At the very end of last year the drumming world said its final goodbyes to the influential jazz-rock drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Although he was not quite as recognizable among the wider drumming audience as pioneering players such as Billy Cobham and Lenny White, Mouzon was highly regarded by hardcore followers of fusion drumming. To some, in fact, his name was synonymous with a powerful yet intricate approach to the drumset that still informs contemporary players, from Living Colour’s Will Calhoun to Animals as Leaders’ Matt Garstka to Snarky Puppy’s Robert Searight, Larnell Lewis, and Jason Thomas. And, to be sure, his influence extends beyond the fusion genre, leading even country-rock drummers like Rich Redmond to offer props. “Whether serving as a featured sideman with the likes of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, or leading his own jazz-rock-fused solo projects,” the Jason Aldean drummer says, “Alphonse could do it all, with fire, spirit, swagger, and originality.”
Upon his passing, Modern Drummer compiled a playlist of some of Mouzon’s greatest recordings and posted an interview he did with the magazine back in 1979; both are accessible at moderndrummer.com. For this piece, we contacted several members of our Pro Panel—each a fusion drumming star in his own right—to get their take on Mouzon’s contribution to our art.
When the first Weather Report album was released in 1971, all of us who heard it were awestruck and mesmerized by the mixture of unheard-of sounds and genres—those forward-looking avant-garde sensibilities coupled with R&B grooves that seamlessly morphed into post-Miles jazz beats (if it has to be put into words; I find it as impossible a task now as when I first played the LP on my stereo). All that the album’s liner notes would tell me about Alphonse Mouzon was that he had played with Chubby Checker (among others). Who was this guy?
It turns out that Mouzon’s jazz pedigree was firmly in place by the time he made that album with Miroslav Vitous, Airto Moreira, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter. And though his tenure with the band was not as long as it might have been, he alone established the direction that the band would follow, and set the bar for hipness that has yet to be bested. Alphonse Mouzon showed us the way. I can think of no higher accolade, and I will always be grateful for his drumming greatness.
Alphonse was a driving force in the music world. Finesse, power, technique, and assertiveness were a few of his traits as a musician. He has, directly or indirectly, influenced an unbelievable number of drummers. His absence has left a big void in our community. Rest in peace, brother.
Alphonse Mouzon was very influential to my concept, and important to me in my formative years. I first heard Alphonse in the early ’70s on the McCoy Tyner albums Sahara, Song for My Lady, and Enlightenment, and I loved the way he played jazz with the new jazz-rock intensity that was the vanguard of jazz at that time. His cymbal setup looked extremely cool and interesting to me, so I set up my two ride cymbals the way he did, up high, at a 90-degree angle.
The first Weather Report album was very important in my world, especially as a young student at the Berklee College of Music. I first saw Alphonse in 1973 at the Jazz Workshop in Boston with Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, and his playing had changed into the new style of fusion modeled after Billy Cobham, with the large kit and over-the-top aggressive super-chops, along with a deep funk pocket. I went up close to check his setup and noticed he had cut off the tips of his sticks and was playing only with the butt ends!
I had Alphonse’s Blue Note solo albums, which were as hip for the covers and his stylish mode of dress as they were for the burning music, especially the album with Tommy Bolin, Mind Transplant. Thank you, Alphonse Mouzon, for your inspirational life and career in music.
I first saw Alphonse with the McCoy Tyner Quartet at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago around the time of McCoy’s Sahara recording, and I sat right in front of him, which was an experience I’ll never forget. His power, speed, intensity (and volume!) were like a force of nature. It was so impressive that you could just listen to him alone and be completely mesmerized. His drumming on the song “Ebony Queen” from Sahara is something I play for my students to this day, as well as Weather Report’s debut album, the Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House recordings, the Mangelsdorff/Pastorius/Mouzon Trilogue—Live! recording, and his own recordings, like The Essence of Mystery. His untimely death is another irreplaceable loss in a year that was so sad for music. If anything, hopefully, because of the attention his passing is getting, new generations of players will realize who he was and how great he was, and will be inspired by his musical brilliance.
The ’70s was an amazing time to be a young, aspiring musician, as the world of fusion made its mark on the musical landscape. I remember hearing the Mahavishnu Orchestra for the first time, a life-changing moment that sent me off and running on that jazz-rock fusion path. It was not long after hearing Mahavishnu that I heard Alphonse Mouzon playing with Larry Coryell. The reaction was similar: Here was another amazing drummer combining the technical and rhythmic sophistication of jazz with the sheer, raw power of rock. Alphonse was a consummate musician whose legacy will live on forever, and whose drumming will continue to inspire countless drummers through his vast discography. Rest in peace, Alphonse.
Another drum legend has left us. Alphonse Mouzon was one of those players that people are influenced by, whether they know it or not. Because even when they didn’t check him out directly, they were influenced by drummers and musicians who Mouzon had an impact on. Fortunately, when a musician of that caliber leaves us, his contribution in music doesn’t.
A sad loss like this should make us more aware of how much great music is out there and, at the same time, how many legends are still among us that we can benefit greatly from by taking the time to enjoy and honor. Maybe we can buy albums and pay our respects more often while they’re still alive, and instead of spending another night on Netflix, we can make sure that we give listening to great music even more space in our busy lives. Now that sounds like a great resolution to me.