Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Foster, Al (Aloysius)

Al Foster's ability to communicate almost telepathically with other improvisers has earned him a reputation amongst musicians as one of the post-bop generation's leading drummers. While he has rarely recorded as a leader, the understated sound of his tilted ride cymbals and dry, muffled drums has graced hundreds of sessions since the 1970s, including ones led by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. Foster may have great hands and feet, but his ears separate him from the rest.

Aloysius Foster was born on January 18, 1944 in Richmond, Virginia. When he was three or four years old, his family moved to a second-floor apartment on 140th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City's West Harlem neighborhood. Constantly banging on pots and pans, the boy was given a rubber practice pad on which he could more quietly release his rhythmic energy at the age of four or five. On Christmas morning, 1953, the nine-year-old Foster received a Gretsch drum kit as his gift, and from that moment onwards he was off and drumming.

While Foster was initially influenced by the great big-band drummers, like Chick Webb and Jo Jones, it was Max Roach and Clifford Brown's 1955 version of “Cherokee” which sparked his imagination. According to Foster, Roach's playing revealed to him the potential for “making music on the drums, ” by blurring the lines between traditional rhythmic support and melodic expression on the drum set. After absorbing more of Roach’s work, the teenaged Foster began practicing for hours a day, developing his craft as a “music-making” drummer.

Foster made his recording debut on hard-bop trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s 1964 album, The Thing to Do, alongside a very young Chick Corea on piano. The pair also played on Down with It!, Mitchell’s follow-up recording in 1965, which featured the grooving “Hi-Heeled Sneakers.”

While countless press articles suggest that Foster was either 16 or 19 at the time of The Thing to Do sessions, simple math reveals that at the time of his participation in the July 30, 1964 session, he was in fact 20 years old.

Most of Foster’s early professional work was not captured in the studio, however. Instead, he enjoyed a long-standing gig at New York City’s Playboy Club throughout the mid-to-late 1960s, performing with trombonist Kai Winding, bassist Earl May, pianist Larry Willis, and guitarist Al Gafa. Foster and May, along with a who's who of New York musicians, also performed regularly at the Cellar Door on 95th Street, which became key to the development of Foster’s career.

A significant point sheds light on Foster’s career choices in the 1960s. While many young, up-and-coming drummers would travel wherever the gig would take them, Foster, then in his twenties, sought to balance his work as a musician with his responsibilities as a single father. He therefore turned down invitations to tour with artists such as Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, and Wes Montgomery, in order to retain his steady work at the Playboy Club and Cellar Door in New York City.

Even though Foster was steadily based in New York, his reputation as a melodic improviser and careful listener grew rapidly enough to garner offers to play high-profile engagements with Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard and Thelonious Monk at the Village Gate in the late 1960s. In 1969, while performing at his regular gig at the Cellar Door, Miles Davis saw Foster perform, and later offered him the drum chair when Jack DeJohnette left his group in 1971. Davis was perhaps the only jazz musician who could have enticed Foster to leave New York: Foster called his mother to assist him in raising his daughters and accepted the trumpeter's invitation.

Even though Foster is a self-professed bebop enthusiast, his steady, swinging backbeat effortlessly lent itself to Davis’s rock-leaning fusion recordings from this time period.

The drummer debuted with Davis on the 1972 album Get Up With It, the studio follow-up to Bitches Brew, and can be heard on all of Davis’s recordings throughout the 1970s. Some of these recordings include: Big Fun (1972), On the Corner (1972), Dark Magus (1974), Agharta (1975), and Pangaea (1975). On the Corner’s “ "Black Satin” features Foster's densely layered percussion work in concert with Billy Hart, Don Alias, Jack DeJohnette, and Badal Roy.

When Davis retirement from music – temporarily, as it turned out – in 1975, Foster was one of the few musicians with whom the trumpeter remained in regular contact over the next five years. Foster has claimed that Davis called him “a million times a day, every day.” The two became and remained close friends, with Davis quietly yet consistently supporting Foster and his family financially – whether or not the drummer was with him on the road.

Foster remained Davis’s drummer of choice when the trumpeter returned to the scene in 1981. Highlights from Foster's recordings with the post-hiatus Davis include “Jean Pierre” from the 1981 album We Want Miles and “One Phone Call/Street Scenes” from the 1985 album You’re Under Arrest. After fourteen years by Davis's side, Foster left his group in 1985, but the two remained close friends until Davis’s death.

Foster occasionally recorded as a freelancer during his tenure with Davis, especially during Miles’s retirement. Some of his notable recordings throughout the 1970s and early 1980s include: Horace Silver’s Silver n’ Brass (1975), Dexter Gordon’s Biting the Apple (1976), Yusef Lateef’s The Doctor is In and Out (1976), Red Garland’s Feelin’ Red (1978), Dave Liebman’s Pendulum (1978), Art Pepper’s New York Album and So In Love (1979), Sonny Rollins’s Don’t Ask (1979), McCoy Tyner’s 4 X 4 (1980), Sonny Rollins’s Love at First Sight (1980), Hank Jones’s The Great Jazz Trio Live at the Village Vanguard (1980), and Freddie Hubbard’s Outpost (1981).

After Foster's break from Miles's group in1985, he quickly joined forces with Joe Henderson and can be heard on a series of classic jazz recordings led by the tenor saxophonist through 1992. In 1985, Henderson, Foster and bassist Ron Carter released a series of live dates recorded at New York's Village Vanguard, entitled State of the Tenor: Live at the Vanguard Volumes 1 and 2. Highlights from these piano-less sessions include “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Isotope.”

In 1987, Charlie Haden replaced Ron Carter on another live date featuring Henderson and Foster, which was released as An Evening with Joe Henderson. In the early 1990s, Foster joined Henderson for three more recordings, which include 1992's So Near, So Far, a tribute to Miles Davis that many critics list as among the finest jazz releases of that decade.

Aside from his recordings with Joe Henderson, Foster’s other high-profile, extended collaboration later in his career was with pianist Herbie Hancock. Even though Foster rarely recorded with Hancock, he and bassist Buster Williams performed frequently with the famed pianist throughout the early to mid-1990s.

Aside from work with Henderson and Hancock, Foster’s freelance discography since 1980 is impressive for its sheer number of high quality jazz recordings. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Foster recorded with Bobby Hutcherson, Tommy Flanagan, Steve Kuhn, Roy Hargrove, Donald Byrd, Dave Kikoski, Larry Willis, Mike Stern, Chris Potter, and Joe Lovano, among many others.

In 1999, Foster joined John Scofield, Joe Lovano, and Dave Holland in Scolohofo, a group coled by all four members that originally formed to perform at the 1999 Montreal Jazz Festival. The group then reunited and released a studio date, Oh!, in 2002. Holland’s “The Winding Way” and Lovano’s “The Dawn of Time” are two highlights by this genuinely inspired group.

In recent years, Foster has assembled and led his own group, The Al Foster Quartet, with Doug Weiss on bass, pianist Kevin Hayes and saxophonist Eli Degibri. The group has performed for over a decade but just recently released their first record, Love, Peace and Jazz! Live at the Village Vanguard, in 2008. Foster has led only one other session throughout his entire career: 1997, he released Brandyn, which featured saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Dave Kikoski, and bassist Doug Weiss.

Miles Davis once summed up his view of Foster's versatile talents in the following way.

“[Foster] knocked me out because he had such a groove and he would just lay it right in there. That was the kind of thing I was looking for. Al could set it up for everybody else to play off and just keep the groove going forever."

Al Foster may not have played as many notes as his hyperkinetic contemporaries, but his impeccable time and groove, interactive skills, and highly dramatic, melodic drum solos set him apart from his peers. Foster’s name is often absent from critical discussions of jazz’s greatest drummers, perhaps due to a generational shift or his participation in some of Miles Davis’s most controversial music. Nonetheless, he remains a musician's favorite, and in part because of the enduring appreciation of his peers, he is finally starting to receive some of the critical recognition that he deserves.

Selected Discography:

As a Leader:

Brandyn (1997)

Love, Peace and Jazz! Live at the Village Vanguard (2008)

With Miles Davis:

Get Up With It (1972)

On the Corner (1972)

Dark Magus (1974)

Agharta (1975)

Pangaea (1975)

Man with the Horn (1981)

We Want Miles (1981)

Star People (1982)

Atmosphere (1983)

Decoy (1983)

In the West (1983)

You’re Under Arrest (1985)

Additional Recordings:

The Thing to Do (Blue Mitchell, 1964)

Down with It! (Blue Mitchell, 1965)

Biting the Apple (Dexter Gordon, 1976)

Don’t Ask (Sonny Rollins, 1979)

New York Album (Art Pepper, 1979)

The Great Jazz Trio at the Village Vanguard (Hank Jones, 1980)

It’s About Time (McCoy Tyner with Jackie McLean, 1985)

State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard Volumes 1 and 2 (Joe Henderson, 1985)

In the Vanguard (Bobby Hutcherson, 1986)

Diamond in the Rough (Roy Hargrove, 1989)

Here’s to the People (Sonny Rollins, 1991)

So Near, So Far (Joe Henderson, 1992)

Pure (Chris Potter, 1994)

Celebrating Sinatra (Joe Lovano, 1996)

Bottom Lines (George Mraz, 1997)

McCoy Tyner with Stanley Clarke and Al Foster (McCoy Tyner, 2000)

Oh! (Scolohofo, 2003)

Contributor: Eric Novod