Ronald Shannon Jackson is one of the most distinctive drum stylists of the past 20 years—a shaman of modern rhythm. Had his stampeding electric ensemble, the Decoding Society, existed in 1972, they might have been as popular as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. But there’s a different rhythm today than there was a decade ago. This also accounts for the relationship between Shannon’s drumming and the rest of the band, because in Jackson’s music the drums are not simply the hip timekeeper, but the central core of the band’s melody. They key the matrix of polytonalities he orchestrates as tonal extensions of his four limbs. Where McLaughlin (with Billy Cobham) and Corea (with Lenny White) would deal in polymetric extensions of the melody, Shannon attempts a synthesis of elements more akin to the polyrhythmic modulations of African tribal drummers—a layering of different tempos, key centers and cross-rhythms.
“My music is about seeking, and the rhythm of life in the ’80s,” Jackson offers in his friendly Texas drawl. Looking out from behind his knitted mane of hair and ornaments, Shannon projects a hardearned calm; the strength of a survivor, happy to have come through the heights and depths of the ’60s in one piece—with body and dreams intact. “New York was a fast lane alright,” he chuckles knowingly, “not at all like where I grew up. I think the rhythm of the environment, and the rhythm of the times delegate what the sound will be. Geographically, Texas is a flat land, a wide-open land, a land with a lot of space. So you can’t play a lot of notes because they’ll get lost out there. You have to fill up that space first—put the essence in there, and then make a statement. You can hear all that in the quality of Texan horn players and drummers. Whereas a place like Kansas City, Missouri, is more hilly; the people are more stacked together, so there’s a different inflection to their music. Just like in the way Texans speak, there’s a definite drawl—a western accent as opposed to say the southern accent of someone from Mississippi, which is dominated by the river and the delta. Where I come from in Ft. Worth there are more churches than bars, which reflects the beat of our community. And all of these things play a part in the way people communicate, which is why the rhythms of the people in an arid place like Chad have a much different context than those the pygmies and forest dwellers reflect.
“Now, when you pointed out that my music usually has two or three tempos happening at once, look at where we’re living—in New York City. Look at how we get around. You can catch a taxi; you can take a subway or a bus; ride a bicycle or walk. Now there’s five different rhythmic movements—all different tempos. But this is the era for that. In the swing era, when my parents came up, things weren’t as jolting, as fast, as complex—there weren’t as many choices. We’re living in a time when the Russians shoot down a commercial airliner and say ‘Look here: Not only did we shoot that boy down, but send some more and we’ll off them, too!’ Someone could push the button and atomic bombs wipe us all out. That’s in the back of people’s minds whether they think about it consciously or not. It makes you ask if life is worth living.
“That’s why my approach, in terms of essence, is to swing everything—to have that swing exuberance; that seeking quality. I’m trying to unite people with the knowledge that music is a force, and also to portray that element of swing as it is in our era. That’s why there’s a slight flavor of rock and funk in everything we play. I’m making a statement that jazz is not dying and is never going to die. It’s all a big continuation; we’re just using different terms in a different era. It’s like when bebop came out of swing, right? So here’s this exact same life force, and we’re employing all the theory, history and tradition, but with electric instruments in the ’80s. I’m not like one of those fashion designers who creates clothes that are going to take us all back to the ’30s. That’s not what tomorrow is going to be. I can’t live in the past. So I’m trying to help the people I want to communicate with to understand today and tomorrow, using the past as a foundation, only. Living in the present and knowing about the past so that we can anticipate tomorrow is what I’m trying to do with the Decoding Society.”
In a sense, that’s exactly what Shannon’s been doing for years as a sideman with some of the most innovative figures in American music. If there’s one common motif in the space gospel of Albert Ayler, the tribal polyphony of Ornette Coleman, the pan-African classicism of Cecil Taylor and the galloping bush music of Ulmer, it’s that none of these composers acknowledges any substantive differences between melody and rhythm—every instrument becomes a drum. And at the heart of it all was Ronald Shannon Jackson.
I have a vivid memory of Jackson and Ulmer at the now defunct Tin Palace (a period more or less captured for posterity on Ulmer’s Moers Music release No Wave), at the height of that group’s powers. Ornette Coleman was in the throng shaking his head in delight: “It’s like a new inception,” he enthused. I also saw drummer Phillip Wilson behind the bandstand, trying to get a better view of what Jackson was doing. Riding on his snare drum rather than on the top cymbal, Jackson was like some futuristic parade drummer, driving the music forward with accents on his extra-long, funky Ludwig power toms. He had a horrible, noisy, mismatched set of drums, but he made them sing. (“I got ’em for $50, total,” he recalls. “Cat wanted $90, but I talked him down.”) Cymbals, if you could call them that (equally funky), almost never got accented, and when they did it was more like a comma than a period on the sentence, as the sock cymbals chipped away in a steady tattoo. And yet for all the complexity of the group’s sound, for all the sweltering cross-rhythms and bombarded tom-toms, there was Jackson’s right foot performing one of the most overlooked functions in jazz—swinging 4/4 on the bass drum. Nothing fancy, just straight-ahead four-on-the-floor, like Chick Webb, Sonny Greer, Gene Krupa, Sid Catlett and Jo Jones used to do it when they were driving the big dance bands of the ’30s.
“It’s a funny thing,” Jackson explains, “because the way I got to jazz was through records; you couldn’t see any of those people live where I grew up. Recording technology wasn’t nearly as advanced as what we’ve got today, so when you listened to those records you never heard the bass drum. Consequently, me and a lot of cats grew up thinking that the bass drum wasn’t being played. But when I finally got to New York and heard cats like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe and Elvin Jones, I realized that the bass drum was definitely played.
“Luckily, I had the good fortune to grow up in a dance band environment, so I was always in control of the bass drum, and I simply had to transfer that to the bebop and jazz bands I encountered in New York. I grew up playing traps in an environment where the bass drum was most important, as opposed to bebop or swing where you’re playing a lot of snare, and doing a lot of accenting between the cymbals and snare, and keeping time with the cymbal. Whereas in dance music the bass drum is keeping the time. In blues music, the bass drum pulse is the soul of the music. “See, the most important thing is that foot—the master drum. It’s the control drum. It’s the center. It’s the heartbeat, the relaxed pulse, the more musical tonal center as opposed to the more direct speaking tone—that’s what settles the music.
“Now you know that it can be really hard to hook up with the bass player. They’ll hear some tone in your bass drum and right away they think something’s wrong,” Shannon laughs. “Or else they’ll get on your case and tell you that you’re rushing—all drummers know about that. I’ve found that a lot of bass players rush tempos, and don’t understand why. If you think about it, as string players modulate upwards on their instruments, everything gets faster. That’s just basic physics—the actual vibrations of the high notes are faster. Now if you’re playing with masters like Ron Carter or Buster Williams, none of that matters, because they have a solid sense of their own tonal center. But less experienced players get thrown off by all that bass drum timbre because it falls in the same tonal range as their sound. They will start to play higher so they can hear better. That’s when they start to rush and get on your case. That’s why, even though it’s more pleasurable to have some tone in your bass drum, it’s better to tune for a flatter ‘thud,’ so that in acoustic music, they can hear better, and in electric music, you can hear better. The drum cuts through and lets you control the flow of energy.”
It soon becomes apparent how much thought Shannon has given to the physical and symbolic aspects of the bass drum, and what role he envisions for it in his music. “In any ethnic group that employs the drum, you’re going to find the large drums, like this Trinidadian drum I have—the long drum; the deep drum. That bottom is where music comes from in most folk cultures. In drums themselves, there have always been master drums—especially in African tribal drumming where there’s always that pulse, that center to any social or spiritual event. You can take out the speaking rhythms or the communication on top—that which is portraying the event itself; the master drummer can keep everything going. The pulse, the intention, is still there on the bottom, so you can play the same pulse and change the rhythms on top of it. You can do the same thing on the drumset, when you start with that pulse from the heart—BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. Now everything on top is good; those rhythms are the enhancers—what we emotionally want to say. But if the heartbeat isn’t there, things are unstable.
“Life is rhythm: the rotation of the earth; the blooming of flowers; the way we talk; the way we walk. So as long as a drummer knows where the one is, and can project that feeling, everything is cool. One of the problems we had in the avant-garde era during the ’60s was that no one ever established where one was, or locked and settled anything. I mean, all of life goes from positive to negative, good and bad, hot and cold, black and white—that’s rhythm, too, like saying ‘boom-chick,’ back and forth. So because no one locked things in, it always gave the people anxiety, as opposed to tension/release. And no one went for it, which was just logical human nature. You don’t necessarily have to talk to people to communicate with them—just give them a heartbeat.
“That’s why I can’t emphasize the importance of that bass drum enough. Once you establish what the actual beat is, everything else is in between. If you were to break a melodic line down, the actual beat it’s coming from might be fairly simple, and keeping that foot thing locked makes all the difference. Like, ‘BOOM-a-chickachik- changchang, BOOM-a-chicka-chikchangchang, BOOM.’ Without that ‘BOOM,’ it doesn’t have that essence there. The ‘BOOM’ creates that spacespace and tension.
“And that’s why even when I’m not playing the bass drum, I’m playing the bass drum. Even though the other musicians and listeners may not hear it, they can always feel it, so they know where that space is. I always play my bass drum. What I’m actually doing is locking my big toe and the adjacent toe, so that the beater is locked in place against the bass drum head. I’m holding it there with my toes, and then the heel itself is actually keeping time,” he says, stomping down the back of the pedal with his heel to make the point, “so that you can feel the vibration passing through the bass drum. Sometimes the beater will come up off the head, and that will serve to enhance what I’m doing, too. But that pulse is the thing that lets you be creative and still be together. Not beat, not rhythm—pulse.”
For Ronald Shannon Jackson, the rhythm of his life was such that he always knew he was a drummer. Born January 12, 1940, he recalls his mother taking him to an American Woodman meeting as a fouryear- old, and there, on a riser in the basement of a church, was a set of drums. Right away he sensed his calling. From there he engaged in the normal drum & bugle corps pursuits that mark the lives of many southern drummers, and something of that sound can still be heard in Shannon’s big beat. But in terms of the almost tribal level of communication that marks the Decoding Society’s ensemble improvising and his work as a sideman, Shannon points to the experiences he shared with other musicians in a Ft. Worth meeting place called Greenway Park.
“The musicians would get off from playing the gambling dens all up and down Jacksboro Highway. Rather than going to bed, they’d take all that bottled up energy and go to this great big John Phillip Sousastyle gazebo in the middle of the park. You could go out there, play your heart out and not bother anybody. The musicians used to go out there and just play pure music. So when I met people like Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, it made it real easy for me in terms of understanding what they were really talking about playing.
“What happened up on that gazebo was just cats getting together to talk about how they would really like to play, and how bad things were in relation to how they could be. This music didn’t have anything to do with recording traditions, fake books, cutting contests or none of that. It was basically Congo Square tribal communion. Man, there was so much joy released in those situations, because people could be themselves without having to worry about the po-lice comin’ and lockin’ everyone up, or cats coming in with guns shooting, or requesting ‘Polkadots And Moonbeams’ when you felt like just playing. This is really what the music I played with Coleman on Dancing In Your Head and Body Meta was all about. Greenway Park is where I first learned to hear music as communication and the expression of exuberance in life.
“I never had a drum teacher, because I already knew how to play drums. I don’t know how—I guess it was from playing pots and pans. I always knew how to do a roll, and from studying piano I knew how to read music. I was giving recitals on piano by the time I was seven years old, playing simplified stuff like ‘Little Johnny Appleseed’ and ‘Blue Danube.’ It’s just that they were not going to let me get to drums in the second grade, so I played piano all the time. But I had my pots and pans, and also some other instruments I made up from my imagination. My mother had a couple of basting brushes, and those were my wire brushes. I made my own sticks back in my uncle’s tool shed out of the rims of chairs. To this day I’m still trying to get to those sticks because they were narrow and beveled at the bottom. Then they got bigger towards the middle, with almost no taper between the shaft and the bead.
“And I already had cymbals because my uncle was a cymbal player in the army, and he had a few real old K. Zildjian orchestral crash cymbals, which were very highpitched because they were as grooveless as the old A.’s. And there were always big pots, too. We had this big old black iron pot that looked like a witch’s cauldron, and I always used to bang around that with a stick. Someone suggested to me recently that that iron sound might’ve been what I was hearing when I set up an Icebell as a crash with James ‘Blood’ Ulmer. That could be. So with all that, once I got to the drums in school, they let me borrow a snare and a marching bass drum and take ’em home. I’d rig up a music stand to hold the cymbals and that was my first set. Other than going to school, helping my father stock juke boxes on Saturdays, and going to church on Sundays, I didn’t have nothing to do but practice out in the shed.”
Shannon’s constant practice led him to work in all manner of blues/dance bands through high school, woodshedding in jazz with his friend, saxophonist Billy Tom Robinson (who had the hippest record collection in town), as well as playing in the marching band. “I was section leader. I played snare drum through my first two years of high school, then moved up to the master drum—the bass drum—my last two years, and I played timpani in the orchestra.” More importantly, he had the good fortune to study under one Mr. Baxter in high school, who was also the teacher of Ornette Coleman and King Curtis, among many others. “Mr Baxter was held in such high esteem by both the black and white community, that there was a fresh influx of money to buy band uniforms and instruments every few years. There wasn’t enough money in the budget to buy dance band equipment too, but Mr. Baxter had the wisdom to substitute the things we needed. We’d take some marching snare drums and those would be our toms. A marching bass drum was the kick, and an orchestra drum was used for the snare. He’d order three sets of hand cymbals: 14″, 16″ and 20″. No one ever used 20″ hand cymbals, so those would be our ride cymbals and the 14’s would be our socks. Since he wasn’t at liberty to leave the band room open at lunch hour, he’d lock us in, and we’d be in there for hours creating, experimenting and playing together.”
After stints at junior college and a school in Connecticut, Shannon found himself on the New York scene playing in a variety of situations, from blues and modern jazz, to cabaret, club dates and bar mitzvahs. He was playing with the likes of Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Betty Carter, Paul Jeffrey, Charles Mingus and other leading lights of the New York scene. No one, however, had more impact on his sense of music’s possibilities than Albert Ayler. “No one played with more power than Albert Ayler—not before, not since. He had a sound on tenor that was like everything I’d learned in Greenway Park, but with all of the energy coming from one person. The thing you have to remember about the ’60s is that if you caught some of these people when their spirit was in full bloom, you heard something unforgettable. But many times, a lot of us got into side trips that weren’t conducive to music, health or spiritual well being—we lost a sense of our rhythm—and if you heard us when the spirit wasn’t happening, it was something else. But Albert always had the spirit; he could just pull you along with the sheer sound of the tenor saxophone. Playing with Albert made me aware of where my rhythmic center was coming from—down in my gut. I always know when I’m being transposed from my normal state to my spiritual state. It’s like breaking a sweat or getting second wind. Once you’re past the conscious level, everything is open and you can get to the music, not just your instrument.
“The drummer can be on such an ego trip—it’s the nature of our instrument. The drummer can be thinking, ‘I’m the one who’s controlling everything, because if I don’t play this right, ain’t nothin’ going to be right,’ or thinking, ‘Look at that chick over there; she’s looking at me because I play the drums,’ or if there are a couple of drummers in the house, a drummer will be thinking, ‘Wait until I come off of the sock and play this flam figure—it’ll blow their minds.’ That’s consciousness talking, but after playing with Albert, I began to get a sense that real drumming is about transcending all of that—about making the music jell, so the band functions as a unit. Of course, it helps to play with musicians who are strong and who don’t have to depend on the drummer to tell them where the rhythm is. Something drummers have to be aware of—and all musicians for that matter—is that irregardless of what’s going on around you, you have to be in control of what’s happening on your instrument melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. That way you can be in tune enough to hear and incorporate what’s going on around you, but you will not have to be influenced or swayed by it. That’s the way Charlie Parker always played. He sounded like a band unto himself. The way Ornette plays saxophone, you could dance to it even without the drums being there. It’s the same with Coltrane—Elvin and Garrison could be playing or not playing, because he had such a strong rhythmic sound. It was the same thing with Hendrix—they could all be up there playing music by themselves. That’s something all drummers—all musicians—should strive for: to become totally accomplished on their instruments— not just part players.”
Being accomplished on his instrument is what made Shannon such a valuable addition to the ensembles of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Blood Ulmer; spontaneous situations where the drummer had to play as if he’d written all the music himself, orchestrating complexity so as to make it sound simple and preordained. “That was the situation with Ornette alright. He’d never tell me what to play, and his music afforded me total freedom to play what I wanted. He’d just sort of play the ‘cool observer game’ and see what you’d come up with for each song. He expected you to come up with an appropriate part to complement his thing—before he played it. Playing with Ornette taught me how to anticipate quickly. No one can rattle me.
“Cecil Taylor’s music came to me at a point in my life where I’d parted with Ornette, and I was working on playing and developing my own rhythmic ideas. I’d been getting up every day and just writing rhythms. Every day has its own rhythm, so I’d do exercises where I’d compose rhythmic series based on the date, time of day… all kinds of things. I was trying to find my own personal life rhythms. Working with Cecil gave me a lot in terms of structuring my ideas and structuring music, be cause that was really the last step I needed to get to writing the way I am now. And Cecil’s music has such a highly developed rhythmic structure—he’s really worked that out. So because I’d been working on a similar concept, it was easy for me to hear his. Cecil would play things in 5, 7, 9, 11, and all these other complex rhythmic structures, and if you weren’t listening, you’d think he was just playing a lot of energy—a flow. But after rehearsing with him for two weeks, I was able to incorporate my own rhythms into his thing and enhance what he was doing.
“Playing with Blood was easy, because we both instinctively understood what the rhythmic concept was. It was while I was with Blood that I began getting concepts for my ideal drumkit, and I began to come down off of the cymbals onto the drums for the rhythms, which is something really hard for drummers to do.
“See, it’s hard for drummers to get off the cymbals and onto the drums because cymbals are like a mini-orchestra. We could play cymbals all day long and be satisfied, because there are so many melodies and textures you can derive from the overtone series and because each cymbal has so much color within it. I remember how turned on I was by the K. Zildjian sound to begin with. Then when I heard Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, that was really it. I’ve played A. Zildjians. My mother bought me a set of Slingerlands when I got out of high school. That set came with a 22″ medium ride and a pair of 14” hi-hats, so I’ve played A.’s all along. But when I was coming up, all the hip guys used K.’s and Gretsch. Every month in down beat there’d be these ads, and everyone looked so clean and sharp in their suits and ties: Max, Philly, Blakey, Art Taylor, Elvin and all of them.
“Basically I find the differences between A.’s and K.’s to be a matter of taste. A.’s aren’t bad. I just prefer the warmth of a K., but a K. can be a lot worse if you don’t get the right one. I’m talking about the old cymbals, now. I used to be able to go across the bridge to the Gretsch factory when they were in Brooklyn. They’d warehouse all the K.’s, but man, after Elvin and Tony and those guys had picked their way through, there wasn’t much left. I couldn’t believe how many bad cymbals there were, but I figured somebody’s got to be buying them. In fact, some of those warped, funny belled cymbals really work for cats. I’ve got a 22” K. I bought from Frank Ippolito for $70, from his last shipment of Turkish K.’s. Nobody wanted it because it was messed up with a bad dip in the cup, but you can get some beautiful sounds out of it…sometimes. To me, the tones of a K. allow for a variety of inflections, whereas an A. doesn’t change that much. You can get a great sound, but it’s always going to have that distinctive A. sound: bright, high pitched; with that big cutting bell sound.
“But see, there are all kinds of K.’s. Some of them were so metallic that by the third set of a gig you’d be tired of listening to it. That’s why you have to find the right one. That’s how me and Tony Scott fell out. We were playing a gig at a club in the Village, and I had two K.’s: a crash and a ride. Right in the middle of a tune, Tony Scott came over, took my cymbals off the stands and reversed them, putting my crash where my ride was and my ride on the crash stand. He was basically right, because that ride was just too hard, especially for clarinet. But it was the principle of the thing. So Steve McCall was there, and I asked him if he wanted a gig. I packed up and he finished the job.”
Upon inspection of Jackson’s cymbals, I noticed a groove cut into the cup. “That has to do with the way a cymbal sets,” he explained. “Any cymbal you put on a stand will tell you where it wants to set. You can turn it around any which way you like, but after you’ve been beating on it, it will turn around. I use a little round file to cut a small channel in the bell, so that cymbal will set right on the stand once I know where I’m going to be playing it. I’ve been doing that for a long time.”
Currently, Shannon’s extensive cymbal arsenal is stocked with Paistes, in an everchanging setup drawn from the Sound Creation, 2002 and Rude series. “The first person who turned me on to Paistes was Bruno Carr, who’s not only a beautiful drummer, but a beautiful man. He got me back into the jazz scene after basically no one would touch me anymore, because I was messing up as a person. Anyway, he gave me a 16″ 602 China, and that was a really nice cymbal—it just fit right in with my K.’s. After that I was playing with a singer named Juanita Fleming. I bought a 20″ 602 flat ride, because I discovered you could swing your ass off without overriding the vocalist.”
Shannon’s latest setups have varied greatly due to the demands of room acoustics and tempermental P.A.’s, but one theme remains the same: his preference for faster, quicker cymbals to complement his hard, funky, crisscrossing leaps in register. “That’s because I’m playing mostly drums . . . and I couldn’t have made that statement 20 years ago. The cymbals aren’t for duration; they’re mostly for punctuation and beat. Also, when the cymbals are smaller, you can go back and forth between them so much faster and sharper, playing double shots and rebounds with out extended overtones. For a sock cymbal sound, I prefer them on the heavier side so I can get a nice solid ‘chick-chick’ with just the foot. I could never really use that splashy ‘shook-shook’ sound; it isn’t solid enough.
“For crashes, Paiste’s Rudes are really something else; they’ll cut through anything, although sometimes they’ll cut through so rudely that that can be a problem. But for really loud electric situations, they’re excellent. I suspected the 2002s might not cut as well, which was confirmed when I saw the Police at Shea. I couldn’t always make out a lot of Stewart Copeland’s cymbals, but he had this little 14″ Rude crash. I realized during one song that it was projecting like crazy, and it wasn’t the sound system cutting through—it was that cymbal.”
As for Shannon’s drums, he’s put every bit as much thought into their design and tuning as he has in his choice of cymbals. His Sonor setup perfectly accommodates his physical intensity and his concept of a drum sound.
“When I went to the people at Sonor, I wanted to design a drumset that would allow me to play with all my natural extension and power, without sounding like I was overplaying the drums or overpowering the music—not too loud, not too soft. I was trying as much as possible to get the range of sounds available on a western set of traps, with all the warmth of those big-shelled African drums—like the sound of the African master drummer. I was also trying to split the difference between the sound of a jazz kit and a rock kit—the warmth and tone, with the volume and projection.
“The Signature Series drums I’m playing are constructed entirely of Indonesian Ebony, and the shells are 8-ply, so the sound is direct and cutting. Other than the fact that I had them built without any internal mufflers, they are a stock kit. The bass drum is 18 x 24; the mounted toms are 10×10, 12×12, 13×13 and 14×14; the floor toms are 14 x 16,15 x 17 and 18 x 19. On my Barbeque Dog album, I had another floor tom off to the side of my hi-hats for cross-sticking effects, and even though you can’t always hear it, you can feel it subliminally. Also, I’ve got a 6 1/2 X 14 snare that’s just too much—everybody wants to take it from me. It cuts through anything, and even when it’s tuned down, it still sounds just as warm.
“Where tuning is concerned, it took me a long time to get used to plastic heads—I just hated them, but eventually circumstances dictated that we come to terms, and I’ve experimented with just about every combination. Right now I have clear Ambassadors top and bottom on the Ebony set. To me, the difference between the coated and clear Ambassadors is that the coated ones give you more of the sound of the head, while the clear ones give you more of the sound of the shell itself, which I prefer. There’s no muffling on any of my drums except the bass drum, where I have a mirrored Evans on the resonating side with a hole cut out for microphones, and a clear Evans on the beater side with a Danmar rock pad in the center. The combina tion of that pad and a wooden beater with the internal muffler in the bass drum gives me a nice flat sound, but with some warmth. On the toms I play the most—the 14 x 14 and the 14 x 16—the bottom head is very firm, while on the smaller drums the bottoms are all looser and the tops are tighter, so you have a similar feeling coming off the snare. On the two big floor toms, both the top and bottom heads are fairly loose.”
Yet for all the sounds and colors available to Shannon from his Sonors and Paistes, he almost never solos—maybe because, within the music, he’s always soloing. But when he does take a solo turn at the drums, silence is every bit as important as his melodic figurations, which often echo the ’30s in scope.
“I was brought up on cats like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe and Tony Williams— they were very big influences. But lately I’ve been working much more consciously on the older cats like Chick Webb and Sonny Greer. I hope I’m able to project that through the music, because a lot of times, as a drummer, I want to take a solo, but as a composer/bandleader, I have a responsibility to structure the music so it comes out right. Often I’m not even thinking in terms of being a drummer. I’m thinking about orchestration, flow and the organic concept that has to be completed. Sonny Greer was a master of that. He hardly ever soloed, but it’s like Ellington said: ‘He made everything sound bigger and prettier.’ He played music on the drums; he was the conductor.
“When I compose, I start with this internal rhythm, and I work on ideas based on that rhythm. After playing the rhythm on the drums for a while, I’ll hear what melodies evolve on top of it. By then, my rhythmic thing is so ingrained, I don’t even have to play it; I can just play the thing I’m hearing on top of it. The same is true of the melody. Once I hear the rhythms on top of my basic pulse, the melodies just naturally fall into place—they just come up through my throat. When that happens, I go to the flute and the piano. Maybe 90% of my music has been composed on flute, because I can hear the notes real clearly and I love the sound. I just got a piano in my studio, which will make things easier.
“But even with piano, I’m not conscious of European cycles of harmony or any of that. I’m trying to be as true to what I hear as possible—to the pulse which brings about all these elements. It’s not like, ‘Well, if I put a C-minor 7th in there, I’ll get this effect.’ Hopefully I’ll never think in those terms, because that puts something in your mind that you don’t need. What I hear comes from what it is. It’s like you’re carrying on a conversation with someone, and a cat comes in and joins you, and what he has to say just fits right in.
“That’s what I think about when I say ‘swing’—that sense of cooperation. I don’t even think of it in musical terms like ‘syncopation’ or ‘equilibrium’ or whatever. What it represents to me is a particular era in our history; a particular release of the consciousness. That period up through the war and beyond it was a period of exuberance, like, ‘Oh yeah, we can do this; we can all work together and come together as people and work towards something. We can fulfill goals and dreams.’ That was a time when people had a physical relationship to music, too. They really danced, and America hasn’t seen dancing like that until recently.
“Swing is the rhythm, movement and joy that’s on top of the suffering, the economics and the social workings of the environment. It’s riding with it, but it’s above it. Musically it’s representing the positives and negatives going on in our actual lives. It’s what we can be and what we enjoy doing, as opposed to what we’re normally doing. That’s what I call swing, and that’s what I’m trying to decode for people through my music.”