CATCHING UP WITH…Carl Allen
by Jeff Potter
The jazz great has spent the year in constant motion, spearheading multiple ensembles, including one holding special interest for drummers.
The Art of Elvin is Carl Allen’s tribute to his mentors Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. Allen created the band following a fateful day. “I remember the exact date,” he says. “It was May 18, 2004.”
That day, Allen was in his home rehearsal studio, composing a song for Jones. Routinely, he observed a strict rule to keep phones out of that space. But by chance, his cell phone was inside. It rang, Allen answered, and the caller informed him that Elvin Jones had died.
“I started to weep,” Allen recalls. “But I couldn’t stop writing; I had to get it out while it was there.” Allen promptly changed the song’s title from “Presenting Mr. Jones” to “Jonesing for Elvin.” He subsequently formed the Art of Elvin.
The band’s latest lineup features pianist Donald Vega, saxophonist Keith Loftis, trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, and bassist Yasushi Nakamura. At a recent engagement at Smoke on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Allen took the stage in a sharp-creased suit topped with a perfectly folded pocket square. The man was ready to entertain. Counting off, he landed a killer shuffle, flashed a never-flagging smile, and proceeded to set up the band through every hard-swinging chorus with his precision chops and locked-in locomotive pocket.
“When you hit the bandstand,” Allen says, “you want to be on and poppin’ from the first note. The music starts before you get on the bandstand, and even before you touch your instrument.”
By the time the intense—and seriously fun—set escalated to its climax with “Afro-Blue,” Allen was mystically channeling the spirits of his mentors. It wasn’t just the thrilling polyrhythms; Allen had summoned an awe-inspiring sound.
“I’ve always been very conscious of sound,” the drummer says. “I had a conversation with Elvin about sound and getting around the instrument. I asked, ‘What do you practice with your feet?’
Elvin said, [growling voice] ‘Same thing I do with my hands!’ But he was really talking about the importance of having a balanced sound.
“I had a life-changing moment when I was playing in Paris with Freddie [Hubbard]. On the same bill were Art and Billy Higgins. Art always used to take his owns drums. But at that time, in the mid-’80s, the European airlines were notorious for losing stuff. So we all had to play the same drums, and they were horrible.
“Art played magnificently. Higgins played and it was magical. I played and it was pathetic. [laughs] I was about twenty-two, and I had this problem: If I was upset, I thought everybody else should be upset. I’m backstage kicking chairs, throwing boxes. Art comes to me and says, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘My rider says 18″ bass drum, four cymbal stands, blah-blah-blah.’ He’s laughing. He says, ‘Let me ask you something: Do you play the drums, or do the drums play you? If you could really play, it wouldn’t matter.’ And he just walked away laughing!
“I sat there stunned, frozen. What could I say? That got me started on working on touch. The great Harold Mabern once said something so profound: ‘Your touch produces your sound, not the other way around.’” For more with Carl Allen, go to moderndrummer.com.