A hundred years. It’s a wonder to think that’s how long people have holed themselves away with their Victrolas, hi-fis, iPods, and Google Homes, listening intently to the wondrous music that four generations’ worth of jazz drummers have gifted humankind. It’s mind-boggling to ponder the myriad ways they’ve found to express their emotions and imaginations within a musical style that is well defined (it swings, and it demands improvisation) yet capable of incorporating infinite feels and timbres.
So, is it possible to distill a century’s worth of drumming on jazz recordings, which by any reasonable guess would comprise tens if not hundreds of thousands of titles, down to a list of fifty crucial examples? In a word, no. But you try anyway. You try because one hundred years of official documentation is a pretty big milestone for any art form, and it deserves at least an attempt at concise discussion. And even if coming up with a “definitive” short list is a fool’s errand, there’s much to be gained in trying—or at the very least using it as a starting point to make some salient points about our art.
If you can guide folks through a good number of jazz drumming’s high points, turning points, and significant points of departure, you’ve done them a valuable service. If you can hip them to some thrilling performances that they might be unfamiliar with, even better. And if you can inspire them to continue their research, develop their own list of personal faves, and pay that forward to the next generation…well, now you’ve really done something. And that’s the something we’re trying to do this month.
So, we hope you leave here educated, entertained, but most important inspired to get behind the drums—and maybe even imagine adding your own voice to the next century’s worth of great jazz drumming on record.
1. Louis Armstrong “Knockin’ a Jug” (Joseph “Kaiser” Marshall, 1929)
“This is one of the earliest tracks where you can hear in detail what drummers of the era were playing,” says Paul Wells of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks and Curtis Stigers’ band. “Marshall switches between playing brushes on the snare and the sticks on the rim. For me that was a big lesson in what these guys were actually doing. And once you hear that track you’ll start to be able to hear it better on others where the drums aren’t recorded as well.” You can find “Knockin’ a Jug” on Louis Armstrong’s Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.
2. Chick Webb Spinnin’ the Webb (Chick Webb, 1929-39)
“On tracks like ‘Harlem Congo’ and ‘Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie!’ you can hear what a big sound Chick had,” says famed jazz educator and performer Kenny Washington. “He really wrote the book on big band drumming in terms of setting up figures. And he had all these different sounds—he’d use a Chinese cymbal behind the lower brass and the trombones, or he would play woodblocks behind the piano solo. Chick was amazing.”
Also check out: Chick Webb “Liza” from The Savory Collection, Volume 3: Honeysuckle Rose (1938) ///Chick Webb and His Savoy Ballroom Orchestra “My Wild Irish Rose” from The King of the Drums (1939)
3. Benny Goodman The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (Gene Krupa)
A groundbreaking concert—unavailable on record until 1950—that featured jazzmen in a “legit” hall. Krupa’s throbbing beat and famed extended solo on the twelve-plus-minute “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)” put drum power up front, driving the crowd wild. The limelight was no longer just for front-liners. Drummers, Krupa proved, could be stars. The double LP was a rarity: both a jazz landmark and a popular hit.
Also check out: Gene Krupa/Buddy Rich The Drum Battle (1952)
4. John Kirby Sextet Biggest Little Band in the Land (O’Neil Spencer, 1938)
“The John Kirby Sextet had a chamber sound,” Kenny Washington explains. “This is where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are coming from. You can really hear O’Neil Spencer stretch out on ‘Rehearsin’ for a Nervous Breakdown.’ ‘Original Dixieland One-Step’ shows him off too. Spencer was a master of brushes, and sometimes he would do different combinations using a stick and a brush. He was a good big band drummer too.”
Also check out: John Kirby The Best Of, 1937-45
5. Duke Ellington Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (Sonny Greer, 1939-42)
“Sonny Greer was into using combinations of different sounds,” Kenny Washington says, pointing to tracks like “Jumpin’ Punkins” and “Harlem Airshaft.” “Duke said something once to the effect of, ‘Sonny has every ping for my pong.’ In other words, all these sounds that Duke would create, these tonal clusters and things, Sonny Greer knew instinctively what to do to make the band sound the best that it could. Sometimes instead of playing with the tip of the stick on the cymbal, he would play the edge with the shank, just below the tip, which gets a different sound. He could swing too.”
Also check out: Duke Ellington At Fargo, 1940 Live
6. Sidney Bechet The Legendary Sidney Bechet (Baby Dodds, 1932-41)
“You can hear Baby Dodds real well on the early-’40s RCA Victor sides by Sidney Bechet and His New Orleans Feetwarmers,” Kenny Washington says. “Being from New Orleans, Dodds was one of the guys who played on lots of records, like those of Louis Armstrong. He was a hell of a drummer.” As a bonus, the tracks on this collection also feature Kenny Clarke, Big Sid Catlett, Zutty Singleton, and several other early greats.
Also check out: Baby Dodds Footnotes to Jazz, Volume 1: Talking and Drum Solos (1951)
7. Woody Herman and His First Herd The Old Gold Radio Shows 1944, Volume 2 (Dave Tough)
In MD founder Ron Spagnardi’s book The Great Jazz Drummers, longtime Tonight Show drummer Ed Shaughnessy says, “Dave Tough was one of the finest examples of someone who didn’t have lightning-fast hands and never wanted to solo, but was still one of the most in-demand drummers in the history of jazz. He had such immense power. He never brought the drums to the forefront, but preferred to simply build a tremendous foundation.” Spagnardi added that Tough “had an intensity that only Buddy Rich could match.”
Also check out: Woody Herman Old Gold Rehearsals (1944), The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947)
8. Coleman Hawkins The Chronological Classics 1945 (Sid Catlett)
“This collection on the Classics label features the tune ‘Mop de Mop Mop,’” Kenny Washington says. “It was originally Sid Catlett’s date, with Coleman Hawkins playing on it. Big Sid played his ass off on that track. He’s also the drummer on the Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker track ‘Salt Peanuts.’ That’s a great solo, man. He plays the intro on ‘Hot House’ too.”
Also check out: Louis Armstrong “Steak Face” from Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary (1947)
9. Count Basie America’s #1 Band (Shadow Wilson, 1936–50)
“Every Wilson performance,” Ron Spagnardi wrote, “clearly demonstrates the tasteful, unobtrusive playing of one of the jazz world’s true unsung heroes.” “One of things that was unique about Shadow,” Kenny Washington adds, “was his less-is-more approach. This box set is the easiest way to hear classic recordings of his like ‘Queer Street,’ ‘Avenue C,’ and ‘Blue Skies.’”
Also check out: Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane At Carnegie Hall (1957)
10. Dizzy Gillespie Showtime at the Spotlite (Kenny Clarke, 1946)
It’s arguable that Kenny Clarke invented the timekeeping function of the modern ride cymbal, but there’s no doubt that he perfected it in the 1940s, as heard on this early bebop date. Bass drum bombs and a free, conversational left hand give the music shape, but it’s that insistent spang-a-lang that allows the soloists to go into flights of fancy atop a solid bedrock. Jazz would never be the same.
Also check out: Kenny Clarke & His 52nd St. Boys “Epistrophy” (1946) /// Miles Davis Walkin’ (1954)
11. Mezz Mezzrow “Drum Face” (Arthur “Zutty” Singleton, 1951)
As Ron Spagnardi wrote in The Great Jazz Drummers, Arthur “Zutty” Singleton followed the melodic lines of a jazz improvisation more closely than anyone who had come before him, and his press-roll timekeeping technique foreshadowed the modern jazz cymbal beat. Though Zutty is famous for his appearance on Louis Armstrong’s legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in the late ’20s, Kenny Washington recommends the later track “Drum Face” by clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, which you can find on iTunes on the collection Drum Face, Volume 1.
Also check out: Pee Wee Russell “About Face” (1941, available on Jazz Original)
12. Clifford Brown & Max Roach Quintet Study in Brown (Max Roach, 1955)
From Modern Drummer’s December 2007 tribute issue to Max Roach: “Although his earlier work with Charlie Parker established him as a major force of drumming innovation, it wasn’t until Max teamed up with rising trumpeter Clifford Brown that his true genius took hold. If there’s one Clifford Brown/Max Roach record to have, Study in Brown is it. Each track features brilliant playing by the entire band, and Max’s solos are particularly clean and clear. Plus, the quintet’s blazing version of ‘Cherokee’ is a modern jazz masterpiece.”
Also check out: Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus (1956) /// Buddy Rich/Max Roach Rich Versus Roach (1959) /// Max Roach We Insist! (1960), Drums Unlimited (1966), Chattahoochee Red (1981)
13. Shelly Manne and His Men Volume 4: Swinging Sounds (Shelly Manne, 1956)
“This album contains the track ‘Un Poco Loco,’ which features a drum solo that’s amazing for a couple reasons,” Paul Wells explains. “Shelly has a tambourine on the head of the floor tom, he has a brush in his right hand and nothing in his left hand, and his snares are off. So the sounds are completely unique. And the entire solo is based on a four-note descending figure: snare/rack tom/floor tom/bass drum. He varies the rhythms but not the melodic content—every possible permutation. Totally stunning.”
Also check out: Shelly Manne My Fair Lady (1956) /// 2-3-4 (1962)
14. Manny Albam–Ernie Wilkins Orchestra The Drum Suite (Osie Johnson, Gus Johnson, Don Lamond, Teddy Sommer, 1956)
“I grew up with this record,” the highly regarded drummer/leader Gerry Gibbs says. “It’s a very early example of having multiple drummers on a bandstand at the same time. On this album they’re not always playing at the same time. The first thing they did was make their feel similar, so the band didn’t have to adjust. They were all coming out of the same place, and they were extremely melodic soloists. They all kind of said, This is what’s going to make the music sound good.”
Also check out: Son of Drum Suite (Gus Johnson, Don Lamond, Mel Lewis, Louis Hayes,1960)
15. Ahmad Jamal At the Pershing: But Not for Me (Vernel Fournier, 1958)
Vernel Fournier’s unique performance on “Poinciana,” heard on this best-selling live recording, helped to keep the album—Chess Records’ first jazz release—on the charts for more than a hundred weeks. “Hearing Vernel with the Ahmad Jamal Trio inspired me to be a drummer,” this month’s cover artist, Jack DeJohnette, told MD in 1998. “It was his finesse and feel.” “I didn’t create the [drum part to ‘Poinciana’], I discovered it,” Fournier said in an MD interview. “It came from the bass drummers in the parade bands and funeral bands in New Orleans. They would play rhythms on the beat with the right hand on the drum, and they would have a cymbal on top of the drum that they’d hit on the offbeat with a stick or a coat hanger. I heard that beat all the time growing up.”
Also check out: Clifford Jordan Quartet Repetition (1984)
16. Miles Davis Milestones (Philly Joe Jones, 1958)
“Tony Williams supposedly said that you could learn everything you need to know about jazz from this record,” Paul Wells shares. “And I know that trumpeter Wallace Roney said that Tony could sing every solo and bass line on it. It’s a perfect jazz record, and Philly just slays on it. Interestingly, he plays the entire record with just one tom-tom.”
Also check out: Miles Davis Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, Steamin’ (1956) /// Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (1957) /// Wynton Kelly Kelly at Midnight (1960)
17. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Moanin’ (Art Blakey, 1958)
Blakey was one of the most visceral drummers in jazz history, able to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up with one of his famous press rolls and cause the earth to shake with his more overtly African-inspired, percussion-heavy pieces. Beyond his playing reputation, earned via seminal recordings with many of the giants of jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, Blakey is known internationally as one of the great nurturers of jazz talent, providing a platform for Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, and Wynton Marsalis, among many other future stars. The famous Moanin’ album finds Blakey in a sextet format, with excellent punchy arrangements that allow him to set up heads, kick soloists, and display his awesome power.
Also check out: Thelonious Monk Genius of Modern Music, Volume 1 (1951) /// Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm (1957), Caravan (1962) /// Art Blakey and the Afro-Drum Ensemble The African Beat (1962)
18. Jo Jones Trio Jo Jones Trio (Papa Jo Jones, 1958)
“Papa Jo’s masterful musicianship, which served as the backbone for the Basie orchestra, is showcased here in this small-group setting,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer and Jo Jones devotee Brian Chase tells MD. “Every note of the melody, every ensemble passage, and every twist and turn of his bandmates’ solos gets full support by Papa Jo with his unparalleled creative elegance, dynamic sensitivity, and deep groove. Additionally, there are solo segments in most of the songs that prove Papa Jo as a leading innovator of melodic drumming.”
Also check out: Count Basie The Original American Decca Recordings (1937-39) /// Jo Jones and Milt Hinton Percussion and Bass (1960) /// Jo Jones The Drums (1973)
19. Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Jimmy Cobb, 1959)
By the time he’d joined trumpeter Miles Davis’s band, Jimmy Cobb had already logged much work with Billie Holiday, Charlie Rouse, Earl Bostic, Dinah Washington, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Within the Miles sextet Cobb laid down impossibly good-feeling, spacious grooves that allowed the solos of pianist Bill Evans and sax players Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane to take full flight. Kind of Blue is the most popular jazz album in history—and for good reason. In addition to the classic compositions it contains, it provides a master class for those looking to learn about depth of feel in jazz.
Also check out: Miles Davis Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Complete (1961)
20. Dave Brubeck Quartet Time Out (Joe Morello, 1959)
Jazz had been emancipated in many different ways, Steve Race wrote in the original liner notes to Time Out, but not yet rhythmically. “Take Five” elegantly pulsates in 5/4, and “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” a Middle Eastern folk-tinged excursion slipping in and out of 9/8, was inspired by the jazz outfit’s tour through Turkey, India, Iran, and Iraq, months prior to the recording of the album. In 2007, Joe Morello told Modern Drummer contributor Will Romano, “[Brubeck] said to me, ‘Do you think jazz should always be played in 4/4?’ I said, ‘Hell, no! You can play it in waltz time or 5/8, 7/4, 5/4.’ Paul Desmond wrote it, but the odd time was really kind of my idea.” “I told Paul, ‘Just write a tune around this pattern,’” Brubeck confirmed. “Right away people started copying that rhythm.”
Also check out: Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall (1963)
21. Art Taylor A.T.’s Delight (Art Taylor, 1960)
Arthur Taylor played on more than 300 albums with dozens of the greatest jazz artists in history. He also released a handful of well-regarded recordings under his own name. This, his third, features heavies Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Dave Burns on trumpet, and Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax, as well as Carlos “Patato” Valdés on congas, who adds a critical dimension to the interplay on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” and Taylor’s own “Cookoo and Fungi.”
Also check out: Arthur Taylor Taylor’s Wailers (1957), Mr. A.T. (1992) /// Miles Davis Miles Ahead (1957) /// Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall (1959) /// John Coltrane Giant Steps (1960)
22. Cannonball Adderley Quintet The Quintet Plus (Louis Hayes, 1961)
Detroit-bred Louis Hayes, who was most influenced by the jazz giants Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, first made his mark with multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef. But when rising piano star Horace Silver beckoned from New York, Hayes heeded the call, and promptly became a vital part of the NYC scene, playing with John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Hank Mobley, to name a few. But it was his decision to join Cannonball Adderley’s group—a hugely popular ensemble that recorded often and toured the world to great acclaim—that would prove to be his biggest move.
Also check out: Horace Silver Quintet 6 Pieces of Silver (1956), Finger Poppin’ (1959) /// Louis Hayes Featuring Yusef Lateef & Nat Adderley (1960) /// Horace Silver A Prescription for the Blues (1997)
23. Terry Gibbs Dream Band Volume 5: The Big Cat (Mel Lewis, 1961)
Gerry Gibbs, son of the great jazz vibraphonist and bandleader Terry Gibbs, is in a unique position to comment on this particular release. “Mel was a true big band innovator, like Buddy Rich,” Gerry tells MD. “He moved to L.A. in ’57, and everything he did [there] with my dad’s band is what he brought to the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones band. The way he sets up the big band figures is unique. They’re kind of simple, but they have space in them. He was the epitome of knowing how to get up underneath the band. The way he tuned his drums was also innovative.”
Also check out: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band Presenting Joe Williams (1966)
24. Ornette Coleman This Is Our Music (Ed Blackwell, 1961)
Matching his earthy New Orleans drumming to alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s space-age free-jazz-folk, Ed Blackwell cracked and juggled the time, dropped bass drum bombs, and elevated spirited snare drum commentary.
Also check out: Eric Dolphy At the Five Spot (1961) /// Dewey Redman Quartet The Struggle Continues (1982)
25. Lee Morgan The Sidewinder (Billy Higgins, 1963)
The feel on the title cut of this renowned album is funky and swinging, and hard to replicate. Higgins, one of the most recorded drummers in jazz history, provides such a great feel on this track, and on the album as a whole.
Also check out: Sonny Rollins Our Man in Jazz (1963) /// Jackie McLean Let Freedom Ring (1963)
26. John Coltrane A Love Supreme (Elvin Jones, 1965)
Elvin’s swirling rhythmic layers and huge, tumultuous sound transported this volcanic game-changer. But it’s ultimately about much more than his impressive physical performance: Elvin channeled spiritual resonance through his kit—a drummer possessed.
Also check out: Tommy Flanagan Overseas (1957) “Elvin’s grossly misunderstood,” Kenny Washington says. “He couldn’t do what he did with Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane if he didn’t have his basics together. And the early records show what he really could do in an ensemble. This one features Elvin sticking to brushes, using his muscle and his sensitivity.”
27. Sonny Rollins Alfie (Frankie Dunlop, 1966)
Sonny Rollins’ 1966 soundtrack to the popular film Alfie revealed the true, swinging sportsmanship of drummer Frankie Dunlop, whose bubbly, buoyant drumming also played a key role in the groups of Thelonious Monk.
Also check out: Maynard Ferguson A Message From Birdland (1959)
28. Frank Sinatra Sinatra at the Sands With Count Basie & the Orchestra (Sonny Payne, 1966)
There’s magic here, and not just in the wondrous darkness of Sinatra’s expressive voice. The Chairman cut two previous studio albums with the Count, and their symbiotic musical relationship is in full swing for this classic live offering. Sonny Payne’s impeccable timing, playful phrasing, and rhythmic punctuation drive these arrangements and help to fuel Sinatra’s effortless lyricism. As Sinatra eggs on the orchestra, Payne’s crisp patterns simmer to a boil in “My Kind of Town” and the Cole Porter standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”—a fiery interpretation superior to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ own studio version for Capitol Records a decade earlier.
Also check out: Count Basie Basie at Birdland (1961)
29. Cecil Taylor Conquistador! (Andrew Cyrille, 1967)
What Andrew Cyrille does with time here, and Cecil Taylor’s brand of avant-garde jazz on the whole, is stunning. Cyrille worked with the pianist for more than ten years, during which he developed a reputation as one of the top “free” jazz drummers—though he’d spent much of the ’50s and ’60s playing with more mainstream jazz artists, like Roland Hanna and Coleman Hawkins. Cyrille is still active today.
Also check out: Andrew Cyrille What About? (1971) /// Kenny Clarke/Andrew Cyrille/Milford Graves/Famoudou Don Moye Pieces of Time (1984)
30. Duke Pearson’s Big Band Introducing (Mickey Roker, 1968)
The pianist had released a number of well-received small-group recordings since the ’50s, but began leading an experimental modern big band in the late ’60s, and this debut LP kicks on multiple levels. During his long and successful career, Mickey Roker, who passed away earlier this year, spent time as a house drummer at Blue Note Records and during the ’70s was associated with Duke Ellington.
Also check out: Duke Pearson Sweet Honey Bee (1967) /// Herbie Hancock Speak Like a Child (1968)
31. Chick Corea Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Roy Haynes, 1968)
Roy Haynes has logged hundreds of great drumming moments—at ninety-two, he’s considered the dean of jazz drummers—but this classic of feel and interaction is an ideal platform for his chops, time, and ability to fit into the most cutting-edge environment, even well after he established himself with giants of jazz like Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, and Stan Getz.
Also check out: Roy Haynes We Three (1958) /// Oliver Nelson The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) /// John Coltrane Newport ’63 /// Chick Corea Trio Music Live in Europe (1984)
32. Buddy Rich Very Alive at Ronnie Scott’s (Buddy Rich, 1971)
“The world’s greatest drummer” recorded a number of classic LPs (such as Swingin’ New Big Band in 1966, Big Swing Face in ’67, Mercy, Mercy in ’68, and The Roar of ’74), but the ferocity, drive, and command that Buddy displays here were pointed out by several contributors to this piece.
Also check out: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong Ella and Louis (1956) “This is an iconic jazz record,” Paul Wells says. “Buddy plays brushes on the whole thing, and it’s all super-swinging, tasty, mellow drumming. The second album by Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again (1957), features Louie Bellson on drums and is equally great.”
33. Paul Motian Conception Vessel (Paul Motian, 1973)
Paul Motian’s first effort as a bandleader shows that the well-regarded sideman envisioned an alternate type of jazz, one that was a little slower and stranger than popular sounds of the ’60s. With Persian and Armenian melodic influences and deep, throaty drum sounds, Motian, aided by pianist Keith Jarrett on the title track, started a quietly subversive body of work with Conception Vessel that would continue to present a sort of Zen counterargument to more muscular displays of jazz artistry.
Also check out: Bill Evans Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debbie (1961)
34. Miles Davis Agharta and Pangaea (Al Foster, 1975)
Al Foster is widely known as the drummer during Miles Davis’s most ferocious fusion period, of which these two double albums, recorded on the same date at the Festival Hall in Osaka, Japan, are standouts. Foster can be heard here whackin’ the heck out of sloshy hats and poking and prodding his bandmates to great heights of intensity—influencing a generation of fusion drummers in the process. “Hanging out with Miles rubbed off,” Foster told Modern Drummer in his January 1989 cover story. “I started playing more 8th-note things, and that’s what I wanted to do. But if you said to pick one style of music that I prefer playing, I would definitely pick straight-ahead jazz.”
Also check out: Kenny Barron Landscape (1985) /// Eddie Daniels To Bird With Love (1987) /// Quest (Dave Liebman) Quest (1991)
35. New Tony Williams Lifetime Believe It (Tony Williams, 1975)
Like Roy Haynes, Max Roach, and very few others, Tony Williams made important contributions to jazz history in remarkably varied settings and eras. Williams could easily have appeared earlier in this list for his groundbreaking work on Miles Davis’s mid-’60s “second great quintet” albums, from 1963’s Seven Steps to Heaven (recorded when he was merely seventeen) through the transitional ’68 release Filles de Kilimanjaro and ’69’s maiden “electric” album, In a Silent Way. Regardless of the style, Tony’s touch shows absolute control—he could be feathery or bombastic at will—and his advanced concepts of polyrhythmic playing and metric modulation seem to flow from his sticks effortlessly. Of course, in addition to the sheer talent that he was born with, Tony was a dedicated woodshedder whose rudimental control was unmatched. He was also a forward thinker who took Miles’ cues toward a future music that mixed jazz and rock in equal measure and produced his own groundbreaking fusion recordings, such as this debut album by his second Lifetime band, featuring guitarist Allan Holdsworth, keyboardist Alan Pasqua, and bassist Tony Newton.
Also check out: Eric Dolphy Out to Lunch! (1964) /// V.S.O.P. The Quintet (1977) /// Tony Williams The Story of Neptune (1991)
36. Chick Corea Three Quartets (Steve Gadd, 1981)
Is it acoustic fusion? Labels don’t apply here, as Steve Gadd lays down propulsive swing, whips out outrageous fills and accents, and brings military-grade precision to a set of intricately composed material. He was “the man” before, but after this, Gadd became a god.
Also check out: Michel Petrucciani Trio in Tokyo (1997)
37. Jaco Pastorius Big Band Twins, Live in Japan (Peter Erskine, 1982)
“Peter had a lot of experience playing in big bands that were intricate, like Stan Kenton,” Gerry Gibbs says. “The music here is wild, and Jaco left a lot of space for blowing. Peter knows exactly what to do to give the band something to sit on—that’s the most important thing. And he had to adjust to six or seven soloists. Also having a conga drummer can be problematic, but Peter knew just how to play with Don Alias.”
Also check out: Weather Report Night Passage (1980) /// Marc Johnson Bass Desires (1985)
38. Wynton Marsalis Black Codes (From the Underground) (Jeff “Tain” Watts, 1985)
“This album was one of the first to show that the Young Lions movement was not about guys just trying to replicate the past,” Paul Wells says. “Tain was coming out of Tony and Elvin but was also influenced by the fusion drumming of Billy Cobham, and brought some of his ideas and aggressiveness, but he could be very sensitive as well. He’s probably best known for having his own language of polyrhythmic drumming, and this record is a great showcase for that.”
Also check out: Jeff “Tain” Watts Folk’s Songs (2007)
39. Michael Brecker Michael Brecker (Jack DeJohnette, 1987)
“There’s so much ensemble playing here,” Gerry Gibbs says, “yet Jack can still play in a certain way where it’s almost like he doesn’t have to make adjustments. He can just be Jack D and still make it fit into that music. He never thinks about style, and that’s what makes him unique. Jack’s drumming is everything there ever has been in drums.”
Also check out: Miles Davis Live-Evil (1971) /// Jack DeJohnette Special Edition (1979)
40. Tommy Flanagan Jazz Poet (Kenny Washington, 1989)
“This album is, from beginning to end, a master class in brush playing,” says Paul Wells, who not only studied extensively with Kenny Washington but interviewed him for the April 2015 issue of Modern Drummer. “Kenny played with the most perfect, beautiful sound, and on an extremely wide range of tempos, from ridiculously slow to insanely fast.”
Also check out: Grant Stewart Downtown Sounds (1992)
41. Tommy Flanagan Beyond the Blue Bird (Lewis Nash, 1990)
In January of 1997, Lewis Nash appeared on the cover of Modern Drummer alongside the legendary Roy Haynes—no small compliment to the junior drummer, who made his name in the working bands of top-level artists like Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, and Betty Carter. This album is among the highlights of pianist Tommy Flanagan’s later but still vital work, and it’s a great introduction to Nash’s “gleaming swing feel, crack-shot energy, and extensive working knowledge of jazz history,” in the words of MD scribe Ken Micallef.
Also check out: Branford Marsalis Random Abstract (1987) /// Kenny Barron Invitation (1990) /// Clark Terry Having Fun (1990)
42. John Scofield and Pat Metheny I Can See Your House From Here (Bill Stewart, 1994)
Still early in his career, Bill Stewart had already established himself as a singularly unique master of swing and taste, all filtered through an irreverent post-bop concept and impeccable hand chops. Check him here supporting two guitar giants with new-jazz combustion and flair.
Also check out: Marc Copland New York Trio Recordings, Volumes 1–3 (2006–09)
43. Carl Allen Testimonial (Carl Allen, 1995)
Though he’s recorded dozens and dozens of albums with the cream of the jazz crop, this solo release neatly reflects Carl Allen’s multitude of skills beyond the kit—which are of course also in evidence here. But the producer, composer, and marketing-savvy artist put all his interests together on this release, which he described in his September 1995 MD cover story as “a jazz record with gospel overtones.”
Also check out: Freddie Hubbard/Woody Shaw Double Take (1985) /// Vincent Herring Evidence (1990) /// Jackie McLean The Jackie Mac Attack Live (1991)
44. Billy Drummond Dubai (Billy Drummond, 1996)
“I was never just a Blue Note–listening, hard-bop kind of guy,” Billy Drummond told Modern Drummer in July of 1997. “In the ’70s, when I was buying a lot of records, I was into ECM as well as straight-ahead, swinging stuff.” This third solo release by the drummer, who cut his teeth with jazz greats including Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, and Freddie Hubbard, reflects his wide view of jazz, and ups the exploration levels of his first two recordings, particularly on “Drum Head,” written by tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf.
Also check out: Renee Rosnes For the Moment (1990) /// Bobby Hutcherson Mirage (1991) /// Walt Weiskopf Sextet Simplicity (1992)
45. Joshua Redman Timeless Tales (for Changing Times) (Brian Blade, 1998)
Pop and jazz standards done in odd times? Sounds like another gimmick to bring in a wider audience. Except Brian Blade kills on this, working his beautiful cymbals into a frenzy and supplying a constant stream of drama. Blade’s drumming is fiery, pristine, and full of surprises.
Also check out: Brian Blade Fellowship (1998)
46. Bobby Watson & Horizon Horizon Reassembled (Victor Lewis, 2004)
This release represents the reemergence of the group that described its sound as “post Motown bop.” In his June 1992 interview with Modern Drummer, Victor Lewis explained his approach to the concept this way: “With Motown stuff, they would find the death groove for a particular bass line, for that feeling—the right lick. With jazz and improvisation, from each section of the tune I not only try to do what’s written in the head, but I also try to think of what each section represents, compiling a whole set of subsections within each section.” This deep approach to analyzing exactly what a specific musical situation calls for has kept Lewis on the short list of go-to jazz drummers for more than forty years, with artists as diverse as Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, Kenny Barron, George Cables, and Carla Bley.
Also check out: Victor Lewis Know It Today, Know It Tomorrow (1992)
47. Bill Frisell East/West (Kenny Wollesen, 2005)
This double live album, recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York and Yoshi’s in Oakland, is a perfect showcase for guitarist Bill Frisell’s all-inclusive sound, where jazz mixes with rock, soul, avant-garde, and country music. And Kenny Wollesen—swinging, slogging, brushing, grooving, but always listening—is the perfect copilot for Frisell, able to steer the ship through changing waters without even looking at the radar.
Also check out: Julian Lage Arclight (2016)
48. Terri Lyne Carrington Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue (Terri Lyne Carrington, 2013)
Carrington has put down penetrating performances on albums by Herbie Hancock, John Scofield, Wayne Shorter, and many other top jazz artists. She’s also released a handful of excellent solo albums stuffed with exhilarating playing, including 2012’s Grammy-winning The Mosaic Project. This follow-up is a reimagining of the famous 1963 Duke Ellington/Charles Mingus/Max Roach release, Money Jungle. On it Carrington not only plays with her usual exemplary fire, but makes a strong case for her lyrical and conceptual voice being among the most intriguing in modern jazz.
Also check out: Wayne Shorter Joy Rider (1998)
49. Mark Turner Quartet Lathe of Heaven (Marcus Gilmore, 2014)
“Marcus plays complicated odd times better than almost anybody,” Paul Wells says, “but he does it with the most beautifully organic feel, so it never sounds mathematical.”
Also check out: Steve Coleman and Five Elements Weaving Symbolics (2006) /// Gonzalo Rubalcaba Avatar (2008) /// Gilad Hekselman This Just In (2013)
50. Ambrose Akinmusire A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Justin Brown, 2017)
Thirty-three-year-old Justin Brown is a bicoastal, extremely busy jazz drummer whose history working with Thundercat, Gerald Clayton, Christian McBride, Stefon Harris, Esperanza Spalding, and Vijay Iyer is simply a foretaste of his brilliant debut as a leader with his band Nyeusi. His cathartic drumming and ’70s-inspired funk/fusion material is thoroughly earth-scorching. To hear the state of his art, check out this double album by trumpeter Akinmusire.
Also check out: Gerald Clayton Bond: The Paris Sessions (2011) /// Scott Tixier Cosmic Adventure (2016)
We reached out to a number of drummers for research help with this article. Kenny Washington spent several hours assisting us with the task at hand, and no doubt several more re-filing the dozens of records he pulled off his shelves in the process. Gerry Gibbs, Paul Wells, and Brian Chase each offered invaluable insight. We also consulted with the longtime MD contributing writers Jeff Potter, Robin Tolleson, Michael Parillo, Ken Micallef, Will Romano, Martin Patmos, Ilya Stemkovsky, and Mike Haid. And we pored through the many responses MD readers provided on social media. Thanks to everyone for your contributions.