Jeff Hamilton: Swinging Support
by Jeff Potter
It’s purely coincidental that drum master Jeff Hamilton and tenor sax star Scott Hamilton share the same last name. But the eventual teaming of their swinging sympatico seemed destined. As early as 1979, when both artists were on Concord Records, the label yearned to arrange the pairing but it never transpired. And Jeff’s current label, Capri, has long sought the same union. “They told me, ‘By all means, just let us know if you guys are ever in the same place,’” says Jeff. “So it happened to be Bern.”
In May 2014 Jeff performed in Bern, Switzerland, at Marians Jazzroom as part of the International Jazzfestival Bern with his superb trio, featuring pianist Tamir Hendelman and bassist Christoph Luty. The program also featured guest soloists, including Scott Hamilton. The tenor/trio chemistry was instantaneous. Mutually inspired, the unit returned to the venue the following week for a “live” (sans audience) direct-to-two-track set of one-takes. The swinging, spontaneous results are heard on Scott Hamilton & Jeff Hamilton Trio: Live in Bern.
Jeff’s trio has continued to tour vigorously, including a stint on the star-studded StarVista Signature jazz cruise and a European tour that included performances in Russia and the Czech Republic. Outside his trio, he continues to co-lead the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, whose latest CD, L.A. Treasures Project, earned a Grammy nomination. He’s also been performing with Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, a big band exploring works of the late, great arranger. And October saw the release of This Happy Madness (Cellar Live), a disc by tenor saxophonist Cory Weeds featuring the Jeff Hamilton Trio as honored guests. Advertisement
In July, Jeff soaked up some summer rays and enlightened young drummers at the annual Jazz Port Townsend music camp in Washington, an event he regularly attends as guest instructor. Last year also marked the fortieth anniversary of the Monty Alexander Trio, for which Jeff reunited with the pianist for several celebratory appearances, including the Monterey Jazz Festival. In addition, he played a string of dates paying tribute to his late boss, Ray Brown, alongside pianist Larry Fuller and bassist John Clayton. Here the on-the-move drummer talks with MD Online about his new record and shares his wisdom on swing mastery.
MD: Scott Hamilton has a smooth, full-bodied, legato sound. And happily, that can be said of your playing as well. That’s not always true of drummers; many only consider the staccato nature of percussion. You’ve always been conscious of that in your sound and concept.
Jeff: Yes, I have. And I believe I didn’t have a choice because my favorite drummers always had that big sound. And I realized that I loved Gene Krupa’s showmanship and soloing the first time I saw him, but his sound is what really got to me. The big tom-tom sounds, the snare drum—it was just a huge sound. Then, when I drifted over to Buddy in my teen years—out of peer pressure—I realized that his sound wasn’t as big as Gene’s. Not to take away from Buddy, but I came to realize how important sound was to me at an early age, and I hadn’t even realized it. Advertisement
MD: I’ve previously called your playing a “singing” approach—attention to long and short notes within phrasing.
Jeff: I’ve discussed this with musicians who have said that they prefer the legato, long sound; they feel that a staccato drummer is poking them in the ribs, urging them to play—punching and jabbing instead of putting an arm around their shoulder and welcoming them into what they’re doing.
I think that this is from big band experience, but I’m a stickler about everybody phrasing the same. I heard a recent big band record and everybody was ending all over the place. Some people played shorter quarter notes than others. It seemed like the musicians had never played together before. It really does get to you when you’re conscious of that and you’ve worked with people who demand that—not to be overly obsessive about it, but just be aware of it. When it’s not there, it really sticks out; it sounds unpolished and unprofessional.
MD: And the right phrasing is essential for establishing a swinging feel.
Jeff: I’ve mentioned before that Mel [Lewis] was a huge influence. He talked to me about the concept of the drummer being a big overstuffed sofa that a band can sit on when they play. That’s always in my mind. That adds to the legato playing—think of that instead of sitting on a unicycle. Advertisement
MD: Speaking of phrasing, on the new disc you perform your own tune, “Sybille’s Day.” You carry it with the perfect great-feeling shuffle groove. Shuffles require that deep pocket, yet with a lilting forward motion. It’s one of the groove grails. What’s the secret of nailing it?
Jeff: Uh, Mel Lewis. [laughs] There’s no real secret. It’s that sofa again, yet having that snap on 2 and 4. I’ve got a pretty heavy hi-hat on 2 and 4 for a shuffle—heavier than what Mel played.
Ray Brown was always asking me for a lot of hi-hat on 2 and 4, and bringing that into the shuffle makes it pop a little more with the relaxation of the rub-a-dub feel with the other notes. Not overly so, but just adding a little bump on the 2 and 4. All the shuffles start on the floor—four beats on the bass drum and two beats on the hi-hat with your feet. And then work your way up from that. Let the stick loose, let it bounce and don’t force it. Too many people force the shuffle into making it sound good. They don’t have that sofa image. There’s still energy to it, but the energy comes from inside; it doesn’t come from your limbs. Another thing Mel said was that it’s okay to get excited about the music, but you can’t physically get excited. Advertisement
When playing swinging grooves like that, another helpful thing is to imagine dancers. Freddie Green (guitarist) told me when I was on the Basie band that he loved dancers. By the first eight bars of a tune, he’d find his couple and he would ride them all night through the dances.
There’s a lot of correlation between dance and the beat. The samba correlates exactly to the way that beat feels. Hip-hop has jerky staccato moves that relate to the music. So a shuffle is like the baddest cat out there in his zoot suit—moving across the dance floor to, say, Cab Calloway. All those images come to mind when I’m playing a shuffle.
MD: How did adding a guest soloist to your trio change the way it played?
Jeff: Both Tamir and Christoph have been accompanists for various folks over the years—Tamir especially with a lot of vocalists. They know how to stay out of the way yet contribute enough and be supportive. And they’re both nice guys. And I don’t mean to sound silly with that. But you play fair together; everybody shares, as you can hear in the music. That comes out in the music, whoever’s playing with us. Advertisement
On the jazz cruise, Houston Person was a guest and we were still the trio but we played to make him sound his best. As long as you’re thinking that way, it works. There are times when I put my left hand in my pocket—there’s no room for popping, I’d just be jamming it in there.
MD: The “nice guys” factor certainly isn’t “silly.” It’s an attitude toward the art of ensemble.
Jeff: And you play your personality.