At a 1999 Birdland performance with The Dave Holland Quintet, Billy Kilson led band and audience in a rousing chorus of drum worship. Holland, one of jazz’s most celebrated bassists and composers, has played with all the innovators, from Tony and Elvin to Jack DeJohnette and Billy Higgins. So you can bet he knows a great drummer when he hears one.
At Birdland, Holland was the ringleader, grinning madly as Kilson smoked the supple music like a tornado blowing through a Kansas wheat field. With every Kilson cymbal explosion, Holland would push for more. With every Kilson round-the-kit volley, Holland would accent his bass in gleeful approval. And the crowd loved it.
Where some might have viewed that performance as sophisticated jazz gone mad with the linear rhythms and caustic dynamics of jazz-rock, Holland’s Quintet explores music that covers a wide range of influences. The same can be said for DC’s own Billy Kilson, a drummer who has played in almost every style imaginable – and who’s done so with a verifiable eloquence that would make a less creative and determined drummer more a liability than an asset. A lover of Frankie Dunlop and Elvin as well as Lenny White and Steve Gadd, Kilson’s drumming lies at the intersection where hard bop and jazz-rock cross paths.
On first listen, whether it’s Dave Holland’s Not For Nothin’, Tim Hagans’ Animation Imagination, or Bob James’ Joined At The Hip, Kilson sounds like he’s coming directly from the old schools of Billy Cobham, Lenny White, or even Eric Gravatt. His linear sticking and ambidextrous technique enable him to be everywhere at once: keeping the groove pliant and exciting, chasing down tenor sax man Chris Potter’s serpentine solos, and commenting at every turn with Chambers-esque blinding cymbal flurries and tom-smashing squalls.
But as you delve deeper, you hear Kilson also swinging with a deft touch and playing with a rare grace. He conjures up African rhythms that are lithe and subtle. With Hagans, Kilson storms over drum ‘n’ bass and avant-rock grooves with scorching intensity. He can be found playing standards and originals with underrated pianist/composer Donald Brown. Then you’ll find him playing R&B with Diane Reeves and Freddie Jackson, and smooth jazz with Bob James and Kirk Whalum. And through it all, Kilson maintains a swinging dance-like quality that makes his drumming a treat for players and listeners alike.
A versatile drummer whose BK Groove solo album reveals his own compositions and programming, thirty-nine-year-old Kilson is also one of the more determined and persevering musicians this journalist has met. Picking up the drums late – at the age of sixteen – Kilson packed more practice time into twelve years than most of us could muster in twenty.
While he studied with mentor Alan Dawson, played weddings, worked at a phone company, and kept books for a beauty salon, Kilson would not be deterred from his dreams. Not only did he succeed (though he maintains he is a work in progress), Kilson’s drumming and career continue to blossom.
MD: Your drumming on Dave Holland’s records and in concert is powerful and fast, yet also very graceful. You have a dance-like quality in your playing as well. You stop and start on a dime, and you seem so in control at all times. What’s the key?
Billy: I think the key is having the control. For me that comes from studying with Alan Dawson and working with Stick Control. The physical part of it is having a good grasp of the rudiments. The mental side of it is having confidence. Not that I’m not nervous now, but I have more confidence than when I first began working with Dave Holland. That’s why it’s perceived that I’m able to stop on a so-called dime. But Dave has allowed me to have so much freedom; if I make a mistake it’s cool with him and the other guys. That gives me a lot of confidence.
MD: Integrating what you play within the music must take a lot of confidence.
Billy: Absolutely. I have this mental Rolodex I keep in my head, this file of many drummers that I’ve done so much homework on. There’s a lot more work to do, but I use it instantaneously. If someone is soloing in a certain style, I’ll try to adapt to that style with the most authenticity I can muster. If Dave or Chris Potter change their style in the middle of a solo, I will respond. Sometimes within one phrase our vibraphonist Steve Nelson will refer to Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, or Roy Ayers, so I’ll be running through my Rolodex of drummers who played with those guys.
MD: What types of things do you take from these different drummers?
Billy: When I listen to drummers, I don’t pay much attention to how they solo. I’m more interested in why they’ve responded in a certain way. I learned drummers’ solos because I loved how they responded to the band. A drum solo record would probably turn me off; I would probably rather listen to a duet or a drummer in an orchestra. I want to hear how the drummer is reacting.
MD: Who are some of those drummers?
Billy: From Baby Dodds to Steve Gadd. No kidding, I have at least three CDs featuring each drummer that’s played within that period. I went to Berklee, and afterwards I spent a lot of time practicing. But I also worked at the phone company for a long time. I used to be bitter about it, but I’m not any more because I realize that I put that time to good use. I spent all of my free time honing my skills, building my library of music, listening to drummers, and just doing my homework.