If you’re serious about being a drummer,” he told her, “you have to hear the greatest drummer alive.” Cindy Blackman was only 15 in 1975, but she was serious about being a drummer. She’d been playing for eight years and was already gigging around the Hartford, Conn., area with a teenage funk band. Who was the greatest drummer alive, she asked Greg Chappel, and how could she hear him?
Chappel, the guitarist in a band with Cindy’s big sister Anasa, invited the kid sister over to his house and down to the basement. He put an LP on the turntable and left her alone with it while he went upstairs to eat Sunday dinner with his family. The album was Miles Davis’ In Europe, and Tony Williams, the drummer, was pitting time signature against time signature in a hurricane of beats that the young listener had never imagined possible. “When Greg came back downstairs,” Blackman remembers, “my jaw was resting on the floor. I had never heard of Tony Williams, but now I wanted to find out everything I could about him. I wanted to do what he was doing. And when Greg told me Tony had only been 17 when he recorded that, I couldn’t believe it, because I was 15.”
Blackman’s latest album, Another Lifetime, is an explicit tribute to Williams featuring six tunes that he recorded plus another three that Blackman co-wrote in honor of him. But all her recordings, she insists, have been implicit tributes to Williams. Ever since that Sunday in Connecticut she has been pursuing the same level of energy, the same independence of different parts, the same degree of invention that she heard on that basement stereo. She has succeeded enough to release 10 albums as a bandleader and to record with such jazz artists as Wallace Roney, Mike Stern and Charnett Moffett, and pop artists like Lenny Kravitz, Joss Stone and Patti LaBelle.
In the weeks and months after that Sunday afternoon in Chappel’s basement, Blackman would gush to anyone and everyone about this incredible drummer she had discovered. One day one of her friends said, ‘Hey, that guy you’ve been talking about is doing a drum clinic this Sunday.’ Blackman’s single mom, a classical violinist, didn’t have much money, but there was no resisting her daughter’s enthusiasm. Cindy showed up at Creative Music in Weathersfield, Conn., to find Williams accompanied only by bassist Bunny Brunel. Williams had just released Believe It, a studio album with guitarist Allan Holdsworth, and was sporting a healthy afro around his baby face. “In those two hours,” Blackman recalls, “I heard the sound I wanted to have, the technique I wanted to have and the direction I wanted to go. It surpassed what I’d heard on record because I was able to see it. He was taking questions, and I half-heartedly raised my hand. He looked over to me, as if to say, ‘What is your question?’ I opened my mouth and no words came out. But I really wanted to talk to him, so I waited upstairs until everyone else had left. He came upstairs with this brown leather jacket and this beautiful leather stick bag that looked 200 years old. He had a scarf on and a hat; he looked like a king. As he was walking by, I said, ‘Hi,’ really softly, and he said ‘Hi,’ just as softly. It wasn’t until our second meeting that I actually talked to him.”
In the meantime, Blackman listened to Williams’ records obsessively, trying to pick out all the different things he was doing and then going to the drums and trying to duplicate what she had just heard. On the one hand, it was difficult, arduous work; on the other hand, Blackman never got tired of hearing those tracks. She soon discovered that Williams wasn’t innovating by replacing the past but by adding onto it. “He studied the history of the drums, from Sid Catlett and Papa Jo Jones to Max Roach and Art Blakey to Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones,” she declares. “He picked out all the things he liked from all those drummers and put them into one thing. If you listen to Art Blakey, he’s all about drive and energy; no one swung like he did. He worked with a lot of triplets and six over four. Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes came out of that and were working with triplets in a different direction. Tony took that concept of time within time but just didn’t do them in three; he’d do them in five, seven or nine. He would play snare patterns on the sock cymbal or the bass drum and syncopate them. Tony and Elvin studied African drumming, where a multitude of rhythms are happening. So, yes, when you heard Tony, it sounds like you’re hearing a multitude of drummers. One of those drummers might be a rock drummer; one might be a bop drummer; and another might be a free-jazz drummer. He wouldn’t be those drummers one at a time but all at once.”
You can hear what Blackman means on “Vashkar,” the Carla Bley composition that Williams completely reinvented for Emergency!, the 1969 debut album by the trio Lifetime. Once a lyrical piece recorded by pianist Paul Bley, it now began with John McLaughlin’s low guitar rumble and a series of snare drum rolls that seemed to detonate at the end of short fuses. As the rolls moved to the toms and McLaughlin articulated the captivating melody, there was a simultaneous cymbal commentary and a syncopated bass drum pattern. As the tune ascended into screaming variations on guitar and then on Larry Young’s organ, Williams seemed to be playing a non-stop solo, moving his flurry of sticks around the kit, pushing the beat with his pedals. It really did sound as if more than one drummer were playing-perhaps a rock drummer hammering the main pulse with tremendous physicality and a jazz drummer dancing all around that pulse.
Blackman loved that track so much that she recorded three versions of it for her new album, with a quartet including herself, guitarist Mike Stern, organist Doug Carn and bassist Benny Rietveld. The opening track on Another Lifetime is the version of “Vashkar” closest to the original, though Blackman’s arrangement adds unison riffs at regular intervals to reinforce the structure. She also has a tendency to vary her dynamics within each phrase more dramatically than Williams. And the presence of Rietveld encourages Stern and Carn to play in higher registers than McLaughlin and Young did. The album’s fourth track is “Vashkar Reprise,” a snippet from a studio jam given a hip-swiveling feel by Blackman’s funk groove. The seventh track is “Vashkar-The Alternate Dimension Theory,” a title reflected in the eerie, sci-fi arrangement. Stern plays squealing bird cries and string-scraping growls; Carn plays his effects-laden organ in curt phrases as if speaking an alien language; and Blackman plays rising-and-falling figures that imagine rumbling spaceships passing by. “The heart of those Lifetime records is organ, guitar and drums,” Blackman acknowledges, “but I thought it would be cool to play some of those trio tunes with bass, because Tony added Jack Bruce on bass a year later, and I’m a huge Jack Bruce fan. Benny Rietveld has been with Santana for 15 years now, and I gig with him whenever he’s available. Doug Carn was a friend of Larry Young and comes from that era, and I’ve wanted to play with Mike Stern ever since I was a student at Berklee and he was gigging around Boston. He’s got really big ears, and he’s got a lot of energy-which you need to play these tunes, because John McLaughlin wasn’t messing around.”
The rest of this article appears in the November 2010 issue of JazzTimes.