THE DOZENS: HISTORIC RHYTHM SECTIONS by Eric Novod


        

   The Rhythm Section, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

As jazz slowly but surely enters the academic realm, questions arise regarding a suitable narrative for its history. How do we tell the story of a complex, nuanced genre that is not even a century old and has rapidly shifted and developed? There’s certainly no easy answer, but it seems increasingly evident that the tale most often told – of “heroic figures” who led bands or played the most solos – is becoming progressively insufficient. After all, jazz is nothing if not interactive and improvisatory, and a leader or soloist can’t go it alone (not all the time, anyway). While recounting jazz history through the prism of rhythm sections can be as problematic as the leaders/soloists perspective, conscientiously merging the two vantages may move us a little closer to the million-dollar vision.

In this Dozens, I’ve presented 12 tracks from 12 historically essential rhythm sections. Even though piano or guitar trios are technically rhythm sections, I’ve omitted them here in order to concentrate on the relationship between a rhythm section and the primary soloist with whom they interact.

As always, there are hundreds of rhythm sections that deserve to be on this list. If you think a different one deserves special historical love, please post a comment to this Dozens to further illuminate classic rhythm section performances.


Louis Armstrong: A Monday Date

Track

A Monday Date

Artist

Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals)

CD

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Sony Legacy 57175)

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Musicians:

Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals), Earl Hines (piano), Zutty Singleton (drums),

Fred Robinson (trombone), Jimmy Strong (tenor sax, clarinet), Mancy Carr (banjo)

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Composed by Earl Hines & Sydney Robin

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Recorded: Chicago, IL, July 27, 1928

Albumcoverlouisarmstrong-portraitoftheartistasayoungman-1923-1934

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

"Hey - say, say, say, Earl Hines – Why don't you let us in on some of that good music, Pops?" inquires Louis Armstrong at the top of this classic track.

"Well, c'mon, yeah – let's get together then," replies Hines, and in this seemingly matter-of-fact moment of friendly collaboration, the utterly inseparable relationship between the soloist/leader and his or her rhythm section is forever illuminated. Yes, even Louis needed a rhythm section to "let him in."

The music commences with a surprisingly odd 5-measure cymbal/woodblock break from Zutty Singleton (a 4-measure break and one measure of half-notes to bring in the band). Zutty reappears during Armstrong's solo, and then for a concluding 4-measure break that relates to but not does not duplicate his introductory statement. Zutty's presentation of these essential, minimal rhythms can be heard in the vocabulary of every subsequent jazz drummer, from Jo Jones to Roy Haynes to Tain Watts.

While it's always easy to glance over the banjoist, Mancy Carr's playing is a bit more nuanced than one may think on first listen. He carefully chooses accents that fit between Hines's comping to add an essential driving force to the track.

The rhythm section highlight here, to no one's surprise, is Hines himself, whose pre-dialogue introduction, pre-verse piano break, post-Armstrong-solo break, and stride comping under trombone, clarinet and trumpet solos are models for all future pianists. Note how Hines's style greatly varies when he's executing a solo break as opposed to his insightful playing behind a vocalist or instrumentalist. Early jazz interaction at its finest.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Count Basie: Dance of the Gremlins

Track

Dance of the Gremlins

Artist

Count Basie (piano)

CD

Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1943-1945 (Classics 801)

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Musicians:

Count Basie (piano), Freddie Green (guitar), Walter Page (bass), Jo Jones (drums),

Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, and Snooky Young (trumpets), Eli Robinson, Buster Scott, Louis Taylor, Dicky Wells (trombones), Earle Warren (alto sax), Jack Washington, Caughey Roberts (alto & baritone saxes), Don Byas, Buddy Tate (tenor saxes)

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Composed by Count Basie

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Recorded: Hollywood, CA, July 1943

Albumcovercountbasieandhisorchestra-1943-1945

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

As evidenced throughout "Dance of the Gremlins," Jo Jones was the undisputed king of maintaining a swinging hi-hat pulse while communicating with the band through a snare or bass-drum punch. Walter Page – never one to phone in a bassline – created some of the first great directional bass performances that advanced the role of the bassist to the primary rhythmic and harmonic source. Basie and Green never seem to get in each other's way as they alternate rhythmic pulse and harmonic support. The laid-back beat placement and inventive dynamic variation of all four players throughout "Gremlins" (and nearly every other Basie track, for that matter) modernized and expanded the possibilities of the rhythm section.

It is the goal of every great rhythm section to sound like a singular, compact, swinging unit while simultaneously imparting their individual personalities into the music. None better epitomized this than the fabled "All American Rhythm Section" of Basie, Green, Page and Jones.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Cozy Cole: Take It On Back

Track

Take It On Back

Artist

Cozy Cole (drums)

CD

1944-1945 (Classics 865)

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Musicians:

Cozy Cole (drums), Tiny Grimes (guitar), Slam Stewart (bass),

Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Foots Thomas (alto & tenor saxes), Hank D’Amico (clarinet), Clyde Hart (piano)

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Composed by Cozy Cole, Walter Thomas & Clyde Hart

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Recorded: New York, November 14, 1944

Albumcovercozycole1944-1945

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

The universality and collective adaptability of this rhythm section allowed its various members to entertain with Cab Calloway, impeccably support Art Tatum, and just a few years later interact with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, quite literally creating the transition from swing to bop. On "Take It On Back," this group of 1930s Swing Era all stars joins forces on the eve of the aforementioned bebop (r)evolution to craft a pulsating, driving foundation that provides a blueprint for their success. Tiny Grimes is soulful on his 4-string baritone guitar (a fine aural link between the banjo and electric guitar), Slam Stewart's bowed/sung break popularizes the bass solo, and Cozy Cole's setups (might he have been the first to consistently set up hits?) propel the tune as only a melodic-minded drummer can.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


The Quintet: Wee

Track

Wee

Group

The Quintet

CD

Jazz at Massey Hall (Debut DCD-124-2)

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Musicians:

Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Charlie Parker (alto sax), Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass), Max Roach (drums).

Composed by Denzil Best

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Recorded: live at Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada, May 15, 1953

Albumcoverjazzatmasseyhall

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Yes, Mingus's discontent with the audio quality of this legendary concert and his subsequent overdubbing of the bass parts remove the critical interactive nature of these fine jazz musicians at collective work. Yet I'd say it's actually still quite absorbing. Plus, even though you must strain to hear the bass and drums clearly, there are remastered versions of the original mixes to explore. Nonetheless, the musical minds at work here make this an elemental rhythm section, especially since Powell and Roach stand alongside Bird and Diz as principal bebop architects. The ferocity (and ease of ferocity) that ensued when Mingus joined forces with Powell and Roach set a new high-water mark in the bop world. During the decade or so when speed and agility were the ultimate aims of the jazz rhythm section, no combination came close to Powell, Mingus and Roach.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Art Pepper: Star Eyes

Track

Star Eyes

Artist

Art Pepper (alto sax)

CD

Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Original Jazz Classics 338)

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Musicians:

Art Pepper (alto sax), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by Gene DePaul & Don Raye

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Recorded: Los Angeles, January 19, 1957

Albumcoverartpeppermeetstherhythmsection

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Art Pepper doesn't meet "a" rhythm section on this 1957 date – he meets the rhythm section. Best known for their tenure with Miles Davis (with whom they were still working at this time), Garland, Chambers and Jones combined the simple sophistication of Swing Era groups with the prodigious fire of the great bebop bands. They collectively improvised, delicately supported their leader, played comfortably fast, and perhaps most importantly artfully interacted on quieter mid-tempo tunes and sensitive ballads. This team therefore pioneered the all-encompassing post-bop rhythm section – even though they were often playing bop. Perhaps most illuminating here is the enormous amount of space left for Pepper, notwithstanding all three rhythm section mates playing plenty of notes. Their sympathetic musicality allowed for Pepper to take his improvisation wherever he wanted – an important development in modern jazz. The rhythm section, though, with their uncanny predictions, was always a step ahead.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Hank Mobley: Soul Station

Track

Soul Station

Artist

Hank Mobley (tenor sax)

CD

Soul Station (Blue Note B2-46528)

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Musicians:

Hank Mobley (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Art Blakey (drums).

Composed by Hank Mobley

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, February 7, 1960

Albumcoverhankmobley-soulstation

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Even though Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers are most often associated with Miles Davis (along with drummer Jimmy Cobb), this Hank Mobley date with drummer Art Blakey provides listeners with one of the ultimate hard-bop rhythm section lineups. The heavy swinging groove is rhythm-and-blues tinged, and the piano fills are saturated with soul and gospel music. A recurring theme of influential rhythm sections, they present a single, discernible sound that represents a distinct moment in musical time, yet they remain adaptable enough to fit that sound into any performance. On "Soul Station," they provide Hank Mobley with 9+ minutes of classic, unwavering, mid-tempo shuffle groove that contrasts with the other up-tempo or ballad tracks that dominate the remainder of the record.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Ornette Coleman: First Take

Track

First Take

Artist

Ornette Coleman (alto sax)

CD

Free Jazz (WEA Warner 25110)

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Musicians:

Ornette Coleman (alto sax), Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet), Don Cherry (pocket trumpet), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Scott LaFaro (bass), Charlie Haden (bass), Billy Higgins (drums), Ed Blackwell (drums).

Composed by Ornette Coleman

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Recorded: New York, December 21, 1960

Albumcoverornettecoleman-freejazz

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

It is certainly no coincidence that the development of the rhythm section coincides with the progression of the great jazz bandleaders. This unwritten codependency is indispensable to jazz history. Ornette Coleman launched a series of firsts with Free Jazz, not least importantly the collectively improvising "double rhythm section" that ironically stripped away everything except the bare minimum of bass and drums. Also note- worthy is the reputation of section mates LaFaro, Haden, Higgins and Blackwell as consciously melodic players, contrasted by their intense, seemingly random playing here. But behind the occasional chaos of "First Take" ultimately lies the same melodic players searching for and finding their melody, forever legitimizing the option to be "set free."

Reviewer: Eric Novod


John Coltrane: Afro Blue

Track

Afro Blue

Artist

John Coltrane (tenor sax)

CD

Live at Birdland (Impulse IMPD-198)

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Musicians:

John Coltrane (tenor sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums).

Composed by Mongo Santamaria

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Recorded: live at Birdland, New York, October 8, 1963

Albumcovercoltranebirdland

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Everything changed during the tenure of the Classic Coltrane Quartet. The separation between leader and rhythm section members was completely and utterly blurred after Coltrane and Elvin Jones began interacting. Soloists had a clear decision to make after Trane/Elvin – either they wanted a drummer to push them to extremes, or they wanted to go in a completely different direction. Anything in between, from the mid-'60s on, would forever be viewed as a diluted imitation of Trane/Elvin. McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison are also keys here, of course – they created a building style (with McCoy's use of block chords and Garrison's careful use of repeated notes) that perfectly intensified as Coltrane and Elvin began their ascension. "Afro Blue" contains all the above, and more: classic Trane/Elvin encounters, McCoy/Garrison builds, the never-ending blurring of barlines, and the tightrope walk between straight and swung Latin rhythms.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Paul Bley: King Korn

Track

King Korn

Artist

Paul Bley (piano)

CD

Turning Point (Improvising Artists 373841)

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Musicians:

Paul Bley (piano), John Gilmore (tenor sax), Gary Peacock (bass), Paul Motian (drums).

Composed by Paul Bley

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Recorded: New York, March 9, 1964

Albumcoverpaulbley-turningpoint

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

It may surprise some listeners, but this 1964 rhythm section sounds like many of the rhythm sections playing in New York jazz clubs in 2008. Bley, Peacock and Motian combined elements that were just then being introduced, and created a dichotomous improvisatory style that gracefully balanced freedom and structure, chords and non-chords, classic rhythm section choices and brand new interactive experiments. On "King Korn," the telepathy between Bley and Peacock is predictably remarkable. Note how Paul Motian sounds exactly like the classic early bop drummers (especially Roach and Haynes), and in a matter of seconds creates an inventive run of never-before-heard rhythms that sounds like nobody but Paul Motian. Bley and his two famed counterparts were far ahead of their time.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Miles Davis: Four

Track

Four

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (Columbia Legacy 66955)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Miles Davis

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Recorded: live at The Plugged Nickel, Chicago, IL, December 22-23, 1965

Albumcovermilesdavis-thecompleteliveatthepluggednickel-1965

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

If there's one rhythm section that can rival the influence of the Classic Coltrane Quartet, it is Miles Davis's Second Quintet – performing during the same time period and offering a sound that is equally inventive yet poles apart yet. In contrast to the raw power of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams provided Miles with only the highest level of innate musical ability. Hancock took piano comping to new levels of harmonic, and most ingeniously rhythmic sophistication. Carter's perfection compelled listeners to concentrate on the bass (while Miles, Herbie, Wayne and Tony were playing!). And simply put, Tony Williams executed ideas with all four limbs that most only dreamed of. Miles plays with an uncharted freedom on this version of "Four," and it must be in large part because he senses that his rhythm section will support his every (unexpected) move.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Gary Burton: Country Roads

Track

Country Roads

Artist

Gary Burton (vibes)

CD

Like Minds (Concord Jazz 4803)

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Musicians:

Gary Burton (vibes), Chick Corea (piano), Pat Metheny (guitar), Dave Holland (bass), Roy Haynes (drums).

Composed by Gary Burton

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Recorded: New York, December 15-17, 1997

Albumcovergaryburton-likeminds

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

This all-star session is one giant rhythm section, and while "supergroups" often lead to a blowing session without much regard to musical interaction, this 1997 date is a fine example of many world-renowned musicians sacrificing their billboard-worthy names for high-level jazz. Holland and Haynes bounce quick ideas off of each other with the ears of seasoned masters. Whether Burton, Corea or Metheny are soloing, the others provide a gracious open space filled with tasty comping that never approaches overcrowding. The most collectively gifted rhythm section ever assembled? It's tough to argue against this one…

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Wayne Shorter: As Far As The Eye Can See

Track

As Far As the Eye Can See

Artist

Wayne Shorter (tenor sax)

CD

Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve 000451802)

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Musicians:

Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), Brian Blade (drums).

Composed by Wayne Shorter

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Recorded: various locations (USA, Europe, Asia), 2002-2004

Albumcoverwayneshorter-beyondthesoundbarrier

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

While there are many popular piano and guitar trios currently making major strides in modern jazz, there aren't too many consistent rhythm sections backing musical masters. The giant exception is the Perez, Patitucci and Blade rhythm section that has backed Wayne Shorter on three successive albums. One can hear the entire history of the rhythm section in this group – the combination of classicism and modern experimentation, the blurring of barlines and great "ears" of all players in deep musical interaction, the application of Latin and African rhythms and complex American/European harmonies, and the immediate recognition of the singular sound of the Perez/Patitucci/Blade rhythm section. Note the sensitive dynamic variation behind Shorter's gradual build on this live track.

Reviewer: Eric Novod



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