Max Roach: For Big Sid

“For Big Sid” is one of three drum solos that Max recorded on Drums Unlimited, along with “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the title track. He had previously referenced that composition quite a bit, but to my knowledge, this was the first time it was released. Just the fact that he had those drum solos on the album, and the way he presented them, seems pretty revolutionary to me. I think it’s one of the great albums in the history of jazz music, not only for interspersing the solos between the other songs, but also the quality of those tunes, such as “Nommo.” It’s what he played, how he played it. In this music, you always find historical connections and threads, and even though Max was always forward-thinking, he also referenced the past. This is a perfect example. “For Big Sid” references the tune “Mop, Mop,” which Kenny Clarke developed, and is also a direct reference to Sid Catlett, who recorded that tune with Art Tatum in 1943. It’s like he’s killing two birds with one stone.

Call-and-response is always present in Max’s approach to soloing as well as comping. Here it’s like he’s playing a melody and comping for himself—all of it happens at the same time. It’s a supreme example of theme-and-variation, where he initiates a theme, and answers himself. He continues that pattern all throughout the piece. He takes a motif, flips it around, inverts it, elongates it. Same initial phrase, but it gets longer—different dynamics and so on. Max always said that he didn’t really play melody, that he played form and structure and shape. He meant that within the course of the framework of the song, the harmony and so forth, he was creating those shapes and following the form. But he always did it so cogently, with great clarity. This is a perfect example of that quality.

What he played was individual to who he was, and how he synthesized all of his experiences. He preached that mantra, but he also followed it. He referenced numerous sources—from the Caribbean and Africa, from the church, from Western Classical, rudimental solos, and Wilcoxsen. All of that is expressed when he played, and it’s certainly evident here. You see his technical virtuosity, but you also see how he uses space. It’s as though the things he doesn't play is just as important as what he does. Regardless of what he played, he always used that call-and-response---and there’s so much call-and-response from phrase to phrase within the context of this solo in the way he builds it and creates the architecture, and also in the tones he uses to express it. Sometimes Max goes from left to right, right to left, and then he comes out from another angle. It’s almost looking in a kaleidoscope. You see the shape, then you twist it, which changes that shape. It’s coming from the last one, but it’s still related to what came before it. All his stuff is related to what comes before, and then he recapitulates to the beginning.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


M'Boom: Onomatopoeia

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it was a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to floor tom and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition; not a lot of stops and starts. Themes and phrases overlap and others emerge—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, which kind of solo over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing 11 quarter notes, they start playing 4 half-notes and 3 eighth-notes, and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrane to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Jeff Hamilton: The Serpent's Tooth

Miles Davis wrote "The Serpent's Tooth" for a 1953 recording date he led featuring the enviable two-tenor lineup of Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. Unfortunately, neither tenor man was at his best that day, and MIles' fine composition has not been covered much in the intervening years. Jeff Hamilton used it as the closing number on his trio CD, Symbiosis, and bassist Christoph Luty's ingenious arrangement abruptly takes the tempo down to half-speed at the beginning of the bridge, only to gradually accelerate back to the original fast tempo in the first four bars of the final A section. While the tempo changes do not occur during the solos, the two appearances of the accelerating passage show just how well this group plays together. All three members of the group solo here. Pianist Tamir Hendelman gets the lion's share (or serpent's share?) with a dazzling solo that starts in straight-ahead bop style but moves in and out of more advanced harmonic territory. In his last chorus, Hendelman incorporates an exciting shout chorus to offset his improvised ideas and to offer a thrilling conclusion to his solo. Luty's solo sticks in the bebop style and features stunningly articulated hornlike lines which most bass players wouldn't dream of trying. Hamilton roars through his spots with rapid-fire movement between his toms and tenor drums. An excellent performance by one of the best mainstream groups in jazz today.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Matt Wilson: Free Range Chicken

A very simple minor pentatonic vamp sets up a major departure with a fun, quirky melody composed by Matt Wilson. Larry Goldings steps out with a funky vamp, reminiscent of his work with Maceo Parker’s band. Terell Stafford’s trumpet (augmented with plunger mute) lends a touch of gut-bucket style, with growls and rips, but also economy. Goldings rocks out during a very experimental solo, and lights a fire under the rest of the rhythm section when he changes his presets during his solo. The chicken here may be clawing and scratching its way out of the coop, hoping to see the light of day.

September 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Jeff Tain Watts: 107 Steps

The drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts has a fertile imagination, to say the least. How he transposed Bjork’s slow and sweeping “107 Steps” into a burning, swinging jazz tune is beyond this writer, and a testament to Watts’ skill as an arranger. And yet it’s all there in Bjork’s original recording: that great, syncopated bass line, the melody, the changes… it just took a great mind to hear it. And a great band to play it right. Watts, behind the kit, is an undeniable force, and the tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland is a strong and flowing improviser, simply erupting with ideas. The guitarist David Gilmore, heard elsewhere with Don Byron and Steve Coleman, is no slouch either: phrase after phrase, Gilmore digs in with precision, and striking fluidity.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Michael Babatunde Olatunji: Akiwowo

You need to find a place for this 1959 session on any list of unlikely success stories from the 20th century music business. Drums of Passion would sell five million copies in the US alone, most of them purchased by listeners who had no previous acquaintance with what we now call "world music." In one fell swoop, the minstrelized-ethnic-music of Les Baxter, Martin Denny and the other purveyors of ersatz exotica was put out to pasture, and the real thing arrived on the scene. And the general public—mirabile dictu!—was able to tell the difference.

 Les Baxter

The story behind the story is just as fascinating. A fellowship from the Rotary Foundation allows Michael Babatunde Olatunji to leave Ajido, a fishing village in Nigeria, and come to Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1954 he moves to New York, where he starts performing with his drumming-chanting-singing-dancing ensemble. Legendary talent scout John Hammond was so impressed with what he heard that, breaking every rule of the A&R trade, he signs Olatunji to record this music, unadorned and unadulterated, for the largest label in the land.

The late Tom Terrell has insisted, with more than a little plausibility, that Drums of Passion deserves acknowledgment as the most important recording of the last century. Honestly, just fast forward a few years and see the impact. In the 1960s, John Coltrane and a host of other jazz artists begin exploring the potential of a re-Africanization of jazz music. In rock and popular music, the drums take on a new centrality and intensity. A return-to-the-roots attitude begins to permeate blues, folk music and other genres. The musical riches of the Third World increasingly show up, either in their original form or as models for imitation, on the rosters of the entertainment mega-corporations. Drums of Passion stands out as the turning point that legitimized and accelerated these processes.

This opening track, inspired by the call of a well-known conductor in Nigeria and sound of his train, is a powerful statement of this new aesthetic vision. The immediacy and intensity of this music demands the listener's attention, but one also hears a confidence and pride that expands our consciousness beyond purely musical considerations. Yes, you can put this music on as background music (as no doubt many record buyers have done over the years) but the sensibilities is combines and the passions it contains would soon be at the foreground of modern life. One of the defining qualities of African music is its insistence on integrating music-making into the fabric of day-to-day life, and this recording symbolized a similar reorientation in its new setting. That, my friends, is making more than just a hit; it's making history.

September 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Dafnis Prieto: Si O Si

Cuban-born Dafnis Prieto has established himself with fellow musicians and a growing audience as a high-energy percussive and compositional force. Ever since he settled in New York in 1999, his jagged, complex approach to the drums- a combination of Afro-Cuban folk rhythms and the poly-rhythmic punctuations of modern jazz drumming- has been a staple of the New York City jazz scene. His compositions are inexhaustibly creative utilizing a barrage of timbres, crashes, clangs and rolls and an abundance of syncopation. The energy generated from so much kinetics can elevate your heartbeat.

On the title song "Si o Si" ("Yes or Yes"), Prieto’s particular kind of choppy, stop/start motion is featured. At the intro, he lays down a repeating drum line accompanied only by bassist Flores As the scant melody line unfolds on Valera’s piano, it becomes apparent that in addition to maintaining the complex, rhythmic beat, Prieto’s drum patterns have cleverly mimicked the melody line all along. Peter Apfelbaum smoothes out the sharp edges when his sonorous tenor is heard solo and in concert with Valera’s piano.

When Valera is given room to solo, he intuitively reaches out in a more lyrical direction, a nice respite from the song’s frenetic core. But not for long: Prieto’s fusillade of sounds prods Valera until he lets loose returning you to the cardiac excitement this music generates. Ultimately Prieto closes this composition by slowing the tempo down gradually in a surprisingly restrained refrain presumably so you can catch your breath before he starts it all again.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Dafnis Prieto: Si o Si

Cuban-born Dafnis Prieto has now called New York his home for a decade, but he has more than established himself. Rather, he has emerged as one of the leading drummers of his generation, and his presence on any session assures a flexible and spirited rhythmic pulse. I especially admire his ability to play with intensity, yet avoid over-playing—a balancing act that many drummers never master. On this track, recorded live at Jazz Standard, he adapts constantly to the flow of the music, changing dynamics on a dime, or even engaging in an unconventional start-and-stop dialogue with piano or sax. Peter Apfelbaum, for his part, is also one of the most consistently creative artists on the scene, and is a true multi-instrumental threat who can move from horns to piano to drums with a frightening ease. His sax work here is exceptional, but less for its solo concept but more for its ways of interacting with the rest of the combo. The result here is a fascinating meeting point between jazz that thinks and jazz that feels. Si o Si!

September 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Tull: The Minutes Pass Like Hours When You Sing

Make no bones about it, the only thing we musicians loathe more than Karaoke is amateur wannabe singers. With wit and swing, Dave Tull illustrates just how torturous it is to have those with un-amusing amusia and rhythmical afflictions sit in and destroy the vibe. Slicing sarcasm doesn’t prevent this trio from making the track attractive. Corey Allen is a master accompanist; his fills spell sophistication. Kevin Axt and Dave lay the groove down effortlessly, displaying their usual art for subtle dynamics. Dave is a natural singer, an instinctual musician, a brilliant writer, and hilarious. How often do we get to chuckle and dig good music at the same time? There are a couple of other cunning cuts on this CD, but don’t let Dave’s flair for humor fool you, his stratum for penning and performing beautiful, sensitive ballads runs equally as deep. I foresee lots of airplay and admiration to come for Dave Tull. He might even become our new musical mascot.

August 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Rashied Ali: Theme For Captain Black

The first James Blood Ulmer record I bought came from a little record/book store in a generic strip mall (Wait, isn't that redundant?) Anyway, I had no idea what to expect. The man on the cover was playing a hollow body guitar and looked thoroughly engrossed in his task. Hey, it was in the jazz section, must be jazz, right?

Very quickly my conception of jazz began to change. That record dipped jazz in a funk steambath, the same technique used by Miles...but I didn't know that yet. Heck, I bet I hadn't even heard Kind Of Blue yet....or Coltrane! Yet despite my lack of jazz knowledge, it was obvious that this Ulmer guy had something going on. His sound was a roiling mass of barely contained energy. The funk and jazz worked with and against each other to torque up the sonic karma.

Rashied Ali knows all about torqued up music. His post-Elvin work with Coltrane is legendary. On this track it's gratifying to see Ali come full circle, revisiting material from his old Phalanx cohort, Mr. Ulmer. With horns taking the lead melodic roles (instead of the guitar), this version has more bop sensibilities than the original. My ears say the highlights are Ali's incredible, far-reaching drum solo and Lawrence Clark's busting-at-the-seams tenor solo that follows. Ali avoids (as usual) the pulse and comps his ass off underneath Clark. Beneath the squall, there's a lot of beauty — for my ears, one of the defining characteristics of free-ish jazz.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Buddy Rich: Cardin Blue

Buddy Rich presided over two jazz clubs in New York City in the early '70's, Buddy's Place and then Buddy's Place II. During this temporary hiatus period for his popular Big Band, the drummer assembled an impressive small group containing several of the most promising young musicians on the scene at that time, including Sonny Fortune, Sal Nistico, Jack Wilkins, and Kenny Barron. As seen in the cover photograph of Very Live at Buddy's Place, Rich decked them all out in white suits and contrasting gold turtlenecks, a slick uniformity obviously derived from his Big Band's requirements. The album's liner copy credited the group's "wardrobe" to Pierre Cardin, and hence the title of the track in question here, "Cardin Blue," a stylish blues performance that—unlike the said suits designed by Cardin—will never go out of fashion.

A "Funky Blues" (think the 1952 Jam Session with Charlie Parker et. al.) vibe prevails, set up by Barron's bluesy piano, Jackson's throbbing electric bass, and Rich's teasing brushes. Fortune's vibrant, pungent flute solo leads off, followed by Wilkins' unassuming, lightly reverbed electric guitar improv. Nistico's brawny, testifying tenor, shades of Gene Ammons, raises the temperature a bit before an earthy Barron statement that is very deeply ensconced in a soulful, gospel-tinged groove. Jackson's electric bass has the last word, casting a spell both tonally and in the fluidity of his lines. The soothing piano trio wind-down ending caps a performance that presents the more mellow side of what could otherwise be a quite fiery and combative Rich ensemble.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Max Roach: Effi

Roach's saxophone-trumpet front lines certainly rivaled those of Art Blakey over several decades. Max's pairings included Sonny Rollins-Clifford Brown, George Coleman-Booker Little, and Odean Pope-Cecil Bridgewater, while hornmen Hank Mobley, Stanley Turrentine, Harold Land, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, and Freddie Hubbard also performed with the drummer at various times. In the late '60's, Roach was blessed to have three "young lions" of the day in his band—Gary Bartz, Charles Tolliver, and Stanley Cowell—plus sparkplug bassist Jymie Merritt. The civil rights movement inspired much of Roach's ‘60s output, and the title track of Members, Don't Git Weary was but one example. Tolliver and Cowell would soon go on to found Strata-East Records and Collective Black Artists Inc. as part of the quest for self-determination.

Cowell is a fine composer, and "Effi" is one of his most stirring compositions, a whirling assemblage of motifs that Bartz and Tolliver either share or play separately, with Merritt and Roach providing vigorous—and in the case of Roach, sometimes thunderous—encouragement for the horns' aggressive attacks. Bartz and Tolliver also create compatibly responsive commentaries during each other's passionate, high-energy solos, and the appealing blend of their sounds is never short of outstanding. However, just as Cowell appears to be initiating a much more subdued piano solo, he and the track itself simply fade away abruptly. Thus it turns out that what we have just experienced is the storm before the calm.

July 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Ed Blackwell: Pentahouve

Blackwell rarely got to record as a leader, and the 1992 live recordings at Yoshi's that were released on two CDs—What It Is? and What It Be Like?—came just two months to the day before his death from the kidney ailment that had plagued him for so many years. Given his condition, he is heard in surprisingly good form on the track, "Pentahouve," which is reminiscent in both spirit and sound of his memorable 1969 duets with Don Cherry, Mu First Part and Mu Second Part. Cherry played both pocket trumpet and flute on those albums, and here is represented by Graham Haynes' cornet and Carlos Ward's flute.

"Pentahouve" commences with Mark Helias's bass intoning the darting staccato theme, before first Ward and Blackwell and then Haynes enter the picture. As the horns replay the intricate melody, Blackwell artfully emphasizes its rhythmic contours. As usual, the singular drummer seems to be continually combining a personal statement with reactive commentary. Cornet and flute engage in an extended dialogue, and Haynes' mellow, muted tone blends nicely with Ward's singing, joyful flute. Blackwell's vigorous unacccompanied solo follows, his mallet work imparting an African quality, while also insinuating New Orleans (his hometown) and martial beats. Best known for his essential work with Ornette Coleman and Old and New Dreams, Blackwell never failed, in any grouping or context, both to energize and enhance a performance, as he does on "Pentahouve."

June 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Chico Hamilton: Elevation

Situated near the end of an EP of mostly re-edited Hamilton tunes, “Elevation” is one performance presented on the disc not enhanced with sampling and/or club mixing. The thrill of this slower track comes not from studio wizardry but from Chico himself.

Hadro and Denigrus are the lead voices here, but it’s Hamilton’s drum work that’s the most riveting aspect. He makes excellent use of shading, timbres and accents to call attention to his drums without soloing or being…well…loud. The primary rhythm he uses is three beats and a mannerly gait on the snare to get to the next three beats. Over time, the tempo increases ever so discreetly to match the enhanced intensity of the song, but you’d never notice without going right back to the beginning of the song. Occasionally, Hamilton switches to a conventional rhythm, effortlessly melding his tom-toms in with Carlstedt’s percussion. Toward the end, he spices things up with some galloping hit-hat.

On a record meant to add dance-club appeal to Hamilton’s work, the most magic happens when the unalloyed Chico Hamilton is allowed to shine through.

June 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: D's Dilemma

Though they lacked the strong compositional and stylistic influence of departed co-founder Horace Silver and stars like Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons, the often overlooked second edition of the Jazz Messengers nevertheless contributed a plethora of hard swinging albums to the group’s catalog and helped define its lasting sound.

Blakey’s signature fills complete the fragmented but lyrical melody of "D’s Dilemma," including his patented pitch-altered triplets (the tension of the drum head manipulated by pressure from his elbow). Jackie McLean and Bill Hardman’s similarly acidic tones and pressing styles made them as complementary as any frontline in Jazz Messenger history. Even at this mid-tempo lope they both remain quite edgy — McLean with his bitter tone and slashing double-timed runs and Hardman cutting through with a metallic bite in his Harmon-muted choruses. Fans of hard bop will enjoy hearing McLean during his formative years and might be surprised by what this solid version of the Jazz Messengers has to offer.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


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