Not One, but Two!

Inside of a week, I’ve had the good fortune to see two of the greatest living drummers playing Jazz today, Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille.  Both are quite near and dear to me, Billy just so happening to be on my favorite 70s Frank Foster record, my favorite Richie Beirach record and one of my favorite Jimmy Rowles records, and Andrew Cyrille being on my favorite Coleman Hawkins record, in my favorite Cecil Taylor band, and for being a longtime collaborator of one of my truly favorite pianists, Mal Waldron(whose portrait is at the top of every page of my blog, if you didn’t know…).

Musically, the beauties of these two drummers are varied. In only the six instances I listed above, each scenario requires a completely different approach, although both musicians sound comfortable in each of the settings, yet come off as themselves, not playing a bag or making concessions.  This of course is the end goal for any musician trying to play at the highest level.

The difference in their playing is night and day, although their approaches to studying and learning the drums don’t seem to be too different to me.  Each has an erudite approach to the drumset, knowing their history like the back of their hands and using analysis and study to rise above the phenomenon of playing by ear which was prevalent in the generation which preceded them.  However, they are far from the “Jazz Education” approach to music, obviously, which in my mind gives them a perfect balance of curiosity and honesty.  They play the truest and purest music with enough curiosity to pepper the music with conceptual brilliance.  Many others whose music was present around that era of the early sixties have a similar concept: Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron, etc.

Hearing Billy talk about the music surprised me the first time I heard him do so.  He speaks in language that a teacher at a university would use, which is so often not the case with musicians his age.  Of course, Liebman would be one progenitor of the common Jazz education language, so I suppose that that connection could have something to do with it, but even so, Billy always seems to be extremely youthful in his exploits, which extends to the way that he speaks about the music.  Where people like Wayne and Herbie tend to talk about music in a completely mystical sense, and people like Frank Wess and Clark Terry talk about it in a “I’ve done it my whole life, don’t think about it too hard sense”, Billy comes out of the school which I imagine as coming out of Dizzy Gillespie(who was constantly explaining his music to people, be it chord changes or what have you), shedding a light on things while not sabotaging the product via over-analysis. To me, it’s something of a perfect ratio, not obscuring or over complicating things, but staying genuine and still being straightforward in his thinking.

I’ve only had the privilege of playing with Billy once, but the one thing that stands out like a sore thumb is his massive beat.  Billy deals with time in a way that makes anything you play sound fantastic.  His rid cymbal engulfs everything around him, creating a pulse that feels amazing at all times, regardless of the rhythm section’s tendencies.  At the time I played with him, I was at the peak of my Monk studies, and although my beat reflected that, Billy’s natural rhythm was totally in sync with mine(we played Evidence, and in the middle of the tune, he stopped me and said “Are you playing Evidence or Just You Just Me?”  I still have to ask him what he meant.  It certainly sent my head spinning for a while after that…).  In the other situations I’ve seen Billy play in, he always makes the pocket deep.  I’ve seen him with bassists as disparate as George Mraz, Charlie Haden, and Ben Street, and this was the constant every time.

Despite his immense knowledge of the history, Billy continues to push ahead.  I saw Kenny Wollesen in the same week as Billy, and I couldn’t tell you which drummer sounded more contemporary.  Especially on Ethan’s “Mellow B”, Billy played things that were perhaps more angular than Wollesen.  However, the history showed through as well.  Billy started off the set with Charlie Parker’s blues “Cheryl”, and stated simply after the tune, “BIRDland!”  It’s easy to forget that whole side of Birdland now, even for me, and I was glowing for affection for Billy as he reminded the audience and me about where the venue came from.

There was also an interesting happenstance during one of Billy’s drum feature of the night.  The last time I was at Birdland, I saw Roy Haynes, who also did a drum feature.  Both of them used the exact same figure as the basis for their solo!

Either it’s a massive stars-aligned coincidence, or there’s a historical thing going on that I’m not aware of, or they have bet going on.  Regardless, very interesting.

Where Billy has his wide beat and huge sound, Andrew Cyrille has a tight, focused sound, like a snake coiling up to strike.  With Andrew, it was immediately apparent to me that not a single note was wasted.  He was always contributing something to the music of the moment.  This isn’t a contrast with Billy per se, but Billy was content to just let the groove do the talking.  Andrew never stopped swinging, but he was much more active in the conversation, whereas Billy just interjected when he thought it to be appropriate.  Andrew was trying to make things happen, and Billy was trying to let things happen.  Of course both drummers could have reversed their roles and the music would come out sounding just as good, thanks to the great bands that they’ve surrounded themselves with.

It’s an important note that Billy is an older musician hiring a young band, and that Andrew is an older musician being hired by a young band.  The fact that both are willing and able to play with younger musicians is great, and important.

The bands really were quite something.  The talents of Mark Turner and Ben Street are well known, I feel, but Bill McHenry was quite a shock to hear for the first time.  The first thing that was apparent is his lovely, earthy tone.  The second thing, which to me is the cornerstone of his playing, is a Rollins-esque ability to paint himself into a very small box, and then escape from the trap that he created for himself.  This applies to all possible elements: harmony, pulse, melody, rhythm, everything.  In spite of this, the greatest achievement of his playing is his phrasing, which is never clichéd or expected.  This again follows in Rollins’ shoes, but also Steve Lacy’s.  His tunes were written in the same way; one particular blues had a great angular melody which jumped out in unsuspected places.  It sounded like it was written in twenty minutes, although every phrase was great, holding and releasing the listener in the most satisfying way.

Eric Revis also surprised me.  I know his playing with Branford Marsalis rather well, and I know that to find a more dynamic walking bassist is very difficult, but I had no idea that he had such a talent for Gary Peacock style 60s free music.  I learned at the gig that he also plays with Peter Brotzmann, Avram Fefer, and other avant garde artists.  He’s really quite something, and the interplay between him and Andrew was great, although I’m not 100% sure that his beat and Andrew’s lined up in the way I wanted it to, but I’ve never heard Andrew with anyone other than Reggie Workman, so my ears may be clouded by that magnificent hook-up(they’re playing Birdland in June, mark your calendars!).  Andrew studied with Philly Joe Jones, he possesses that element in his beat that younger musicians just can’t seem to recreate, at least not like Workman can.

The pianist on both gigs was Ethan Iverson, and it was interesting to see him in both situations, as it usually is.  His feel on the McHenry gig was rather unique among pianists you see these days, coming violently out of the earlier eras of jazz, some kind of twisted pre-bebop.  I’ve never seen him play with that vibe before, and the way it made Cyrille respond was quite interesting.  I wish I could have seen Orrin play the gig(Ethan was subbing), as the two would be contrasting in that situation.  I actually can’t imagine it, as Ethan and McHenry’s rapport made the music feel natural, even though that band had never performed.  Of course with Billy he played at a level of relaxation that is usually reserved for TBP.  That band is, at its core, cohesive.

It should be noted that as far as drummers go, Ethan’s got his priorities straight.  In the last five years, he’s played with Billy Hart, Ben Riley, Tootie Heath, Andrew Cyrille, Paul Motian, and Steve Williams.  I honestly can’t think of any other drummers over 50 that I’d rather play with.  Good stuff.


UPDATE: Nick Fraser reminds me that Roy Haynes and Jack Dejohnette are still alive and well. To avoid letters, I would also state that I would like to play with those two gentlemen.  That is all.

It’s guitar week here in NYC, I just took in Jim Hall, Res Abbasi, and Nir Felder in the same day, and Oz Noy is at the 55 bar this week.  I also saw the JLCO sextet, where Dan Nimmer kicked a whole lot of ass, overplaying the rest of the band by a wide margin.  He plays block chords better than anyone else in the city.  I also saw Warmdaddy with Aaron Diehl at Dizzy’s, be sure to look out for Alfonso Horn and Marion Felder.  They have a nice crisp approach to that music.

I have my first lesson with Sofia Rosoff next Monday, hence the absence of posts.  I can’t wait, but am terrified.

TBP at the blue note this week, and Geri Allen playing all Wayne tunes with Dwayne Burno and the Strickland Brothers at Dizzy’s.  Wish I could afford the fundraiser there tonight, Scofield, Lovano, and Meldhau.

The next thing up will be my newest transcription project, probably by the end of the week.

“That man over there is Duke Ellington.  That man can play anything.” —John Coltrane, when told by Bob Thiele that he shouldn’t play Big Nick on the Ellington/Coltrane session.  Rather sternly, apparently.



~ by Martin Porter on April 24, 2012.

2 Responses to “Not One, but Two!”

  1. Great post! That drum figure that Billy Hart and Roy Haynes both used is similar to the theme from Max Roach’s ‘The Drum Also Waltzes.’ It’s not identical, but that’s the first thing I thought of when I saw the example you wrote out. Keep up the good work!

    • Yes, after talking to some drummers and historically minded musicians, this seems to be the consensus. Drums Unlimited is not on my shelf for some reason. I never buy it, only because I already have the sister album with the Legendary Hassan. Obviously I need to shell out for it! The next step is to ask Billy what role that record or track played in his growth.

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