Artist’s Choice: Drew Gress on Underrated Bassist/Drummer Tandems
Rhythm sections that created something special
While there’s been no shortage of revered bass/drum teams throughout the history of jazz, the intention here is to call attention to a few of my favorite recorded moments created by rhythm sections that could be considered underrated. In some instances, lesser-known recordings by well-known rhythm sections are featured. Together, these bassists and drummers create something special.
DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA
At Fargo, 1940 (Storyville. 2011)
Jimmy Blanton, bass/Sonny Greer, drums
OK, so maybe these two aren’t flying under anyone’s radar, but the Fargo concert seems to. It swings so deeply, it’s no surprise this was a dance gig. The more even implications of Blanton and Greer’s groove, especially noticeable during Ray Nance’s and Barney Bigard’s solos, point toward the future. This energy allows the band to sit back into the writing ... and do they ever. The dream band. The dream gig.
A New Shade of Blue (Mainstream, 1971)
Buster Williams, bass/Billy Hart, drums
Jump ahead 30 years and here we are: Buster Williams’ quarter note is an imposing thing, indeed, but Billy Hart knows just how to fold that energy into a wave that lifts all boats. This is a lesson in propulsion and sustained energy on a brief, cyclical form—the ideal combination of strength and suppleness, and bounce. Still extremely contemporary today. There is also inspired Bobby Hutcherson throughout this album, as well as great pocket presence from pianist Bill Henderson, both comping and soloing.
Mountainscapes (ECM, 1976)
Barre Phillips, bass/Stu Martin, drums
This album cleared new ground for ongoing commentary from the bass, even while purveying groove. Stu Martin and Barre Phillips are playing on pulse here, but in a conversational way that allows for interaction—or not so much. Still, bass and drums are hooked up in a very intense way. (I’ve always loved the way Chinese ride cymbals pair with bass, whether it’s Martin or Mel Lewis playing them.) Their use of space within this nasty rhythmic field creates some high musical drama, and the inverted roles of rhythm and lead instruments are fresh. The rhythm section seems to be soloing and chattering away while the synths and John Surman’s bass clarinet create atmospherics and sonic habitat. Space truly is the place.
CLIFFORD JORDAN QUARTET
Glass Bead Games (Strata East, 1973)
[reissued on last year’s Jordan box set on Mosaic]
Sam Jones, bass/Billy Higgins, drums
“Perfection” is an appropriate word to describe the way these gentlemen hook things up. Sam Jones always knows the right moves and precisely when to make them. His elegant way of moving from 2-feel to walking, and his creativity within the suspended sections of the composition, are so spot-on they seem pre-composed. And, of course, there’s that sound. The same can be said of Billy Higgins, and the ’70s studio sonics only heighten your awareness of his inventiveness and the hand-in-glove manner in which these two engage. The off-kilter quality of the blowing form is barely noticed, as everyone flows effortlessly within. There’s also vibrant, loose improvising from composer Cedar Walton. Know it? He wrote it.
Weather Report (Columbia, 1971)
Miroslav Vitous, bass/Alphonse Mouzon, drums
Here is some very funky, swinging time, made all the more exciting by its seemingly contradictory evenness. Airto Moreira adds more of an already good thing. There’s such commitment to the beat here, every quarter note seems like an event. Plenty of bravado here as well. Vitous’ growl is relentless, and his impatience to get going already is infectious. I also love the way Mouzon lives on the borderlands between swing and something else. The spatial conversation among the entire band is fascinating.
“The Best Thing for You”
Of Course, Of Course (Columbia, 1965)
Ron Carter, bass/Tony Williams, drums
Everyone knows these iconic artists. On this album, you'll hear them in a transparent setting, with pristine sound, all the better to enjoy what they’d built together to this point. The way the groove is de- and reconstructed coming out of the melody is a wonder, and the detail of Tony Williams’ ride cymbal is riveting (sic). Pretty much what any bassist wants to hear. It's also a rare chance to hear Ron Carter in such an open setting, where his more vertical ideas have room to breathe. Charles Lloyd is only too happy to ride on this. “Third Floor Richard” from the same album has a great bass/drum duet, as well, and, the title track is also noteworthy, as Ornette Coleman seems to be in the room.
Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1970)
Jymie Merritt, bass/Mickey Roker, drums
Philadelphia! The loping springiness of the rhythm here is remarkable. Composer/bassist Jymie Merritt’s looseness in blowing over the 12/8 groove, even as he supports the other soloists, is a wonder. Somehow, he finds a way to create maximum forward motion by often steering clear of the major beats. Daredevil work, really. Roker makes it all make perfect sense, somehow. This track serves as an object lesson in sustained release, as this intense track clocks in at 22' plus!
Drew Gress is a bassist and composer living in upstate New York. He tours the world with numerous artists on jazz’s cutting edge, and his latest recording as a leader is The Sky Inside (Pirouet). He also teaches at New York University, and can be found online at DrewGress.com.