Like everything he plays on the drumset, the name he chose for his debut album as a leader—Roots Before Branches—is intriguing, and no accident. Few players have such a deep understanding of where they come from, or as wide a scope of where they can go.
Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Paul LaRaia
Ever since Chano Pozo arrived from Cuba in 1944 to work with Dizzy Gillespie, Latin American percussionists have enriched and propelled American jazz. Pozo was the first “Latin jazz” percussionist to energize swing rhythms with Afro-Caribbean punctuations. He was eventually followed by Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, and Desi Arnaz. Later, New York–born (of Puerto Rican heritage) percussionist and drummer Willie Bobo found massive mid-’60s success with his album Spanish Grease, planting the seeds for Latin rock. Brazilian drummers Dom Um Romão and Robertinho Silva brought the Rio pulse during the bossa nova and fusion eras of the ’60s and ’70s, respectively. The Latin jazz trend has continued to the present day, with drummers as diverse as Ignacio Berroa, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Antonio Sanchez, and Dafnis Prieto stretching the fabric of jazz with deep knowledge and serious innovation. The latest drummer/percussionist to join the party is Puerto Rican–born Henry Cole.
At a recent performance by pianist Fabian Almazan’s trio at New York City’s Village Vanguard, Cole played like the wind and the water, constantly morphing and blending his rhythms to support Almazan’s intense compositions. Cole took on so many shapes that he seemed like a hybrid voodoo conjurer: swinging feverishly, pumping the Puerto Rican plena, driving subtle samba topped with popping timbale-like accents. There was no dual sense of a drummer and his technique supporting the music; this playing was raw and primal, as if Cole had studied multiple techniques and then thrown them all away. His rhythms were passionate, propulsive, sweaty, and sensitive. And he never once looked at a chart.
On Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective’s Roots Before Branches, the drummer spreads the net even wider, stylizing plena to burn beats through folk, funk, techno, and Afrobeat filters. Since arriving in 2006, Cole has become one of New York’s busiest musicians, working with figures like Eric Reed, Miguel Zenón, and Adam Rogers, to name a few. But Cole’s biggest break is as the newest member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s group.
“Chick Corea called me to be in his trio after he heard me on the Ninety Miles tour,” Cole explains, referring to the Latin-jazz project featuring vibraphonist Stefon Harris, saxophonist David Sánchez, and trumpeter Christian Scott. “The rehearsals were scheduled for the same day Hurricane Sandy hit, so the sessions were canceled. When Gary Burton needed a drummer, Chick recommended me. The audition was Gary seeing me playing with Miguel Zenón on YouTube. Then Gary called me to tour. We began rehearsals the same day of the first gig.”
Cole was schooled on orchestral percussion at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music and on jazz at Berklee in Boston, and he studied with drummer John Riley at the Manhattan School of Music. These days the education found in the clubs of New York City and Europe is studying and listening to Henry Cole.
MD: You play many hybrid rhythms within as many different styles. What, for instance, is the rhythm you play on “Snails in the Creek” from Alfredo Rodriguez’s The Invasion Parade?
Henry: That groove doesn’t have a specific name, but I’m playing off the percussionist’s bata rhythms. Instead of trying to play a pattern on top of the percussionists, I’m playing something that complements their rhythm and hopefully makes it one rhythm.
MD: On “Awakening” from Miguel Zenón’s Awake album, you play patterns that are basically free.
Henry: When playing free I sometimes use a “layers” approach. So, for example, if one musician is playing in two and I’m playing in three on top of his two, it will sound free. That comes naturally to me. The other day I was playing a drum solo in a recording session. Nate Wood was the engineer. He asked, “Are you thinking in sevens?” And I was. But the saxophonist, Ben Wendel, thought I was playing free. So with free music you can approach it as playing totally free, reacting to what you hear, or you can play in layers. You can play inside—just be present.
MD: What is your approach to incorporating Western technique and folkloric rhythms?
Henry: I love technique, but I take the Bruce Lee approach. He studied all the martial arts and created one of his own. He studied many religions, but he came to his own conclusions. He studied bodybuilding and American boxing to be a better fighter, not just better at one style. He conveyed his message by becoming an actor and a director. He died at thirty-two, but he created the standard for action movies. He went from learning one style to mastering many. That’s what I want to do.
MD: Generally your snare drum has more of a timbale sound; it’s dry and crisp.
Henry: I play lots of rimshots. My tuning is very specific and never changes. When I got my first DW drums in 2006, I tuned each drum for a sound, then I took that to the piano to find the closest note. So when I go on tour now I tune each drum with the pitch pipe to those original notes. That’s my reference.
My snare tuning approach is like the sound of a djembe; I want the snare drum to create a conversational sound. I also use a second snare drum tuned lower, not so much for the two-snare approach, but because it lets me play Billy Higgins–style comping. It’s meaty.
MD: The fours you trade with Eric Reed on “Evidence,” from his album The Baddest Monk, are unique for the sound of the drums and the notes played. What was your approach there?
Henry: Coming from Puerto Rico, I was insecure as a drummer in this traditional jazz role. Teachers will say, “You are not playing the ride correctly.” As a student it can be very frustrating. Being Puerto Rican opened one door, but then people branded me as a Latin drummer. I always felt insecure. I always wondered: Am I swinging? That feeling of insecurity was there until I started transcribing conga and quinto rumba players. That language is always high and low sounds. At the same time I transcribed Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes, just their comping, which is also high and low sounds—snare and bass drum.
Eventually I had two pages of the rumba guys and two pages of the swing drummers, both playing high and low sounds. Some of these are the same phrases! The only thing I had to do was change the rumba transcription to the swing feel. Then I was free. I was playing from my soul. Of course, you learn the subtleties of the language of the musicians around you. When you relate to things outside your experience, then the differences are not so apparent.
MD: With Eric Reed you’re expressing swing and your Puerto Rican culture right down the middle.
Henry: I adapt the Latin language with a swing feel—jazz comping and the ride cymbal. So I’m free of pretending I’m someone who I am not.
MD: Is Miguel Zenón’s “Qué Será de Puerto Rico,” from Esta Plena, a salsa pattern?
Henry: This is plena music. The drumset is playing off the plena rhythm, but it’s not a plena pattern. There’s usually no drumset in plena music. I didn’t want to play a pattern that gets in the middle of everything. I am passionate about folkloric and ethnic rhythms, so I learned the plena language. Plena is played on the quinto, and, again, it’s comprised of two main sounds. So I’m breaking up the plena rhythm between my snare and bass drum.
MD: How else have you brought Afro-Cuban or ethnic percussion to the drumset?
Henry: There isn’t a strong drumset tradition in Puerto Rico. And the guys who played there when I was young were Dave Weckl or Will Kennedy, fusion drummers. I started hanging with the percussionists, like Giovanni Hidalgo, who is my hero, and Tony Carrillo, who played with Eddie Palmieri. Giovanni is the perfect combination of technique and language in balance. I played behind Giovanni many times, once playing a cowbell behind his solo for ten minutes, and he played nothing but language. Not technique, but language. So by the time Giovanni played his first roll, the audience was already on their feet. He can talk to the people—he understands their language.
You have to “habla,” or talk. When the bandleader yells “Habla!” it means talk to the audience. The very root of the drums is to communicate. The drumset is a vehicle. Drum technique needs a phrase; it needs a context. I’m trying to create that balance, because I’ve seen so many great drummers who have great technique but sound really bad in a musical situation. You have to balance technique with your musical instincts, your ears, and your personality. In San Juan the only way to make a living as a musician is to play with everyone. You have to tune the drums for rock, jazz, and salsa. Eventually I could bring elements of each style to the other gigs.
MD: Is plena the dominant rhythm of Puerto Rico?
Henry: Yes, and bomba—two traditional musics. The Puerto Rican musician represents the guy who can play all the styles. Historically, we played for the soldiers, for the locals, for the slaves, for the people from Spain who wanted to hear paso dobles. That’s who I am: a drummer from Puerto Rico who can play different styles.
MD: What was your focus at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music?
Henry: At the conservatory, [pianist] Danilo Pérez changed my drumming to sound less like Dave Weckl and more like Roy Haynes. He influenced everyone who played with him, including Brian Blade and Antonio Sanchez. Instead of playing from muscle memory, Danilo made me play in the moment. Like in an echoey hall, you don’t play with sticks—you play with brushes. It exposes your rhythmic abilities. He would say, “You play well, but you need more colors.” Maybe a stick and a brush, or a brush and a mallet.
MD: What was your focus with John Riley at the Manhattan School of Music?
Henry: John was the real-time Wikipedia. If I didn’t know something, John knew how to teach it. I would bring in transcriptions of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes, and John would give me ideas of how to approach them. Or we would go over music that I was going to play with Miguel Zenón. Then I began subbing for Antonio Sanchez on his gig with Miguel.
MD: Why do you prefer to memorize charts rather than read on the gig?
Henry: The only way you are going to survive and bring something to the music with these New York cats is to memorize the music. I learned at the conservatory: You go measure by measure, page by page. I’m doing that with Gary Burton’s music now. I want to bring my five-star best.
MD: How do you teach your students?
Henry: I take something that looks intricate and I break it down. We transcribe it, learn the language, play the technique. They’re being exposed to the information, then they write their own ideas.
MD: Do jazz drummers come to you to learn Latin styles?
Henry: Yes, but more and more they say I play “open.” That comes from a very disciplined and rooted place. So, for example, we might take an Art Blakey phrase. Instead of playing it traditionally, we’ll orchestrate it. So what you’re doing is traditional, but you orchestrate it in a different way. So then it’s open.
MD: What one experience had the biggest impact on your drumming?
Henry: I toured with Quincy Jones’ small group in 2013. I practiced a lot for that gig, but playing with Giovanni when I was younger really made the biggest difference. After that, living in New York changes you.
MD: Roots Before Branches is progressive, it’s organic, it’s street, tribal, folk, acoustic, and electric.
Henry: This is all my experience. But it’s not a jazz record. All my friends—Miguel Zenón, David Sánchez, Adam Rogers—are on the record, as well as two Puerto Rican percussionists.
MD: What influenced Roots Before Branches?
Henry: Fela Kuti and the Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker, Live! It’s rock, jazz, funk. It changed my mind. This is it! That’s why I call it the Afrobeat Collective.
MD: What were the most challenging drum grooves on the album?
Henry: “Trabajala” was challenging. It’s an Afrobeat groove. I’m trying the Tony Allen approach—percussion played through the drumset with language from the bomba tradition. Afrobeat is not a pattern. It’s a style. “Solo Dos Veces” is straight Afrobeat, a hybrid between being open and being in the groove.
MD: What are you currently practicing and focusing on?
Henry: I take a holistic approach to being a musician. When I practice I don’t play stuff that is more complicated. I play simply with a better sound. I eat better and exercise, so when I play the same things I will sound better with more projection. If you’re more conscious of who you are as a person, you will sound better on your instrument. I practice from nine to six every day. I expose myself to many musicians, from Thomas Pridgen to Deantoni Parks to Steve Smith. I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers for months. It’s perfect music, perfect balance. I like Einstein, Newton. Greatness follows a similar path. Or Bruce Lee—he was great. He could do 500 punches with one hand.
Drums: DW Jazz series prototype from 2006 in gold glass finish
A. 5×14 DW Collector’s series Buddy Rich Signature snare
B. 5×13 Jazz series snare
C. 8×12 tom
D. 14×14 floor tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 14×18 bass drum
G. 14×20 bass drum
1. 15″ K Constantinople hi-hats
2. 20″ prototype made by Paul Francis
3. 22″ prototype made by Paul Francis
4. 16″ A Custom EFX (or 12″ Oriental China Trash) stacked on 10″ ZXT Trashformer
5. 22″ Bounce ride (or 20″ prototype)
Sticks: Vic Firth SD10 Swinger sticks, Heritage brushes, Steve Smith Tala Wands (birch), and T2 Mallets
Heads: Aquarian American Vintage Medium snare batters and Aquarian Classic Bottom Clear or Remo Clear Ambassador snare-sides, Aquarian American Vintage Thin tom batters and Aquarian Classic Clear or Remo Clear Ambassador bottoms, and American Vintage Texture Coated or Remo Coated Ambassador bass drum batters
Percussion: LP cowbells, tambourines, claws, Micro Snare, cajon pedal, Americana series cajon, and claves
Accessories: Promark Cymbal Sizzler
Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes The Conga Kings (Giovanni Hidalgo, Candido Camero, Carlos “Patato” Valdes) /// Eddie Palmieri Palo Pá Rumba (Charlie Cotto, Giovanni Hidalgo, Eladio Pérez) /// Robi Draco Rosa Vagabundo (Carla Azar, Geoff Dugmore) /// Los Van Van Volume III (Jose Luis Quintana aka Changuito) /// David Sánchez Melaza (Antonio Sanchez) /// Kenny Garrett Triology (Brian Blade) /// Duke Ellington and John Coltrane Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (Elvin Jones, Sam Woodyard) /// Pancho Quinto En el Solar la Cueva del Humo (Pancho Quinto) /// Bob Marley and the Wailers Songs of Freedom box set (Carlton Barrett) /// Fela Kuti and the Africa ’70 With Ginger Baker Live! (Tony Allen, Ginger Baker)
Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective Roots Before Branches /// Miguel Zenón Identities Are Changeable, Esta Plena /// Alfredo Rodriguez The Invasion Parade /// Eric Reed The Baddest Monk /// La PVC Olvidate del Resto /// Fabian Almazan Rhizome