Among the most profound musical developments of the millennium is the melding of jazz and hip-hop, and this drummer is at its absolute epicenter.
While he seemingly worked both ends of the spectrum for years—and think about the spectacular talent it takes to kill it with jazz legends like Betty Carter and Ray Brown and hip-hop groundbreakers like Common and J Dilla—in reality he’s been fusing the two rhythmic worlds at the kit and in the production studio since the beginning. Now with August Greene, a nearly clairvoyant coming together of modern-music superstars, his work has achieved new heights of widespread creativity.
Drummer/producer Karriem Riggins is a speeding comet blazing across the hip-hop cosmos. Insiders have known about him for years, as the Detroit native is responsible for some of the most stellar hip-hop beats this side of the legendary J Dilla. In actual fact, Riggins collaborated with Dilla as a member of influential ’90s hip-hop trio Slum Village, and contributed to his solo albums. The phenomenally influential beat explorer had a profound effect on Riggins’ aesthetic, but to be sure, the drummer fed Dilla’s imagination as well. Modern hip-hop is better for their teamwork.
Sadly, Dilla passed in 2006, but Riggins, who’d already racked up playing and production credits like Daft Punk and the Roots, continued to elevate the work of prominent acts with his artistry. His beats—which in hip-hop parlance translates to a track’s overall production, not simply its drumbeat—have provided the rhythmic bedrock for seven of rap star Common’s albums, as well as recordings by Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Madlib, and Talib Kweli. He’s also released two full-length albums as a leader, 2012’s Alone Together and 2017’s Headnod Suite.
Lately Riggins has been turning heads as a member of the supergroup August Greene, which includes Common and keyboardist Robert Glasper. August Greene’s self-titled debut album features populist hip-hop vehicles as well as some very sophisticated rhythmic perambulations involving odd meters, Brazilian rhythms, daring sleights of hand, and, notably, an absence of samples. Recent performances on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series affirmed Riggins’ deep soul groove and profuse production skills. The three principal stars of the collective have all enthusiastically expressed their desire to continue exploring the unique bond they’ve developed.
August Greene’s deranged beat stew includes the stumbling yet earth-gripping groove of “Black Kennedy,” the time-shifting glee of “Aya,” and the get-outta- town, snare-drum-jabbing, Brazilian-beat-infused “No Apologies.” Beyond his production brains, Riggins’ role in August Greene is one of a daring beat futurist, the soft- spoken drummer laying down live drum beats (with no editing) that alter common hip-hop perceptions.
The forty-three-year-old Emmy Award winner’s alter ego as a swinging powerhouse of a drummer is as impressive as his hip-hop work. Riggins currently performs as a member of superstar jazz vocalist Diana Krall’s trio; past jazz employers include Betty Carter, Mulgrew Miller, Eric Reed, Theo Croker, Ray Brown, Orrin Evans, Roy Hargrove, and Kandace Springs, whose latest record Riggins also produced. The drummer even appeared on Paul McCartney’s 2012 album of jazz and pop covers, Kisses on the Bottom.
Though most of Riggins’ appearances on YouTube reflect his hip-hop work, a performance he did with trumpeter Roy Hargrove in front of a German audience in 1996 provides a particularly clear example of his jazz skills. Posted by MikeBuddy1, the clip shows Hargrove’s group playing “La Costa De La Cuba” by Charles Craig, a simmering medium-fast straight-ahead piece. At the 5:12 mark Riggins cuts loose with Philly Joe Jones– styled snare drum fusillades; his snare technique is beautiful, nearly flawless. A brief Elvin Jones–inspired hi-hat bash morphs into classic stick-on-stick rolls, then cymbal dead-sticking, followed by burning snare/ tom/bass drum combinations. The solo is over barely a minute later, but in that short time Riggins has succinctly laid out the history of jazz drumming with swift aplomb.
And Riggins has hardly left jazz behind; as busy as a man with a hundred limbs, as this interview was being conducted he was producing the Warner Bros. debut of drummer Gregory Hutchinson—a major mentor—as well as bassist Rodney Whitaker’s latest. In reality, though, Riggins’ artistry isn’t a one-or-the-other thing; the influence of classic jazz drummers informs his R&B work, and his jazz playing is as contemporary as the most forward-looking hip-hop productions. We began our discussion by exploring how both strains of American music are manifested in his art.
MD: You’re very successful working in two distinct music idioms. You’ve said that swing is the style that links everything together.
Karriem: A lot of the different things that I do, the different genres that connect in my work, all have the element of swing, which is the syncopation. Some call it funk, but it all brings it together and makes it soulful.
MD: You’re one of the very few drummers who can legitimately play both hip-hop and jazz. How do you do that?
Karriem: It’s just the way I was raised. I was given the freedom to listen to everything that I love. My mom listened to a lot of gospel and soul music. My dad, Emmanuel Riggins [a regular with guitarist Grant Green], was a jazz musician who played piano. So I heard him live and heard all the records in his collection, as well as classical music. I heard a lot of Chopin and Beethoven. Hearing all of those things kind of fused things together, along with the music of our generation, hip-hop. My first rap 45 was the Fat Boys’“Stick ’Em” in 1984.
MD: It seems that with the advent of Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Lamar, and Robert Glasper, genres are merging. You’ve said that some kids now hear jazz and hip-hop as the same.
Karriem: Artists like Kendrick have put a lot of the younger generation on to jazz; a lot of the younger generation had no clue what jazz is. We’ve been doing this since I moved to New York. There was never a lane where you could do both. It was either/or. I have a fanbase in hip-hop and one in jazz, and they never really linked until a lot of these things started to come together, these artists brought it together.
MD: Does the average August Greene fan know you’ve played straight-ahead jazz as well?
Karriem: Yes. Before, there would be fans who just knew me from playing with Diana Krall and had no idea that I produced and played with Common, Kanye West, and a lot of other artists. Artists such as Kamasi Washington, who are bridging that gap and bringing that light to it—they’re great representatives of what’s going on. I really dig what Kamasi is doing. We’re in good hands.
MD: Do you have more recording credits as a jazz drummer or as a hip-hop producer?
Karriem: I’ve never added them up, but it could be that I have more credits on the production side, seeing as I’ve done some full projects. I’m just honored to have played with the artists that I’ve played with, especially making those records with Ray Brown. My first record with him included Oscar Peterson and Milt Jackson. That was schooling just to learn Ray’s conception of trio. That opened me up to a lot of different things and made it easy for me to interpret a lot of different jazz songs. Art Blakey and Elvin Jones were great interpreters. When I joined Ray Brown’s trio, that helped me to learn from that perspective of how to play.
MD: You’ve worked with the absolute masters of jazz.
Karriem: It’s just sad that a lot of the records I’ve recorded, the labels have folded and you can’t even find them online. Even some of the Ray Brown records. He was on Telarc, which is gone, and the Mulgrew Miller records I recorded are out of print.
August Greene MD: There are no samples on the August Greene album, so are all of your drum grooves live, start to finish?
Karriem: Yes, start to finish. That’s actually what I’m working on today. We’re starting a new record. I tracked drums for a day. A lot of this music we build from the drums—I’d say 80 percent—and then we write around that. So today I was just recording a lot of different ideas. But I have more of a method now. I’ll record and pull from all of the great ideas and put them in a song mode, so when Robert and Common come in, they can start to build from those ideas. That’s pretty much how all the August Greene songs have been constructed.
MD: So you might create a 16th-note pocket or a Brazilian rhythm or an odd funk groove…?
Karriem: Yes, different rhythms that I hear in my head. Usually the guys come in a little later. After I’m there for a couple hours, they start to hear melodies from that, but initially it’s all drums, no melodies or anything. It’s just stripped-down grooves. Some of them are hip-hop grooves, some are quirky offbeat patterns—so many different ideas. My brain starts spinning when they come in.
MD: What’s the meter in “No Apologies”?
Karriem: It’s kind of a subdivided eight. I was playing it swung. I was actually going to another idea and they heard that as I was trying to skip past it, and they said, “Wait, go back to that.” There’s a heavy funk element in that one, more so than on the other stuff.
MD: “Aya” has a great pocket. Can you tell me the evolution of that track?
Karriem: That was built from a jam session that we had at Electric Lady. Robert came with that, and I had to learn the time signature. It took me a few takes to get it, but once I did, that was that. [The rhythm is a bar of four, two bars of five, and a bar of four.] That’s the thing…a lot of this stuff came so easy with these guys. The reason we formed this collective was because the music is effortless. It’s almost like we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s like God is working through us. The songs just come, and we hear it back and it’s like…wow…some of my favorite work is collaborating with these guys.
Staggered Time Beat-Stutters
MD: When you stagger the time within the beat, is that the J Dilla influence?
Karriem: A lot of Dilla, but also a lot of Elvin Jones. Elvin deserves a lot of credit for the way we hear music. There are so many different nuances and so much syncopation in his playing, and that influenced Dilla. Dilla found what some would call the flaw or mistake, and made it the song. A lot of people criticized Elvin Jones, some considered his playing sloppy. But it’s really funky. Dilla played off those types of things—he would recreate them on a machine. What Elvin and Dilla did definitely influenced my drumming. Dilla took it to another level, where a backbeat was involved.
MD: You stagger the time in “Black Kennedy” and “Let Go” from the August Greene album. It’s like the drum pattern is in time, but within the bar, segments are off time. How would you teach that?
Karriem: A lot of that is retraining the way you play. It’s a different independence. We learn how to play with the independence that we have to play straight. Some drummers try to play everything lined up with the metronome. But think of it in a sense where every limb is doing something different, like your snare drum is behind the beat, your hi-hat is on the beat, and the bass drum floats in between the two. Those are things that have to be practiced. Independence is very important in achieving that.
MD: Would you practice that against a metronome?
Karriem: Repeatedly think about and practice it. It’s not something that I can explain physically how to do, but it’s definitely something that happens over time. If you can think it, you can do it. If you can understand it, you can do it.
MD: I’ve read that back in Detroit you and J Dilla would trade ideas. He might ask you for a CD-R full of drumbeats. Would he then take those beats and stagger the rhythms?
Karriem: Dilla was a mystery man. One idea would give him another idea that would be totally different. We made each other mix CDs of music, and I would record drums and just different ideas that we would trade. If he really wanted a rhythm [performed], he would have me come in. He would never tell me what to play; he’d say, “Give me something similar to this tempo.”
MD: You played on his records Welcome 2 Detroit, The Diary, and The Shining, correct?
Karriem: Yes, I produced and played on the track “Drive Me Wild” from The Diary, and on Welcome 2 Detroit I produced and played on “The Clapper” and played on “Rico Suave Bossa Nova.”
MD: Who’s playing on “African Rhythms” from Welcome 2 Detroit?
Karriem: That’s Dilla playing drums.
MD: Kaytranada’s “Bus Ride” from 99.9% is mad.
Karriem: That was a great one. I’m playing off the triplet there. That’s a heavy triplet. He sent me a loop and I just came up with some different ideas, and the triplet worked. He sent me the loop and we tracked it the next day. That was our first collaboration; we have a few more in the can that we’re going to release soon.
Welcome to Detroit
MD: Coming up, did you study the usual books, Ted Reed’s Syncopation and the like?
Karriem: I did, and some of Charley Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos, and Alan Dawson’s book, all in middle school.
MD: Your first professional gig was with Betty Carter.
Karriem: Betty Bebop Carter was amazing to me. Greg Hutchinson, who’s the reason for so many of these great gigs that I got to play on, heard me in high school and then introduced me to Betty in 1994. She brought me into her Jazz Ahead program. We did two shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and one at the Apollo. I moved to New York with the money that I made from that show. We made like $3,000.
MD: Then what happened?
Karriem: I began playing gigs and recorded with Stephen Scott, did a few shows with Vanessa Rubin, and then I landed the gig with Mulgrew Miller’s trio from 1994 until about ’96. I joined Roy Hargrove’s band at the same time. I met Dilla in ’96, and I began working with Slum Village in ’97.
MD: Were you a jazz drummer before you dabbled in hip-hop and R&B, or were they happening concurrently?
Karriem: No, everything was exactly as it is now, simultaneously kind of brewing. Some of the first rhythms that I played on the drums were those old-school rap rhythms.
MD: There must have been a time when you were heavily shedding jazz and rudiments and learning all the swing dudes, though.
Karriem: Definitely. I was practicing all of those things in band in elementary school and in middle school, but during any break we’d start going into hip-hop rhythms. The influence of jazz and being under the tutelage of my dad and [Detroit jazz legend] Marcus Belgrave, they taught me the work ethic and the importance of technique and the language of bebop and all those things at a young age.
MD: You had legit training?
Karriem: Yes, in school marching band. I was privileged to hear live jazz shows when cats came into town. In Detroit we have one of the greatest jazz festivals, the Montreux Jazz Festival. It was affiliated with the actual Montreux Jazz Festival. I got a chance to hear all my favorite drummers, from Elvin Jones to Roy Haynes. Then I hooked up with Greg Hutchinson when I was fifteen, and that really set me straight. He helped in what I needed to check out, and he’s been a great inspiration and gave me a lot of direction. He was playing with Roy Hargrove at the time. I’m producing Greg’s new record on Warner Bros. Incredible record. His drumming is ridiculous. This shows his other side.
MD: When did you first start playing the drums?
Karriem: I was two when I began playing rhythms. Marcus Belgrave left a set of drums at our house, because when he would go on tour people kept breaking into his house to steal his instruments.
MD: So when you became serious on the drums, what you did focus on?
Karriem: I became serious in fourth or fifth grade. My dad made me practice a lot of rudiments, because that influences what we play in jazz solos. I learned how to play melodies through the rudiments; that was heavy focus in those years.
MD: What do you mean playing “melodies through the rudiments”?
Karriem: I would learn to play a bebop melody, like “Au Privave,” and then I’d learn how to play it while playing triplets, for example. So I’d be playing regular triplets, the rudiment triplets, and try to find the rhythm of the melody in the triplets and accent those. Then I’d work on Swiss Army triplets and flam rudiments, and a lot of different things like that.
MD: So you’d be playing the form of the song through rudiments?
MD: You are a master drummer. What skills were hard for you to learn?
Karriem: I don’t consider myself a master. I feel that I’m still on the quest. Being around Ray Brown and a lot of those guys taught me to be a humble student. I don’t feel like I’ve mastered anything. I’m definitely on a quest to find the truth. But, I guess the basic swing beat came easy.
MD: You grew up with it in your family.
Karriem: I did. But Greg Hutchinson really pulled my coattails when he came to Detroit, and we started to connect. Because a lot of things I was doing sounded right, but I was physically doing them wrong. Greg helped me kind of get the whole thing together. I started off as a lefty, and then I switched way late in the game, in the eighth grade.
MD: Do you still write as a lefty?
Karriem: No. I switched everything. I would go to jam sessions and cats would say, “Aw, here he comes, the lefty—we have to switch the set around.” So I decided to change.
MD: Does that help your hand-to-hand facility?
Karriem: Sometimes I go in the studio, and I’ll play the opposite way, and it definitely challenges me to play something different, which is cool.
MD: Was your second solo album, The Headnod Suite, entirely programmed?
Karriem: It’s a mixture. I just used everything that I loved, from playing to programming. Some of it is just loops of my ideas I played on the keyboard—interludes, things like that. The Headnod Suite was for music lovers in general. As a producer I try not to make everything drum heavy. That will just speak to one audience. I try to use a lot of different things that will pull everyone and capture their attention.
MD: I read that you’re using Ableton Live and Native Instruments’ Maschine for beats. Is there other gear you rely on when you’re making beats?
Karriem: I use Sensory Percussion by Sunhouse. It records all your MIDI information from the drums. In a lot of stuff that I’ve been doing I’ve been getting away from actual programming; it’s more hands- on with me playing these rhythms live. This is all straight from the set, but it [creates] MIDI information from exactly what I played on the set. I can put any sound on those rhythms.
MD: Are we hearing any of that on the August Greene record?
Karriem: You will on this next one that we’re working on now. The first record is all live sounds from the drums. On the next one I’m fusing more of a sound library on to some of the songs.
MD: Kendrick Scott did a great track using Sensory Percussion, “Philando.”
Karriem: I don’t have many super-favorite drummers of this generation. But Kendrick is one of them, and Marcus Gilmore and Gregory Hutchinson. Damion Reid. There are some great drummers doing great things right now. Corey Fonville with Butcher Brown and Christian Scott. And Chris Dave and Questlove—two beasts!
MD: What does the Sensory Percussion gear help you achieve?
Karriem: It allows me to play my instrument and it records every little nuance that I play. You can play something really light like a ghost note—it picks everything up. A lot of that stuff won’t translate on an actual drum machine, and it takes a lot of skill to program it on the pad. Sensory Percussion allows me to cut my workflow in half and knock that out and move on to the next thing. It’s a genius program.
From Elvin Jones to J Dilla
MD: In the jazz pantheon, who are the drummers that you really love, the drummers who had the biggest influence on you?
Karriem: Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Tony Williams. Roy Haynes. I really loved a drummer who played on some Paul Chambers records, Lex Humphries. I really like the simplicity in his playing, and his strong ride cymbal quarter notes. I really got into him because a lot of the things that I’ve done with singers and playing with large ensembles, sometimes it’s about the simplicity in the music. So I got a lot from listening to Lex Humphries. Of course, Pistol Allen, who played on a lot of Motown records. And John “Jabo” Starks.
MD: Which Slum Village records were you involved with?
Karriem: Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 1 and Fantastic, Vol. 2. I produced four songs on Trinity (Past, Present and Future). That was around the time Dilla was working on Welcome 2 Detroit and The Diary, which was in the can until it came out in 2016.
MD: How do you think Dilla influenced you as a drummer?
Karriem: Well, just his producer’s mind. He taught me to play with that producer’s ear, to listen to song structure. I learned from Common as well. I learned what a rapper, another musician, or a listener would want from a producer.
MD: Can you suggest the J Dilla tracks that show his beat innovations?
Karriem: Sure. Q-Tip’s “Breathe and Stop” and “Let’s Ride”; Busta Rhymes’“So Hardcore” and “Turn Me Up Some”; J Dilla’s “Come Get It” and “That Shit”; Slum Village’s “Get It Together” and “Jealousy”; Spacek’s “Eve (Jay Dee mix)”; and Common’s “The Movement.” There are others as well. His stuff was incredible. He knew how to mix and how to get the right tones out of every instrument; that comes from studying records. I applaud him for bringing that to the younger generation of producers who are doing the same now. They hear those different nuances.
MD: Was J Dilla a fan of Elvin Jones?
Karriem: Definitely, Philly Joe Jones and Elvin. I went through his record collection. I found a lot of Elvin records, a lot of Philly Joe Jones with various artists, and Art Blakey. And a lot of Dilla’s one-shot drum sounds will be from a Philly Joe solo. It’s a snare drum, and you think it may be Clyde Stubblefield, but it’s Philly Joe Jones playing a stick on a stick or a rimshot.
MD: Do you have a warm-up routine or go- to chops builders?
Karriem: My warm-up routine consists of alternating five-, seven- and nine-stroke rolls, very slowly building speed. As far as chop-building techniques, it helps me to play flammed mills and Swiss Army triplets on a pillow.
MD: How does your mindset change when switching between hip-hop and jazz drumming?
Karriem: My playing attitude about hip-hop is less is more. I play trashy Zildjian cymbals, which leave room for other frequencies. And I’ll use Vic Firth 5A sticks when playing hip-hop.
Jazz is playing with an open mind to accompany and/or drive anything that’s happening. Possibilities are endless, so awareness is very important to me. Listen to what’s going on. I tend to play lighter sticks when playing jazz because it gets a nice cymbal sound. I use the Vic Firth AS8D sticks and the Heritage brushes.
Q-Tip “Breathe and Stop,” “Let’s Ride” /// Busta Rhymes “So Hardcore” /// J Dilla “Come Get It” /// A Tribe Called Quest “Word Play” /// Slum Village “Jealousy” /// Busta Rhymes “Turn Me Up Some” /// Spacek “Eve (Jay Dee mix)” /// Common “The Movement” /// Slum Village “Get It Together” /// Rodney Whitaker upcoming album
MD: How do you maintain your technique?
Karriem: I try to shed for two to three hours a day in the morning when I get up, just making sure that my limbs are even— and working on independence daily is a necessity. You can lose independence, so I practice different things on each limb, even if I’m not at a drumset—just sitting there and tapping my foot and tapping rhythms out.
The Producer’s Mind
MD: You’re producing the next Greg Hutchinson record, and you produced the recent Kandace Springs record, Indigo.
Karriem: Yes. That was more about organizing and reconstructing her songs. Some of the songs were in demo form and some were without any instrumentation. Some of the music is performed by live players I brought in, and some of it was produced with Ableton Live.
MD: You have a working studio in Van Nuys, California.
Karriem: It’s pretty much my laboratory. I do everything here. I have a lot of records, and they’re all here, and all my drums and drum machines. I have an SSL desk and a collection of microphones. I’m still building it, but the room is complete. Some of the Kandace Springs and August Greene was tracked at my studio. I called it Rhythm Estate. I’ve been in L.A. for a while, but this is the first time that I can be creative in a place that I really dig.
MD: What’s the challenge of playing with Diana Krall?
Karriem: Early on, because I’d been playing with Ray Brown and Roy Hargrove, there was a sensitivity that I didn’t have in my playing. So that was challenging when I first started with her, learning how to play with a singer—and how she’s not just a singer. She’s a great musician. I learned so many different tunes and ways to play different genres. She doesn’t just play jazz—we even do bluegrass. It challenged me to listen and learn what’s going on in some of her songs. So working with her opens me up.
MD: Is Diana Krall still one of your main gigs?
Karriem: I do a lot of touring with her; whenever she’s touring I’m there. Between Diana and August Greene now picking up, I have zero time for a lot of other things.
MD: What are your drumming goals?
Karriem: I want to get to the point where I have enough time in both worlds where if I have to go and play drums, I don’t have to work so hard to get my chops back. It’s one thing practicing rudiments every day and making sure your wrists are warmed up for a gig. But it’s another thing when you’re on stage; it’s physically different. So I just want to have the strength and ability to do everything that I love to do equally. That’s the only goal, because I’m learning in both worlds. I’m pulling from the jazz rhythms and everything I’ve learned on the drums and incorporating that into my production, and vice versa. Everything is feeding everything else.
Drums: Ludwig Legacy Mahogany Aged Onyx
A. 5×14 Black Beauty snare (model LB416)
B. 8×12 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 18×22 bass drum
1. 16″ Prototype hi-hats
2. 20″ K Kerope ride
3. 20″ K Kerope ride with one rivet
4. 20″ K Flat ride
5. 19″ K Custom Hybrid Trash Smash
Sticks: Vic Firth AS8D sticks, 5A Dual-Tone mallets, Heritage brushes
Heads: Remo Ambassador Coated batters and resonants
Electronics: Sunhouse Sensory Percussion
Riggins’ on His Top-Ten Jazz Influences
Art Blakey Caravan (Art Blakey) I loved the way Blakey played as a leader and how he commanded the drums on this record, especially on “Thermo” and “Sweet ‘n’ Sour.” He’s just a great interpreter. Blakey would bring these songs in and make them his. For a second Art Blakey choice, I would go with Moanin’.
Headhunters Thrust (Mike Clark) Mike Clark is one of my favorite drummers. Pocket! He’s just an incredible drummer. The pocket between him and bassist Paul Jackson…amazing. That’s the funk sound that I heard in my head when I was young—the sound was Mike Clark. “Actual Proof” and “Butterfly” are two of my favorites on this album. Because Mike and Paul are really tight friends, it shows in their playing. You can hear it when musicians hang out together and are one, like family. It’s like when you really learn someone’s playing, you almost know what they’re going to play next. Mike and Paul’s intuition—it’s magical. When I first heard Mike play straight-ahead, I actually thought it was Tony Williams. He has a great straight-ahead approach.
Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley
Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (Louis Hayes) Louis Hayes provides another example of how to accompany a singer. It’s important for drummers to know how to do that. There’s a certain simplicity that’s involved, and I know Miles Davis talked about it a lot, like drummers playing “quiet fire.” Louis is one of those drummers that had intensity without volume; you just feel the groove. You feel the intensity.
Roy Haynes, Phineas Newborn, Paul Chambers We Three (Roy Haynes) Phineas Newborn, Paul Chambers, and Roy are playing their butts off on this record. Roy is just a beast. It’s one of the only records I’ve heard with him and Paul Chambers, and they had such a great bass-drums hookup. They’re pulse players playing the beat and super in the [pocket]. This is up there with Roy’s Out of the Afternoon, because this is early Roy, and you can hear how he evolved. And with Phineas being a virtuoso pianist who’s playing all over the piano, this record gives you a lesson on how to play with someone who plays a lot on their instrument. Phineas plays so much that there’s not a lot of room to say anything on another instrument other than to just groove. Though when Roy took his solos, he killed it.
Tommy Flanagan Overseas (Elvin Jones) This is young Elvin, and not that he was copying or emulating, but you can hear the influence of Max Roach. Elvin plays brushes on the whole record, and it’s just very tasteful. I feel like brushes is a lost art form now. Overseas was an important record for me, for learning syncopation and the language of brush technique. I would confuse Elvin with Max Roach. And then I heard from a lot of the drummers that I grew up around in Detroit, like Lawrence Williams, that Elvin was heavily into Max when he was a young kid. You can still hear that Elvin influence of the triplets and his personal taste, but you can also hear some of the language of Max Roach. Max is such a pioneer of the bebop sound.
Grant Green Matador (Elvin Jones) This record gave me that classic Elvin Jones feeling. This is a simpler Elvin Jones recording, because he’s right in the groove, and he and bassist Bob Cranshaw have a great connection between them and with the guitar and piano. Elvin also plays on Grant Green’s Solid, Street of Dreams, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Talkin’ About! Solid is another one of my favorites. But on Matador he’s doing his Elvin groove.
Wayne Shorter Night Dreamer (Elvin Jones) This is an incredible record. “Oriental Folk Song” touched me. There are certain melodies that can make you emotional, and that one definitely stood out. I learned all these records when I was in high school. It’s hard to describe the feeling that I got from hearing Elvin’s connection with [bassist] Reggie Workman on there. I feel that the pocket that Elvin had on Night Dreamer with Reggie was right in the middle of the beat, and he just drove straight through it. It’s just wide open, with not too much space in his ride cymbal, but it’s just so killing. Speak No Evil is also great.
Philly Joe Jones Showcase (Philly Joe Jones) Showcase was the first Philly Joe record that I discovered where he was really speaking. You can hear the drumheads on the record, and it’s like he would play, and you heard the melody. That’s the first record that taught me about playing the melody on the drums. When I joined Ray Brown’s trio, he was big on drummers playing the melody, and that record helped me to understand that philosophy.
Miles Davis Nefertiti (Tony Williams) When Tony came in, he became a great interpreter of Wayne Shorter’s music. I really studied “Fall” when I was in high school. I would have that song on repeat all day. That was like the soundtrack of my life. I wouldn’t literally transcribe the drums, but I would make mental notes of certain ways that Tony would approach that song. It’s incredible the way they play the melody. There are no solos—they play the melody throughout the song—and the way Tony accompanied that melody was incredible.
Nat King Cole After Midnight (Lee Young) Lee Young was a great drummer. I was introduced to his playing through Ray Brown. Ray hooked me up with my first music attorney, who was Lee Young’s son. So that’s when I discovered Lee and listened to all the After Midnight sessions. Very tasteful, very pocket-oriented. I became a fan from this record alone. The brush technique that he used was just flawless. Great pocket with the brushes.