Great 80s Drum Performances

Part 2: Jazz and Fusion

by Ilya Stemkovsky

The ’80s might not be anyone’s first reference point for the golden age of jazz, but a closer examination reveals wonders under the surface. Sure, traditional acoustic jazz was no longer in favor, though some of the established innovators of the ’60s and ’70s were still playing at a high level. Plus, the so-called “young lions” movement would help keep swing alive and introduce the drumming world to the legends of the future.

But it was the rise of fusion (then not yet a dirty word) that most strongly shaped the decade and its influence on the next generation. The ’80s was a high-octane period of more!, more!, more!, and excess was the name of the game. So, much of that newer, Reagan-era fusion style (think less Return to Forever and more keytar) featured incredible technical facility from a new breed of player and, yes, lots of synths and electronic drums.

The recordings featured in part two of our ongoing feature series on great ’80s drumming tracks range from well-known examples of players announcing their arrival on the scene to household names of yesteryear who might have been years, even decades, past their prime but weren’t ready to hang it up just yet. No, jazz and fusion didn’t take over the radio airwaves, and they got no play on MTV. But the following examples prove that creativity was still very much a part of the drumming landscape.

John Scofield


John Scofield consistently used killer drummers and has multiple entries on our list. He showcases Omar Hakim on this slinky track from his 1986 album Still Warm. The linear hi-hat work is a delight, and Hakim gets to really shine with ideas at the end of the form, which has a couple bars of ripe-for-fills open space. As the tune progresses, Hakim opens up on his ride and toms, building tension and excitement. The close-out vamp is where he brings the nuclear weapons: constant waves of fills across his drums and cymbals that reach higher and higher to a peak intensity. Drummers love Scofield, because he loves them back and really lets them play.

Marc Johnson

“Bass Desires”

By 1985, with the influential fusion band Weather Report, of which he was a member, firmly in the rearview mirror, Peter Erskine was ready to rumble, appearing on several innovative ECM albums that gave him a springboard to swing, groove, and shape the music with aggression and his inimitable touch. On the title track to bassist Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires record, Erskine opens up with the lightest ride pattern possible, before bringing in a set of audacious floor tom and snare hits that set things off into the stratosphere. What follows is a how-to in tension, color, and pure energy. Erskine battles guitarist John Scofield in a match to the death, not shy about bringing the volume way up before the soft, ghost-note breakdown for the bass solo. Helmet and seatbelt required.

Chick Corea

“Quartet No. 2, Part 2

(Dedicated to John Coltrane)”

Chick Corea’s 1981 album Three Quartets is full of intricate rhythms and compositional invention, and the band assembled by the keyboardist brings fire and virtuosity to every bar. On this burner, Steve Gadd plays a signature martial snare pattern on the top head, syncopating accents and locking in with the piano and upright bass with laserlike precision until he starts swinging. By the time you get to Michael Brecker’s turbulent tenor solo, Gadd is unhinged, crashing away with abandon. The drum solo is quintessential Gadd—unaccompanied snare triplets and melody-line mimicry at first, then a conclusion featuring funky hi-hat and tom work leading into dramatic rolls and cymbal bashing that rocks as hard as any metal group of the day.

John Scofield

“Blue Matter”

“Finding the groove is simple,” Dennis Chambers said in the May 1989 issue of Modern Drummer. “Listen to what the bass player’s doing.” Chambers and bassist Gary Grainger are certainly hooked up on this funky track from the 1986 album of the same name. What begins as a slow, spacious swing with a walking bass line turns into a charging groove workout where Chambers plays a flurry of kick drum triplets under a steady hi-hat pulse. The triplets go freely over the barline, and Grainger adds his own percussive slap and pop as he pleases, so things move along tourniquet-tight, but with wide-open gaps and an adherence to improvising. Breathtaking stuff, and a fine example of Electric Fusion Rhythm Section Playing 101.

Keith Jarrett Trio

“All the Things You Are”

Another warhorse standard gets the trio treatment, on this 1983 date from Keith Jarrett’s nascent but soon-to-be-legendary working band. Jack DeJohnette was no stranger to small-group piano jazz, having worked in Bill Evans’ late-’60s outfit, so by 1983’s Standards, Vol. 1, he knew as well as any drummer how to fill up space while supporting the leader with both traditional and modern playing. DeJohnette stokes the embers with quick brushes at the top, keeping it straight but throwing some jabs underneath Jarrett’s aggressive piano lines and vocalizations. Soon he switches to sticks, and we’re off to the races, the drummer blurring barlines with no remorse. Things settle slightly for a bass solo and the outro-head return to brushes. The seeds of these masters reworking the classics have been firmly planted.

Wynton Marsalis

“Chambers of Tain”

If the composer names a track after you, you’re doing something right. Jeff “Tain” Watts, along with other musicians on this date, rose as part of the “young lions” movement of players returning to acoustic jazz roots with a modern approach. Written by pianist Kenny Kirkland, this track off 1985’s Black Codes (From the Underground) comes out hot, hot, hot, eventually becoming a swinging vehicle for some serious blowing. Following turns from Wynton and Branford Marsalis, it’s Kirkland’s solo where Watts really heats up, the tempo increasing noticeably, along with the dynamic interplay. The drum solo could have easily been heard during a Rush concert, with its heavy snare rolls, roundhouse tom fills, and cymbal mayhem, so it was clear there wasn’t anything too traditional about Watts’ ways.

Herbie Hancock

“Well You Needn’t”

From the sound of this track on Herbie Hancock’s 1982 Quartet record, it’s obvious that Tony Williams, whom all the young-lion drummers worshipped, was not ready to lie down in the new decade. Wynton Marsalis blows his trumpet on the session as well, so it’s clearly not an “us and them” thing. Thelonious Monk’s music is always fertile ground for improvising, and the rhythmic attributes of his tunes give drummers lots to work with, so it’s no surprise that Williams devours anyone who comes in his way here. There’s the bonkers tempo where he excels, the pseudo-Latin ride bell groove he returns to, and the jarring fills that confirm he still has a thing or two to say. Tony made his name in the ’60s, but his sage playing in the ’80s is always worth a listen.

Jeff Beck

“Behind the Veil”

“Control is something that can be sacrificed for emotion and excitement in a live situation, but not in the studio,” Terry Bozzio said in the December 1984 issue of Modern Drummer. Over the course of his varied career, Bozzio has worn loincloths and makeup, played everything from an electronic kit with Missing Persons to the orchestral behemoth he performs clinics on today, but on record he’s always assuredly in control. On this reggae track from the 1989 album Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, Bozzio leaves huge gaps of space where he’s content to simply keep time with hi-hats and kick until he decides to load up holes with colorful cymbals or gnarly snare and tom fills. No check-me-out attitude here, just a reserved and totally musical example of how to support a melody.

Richie Kotzen

“Unsafe at Any Speed”

If you only know Steve Smith’s playing from Journey or Vital Information, this track will knock you out of your chair. “If you can hear in your head what it is you want to hear on the drums and get the chops to pull it off consistently,” Smith told Modern Drummer in the August 1986 issue, “then you’re on your way to developing your own individual voice.” What Smith must have heard in his head for this number from Richie Kotzen’s self-titled 1989 album was notes, and lots of them. Following a swing intro fake-out, it’s double bass fury at a breakneck speed, as Smith keeps pace with Kotzen’s shredding guitar. Steve throws in insane snare and tom fills throughout before taking a breather for some through-composed hits and preparing for liftoff once again. Smith would wear trad-jazz and melodic fusion hats soon enough, but here he’s content to rock.

Pat Metheny Group


“When you go on stage, it’s like a big conversation,” Paul Wertico said in the December 1985 issue of Modern Drummer. “Music is about what you have to say on that particular day.” Weaving in and out of an assortment of odd times, Wertico’s smooth playing on this track from 1989’s Letter Form Home is unobtrusive, unifying the music while providing a nice bed for the other players to sit on. It’s all 16th-note ride cymbal and rimclicking on the intro and head, until the band switches to a swing feel underneath Pat Metheny’s guitar solo. “The concept of my drumming was never patterns or rhythms, because I didn’t really study that,” Wertico explained. “It was always melody.” A lesson for all, since Letter From Home won the Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance.

Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous, Roy Haynes


Another Monk tune, “Rhythm-a-Ning” lets Roy Haynes swing away on material he’s intimately familiar with (he recorded with Monk in the ’50s), and that famous ride cymbal sounds like butter thanks to the outstanding ECM production. Haynes, Chick Corea, and bassist Miroslav Vitous are a dream team of improvisers, and the attention to detail on this track from 1981’s Trio Music is a wonder to behold as ideas fly by rapidly. Linear interplay between snare and kick is Haynes’ bag, and that’s on full display over the brisk tempo here, while the drum breaks include some two-handed hi-hat figures and generous use of a loud China cymbal. There’s even timpani heard toward the end of the track. As with Tony Williams, this member of the old guard was still at the top of his game.

Michel Camilo Trio

“We Three”

Joel Rosenblatt splits drumming duties with Dave Weckl on pianist Michel Camilo’s 1986 release, Suntan/In Trio, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the two apart from track to track, from the playing style to the drum tones. This Latin-esque tune opens with some driving two-handed snare work and kicks as backbeats from Rosenblatt, before the drummer locks in with Camilo’s propulsive piano. Rosenblatt takes an early and lengthy solo, ripping some kick/snare combos before unleashing a flurry of singles across the kit. He and bassist Anthony Jackson are locked, and the amount of information coming from any of the three musicians at any given moment is almost too much to handle. But that’s why it’s so much fun.

Dixie Dregs

“Cruise Control”

“How do you categorize a band that has a name like Dixie Dregs, and that sounds like Jeff Beck meets Mahavishnu?” Rod Morgenstein pondered in his July 1985 Modern Drummer interview. This cut from 1981’s Unsung Heroes is typical Dregs—virtuosic guitar from Steve Morse and a fusion-with-a-twang sound that appeals to a different type of music fan. Morgenstein is trucking from the beginning, his approach encompassing studio-ready rock power with a healthy dose of chops. He makes good use of his brief solo space in the middle of the tune with some aggressive hi-hat/snare combos and overdubbed percussion. Categorizing is easy: It’s awesome.

John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu

“The Wall Will Fall”

Maybe Pat Metheny’s lighter music wasn’t doing it for Danny Gottlieb, because the drummer left (to be replaced by Paul Wertico) and soon appeared in yet another version of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. No, it didn’t have the same rawness of the original band, and some of the production hasn’t dated well (the ping! pang! of the electronic toms is unfortunately pure mid-’80s), but check out Gottlieb’s assured performance on this track from 1987’s Adventures in Radioland. Danny rocks a 12/8 with outrageous fill after outrageous fill, and the up-tempo swing sections are burning. “There seem to be many more playing opportunities for people who sound generic than for people who sound unique,” the drummer told Modern Drummer in the April 1988 issue. Gottlieb’s career has proven that trendsetters get work too.

L.A. 4

“Secret Love”

This track from the short-lived West Coast ensemble L.A. 4’s 1980 release, Zaca, begins with a simmer, as drummer Jeff Hamilton works his brushes on a sweet bossa pattern perfect for a sunny picnic in the park. That lasts briefly, until the tempo is brought to hyperspeed with a furious swing that moves, albeit with an impressive dynamic level on the ride, plus kick/snare interplay that’s exciting and precise. Hamilton and bassist Ray Brown are a match made in heaven, because they can cook but allow each other the room to speak. And their expression is never at the sacrifice of the almighty swing. Things end back in bossa-land for a breath-catching conclusion, but the lesson on jazz drumming has only begun.

Spyro Gyra


There are others who are more closely associated with the revolving drum chair in Spyro Gyra, but Steve Jordan appears on a couple of tunes on the group’s 1980 album, Carnaval, with the title track a nice showcase for his well-honed recording chops. Jordan brings the Brazilian juices here with a samba snare lick to open the tune, then moves on to an insistent studio-cat funk beat that kicks the band into high gear. He knows where to place the bass drum, and nary a note is wasted when he’s locked in. But just as Jordan switches to an offbeat ride pattern for a solo or outro, he makes the band take off. It’s clean, focused, and a study of how to bring energy without being busy.

Woody Shaw

“Steve’s Blues”

On the surface, Carl Allen’s drumming on this straight-ahead swinger from Woody Shaw’s 1988 album, Imagination, seems perfectly fine, serviceable without any special characteristics that make it stand out. But check out the way Allen and bassist Ray Drummond comp behind the piano solo, emphasizing the feel over two, before jump-starting everything into a head-bobbing four that feels great. At song’s end, Allen’s breaks are a nod to Philly Joe, slick singles with just the right amount of lilt and rhythmic cool. Sometimes, keeping it flowing is all the doctor ordered, and the young Allen’s work here is a sign of what was to come in his successful career.

Brecker Brothers


Slamming funk fusion with intricate horn arrangements was the Brecker Brothers’ forte early in their career, and they always had the top session players on their records to execute those charts at the highest level. Richie Morales was one in a long list of killer drummers associated with the group, and it’s he who brings the titanic groove on this track from 1981’s Straphangin’. Holy syncopations, Batman! Morales’ kick is the center of the show here, punctuating different parts of the bar while still propelling the band forward. Check out the wicked snare chops on the head and how Morales and bassist Marcus Miller start swinging assertively under the sax solo. A New York fusion encyclopedia entry.



Will Kennedy glides through the changes of this opening tune from Yellowjackets’ 1988 release, Politics, hopping and skipping on his ride cymbal but still accenting all the hits as they come. Yellowjackets weren’t as smooth as some of the other light fusion bands of the time, allowing all the players to really bring it, and Kennedy’s contribution here bridges the gap between simple support and blowing freely. The drums come way down under the sax solo, slowly rising in intensity and density, the strong quarter-note pulse being the glue keeping it all together. Having recently replaced Ricky Lawson, Kennedy was relatively new in the band at this point, but he was forging his own voice quickly.

Fred Hersch Trio

“The Surrey With the

Fringe on Top”

Marc Johnson returns here, this time as part of pianist Fred Hersch’s 1984 debut, Horizons. The standard “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” gets a thorough reading from the trio. Drummer Joey Baron drives the up-tempo swing with a ride that’s set to attack mode and hip tom interjections that up the ante with each passing chorus. Baron takes the most hilarious (and melodic) solos in the business, and he starts his trades here with an absolutely wicked metric-modulation fill that works upward from his floor tom until he speeds up his snare, then works his way back down. He does something equally unconventional with crashes the next time around, so it’s clear that all rules are out the window. Baron would go on to be an integral part of Manhattan’s downtown scene in the late ’80s and beyond.

Al Di Meola

“Beijing Demons”

This track from guitarist Al Di Meola’s 1987 record, Tirami Su, features a slinky but powerful groove from Tom Brechtlein, the snares hitting on the “&” of 2 and 4, with some very subtle ghost notes thrown in for good measure. Brechtlein shares the space with percussionist Mino Cinelu but still finds room to add fun snare fills during a striking staccato bridge. Di Meola is an adventurous and incredibly tight rhythmic player, so Brechtlein’s overall restraint does the music a well-needed service, even underneath a guitar solo where the drummer could whip out chops but chooses not to. Not everything is about showing the goods all the time, and Brechtlein knows when to pick his spots.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

“My Heart Declares a Holiday”

By 1987, Bill Bruford was dabbling heavily in electronics, and his Earthworks project included lots of patterns played on pads. This track from the group’s debut, however, is relatively organic from a drumming perspective. Iain Ballamy’s jazzy horn lends the proceedings an avant-garde flavor, but only Bruford can navigate 13/8 with the sophistication heard here, even as the sound was always intended to be inclusive. “I want to produce music that isn’t instantly disposable, that reveals itself over a period of time and bears many listenings,” he told Modern Drummer in the February 1989 issue. “It’s difficult to do that and not frighten off the listeners.” Check out Bruford’s end solo, a collection of subtle ghost notes and rolling toms.

Allan Holdsworth

“City Nights”

In the May 1987 issue of Modern Drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta said, “I go for it. It’s not reckless, because I know exactly what I’m doing.” That just about sums it up. Over the course of the brief two and a half minutes of this utterly wild track from guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s 1989 album, Secrets, Colaiuta lays down the law, blazing over the start/stop arrangement and complex chord changes. The drumming goes way out there, and every so often everyone hits a downbeat together, so you know these guys are in total control. Insane polyrhythms, super-quick kick drum doubles, and head-scratching fills come at you like a hurricane, and it all ends before you’ve caught your breath. Going for it indeed.

Dave Holland Quartet


Bassist Dave Holland’s material is a drummer’s dream, with open-ended vamps to blow over and killer odd-time lines that provide something better to groove to than yet more blues changes. On this track from Extensions, featuring a frontline of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman and guitarist Kevin Eubanks, Holland and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith push and prod through the 11/8 with attitude, smooth ride cymbal work, and lots and lots of notes. Smith’s outrageous tsunami rolls during his solo on “Nemesis” blow your hair back, but though the other musicians drop out, you still hear the line in your head because he outlines the structure so brilliantly. A few years later, Eubanks and Smith would team up for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

Chick Corea Elektric Band

“Got a Match?”

Chick Corea makes yet another appearance on our list, due to the fact that he employed some of the greatest drummers around. Dave Weckl is no exception, as he seemed to arrive fully formed on the eponymous 1986 debut from the Elektric Band. Weckl and bassist John Patitucci are magical over the initial Latin funk melody, tighter than tight, with chops aplenty from each, before they begin swinging their behinds off. Weckl works his hats and floor tom underneath the bass solo, then takes his own solo that’s less about technique and more about how and where to add emphasis melodically. Weckl would go on to achieve deity status in the drumming world soon after, but here you can check out his outstanding work even at this early juncture.