The seminal architect of British jazz-rock made the most of his own indiosyncracies.
“When people ask me what I play, the usual answer is ‘the drums’ because that is the instrument, but what I would like to say is, ‘I play the band.’ That is what I’m interested in.” So said Jon Hiseman, who died this past June 12 at age seventy-three, in an extended Modern Drummer interview with Simon Goodwin back in 1984. Behind this answer lay a key concept in Hiseman’s stated drumming philosophy: “The drums [are] less important to me than the musical context.”
For Hiseman, context was everything, and the drums didn’t do much without the surrounding music. A true “feel” player, Hiseman would play from the riff and melody, as opposed to just laying a rhythm part down. He believed that, ultimately, “Drummers are only as good as the people they play with.” To meet this philosophy, he founded the influential jazz-rock band Colosseum, with whom Hiseman earned a reputation as a drummer with a unique musical approach featuring powerful, dynamic, in-the-moment playing.
Hiseman came up in the late-1960s British music scene, where rock, early progressive rock, jazz, and British blues were predominant. Indeed, much music from this period shows bands blending elements from these genres. Yet as a drummer, Hiseman brought something different, having played violin and piano while being a self-taught drummer. Twice he was the successor to Ginger Baker in bands, able to follow in his footsteps while also bringing a thoughtful, articulate power. Graham Bond and John Mayall, two British blues greats, both made use of Hiseman’s talents. Yet Hiseman sought the right context to best show his drumming, and that involved forming Colosseum in 1968.
With Hiseman’s drums, the saxophone of Dick Heckstall-Smith, and throbbing bass, keyboards, and guitar at their core, Colosseum released their first album in 1969. What made them different was the level of jazz-style interaction brought into a rock context. While early fusion bands often came from a jazz perspective and added a rock or funk rhythm, this was a blues-rock band bringing in elements of open improvisation. The approach worked, with their albums hitting the charts in the U.K., Hiseman became a notable and influential drummer: take a listen to the extended drum solo “The Time Machine” from Colosseum’s Daughter of Time album, in which sensitive dynamics, polyrhythms, and explosiveness all play a role in the improvisation. Such improvisational flights worked for the whole band as well.
While personnel shifts and musical directions led to the end of Colosseum—the unit’s initial run culminated in 1971 with Colosseum Live—the vision continued in the group Tempest, which lasted until 1975. Later projects included Colosseum II and other endeavors for which the boundaries between improvisational jazz and rock were few. Said Hiseman, “I see the drums as the catalyst in the band. They have the ability to draw performances from people. That is why, whatever I happen to play, my first love is what I call ‘interactive’ drumming. Interactive drumming occurs when, instead of just being a rhythm machine, you are creating a backdrop for whatever else is going on. It might be a theme, it might be a soloist, it might be a texture, but whatever it is, you are creating a backdrop to it, which is shifting all the time. That, to me, is most important. Interactive playing is the key area for drums and the area in which drums have made their greatest contribution.”
While Hiseman clearly had chops, they were used in creating such backdrops, in which his smooth flow predominated and little, if anything, was repeated. “I would like to be thought of as the ultimate non-drummer,” he said. “I actually believe that my drum style is totally un-copyable. A guy came up to me in Sweden…and said, ‘I have been listening to Colosseum Live and Electric Savage. Do you know that no two bars are played the same on those albums?’ I suddenly realized that that is probably my achievement. You can’t reach out and touch me.”
Student of Freddie Gruber, inspiration to Hal Blaine.
This past May 20, the L.A.–based jazz drummer Gene Stone (b. 1937) passed away. A former student of the educator and jazz drummer Freddie Gruber, Stone played with famed jazz artists including Don Ellis, Clare Fischer, and Russ Freeman. As a leader, the drummer’s releases included Tenor Combustion (2006) and Vintage Stonejazz (recorded in 1980 and released in 2004).
“I loved the sound Gene got out of his drums,” studio legend Hal Blaine tells MD. “And his touch was beautiful. He and Mike Romero were huge influences on me in my earliest days in Pasadena, California. But even to this day, the sound I gravitate to in my own playing comes from having heard Gene up close, playing in somebody’s living room in Pasadena or at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Hollywood. Everyone loved playing with Gene. He was a unique individual with a cool sound and a big heart.”
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