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The WILT Archive
Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
Like too many other people, I am a very bad, wannabe drummer. I can play a bit, but have never put in the effort to take it to a more competent level (having had a few other things on my plate). Anyway, I seem to relate to drummers, and I have a keen appreciation of good ones. On my new project I've been privileged to work with two of the absolute best around today, Brian Blade and Stanton Moore. But that's another story, or rather, a story soon to be continued. In the meantime, I've been listening to this:
TONY ALLEN: Film Of Life
If you don't know Tony Allen's name, you've heard his playing if you've ever listened to Fela Kuti. Allen was Fela's drummer for fifteen years, and was almost as important in the creation of Afrobeat as Fela himself. Since then he's done a string of solo and collaborative projects. Among the former, Lagos No Shaking, from 2005, stands out. (Among the latter, Damon Albarn's The Good, The Bad And The Queen doesn't. It's an interesting album, but not for a Tony Allen fan – much of the time he's either inaudible, or not doing anything very Tony Allenish).
Nevertheless, this new album has one nice track in collaboration with Albarn (Go Back). Allen also sings on a couple of tracks himself, and though he's not a great singer, he sounds like he doesn't expect you to think he is, so his voice has a modestly appealing quality. I find it amusing and touching that the lyrics consist mainly of a recitation of his own record titles and 'thank you for listening to my music'. Maybe he's looking back or taking stock (he's about seventy now) but this is a strong, funky album, full of his trademark beats.
Allen has named two modern jazz giants, Max Roach and Art Blakey, as his biggest inspirations. It was quite a feat to combine that influence with James Brown-style funk and traditional Nigerian rhythms. If you're a rock drummer, it might strike you that Allen seems to do everything back-to-front or upside-down. But he makes total sense on his own terms. Most of us musicians feel, at least sometimes, that we're standing on the shoulders of giants, and it's hard enough to do something not too awful by comparison, let alone something original. Tony Allen is one of those rare musicians whose style is so original that it's practically a genre in itself.
SONNY ROLLINS: Saxophone Colossus
Thinking about Tony Allen's influences made me curious to listen to and compare them, and this was the first thing I thought of. Apart from being a tour de force of the tenor sax, it's one of the best-known examples of the magisterial drumming of Max Roach.
This 1956 album is a classic, recorded as Sonny Rollins was setting the jazz world on fire and being hailed as the rightful successor to Charlie Parker, who had died the year before. I'm a big Rollins fan, having seen him live three times, of which one was very good, one was a bit uninspired, and the other was astonishing, probably the most powerful performance I've ever seen by a saxophonist. Rollins is (or was, since at 85 he seems to have finally retired) such an honest musician, so dedicated to freshness and spontaneity, that you really never knew what to expect. Though I should add that when I said 'uninspired', I meant uninspired for Sonny Rollins, which isn't actually all that bad.
Back to the drummer; what made Max Roach special? Partly it's that he was one of a number of people re-thinking jazz drumming in the 1950s, so some of his ideas were new and influential at the time, and less apparent now, though a lot of young jazz drummers nowadays play like him. The whole business of playing a small, exquisitely-tuned kit, with subtlety, not loud, but sounding great, is what these days tends to set jazz drummers apart from rock drummers, and is very Roachian.
Roach's solos on Saxophone Colossus are almost as compelling as Rollins'. Every touch seems to produce beautiful ringing tones, so that he sometimes almost seems to be playing melodies. Another of his specialities is playing polyrhythmically, establishing a groove and then at the same time playing around and against it, creating the impression of two people playing at once. Listening to Roach is sometimes a bit like watching a magician. You know it's all done with great technique, really, but the effect is magic anyway, the kind of magic that makes you laugh and say 'how the hell did he do that?'
And then there's this guy:
ART BLAKEY AND THE JAZZ MESSENGERS: Buhaina's Delight
I reckon that Max Roach was a sophisticated musician who happened to play the drums - and Art Blakey was a drummer. Someone who liked to hit things and make a lot of noise. While Roach's tom-toms rang like celestial bells, Blakey's sounded like cannons. I don't mean that he was some kind of bonehead primitivist; he could play quiet, he could be subtle, he was an excellent musician. Roach had more finesse (which is not to say that he couldn't swing like hell) but whatever Blakey lacked in finesse, he made up for in drama, excitement, and the ability to inspire other musicians, something he did with his Jazz Messengers for 35 years. No other band has nurtured so many great newcomers and future superstars. I saw them while I was on tour in San Francisco in the early 80s, when they featured a dazzling unknown trumpeter who looked about 12 years old, and who would turn out to be Wynton Marsalis.
I'm not sure why I reached for this Blakey album first. I actually prefer the previous Jazz Messengers lineup, which was one of the great jazz quintets of all time, featuring a young Wayne Shorter in his first starring role, the excellent funky pianist Bobby Timmons, and the electrifying Lee Morgan on trumpet. My only problem with them is that they were almost too prolific. While every album has great tracks, I can never pick a favourite, one which totally works for me from start to finish.
As a bandleader, Blakey shared with Ellington the ability to always put an intriguing lineup together, no matter what the circumstances. In 1961, having lost both Morgan and Timmons, he managed to hold on to Shorter, hired another fiery young trumpet prodigy (Freddie Hubbard) found a very interesting pianist/composer (Cedar Walton) and for the first time expanded to a sextet with the addition of Curtis Fuller on trombone. The new lineup recorded two albums back-to-back, Mosaic and Buhaina's Delight, which for some reason was not released until 1963, though I think it's the better of the two, and – from start to finish – one of the great Messengers albums. ('Buhaina', incidentally, was Blakey's Muslim name. He was one of the first black American musicians to convert to Islam, though it didn't stop him drinking, smoking, and shooting up heroin).
The opening track, Backstage Sally, has several trademark Blakey touches. There's the groove, a medium-tempo swing which Blakey, more than any other drummer I can think of, is able to turn into something swaggering, almost menacing, rather than cool and relaxed. There's the thunderous tom-tom fill which is too loud, really, but Blakey is less interested in being tasteful than in signaling to the audience to Listen up! and to the band to Swing, you bastards! And there's the smooth-as-silk snare drum press-roll that comes out of nowhere and then is gone, like a jet plane whooshing past your head.
Blakey is subdued (yes, he could do that) on the next track, Confirmation, which is one of the most beautiful things Wayne Shorter ever wrote for the Messengers, using the three horns in a way that's almost orchestral compared to his arrangements for the previous lineup. Blakey's obligatory solo comes on a strikingly original Cedar Walton composition, Bu's Delight. If a Max Roach solo is poetry, an Art Blakey solo is melodrama. This one is a veritable percussion-opera of crescendos and diminuendos, building to a climax in which Blakey seems to be playing every part of the kit at full volume all at once. Then, at the end of the track, as the band holds the last chord, he seems to be trying to top even that; I imagine the drum kit flying apart as he plays the walls, the ceiling, the whole building. I imagine the people next door being asked to vacate the premises because there's something in there that Mr. Blakey hasn't hit yet.
Electronic drum kits, though hardly the same thing, now enable anyone to make a racket while wearing headphones and not disturbing the neighbours. Go for it, kids!