Elvin Jones: At This Point In Time

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Elvin Jones
By Jimmy Katz
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Elvin Jones
By Jimmy Katz
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Elvin Jones
By Jimmy Katz
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Elvin Jones
By Alan Nahigian

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An unhurried Labor Day weekend evening and a home-cooked meal at the modest, well-kept confines of the Manhattan home Jones shares with his wife, Keiko, provided the needed circumstances recently for an engaging, free-flowing conversation. Old musical memories (the family Victrola and his favorite Leadbelly and Blind Boy Fuller 78s) and more current concerns (frustrations involving work on the apartment) were addressed with equal interest and candor.

Jones was approaching his 75th birthday, with plans for an appropriate September 9 celebration, and the drummer’s long timeline provided countless topics for discussion: growing up in a prodigious musical family in Pontiac, Mich., younger brother to trumpeter Thad and pianist Hank; moving to New York for a (failed) audition with Benny Goodman; freelancing with a wide range of the modern jazz stars of the day, including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, J.J. Johnson and Harry “Sweets” Edison; honing a singular, multirhythmic style that left many musicians and critics scratching their heads (“I’ll put it this way,” he once told Modern Drummer of his hungry days in New York, “my telephone didn’t ring as often as it could have”); and joining forces with John Coltrane in 1961, sparking one of the most influential melodic-rhythmic pairings in jazz, while spinning off his own career as a leader.

Since departing Coltrane’s orbit in 1965, Jones’ thunderous, loosely propulsive approach to timekeeping resonates through generations of drummers replicating his dramatic rolls and crashes and his challenging, distinctive ability to set up an uncanny rhythmic dialogue between all limbs. It’s difficult to imagine the precise polyrhythms of such fusion-era sparkplugs as Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham or Alphonse Mouzon without the inherent lessons of Coltrane’s premier percussive partner behind them.

With a wide grin, Jones starts with his thoughts about his 75th birthday, when he plans to be—what else?—playing.

“Hey, I’ve been playing for 62 years and it’s just another day, you know!” he laughs. “I mean, nobody expects to get into their 70s and 80s, but you know, I feel good, very fortunate and blessed to be here at all. The way we’re going to mark it is, we’ll be at the Blue Note [in New York City] for two straight weeks. We usually play at least two or three engagements at the Blue Note each year anyway but it just so happens that the timing is perfect for us—it happened to fall on my birthday.”

September 9 promised to be galalike, just as the remainder of Jones’ stay at the club featured special guests.

“Bill Cosby—I’ve known him for years, and we’re very good friends—is going to emcee on opening night, and Wynton Marsalis will come down and sit in,” Jones says. “Michael Brecker will be there the next two days and Ravi [Coltrane]’s going to be there the second week, so we’ll play a lot of Coltrane compositions then.”

The set list, however, didn’t consciously celebrate the entire Elvin Jones oeuvre, but rather “music in general. There’s so much to be thankful for, when one reaches this stage of life and is still an active participant in music, you have a lot of options. There will be Coltrane’s music, compositions by Keiko, and I like to play my brother’s compositions sometimes, because Thad wrote some beautiful songs, like ‘Ray-El,’ which he wrote for me. It will be two weeks, so there’ll be much time to explore.”

As he has over three decades, with drums placed front and center, Jones still leads his Jazz Machine, the ever-evolving group with the catchy and functional moniker and an alumni list that reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary jazz talent. Saxmen Dave Liebman, Frank Foster, Steve Grossman, Art Pepper, George Coleman, Pat LaBarbera, Joshua Redman, Ravi Coltrane; trumpeter Nicholas Payton and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis; guitarists Ryo Kawasaki, Roland Prince, Jean-Paul Bourelly; keyboardists Kenny Barron, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Jan Hammer; bassists Jimmy Garrison, Reggie Workman, George Mraz, Richard Davis, Gene Perla, Andy McCloud and David Williams. All have performed under Jones’ leadership or appeared on the roughly 50 albums the drummer has released to date.

“Right now, our personnel consists of Pat LaBarbera, playing tenor and soprano saxophone. He’s been with me the longest—since the ’70s. Delfeayo Marsalis is playing trombone; he does some writing and when I need his arranging expertise, he’s there. Gerald Cannon is playing bass—he’s in his 40s, a seasoned musician. His first job with our band was last year on a tour of Japan, and he had that spark that I always look for. He’s got the enthusiasm and he’s a stabilizing influence for a group with some younger people. Anthony Wonsey is a fine, young pianist from Chicago and he’s been with me now about a year. He’s a graduate of Berklee and he can play. I’ve had this run of great young pianists—before Anthony it was Carlos McKinney, who’s from Detroit and right now he’s off playing with Puffy Combs. And before him Eric Lewis—he’s a monster! I haven’t seen anyone compare with the kind of talent that he has.”

The Jazz Machine can be thought of as the modern-day Jazz Messengers: each lineup a proving ground, consistently introducing new talent to the jazz world. Jones certainly sees it that way. “I like to think that it’s the music that motivates them to the point that they want to excel, that they feel that they can and they have the freedom to go beyond themselves.”

While the Jazz Machine gigs regularly, Jones “has not done a studio album since It Don’t Mean a Thing in ’93” (on Enja) confirms Keiko, while his last sideman gig found him playing on Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (Nonesuch) last year. “I walked into the studio and we did Western music,” smiles Jones, a Zane Grey and Western film enthusiast. Keiko interjects that though the Jazz Machine has been recorded live in Japan three times, “We didn’t release it; we never had the right bassist until now.” Admitting a long-standing aversion to music labels in general, she reveals a project-by-project approach requiring corporate or institutional “sponsors for the recordings we want to do.”

Keiko then describes loose plans for a treatment of Madame Butterfly ("Not the Puccini opera—but the music of [guitarist and kota player] Masao Koga, which was very popular in Japan”) featuring Jones, a big band, an orchestra and Japanese voices and instruments. In addition, Jones has been working with longtime fan (and former Santana drummer) Michael Shrieve on a drum concerto and a biography. When asked of future recording plans—if he’d like to reunite with, say, Cecil Taylor or Sonny Rollins—Jones jumps to the reply with a different priority.

“I did a record with Cecil. I’ve already done a record with Sonny Rollins. Occasionally I see people like that and they say, ‘You want to make a record with me?’ and I say, ‘Sure! Let’s do it!’ But I don’t think we could do anything at this point in time that could exceed what has already been done. I mean, the reunion idea has a certain amount of romanticism, but the practicality just isn’t there. But I think there are a lot of young musicians who haven’t had an opportunity to be known so my sympathies are with them. I feel that, rather than an aggrandizement of myself, I want to see how many guys I can help.”

Jones’ diligent search for one particular tenor player confirms the drummer’s altruistic motivation.

“His name is Mark Shim—I heard him first when he played with Betty Carter about five years ago. I remember he played ‘Body and Soul’ and was the best musician on the stage. It wasn’t his sound so much as how he played—Betty Carter’s music was quite intricate, her arrangements highly technical, and he went through that book just casually, like there was nothing to it. I didn’t know his name and I put out some feelers for a couple of years but nobody seemed to know about him. Then all of a sudden, somebody knew him. He was sort of reclusive in a way—selective about what he does—and I can appreciate that.”

Jones proudly reports that Shim—recently on Blue Note and formerly a member of the label’s New Directions group—will join the Jazz Machine during the birthday bash at the Blue Note. Jones chuckles as he contemplates the impact of his two-week run there and wryly adds, “In fact—they wanted a month, but the last time I played with Dizzy was on his 75th birthday, and he stayed there for a month, and then after that he died,” he laughs. “I don’t want to do that!”

Exonerating the nightclub from any culpability in the trumpeter’s demise, Jones recalls the lesson of Gillespie’s schedule. “He played a solid four weeks then flew out to California and got ill. He was just exhausted, overworked I think. I try to keep myself from getting exhausted.”

Jones has his own recent experience to advise diligence in regard to his health. After two operations repairing circulatory problems, including a bypass procedure on one leg, his wife cancelled all touring activity for almost all of 2001. As keeper of his schedule (sometimes accepting, but more often turning down offers for Jones to appear) and of his dietary regime, Keiko deserves credit for the drummer’s hearty appearance and performance-readiness. And there’s the youth-maintaining power in the music itself, notes Jones.

“Well, before I had this problem with my leg I used to walk a lot, but playing the instrument itself still gives me enough exercise—mental exercise as well. I constantly think about what I’m doing, try to recorrect some of the things that I’ve done not properly. You have to be sincere and dedicated, as far as that goes. And if you live with Keiko, she’s got the diet plan, all right! She learned Japanese cuisine from her grandmother, who learned from her grandmother. There’s a purity to the food: a lot of vegetables, tofu, fresh fish and not a lot of fats and oils.”

Besides that of chef, Keiko wears the hats of booking agent, tour manager and song composer (based on Japanese folk melodies, her tunes provide Jones’ lineup with some of its most compelling modal workouts). She also acts as director of the Jones archive, a rambling collection of drum kits, percussion instruments, LPs, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, photographs and other ephemera of a life in music that completely fills another apartment in the same building. Comments about Jones’ extensive catalog of recordings lead to a discussion of personal favorites.

“I like them all but with my schedule I just don’t have time to sit and realize what I’ve done, one record compared to the others,” he laughs. “But there are two or three I especially like. I like the first one I did on Blue Note—Puttin’ It Together [1968]—with the trio of me, Joe Farrell, and Jimmy Garrison. I always liked that. I did another one, Elvin! [1961] for Riverside—that’s the one with ‘Ray-El’ on it. That was a lot of fun—with my brothers Hank and Thad, and Frank Wess and Frank Foster on saxes and Art Davis playing bass. And there was that Atlantic album Midnight Walk [1966] with my brother Thad on trumpet and flugelhorn, Hank Mobley on saxophone, Abdullah Ibrahim—Dollar Brand then—playing piano and Donald Moore on bass. I have it somewhere around here. Steven James, one of Duke Ellington’s nephews, played the electric piano and wrote a piece [“Lycra Too?”] when he was 16 and we recorded it [on that album]—he was so happy.”

Conjuring the details of different recording projects leads Jones to pause, then mention an often-overlooked Impulse title that, it turns out, was the impromptu rescue of an almost scrapped session.

“Heavy Sounds with [bassist] Richard Davis—that is one of my all-time favorites. It was supposed to be a trio date, one of those things where Bob Thiele was producing, and [guitarist] Larry Coryell was sick or something. So Richard and I were there at RCA’s Victor studio on 22nd Street, and we just started fooling around. He was using his bow, warming up. I asked him, ‘What’s that you’re playing?’ and he said, ‘Summertime.’ So we made a duet thing out of it—tom-tom, mallets and bow. They recorded it and it was so good they didn’t want to discard it. There was still studio time so I said, ‘Look, Larry isn’t here, I should call up my band and have them come in.’”

Heavy Sounds eventually featured tracks supplied by Coryell’s two last-minute replacements: saxophonist Frank Foster (“Shiny Stockings,” “Raunchy Rita”) and pianist Billy Greene (“M.E.”). The band might have lacked a guitarist, but Thiele was able to get guitar onto the record. Knowing of Jones’ musical abilities beyond the drums, Thiele orchestrated the drummer’s sole recording on guitar.

“Bob Thiele had heard me fooling around with guitar before—Freddie Greene used to let me play his—I’m not a real guitarist but it’s something that I love. And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do that?’ So he came in with a brand new guitar, and I had to string it up and the strings were so stiff I could hardly play them—the tips of my fingers were just burning up!”

“Elvin’s Guitar Blues,” according to Jones, should rightly be credited to an elderly gentleman who was a neighborhood fixture while he was growing up.

“It was one of these old blues tunes—the title I know it by is ‘Blues All Around My Bed.’ I’ve always liked to play that because it was one of the first pieces I learned. An old man taught me it when I was a kid in Pontiac. His name was Red—that’s the only name he went by. He was in the numbers racket and was very honest and everybody trusted him—he used to go around and pick up the numbers from all the houses in the neighborhood. I was already a drummer, but I liked guitar and these old guitar players—Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker.”

With a sip of wine to punctuate the segue, Jones begins to speak of musical styles beyond the normally accepted definition of jazz and how he does not see himself specifically as a jazz musician.

“The only thing I can think of is that when I play the drums, I try to play them as an instrument. I’m not trying to play in only one style. I just try and interpret the music as it comes. I could play, if I wanted to, in a rock ’n’ roll band. I’d play drums,” he chuckles, “but I’m not going to play the guitar or anything like that.”

Joking aside, Jones recalls being a little nonplussed when he realized how much of an impact his music and reputation had outside of the jazz world.

“When I was teaching at Frank Ippolito’s drum clinic on 50th Street in 1972, Jaimoe Johanson and Butch Trucks—they still play with the Allman Brothers Band—came in and said they wanted to take a lesson from me. So I took them up to my studio, and I said, ‘What do you expect from me? You’re already professionals, I can’t teach you anything!’ I felt like an idiot trying to teach them anything about the drums, because they were already first-class percussionists. I’m just glad to know young guys like that—I’ve known Jaimoe now for years.”

Jones the homebody looks slightly apologetic when I ask if he keeps his ear out for fresh talent on the drummer’s seat.

“I don’t get a chance to hear many people, and I’m not real good at remembering people’s names, but when I hear a good drummer it’s music to my ears because I know the instrument itself is very demanding. I can tell how much potential a person has. I can tell whether someone has been playing for 10 or 20 years. I can tell his ability by the way he handles his instrument, his approach to it and the consistency of what he does, the quality of the sounds he’s making. That’s what I’m interested in more than anything.”

Does anyone specific come to mind who conveys that quality? “OK, I’ll mention one: Peter Erskine, for instance. I think he’s one of the real stabilizing influences in percussion. His whole approach to the instrument is from a very classical point of view, and he has the kind of discipline that allows him to play anything he wants, any kind of music that’s required.”

Discussion of other drummers leads to Rashied Ali, the Philadelphia upstart who sat in and eventually replaced Jones in Coltrane’s band in the last weeks of 1965. Jones offers his take on their reputedly cantankerous relationship. (For Ali’s take, see the sidebar below.)

“That’s what people thought and talked about in the ’60s. I believe that when we were playing together it was too much of an antagonistic—I mean, he’s got a very strong mind and so have I, so it was very difficult for us at that particular time, but it had nothing to do with his abilities. The thing is, he is an excellent percussionist and I continue to respect his abilities. I see that he’s very articulate in his way of expressing his ideas when he speaks—and that’s the way he plays too, very articulate! Years later, after our experience with Coltrane, we run into each other now and then, and it’s like meeting a long lost friend, my brother.”

The idea of a loose, Coltrane alumni association—a group bound by a common, life-changing experience—is one that Jones finds appealing. As the drummer recalls, the sheer day-to-day proximity and intensity of traveling with Coltrane stirred emotions, but also created bonds that have yet to loosen.

“With Coltrane, if we didn’t have a job here in New York, we were in Chicago or St. Louis or Memphis or wherever. We’d travel all over the country, pile into the station wagon and go off. We were all together all the time, because from New York to California—that’s 3,000 miles—takes three days and three nights to make that. We’d go to the jobs, not wait for them to come to us, that’s the difference from today, you know? But it gave us an opportunity to understand each other in ways that are deeper than just being casual. Not like today when you see people occasionally when it’s time for a job and then when the job is over, everybody disappears. That’s why the Coltrane group was so special—it was special to each of us.”

The hour is getting late, bottles are empty and the dialogue is slowing down. Still, there’s time for a listening session—straight through both discs of the new A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition—and music replaces conversation. “I never listened to the albums we recorded,” Jones says, “not right after, not to any of them. I still don’t do that—I hear too many flaws.”

But it seems enough time has passed for this album. Jones’ eyes close as he focuses on the music, nodding to the rhythm. When the studio version of the famous Coltrane suite finishes, he lifts his head, offering no comment beyond a deeply satisfied smile.

Gearbox:

“I had to wait from the age of two to 21 till I had a set of drums—people should understand that,” says Elvin Jones as a means of explaining the attention and respect he affords his equipment. Accordingly, each query regarding his battery of percussion brought forth more than a mere list.

Drums: “They’re Yamaha’s Absolute line, but my kit is custom made. An 18-inch kick and the snare is my signature model: 14 inches by 8 inches deep. The two floor toms are 18 inches by 18 inches and 16 inches by 16 inches, and the racks are 8 by 12 and 9 by 13.”

Cymbals: “All Zildjian and all are 20-inch A or K models. I prefer K for the ride and A for that symphonic crash. I use three total, two augmented with rivets. My hi-hat is 14 inches because I like to hear it resonate, like Papa Jo Jones would do. It’s a much more sensitive sound than that old pockety-pock sound you got from smaller cymbals.”

Sticks: “They’re signature sticks—Millennium II by Pro-Mark—about 2.5 ounces. The point with them is the balance. They’ve got the same tensile strength on both ends, the bead or the butt.”

Brushes, mallets: “Brushes are Ludwigs and the mallets? I have a hard time finding those. The ones I like are made of bamboo, but nobody seems to make them anymore. Back in the ’80s we found some we liked being sold in Norway, and we bought over 300 pairs!” he laughs. “Just stuffed them in my trap cases and shipped them back. I’m still going through them.”

Heads: Remo Ambassador

Ali on Jones:

“It was called Ascension and I could have been there if I hadn’t been so up on myself.”

Rashied Ali was speaking publicly of Coltrane and Ascension, the saxophonist’s first full foray into the outer avant-garde, last February at Lincoln Center, flanked by Stanley Crouch and Ravi Coltrane. For a brief moment at the end of the evening, the drummer got confessional, sharing a tale from 1965.

“It was funny. Coltrane didn’t say ‘a record date.’ He’d say, ‘I’m going to make some tapes. Do you want to make them with me?’ I said, ‘Sure, I would love to.’ At that time [early summer ’65] I was playing with John every night, sitting in at the Half Note. I’m playing with John, so hey, ‘I am the cat!’ Then he said, ‘Elvin’s going to be playing too.’ I said, ‘Elvin’s gonna play?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘No man, I just wanna do it myself.’ He said, ‘Oh, really?’ And so the thing happened and I wasn’t there!” Ali laughs.

Today, Ali is as contrite of the prideful moments of youth as he is grateful for the opportunities provided him by his elders. In a later conversation, when my setup to a question began, “Coltrane was a great tenor player; Elvin was a great drummer…” Ali quickly interjected, “He’s still a great drummer!” When asked about catching Coltrane live, his reply concluded, “…especially when Trane and Elvin would hook up, just the two of them, that would knock me out.” With no prodding, the formerly headstrong newcomer was determined to give props to the man whose seat he eventually occupied at Coltrane’s side.

“I really think innovative music is only as good as its drummer. In order for Trane to do whatever it was he was looking to do, he had to have a drummer like Elvin Jones—he couldn’t have done that by himself. Just like it took Max Roach and Bird—or Philly Joe Jones and Miles or Art Blakey and Monk—to get this kind of real spellbinding sound that can just take over the whole music scene where everybody wants to play like that, you know. [In the ’60s] it was Coltrane’s music that dominated the whole music scene. The piano players were playing like McCoy Tyner. Saxophone players were playing like Trane. The drummers were playing like Elvin Jones—that’s the kind of dominance that group had.”

Today, Ali credits Jones as his final point of inspiration before forging his own sound.

“I had to really find another way to play because I was so taken up in the way Elvin was playing drums at the time. But I was lucky, because my teacher had been Philly Joe. Having that experience before I got into Elvin, having come through that Philly Joe thing and Max Roach and Art Blakey and then Elvin, I was able to start looking for Rashied, which I found eventually came out of the four of them.”

Back on the mike at Lincoln Center, Ali recalled a follow-up conversation with Coltrane.

“When he got back here [to New York City in late summer ’65], Pharoah said, ‘You know, John’s getting ready to open up at the Village Gate and he’s been talking about you.’ So I called him: ‘I hear you’re gonna be at the Village Gate next week. I would love to play with you.’ He said [tauntingly], ‘Elvin’s going to be on the job.’ I said, ‘Fine! I’ll do it!’” Ali and the crowd laugh together.

Originally published in November 2002

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