ideas, and I’m open to them at all times. I’m able to get into an interpretive thing which is very different than drumming from a composer’s posture. You can put in your two cents and take it somewhere it hasn’t gone before.”

Consider the ensemble’s response to “Question,” a brisk, angular line by Eric Revis with an aura reminiscent of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. After an extended collective improvisation by Jeremy Pelt on trumpet and Jimmy Greene on tenor saxophone, pianist Orrin Evans settles things down with a two-chorus solo on the changes.

“It’s a great piece to do live, because it will be different every time we do it,” Peterson says. “The structure is harmonically open for 6 bars, followed by 3 bars of chords, followed by another cycle, but the last bar of the tune is in 5/4. So in order to keep it swinging, you can’t get caught up in 2-and-4, because when you get to the 5/4 bar at the end of the chorus you’ll be turned around every time.

“Eric is an amazing writer. He conceives basslines that are so formally logical as to suggest composition rather than mere motif. He’s also a true bass player, which means that he’s clear about the importance of his role as the harmonic foundation of the music. He’s also an excellent soloist. His sound is huge, his conception is imaginative, and his pulse is strong. The strength of his beat reminds me of Mingus.”

Over Peterson’s swirling brushes, Revis uncorks an elegant solo to open “Cheryl,” a flowing Mingusian waltz by Pelt, who spent quality time in the Mingus Orchestra after moving to New York five years ago. The composer follows with a delicate, poignant flugelhorn statement, before he joins Greene — here on flute — for a nuanced reading of the melody.

“It’s probably more difficult to play on than it sounds,” says Peterson, who performed on Pelt’s own recent Criss-Cross release, Insight [Criss-1228] “Jeremy’s sound is SO warm and lush and wide that it lends itself to ballads. It’s good to see a cat his age play ballads, and not be caught up in the need to demonstrate his technical prowess at all times.”

Pelt’s sophistication and sense of pace mark “Telepathy,” a well-wrought tension-and-release structure. “The vamp is one beat shorter than the normal feel, and there’s a hole of silence after the 4/4 section that I find interesting,” states Peterson, who sustains a constant dialogue with his front liners throughout the track. “Young cats often write music filled with as many notes and chords as they can think of from the first bar to the last double-bar. Jeremy’s reverence for Miles is obvious here; it has the flavor of Filles de Kilimanjaro.”

A similar blend of virtuosic effervescence and mature restraint defines the tonal personality of Jimmy Greene, who uncorks a series of consistently melodic statements and contributes a harmonically provocative arrangement of “I Love You,” the Cole Porter standard.

“Jimmy has grown tremendously in the last few years,” Peterson says. “He has a pure sound on all his instruments, and has struck a good balance between where he has come from and where he wants to go. I think everybody in the band demonstrates that. I love the opening sounds, a minor with a flat 6th moving to Phrygian, my favorite mode. The straight-eight quasi-boogaloo feel is something people aren’t used to hearing from me, but I enjoy it.”

In fact, throughout Tests of Time, Peterson, known for his declarative patterns and explosive sound, reins himself in, with keen attention to dynamics and space. Note the floaty quality of his drumwork on Orrin Evans’ “Prayer For Columbine,” composed by the pianist in response to the massacre by two students of their classmates at a Colorado high school several years ago.

“Since that scene was a result of restless thinking that never got addressed, my goal on that piece was to play as restlessly as possible,” he says. “I never settle into a groove for long.”

Evans has publicly stated his regard for Triangular, a 1988 Blue Note trio recording by Peterson, pianist Geri Allen and bassist Phil Bowler, and the young pianist’s relationship with the drummer, strong since he graduated high school a decade ago, is almost telepathic.

“There’s something special Geri Allen was onto then that Orrin has picked up on,” Peterson says. “It’s got Jaki Byard in it. It’s got Eric Dolphy in it. It’s not confined by the harmonic rules of changes, but it’s not out for the sake of anti-music either. When it starts to press the envelope or when we play within changes or a vamp, there’s a dramatic and emotional content. Orrin has also spent time developing on the drumset, which is starting to become evident in his piano playing. That’s a basis for mutual connection, because my piano playing is still pretty sad as far as getting around the instrument.”

Peterson’s connection with Ms. Allen led indirectly to his lovely rubato arrangement of “When I Fall In Love.” “Around 1990 at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival, I had the great fortune of hanging out with Herbie Hancock at the piano in the bar of the Mount Fuji Hotel,” he says. “Phil Bowler asked Herbie about his reharmonization of ‘Round Midnight,’ and Herbie began to explain what I’ve identified as a true tritone substitution. Geri ran upstairs and wrote down a bunch of notes. After she gave me the notes, I stared at them for six months before they started making sense. I finally gathered that Herbie had found a different way to maneuver around II-V-I chords using minor-third motion. That is, he would go down a minor third from the II-chord to get the V-substitution, and a minor third down from the V-substitution to get the II-substitution. That means that the II-substitution is starting on the flat-V of the original II, and you begin a progression way outside the harmony that it’s going to resolve to. Using that and voice-leading, I put together this reharmonization about ten years ago. I kept playing it on piano, but had never found a situation where I could finally record it.”

Decidedly not rubato is Peterson’s surging arrangement of “Neo Terra,” a Freddie Hubbard gem from Windjammer — an obscure album from his ’70s crossover period — that calls up the ascendant aura of Free For All, the 1964 masterpiece by the Hubbard-Wayne Shorter edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The leader dedicates the performance to his late uncle Andrew, who brought him the album. “It’s the first Freddie Hubbard tune I learned on trumpet,” says Peterson, who still navigates the instrument fluently. “I took some liberties with the form. It’s a long form, with four 16-bar sections, and the bassline is a straight cycle of D-minor that gets repeated after the bridge. It’s easy to forget where you are in the loop. In the third cycle, I inserted a polychord, putting D-flat over D-minor, which creates a dark sound, and becomes a musical buoy or lighthouse that tells us where we are in the form.” Propelled by Revis’ heroic groove, Pelt unleashes a clarion statement worthy of the composer, matched for wit, energy and ingenuity by Greene and Evans.

With “Respect For Truth,” a bluesy, deeply swinging G-minor opus, Peterson offers his own homage to Blakey, one reflecting the more grounded 1962-63 Hubbard-Shorter period. “It’s feelgood music,” Peterson says. “If that one don’t get you moving in the set, you’re either dead or a mannequin. I wrote it to feature the way that Eric walks basslines.”

Discussing the title track, Peterson says, “I don’t know if I have any nerdy platitudes for that one. It’s a love song about the strength and enduring quality of love. I’m going to be around for a while, and the strength of my work will be judged in the test of time.”

First recorded at the cusp of the ’90s on Presents The Fo’Tet, with Don Byron on bass clarinet, “Ballad for Queen Tiye” is Peterson’s love song for his daughter, Sonora Tiye, who is now 14 and plays piano, cello and flute. “It’s about a melody being more than just the notes on top,” the composer says. “The bass line is integral to making the piece work. I played it for Sonora Tiye recently, but she didn’t remember the song. So I decided to redocument it with Jimmy on flute — which he plays extremely well – as a way to inspire her to continue her flute studies.”

Peterson’s lucid, extravagant playing on “The Dark Prince,” which closes the album, evokes Tony Williams at his finest. The composer suggests listeners experience it in conjunction with “Essence of the Wizard” from Subliminal Seduction, his previous Criss-Cross offering. “It’s the Miles Davis mini-suite,” he laughs. “The opening statement here is based on a figure Miles always stuck into his solos, and I built the piece around it. There are three sets of solo instructions — changes for the trumpet, changes for the piano, and open-ended for the tenor. The first two sections are 7-bar cycles, which force you to think outside of the 4-bar and 8-bar Neobop concept.”

In conclusion, Peterson offers some reflections on the applicability of the lessons of Buhaina and Miles to musicians attempting to make musical sense of the 21st century. “You’ve still got to show up on time and you’ve still got to bring it every night,” he says. “You can’t chase tonight’s magic tomorrow; you’ve got to be chasing some new magic. And always push the envelope. Use the same material, but construct it differently night after night. Miles’ group had the ability to play standards so openly that it sounded like free music, but with total harmonic validity.

“The beauty of this music is that we can express our admiration for the players who came before us, or even our contemporaries. No individual is above the music. Nothing is more important than the music.”

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

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

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

“Seeking Light Through Sound”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Ted Panken

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could hear a pin drop.

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

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

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

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

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

It was like he was beyond style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean by that kind of musical situation?

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

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

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

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

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

When did you finally get to see him play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

HART:  Yeah, that’s why.

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

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

Could you give some personal reminiscences?  You became friends.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both schools of the New York drummers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[BH, “Hocus Pocus” & “Molly”]


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

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

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

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

You’re talking about his touch.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CYRILLE:  That’s where the fun comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What seemed to you distinctive and special about his playing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So he had a very functional approach to music.

HARPER:  Right.

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

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

So he was born into the music.

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

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

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

[MUSIC: Cedar Walton, “Ironclad”]


Filed under Billy Higgins, DownBeat, WKCR

Blindfold Test: Paul Motian About Ten Years Ago

It’s been a thrill to get to know Paul Motian — who ends his MJQ Tribute week at the Village Vanguard tonight —  a little bit over the last 12-13 years.  He joined me on numerous occasions while I was at WKCR, and I’ve written three pieces about him — a long DownBeat feature in 2001,  a verbatim WKCR interview on  the now-defunct jazz.com website, and the blindfold test that I’ll paste below. We did this in the Carmine Street apartment of a friend of Paul’s (I could kill myself for not remembering his name right now, as he’s a nice, extremely knowledgeable guy and facilitated the encounter). This is the raw, unexpurgated pre-edit copy.

* * * * *

Paul Motian Blindfold Test:

1.    Keith Jarrett-Peacock-deJohnette, “Hallucinations”,  Whisper Not, (ECM, 2000) – (5 stars)

I’m familiar with all the players.  I don’t know who it is.  It’s not Bud Powell, obviously. …For a minute, I thought it was Keith Jarrett. [JARRETT GRUNTS] Okay, it’s Keith.  I know who the drummer is, but I can’t… I could guess and say it’s Keith’s current trio, with Jack DeJohnette and Peacock.  Five stars.  They sounded nice, man.  Good players.  Taking care of business.  I haven’t heard Keith play in that style since I don’t know when.  So for a minute I was thinking that maybe it’s a really early Keith Jarrett record from when he was going to Berklee in Boston or something.  I did think that.  I met him when he was playing… Tony Scott called me up.  He said, “Hey, man, I’ve got a gig for you at the Dom,” which was on 8th Street.  I went down there with him and Keith was playing piano.  That’s when I met him.  I said, “Wow, the piano player is great.  Who’s that?”  He said, “Keith Jarrett.  I just discovered him.” [LAUGHS] Henry Grimes was playing bass.  And I played with him that night.  That’s when I met him.  But I thought that might be early because… Well, it took me a minute to recognize DeJohnette. [What didn’t you recognize?] Sort of his style of playing and not the sound.  From what I heard from the sound, I didn’t know who it was.  It sounded familiar, but I didn’t know who it was. [Maybe he wasn’t playing his drums.] Could have been.  I’m pretty much going to give five stars to everybody.  I think everybody sounds great.  Why not? [But if you don’t think something sounds great, it would devalue the stuff to which you give five stars.] Okay, that’s all right.  If I don’t give something 5 stars, does that mean I have go and buy the record?

2.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino”, Plays Carla Bley (Steeplechase, 1991) [Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums] – (5 stars)

[AFTER A FEW NOTES OF IMPROV]  That’s Paul Bley.  I wish I knew who the bass player was.  That’s “Ida Lupino.”  Paul Bley, five stars, man.  Why not?  He sounds great.  I don’t think it’s me on drums, but it could be!  I don’t know if I can get the bassist.  Charlie Haden and I played with Paul Bley in  Montreal.  I’m wondering if this is that!  Those ain’t my cymbals. [You played with the bass player.] [AFTER] Wow.  Man, I left Bill Evans to play with Paul Bley.  And when he heard about that, he was very happy.  At that time, there was a lot happening.  I’m talking about 1964.  There was a lot going on in New York.  The music was changing, there was some interesting stuff, and things were heading out into the future.  And I felt like I was stuck with Bill and that it wasn’t happening with Bill out in California.  So I just quit.  I left the poor guy out there.  What a drag I was.  I left the guy on the road like that.  My friend, my closest friend and companion and musician. [But you had to go.] Yeah, I wasn’t happy.  I came back and got into stuff with Paul Bley. [Can you  say what it is about Paul Bley that makes you recognize him quickly?  Is it his touch?]  Well, it’s everything.  It’s the sound.  Mostly sound, I guess.  Style, touch, everything.  [So you knew it was Jack DeJohnette because of his style, but with Paul here you knew…] No, I was more sure about it being Paul than I was sure about it being Jack.

3.    Scott Colley, “Segment”, …subliminal (Criss-Cross 1997) [Colley, bass; Bill Stewart, drums; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Bill Carrothers, piano) –  (5 stars)

[ON DRUM SOLO] Nice drums, whoever it is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  It’s 5 stars.  But I don’t know who it is. [You have no idea who the tenor player is?] No.  The first two or three notes I said, “Gee, maybe it’s Joe Lovano, but it’s not.  I feel like I should know who they all are.  But I don’t. [LAUGHS] I like the tune.  What’s that tune called? [“Segment.”] Oh.  I think I played that tune. [LAUGHS] [Yes, with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden.] No wonder.  Wow.  Nice. Nice sound, the drums and everything. [AFTER] Potter?  No kidding.  That sounded really good.  Very together.  Nice sound.  I liked the sound on the drums, the way they’re tuned.  I liked it.

4.    Joey Baron, “Slow Charleston”, We’ll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) [Baron, drums, composer; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Bill Frisell, guitar; Ron Carter, bass] – (5 stars)

I have no idea who this is, but I still want to give this five stars.  They’re all playing, they’re good musicians, and it’s great! [LAUGHS]  Nice groove. [Any idea who the guitar player is?] No.  I like it, though. [AFTER] I didn’t know Frisell could do that.  He played with me for twenty years.  I didn’t know he could do that.  See, I don’t know if I would ever recognize Joey anyway.  It’s good for me to find out stuff about these guys.  I can put it to good use!  I haven’t heard Arthur Blythe much at all.

5.    Warne Marsh, “Victory Ball”, Star Highs (Criss Cross, 1982) [Marsh, tenor saxophone; Mel Lewis, drums; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass] – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Warne Marsh.  There was one particular night at the Half Note playing with Lennie Tristano, with Warne playing… He played some shit that night that was incredible!  I’ll never forget it.  That record came out a few years ago.  Tuesday night was Lennie’s night off, and we played with no piano player or a substitute piano player, and that night it was Bill. [Any idea who the piano player is?] The way the piano player was comping, for a minute I said, “maybe it’s Lennie Tristano,” but it’s not.  Everybody sounds so good!  It’s great.  I have a feeling the piano player is going to surprise me.  Five stars.  I should know who the drummer is, but I don’t. [AFTER] Wow.  I am surprised at Hank Jones.  He usually plays with more space.  It was a great experience playing with Lennie Tristano.  I had a great time.  It was a period in my life when I was playing with a lot of people, and that was a little different than what I was used to doing, and it was very enjoyable, man.  I was playing almost every night.

6.    Satoko Fujii, “Then I Met You” , Toward, “To West” (Enja, 2000) [Fujii, piano, composer; Jim Black, drums; Mark Dresser, bass] – (5 stars)

It’s worth five stars just because of all the study the bass player had to do.  There are more players playing now than when I got to New York, and at a good level.  What I’m trying to say is that the music I listened to in the ’50s and stuff came from that time, and you listened to Prez and Bird and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday and Max and Clifford Brown and Bud Powell.  I could recognize any of that in a second.  Now there are so many players and so many good ones.  One thing that’s… I heard a few things in the piano sound that I know it’s a digital recording, which kind of bugs me.  I still hear that kind of tingy thing… I’m almost 99% sure I can tell when it’s a digital recording or whether it’s a CD, or whether it’s an analog recording from an old LP.  I mean, there’s a solo Monk record I bought when CDs first came out.  I played it once and threw it away, man.  It sounded like an electric piano.  Five stars.  One time I was playing at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and we were playing opposite Stiller and Meara.  Stiller came up to me afterwards and said, “You guys are really brave with the music you’re playing, that you would get out in front of an audience and play that music.  There’s a lot of heart in that, and you’re really brave to be doing that.  I feel that’s five stars for these guys, with what they’re doing and where they want to take the music. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of her.  I love what they’re trying to do.

7.    Ornette Coleman, “Word For Bird”,  In All Languages (Harmolodic-Verve, 1987) [Coleman, alto sax, composer; Billy Higgins, drums; Charlie Haden, bass; Don Cherry, tp.] – (5 stars)

Ornette.  Sounds like Charlie on bass.  Blackwell on drums.  Oh.  Higgins, I guess.  Well, Charlie for sure!  Couldn’t miss that.  That’s not Cherry either, is it?  It sounds like he’s playing the trumpet!  It’s not that tiny pocket trumpet sound.   It sounds like a regular trumpet.  Now that I’ve stopped and thought about it and listened, it’s Cherry, all right.  Five stars.  More if there are any.

8.    Lee Konitz, “Movin’ Around” , Very Cool (Verve 1957) [Shadow Wilson, drums, Konitz, as, Don Ferrara, tp, composer;  Sal Mosca, piano; Peter Ind, bass]  – (5 stars)

[I want you to get the drummer on this.] [LAUGHS] I recognize the beat. [SHRUGS] Lee Konitz.  It’s got to have 5 stars right there.  It’s always great when a drummer can play the cymbal and just from the feel of the beat make music out of it.   With the trumpeter, I hear something like that, I hear a specific note, and I see a person’s face that I recognize, but I don’t know who it is! [LAUGHS] That means that I know who it is…but I don’t. [LAUGHS] The style is recognizable.  It’s beautiful.  I KNOW that drummer.  Can I guess?  how about the piano player being Sal Mosca?   Oh, Jesus.  Is the drummer Nick Stabulas, by any chance? [AFTER] Wow!  I hung out with Shadow, but… [LAUGHS] No wonder there was so much music in just playing the cymbal!  You dig? [LAUGHS] That’s great.  That means the trumpet player might be Tony Fruscella, someone like that.  Someone like Don…what was his name… [It’s Don Ferrara.] Yeah, so there you go.  I don’t think I ever played with Don Ferrara.  Is the bass player Peter Ind?  So it’s an older record.  Shadow was one of my favorite drummers, and to hear him play now after so many years and to see all the music that he played, just playing a cymbal!  Shadow was a motherfucker.  20 stars.  Shadow Wilson.  Shit.  That’s Shadow Wilson on that Count Basie record, “Queer Street,” where he plays that 4-bar introduction.

9.    Billy Hart, “Mindreader”, Oceans of Time (Arabesque, 1996) – (5 stars) [Hart, drums; Santi DeBriano, bass, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Stubblefield, tenor saxophone; Mark Feldman, violin; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano]

The piano and drums sound like they’re in tune with each other.  I’ll try to take a guess and say that bass player is Mraz. [It’s the drummer’s record.] Yeah, I figured that out.  I didn’t say anything, but… He’s the one who’s out front.  Whoever did the composition and arrangement, it’s great.  It reminds me of back in the ’60s when we were doing stuff with Jazz Composers Orchestra.  This sounds like it could be something that came out of that.  But this is more complicated somehow, more written stuff.  There’s a lot of people involved, and it’s very good.  So who’s the drummer?  Nice drum sound.  Nice tunings.  Very melodic.  Nice ideas.  He deserves some credit, man, a big organization like that.  There are a lot of good drummers out there now.  I don’t know who it is. [This drummer is close to your generation.] He sounds like he’s been around the block a few times! [LAUGHS] [AFTER] I would never recognize any of that.  The vibe is great.  The record is great.  Good for Billy.  Five stars for sure.  Look at all the work that went into that.  That was great.

10.    Danilo Perez, “Panama Libre”, Motherland (Verve 2000) [Perez, piano; Brian Blade, drums, Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

If the drummer isn’t Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, I’m not going to know them.  Five stars just because of the way they’re fucking with the time.  It’s not Pat Metheny, is it?  He sounds familiar, too! [Well, there’s 2 degrees of separation of everybody in jazz with you.] I like people who play with dynamics.  You don’t hear it very much!  Another reason for five stars.  I think I’ve played with this guitar player too.  Are you sure I hired them?  Another thing about drums… I don’t know who the drummer is, but on recordings, did you notice how Billy Hart was so much in front, and now this guy is mixed so far back?  I guess I’m not going to get this either.  It sounds so familiar, man! [AFTER] Kurt Rosenwinkel keeps improving.  He started with me ten years ago, and now he’s out there on his own, he’s got his own band and everything.  He’s writing nice stuff and playing better.  I recorded with Danilo Perez way back, but I wouldn’t recognize him.  But that’s why the guitar player sounded so familiar.  I should have known that sound.  I said that sound was so familiar!

11.    Joe Lovano-Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Ugly Beauty”, Flying Colors (Blue Note, 1997) –  (5 stars) [Lovano, tenor saxophone; Rubalcaba, piano; Monk, composer]

Someone said that this was the only waltz that Monk ever wrote.  Okay, let’s figure out who this is.  Okay, Lovano. [But you’ve also played and recorded with the pianist.] Oh, Gonzalo.  I recognized Lovano.  But when I was in England recently on tour with an English band, and I walked into the club to set up, and they were playing a CD, and I heard the saxophone and I heard it for two or three notes, and I said, “That’s Lovano.”  The engineer said, “No, it’s not.”  I said, “Oh yes, it is.”  “No, it’s not.”  “Oh, yes, it is.”  And it wasn’t.  I don’t know if I would have recognized Gonzalo except for the fact that I knew Joe had done a duo record with him.  Man, five stars.  Are you kidding?  Everything’s going to be five stars.  I can’t renege now.  Joe’s great, man.  So’s Gonzalo.  They sound nice together.

12.    Joanne Brackeen, “Tico, Tico”, Pink Elephant Magic (Arkadia, 1998) [Brackeen, piano; Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, drums; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

“Tico, Tico” in 5/4 time.  Five-four, five stars!  No idea who the drummer is.  Maybe I should listen a little bit! [AFTER] That was interesting.  They deserve five stars for sure.  Was it Al Foster?  I’m just guessing. [Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez.] I’ve never heard of him.

13.    Ralph Peterson, “Skippy”, Fotet Plays Monk (Evidence, 1997) [Peterson, drums; Steve Wilson, soprano sax; Brian Carrott, vibes; Belden Bullock, bass] – (5 stars)

“Skippy” by Thelonious Monk.  I was going to say Steve Lacy, but no, it’s not his sound.  Five stars just for playing a Monk tune! [AFTER] I would never have known them.  The treatment was okay.  It seemed like they just went straight-ahead and played the tune.  That’s a hard tune, man.  Even anybody to attempt that tune deserves five stars, for Chrissake.  Steve Lacy says all you have to do is know how to play “Tea For Two” and you can play “Skippy,” but I don’t believe him.  I said, “Man, ‘Skippy,’ that’s a hard tune.”  He said, ‘Well, it’s ‘Tea for Two.'”  I tried to sing “Tea For Two” along with it, but… [LAUGHS]

14.    Bud Powell-Oscar Pettiford-Kenny Clarke, “Salt Peanuts”, The Complete Essen Jazz Festival Concert (Black Lion, 1960) [start with 3:46 left] – (5 stars)

That’s “Salt Peanuts” and it was a nice drum solo, but I don’t know who the players are. [You played with one of them.] You keep saying that!  I guess it wasn’t the drummer.  It probably was the bass player.  I don’t know the piano player.  I guess because of the live recording, the sound wasn’t as great as it could have been. [Play “Blues In The Closet.”] This is the same piano player?  Almost sounds like Oscar Pettiford.  I played with him in 1957 at Small’s Paradise for a couple of weeks.  I went down south with him with his big band to Florida and Virginia.  1957, man!  Wow, that was something else.  Mostly black cats; Dick Katz was playing piano and Dave Amram was in the band.  Jesus, maybe it is Bud Powell.  Is it?  So it’s a later Bud Powell.  The drummer is Kenny Clarke.  That’s the same people as on “Salt Peanuts”?  That’s not really Kenny Clarke’s drum sound. [Maybe it wasn’t his drums] It didn’t sound like it.  It sounded kind of dead.  Max Roach got a lot from Kenny Clarke.  All those cats got shit from Sid Catlett, too.  He was a motherfucker, Sid Catlett.  Five stars.  Oscar Pettiford, man!  After I was playing with Oscar, he split and went to Europe and was playing there, and I got a telegram from his wife saying “Oscar sent me a telegram and said I should call you and get in touch with you, and you should go right away to Baden-Baden, Germany, and play with Oscar.”  I was playing with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note.  I couldn’t get up and leave.  There was no plane ticket!  But he liked me.  I was quite honored.  People said, “You played with OP?  Man, he’s death on drummers.  How are you doing that?”  I had at the time 7A drumsticks.  After one set one time, Oscar came over and looked at my drumstick and started bending it.  He said, “Man, what the fuck kind of stick is that?  Go get you some sticks!”

I think it’s great that there’s really quite a few good young players on the scene now.  It’s quite encouraging.  I think it’s good for jazz.  There may be a lot of them around.  It’s great.


Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Vibraphone