The Drum Is the Think

Assigned a feature on a news-making piano trio called the Bad Plus for my university paper, I contacted the band’s publicist, who set a date for me to speak with its drummer, David King. I called my editor and told him of the arrangement, to which he replied, “Try again.

“Tell them you refuse to interview the drummer,” he snarled. “Get the pianist.”

My strong-minded ed had recently started insisting his music writers forgo interviews with drummers, at all costs.

To him, this policy was as serious as a dress code, and quotes from another lunkheaded timekeeper in his section were bare feet in a fancy restaurant. In defense of my editor, who shall go unnamed but whose writing has appeared in this magazine, his coverage was appropriately geared toward club-level pop-punk, rock and jam bands, whose drummers were rarely composers and almost always good for sage words like, “Dude, it’s just so rad to tour, ya know?”

Drummers are the blondes of the rock and roll joke book, and I can’t say that’s entirely unfair. Their PR people know this, and that’s why they toss them onto lowly undergraduate music crits.

I called the Bad Plus’ people back, and they rescheduled my chat with Ethan Iverson. Mr. Iverson graciously and patiently answered my questions, some of which relied on unfounded comparisons to Medeski, Martin and Wood, although after reading King’s animated and insightful musings in the Happy Apple feature in this issue, I can’t help but wonder what could have been. In the democratically composing Bad Plus, King contributed my personal favorite TBP tune, the broodingly contemplative “Frog and Toad.” His creative work on Happy Apple’s new Sunnyside album, Happy Apple Back on Top, continues exploring the median between indie-rock pathos and Ornette Coleman’s intuitively melodic, blues-soaked avant-garde.

The best jazz drummers have that hard-earned ability to eclipse their instrument—to be defined as complete musicians and composers rather than jocks, which is how most technically adept rock drummers are marked. Yes, the brilliant Jeff “Tain” Watts can peel back layer upon layer of polyrhythmic wizardry, but as he makes obvious to Josef Woodard in his roundup of drummer-composers, he also spends considerable time with staff paper and a piano. The same goes for Woodard’s other interviewees, including King, Bill Stewart, Terri Lyne Carrington, Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, all of whom overcame the hurdle that so many clinician types never quite conquer: that after you’ve mastered the language, you should actually say something with it.

Of course, many of the percussionists featured herein articulate profoundly in nonmusical terms. In Bill Meredith’s report on the current state of Latin jazz, a genre musically, organizationally and cerebrally led by drummers of all varieties, Latin-jazz bandleaders like Bobby Sanabria delineate how ignorance has concealed Latinos’ indelible contributions to jazz.

One drummer-composer who did much to cease racial injustice in this country was the late bop pioneer Max Roach, whose Freedom Now Suite succeeds equally on aesthetic and political levels enough to outlive its era (like the best protest music). Roach proved, once and for all, how drummers, the most physical men and women on the bandstand, could also be the most intellectual.

Originally published in November 2007

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