A Few Thoughts on Oft-Forgotten White drummers.
Hello all! Due to a mini-illness, I took most of December and all of January off, but now I’m back. A belated Happy New Year to all of you.
Before I get into my Black History Month stuff, I’d like to take a moment to post on two gentlemen that the world needs to stop forgetting about.
Barry Altshcul truly must have gotten the short straw in the history of successful drummers from the 60s. There are many drummers from that era that have gotten the shaft when it comes to their careers. Jimmy Cobb, Joe Chambers, Ben Riley, and Pete LaRoca come to mind. They all were on seminal records of some of the most amazing groups out there, gracing albums like Mode for Joe, The Bridge, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and of course, Kind of Blue. Even after all of these successes, they have not found fame among those who do not know their work or were somehow connected with that era. These guys have played a combination of about 6 or 7 times since I got to NYC, and none of them were week-long engagements.
I’ve never seen them on the cover of a major Jazz magazine. I’ve not seen them in any obvious article or blog that I’ve read in the last two years (the exception being LaRoca, right after his death). I’m not surprised that they don’t get mentioned that much (except within the New York scene, where many of them are teachers and employers of students), however I am surprised that they get about as much attention as someone like Steve Williams (another brilliant drummer) who played with Shirley Horn for so many years. Steve is in a similar category, musically I feel, but doesn’t have the leg up of appearing on one of the most listened-to records of his generation.
With the advent of the internet and the Young Lion movement however, you get people who are slightly more in the know about personnel and who are told to idolize and respect these kind of musicians. So every time you say “Jimmy Cobb”, he at the very least hushes a room or elicits a positive response from musicians of a certain age, even though none of them question why he doesn’t play Birdland twice a year or why he’s not even in the top 20 drummers in the Downbeat poll.
Saying “Barry Altschul” doesn’t get the same result. Even though he has played on a number of important recordings by Chick Corea, Paul Bley, and Dave Holland—as popular an important in some circles as as Mode for Joe or The Bridge—such as Closer, Conference of the Birds, and Circulus. He is also a great composer and has written music for his own ensembles since the 70s.
I can not tell you why Altschul is given even less respect than the people above, but I can tell you that he is now back on the scene and playing as well as anyone else in New York. Thanks to Jon Irabagon (I deduce…), he is playing one offs at places like Cornelia street, and just had his 70th birthday at Roulette. The band plays his music, with his choice of musicians, including Joe Fonda, who is one of those unbelievable New York dark horses that you’d never hear about unless you were hyper-interested in a niche or live in the city. While I missed the gig for his birthday, I was lucky enough to catch two sets at Cornelia, and I will now go see him whenever I can. His swing feel, compositions, and ear are at the highest level imaginable. He is a legend, plain and simple.
(Harris Eisenstadt, another great drummer-composer, posted a well-timed three part post at Destination Out. Required reading. It would appear that his knowledge of the music—even modern players—is as up to snuff as his playing.)
Someone who is not noticed for the exact opposite reasons is Han Bennik, who to my mind is the father of European Free Jazz drumming. He started out playing with Eric Dolphy in the early 60s, and has now become the head of the Dutch Free Jazz scene which has been percolating for decades now. His work with Steve Lacy, Peter Brotzmann, and Misha Mengleberg is absolutely stunning.
The reason he is only given respect by people deep in his avant-garde world, however, is because he is misunderstood as a crazed absurdist lunatic who is more interested in putting on a show than playing music. The thing is, I’m the biggest stickler for swing feel and traditional fundamentals that I know, and there is no man alive who plays the drums with more deference and knowledge of Kenny Clarke and Jo Jones than Han. The swing feel emanating from this man is incredible. I saw him at Roulette (if you haven’t learned from this post, start going to Roulette) playing from memory 6 Steve Lacy compositions and being right on the knife’s edge the whole time. He seems to respond to every musical situation quickly and on many different levels, and nothing is out of bounds.
The moral of the story is this: great players should be getting better gigs, Barry Altschul is playing again and you should go see him, and Han Bennik feels amazing and doesn’t deserve any kind of bad avant-garde rap that has been placed upon him. He’s the closest thing you can get to hearing Kenny Clarke play the drums.
A lot of posts coming up, mostly on shedding stuff. I’ve decided that I’m going to save up some money, so I won’t be reporting back on too many gigs, just a few here and there. Happy Black History Month! Best month of the year.
“I’m too old to pimp, and too young to die, so I guess I’ll just keep playing!” —Clark Terry