Al Foster has an infectious groove that’s propelled by his signature ride sound, which he’s drawn from a 22″ Paiste Sound Creation Dark ride with rivets throughout much of his recorded career. Foster’s comping is musical and creative; it’s as if he’s a one-man orchestra, with each limb creating different voices around the kit. He also shades and colors music with various textures and rhythmic motifs, and he never gets in the way of a tune while continually rumbling beneath the ground. Sometimes, when the time is right, he’ll burst up from below the surface and react to and encourage soloists’ phrasing. Propelling his bandmates’ ideas with clear intention and intensity, Foster is a true conversationalist and interpreter of jazz.

A great example of Foster’s playing can be found on the 1981 album The Magnificent Tommy Flanagan. The examples in this lesson were transcribed from a Cole Porter tune off that record called “Ev’rything I Love.” I transcribed the eights Foster trades with pianist Flanagan, including the comping and solo sections. Listen to the recording while checking out these transcriptions to fully absorb the material.

Let’s check out the first example (3:34). Foster’s playing is incredibly complementary to the shape of Flanagan’s lines. One of the key elements of jazz soloing is tension-and-release. Musicians play an idea, build it up to a climax, and then release the tension. In measure 3 of the comping section, Foster plays a relatively dense idea between the bass drum and snare right at the point of tension in Flanagan’s line before it resolves.

Foster’s solo phrases are usually inspired by what the other musicians previously played, but also sometimes by a fresh motif that he develops. Particularly interesting here is how he fills in the little holes with his bass drum, such as in the transition from the third to fourth measures of the solo section.

In the comping section at 3:48, Foster plays a repeated three-note phrase primarily on the snare within 4/4 to create a polyrhythmic feel. In this example the three-beat idea starts in the second measure and lasts until the fifth bar. Foster maintains a consistent 4/4 jazz ride pattern throughout. In the solo he states a simple, flowing melodic concept and sees it through while utilizing repetition as a device.

This next excerpt (4:03) also has some smooth three-over-four comping with the snare in the first four bars. Measures 5 through 8 have some interesting combinations between the snare and bass drum that help build up the intensity of the piano solo. Foster’s strong soloing also utilizes an element of repetition to build the phrase. The bass drum intersperses among the snare drum, rack tom, and floor tom, helping to displace the ideas melodically. In this example Foster takes a simple idea and orchestrates it to create a melodic statement.

The solo in this next section features an interesting, almost displaced feeling, especially leading into the third measure. This also provides a great example of how Foster makes every idea clearly fit. Each limb flows effortlessly with the others within the phrase—an example of the drummer’s able coordination (4:17).

Essential Al Foster

Joe Henderson The State of the Tenor, Vols. 1 & 2

Red Garland Feelin’ Red

Carmen McRae Carmen Sings Monk

Miles Davis Star People

Blue Mitchell The Thing to Do

Go to Modern Drummer’s Spotify page to listen.

Jordan Young has played with Wynton Marsalis, Peter Bernstein, and Jerry Vivino, among others. He’s a member of organist Brian Charette’s group, Kürrent, and leads the Jordan Young Group and the Soul-Juice Organ Trio. Young maintains an active private teaching studio in Brooklyn, New York. He endorses Canopus drums.