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Chops: What Bassists Listen for in Drummers

Henry Franklin, John Patitucci, and Bill Laswell discuss what the four-string set wants in a rhythm-section partner

John Patitucci
John Patitucci (photo: Santiago Interiano)

As a JazzTimes writer, I can talk about the powers of a dynamic drummer until I’m blue in the face: the weight of each tom-tom’s thwomp, the clanking of the rim, the stroking of the snare. What I can’t express is the feeling of physical interplay, the empathetic energy, and the knotty-pine roots of psychology shared between those same drummers and the bassists who love them. Or hate them but crave to work with them. Or just got thrown into a van with them and have been told to battle it out. 

Tighter than most marriages—and often more sensual, spiritual, and frenetic too—a great rhythm section rattles and hums with the vibes of the universe at its back and a groove in its step. JazzTimes spoke to three bassists from diverse musical backgrounds about what they look for in a drummer, and which ones they’ve dug hanging with the most.

Henry Franklin
When Jazz Is Dead releases JID 14 this autumn, the label adds an extra-special notch to its figurative belt: a creative partnership with California double-bass legend Henry Franklin. Beyond being famed as “The Skipper,” his nickname as one-time house bassist for the cherished Black Jazz label, Franklin has played with rhythm men such as Willie Bobo and Billy Higgins, and had his track “Soft Spirit” sampled by A Tribe Called Quest.

Easy to laugh and quick to recall all, Franklin wasted no time pointing out his specifications in a great drummer: “In a dynamic partner in rhythm, I always look for the time, for the space, and I look for someone who can play the cymbals uniquely, the rides. I love finding out about the compatibility that we’ll have with each other.”

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Franklin, who’s been working professionally since he was a part of Hugh Masekela’s band—he was the trumpeter’s bass man at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and you can hear him on the 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass”—can name a number of drummers with whom he was especially simpatico. “My favorite of all time was Sonship,” he said of Charles Lloyd’s onetime drummer (born Woody Theus). “He was dynamic, had energy without having a lot of volume control, had the necessary looseness, and knew how to lay back when a bassist played a solo. Ndugu Chancler was a great timekeeper. Michael Carvin and I played together a lot in the 1960s, and we locked together well. I recently played with Mike Clark, and I loved our camaraderie. And I learned so much playing with Billy Hart, mainly keeping up with his fours and his eights—how he plays his times is just impeccable.”

John Patitucci
Renowned for fusion and acoustic jazz sessions with drummers such as Peter Erskine, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jack DeJohnette, Omar Hakim, and Steve Gadd since the late 1970s, bassist/composer/Three Faces label co-owner John Patitucci never slows. As we speak, he’s putting the finishing touches on his Live in Italy release with Chris Potter and one of his DOCs (Drummers of Choice), Brian Blade. Whether Patitucci’s talking about friends or stickmen, Blade is at the top of Patitucci’s list—the 20-plus years they’ve worked together mean something special to him.  

“If you’re asking about drummers, Brian is part of my family,” he says. “I love Brian with all of my heart, and he’s one of the most incredible musicians in the history of jazz … of every style of music.”

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Beyond brotherly affection, what Patitucci says he’s looking for in a drummer is often more ephemeral than it is physical, and usually “mystical” in its decision-making. “There’s the nuts-and-bolts part: the time feel, the flexibility, the way they orchestrate, the big ears to be able to listen and react, the ability to be an incredible musician who plays the drums instead of one who’s just looking to show off licks,” he says. “But there’s something too that you can’t always put a finger on. The classic guys that we love—Elvin [Jones], Tony [Williams], Paul [Motian], Jack [DeJohnette]—even guys I came up with like [Dave] Weckl and Colaiuta, they have developed musical minds beyond technique. Steve Jordan, Jeff Porcaro, Nate Smith, and Bernard Purdie too.”

Not only does Patitucci revere drummers, but he also wanted to be one before he picked up the bass; he still keeps a set around his home studio. “My dad wouldn’t let me have a set when I was a kid, but I wanted to be that guy,” he says. “As soon as I was an adult and had my own place, I got a set of drums. And I always tell my students, you don’t have a great band until you have a great drummer … it’s such a powerful center.”

Bill Laswell
Genre-jumping bassist/composer/producer Bill Laswell had just dropped his Ropeadope collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Ulf Ivarsson, Nammu, when we spoke, so the innate quality of rhythm as the bloodline of all that he’s done—with both drummers and drum machines—was still fresh in his ears.

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“I don’t look for specific things in drummers or percussionists, but what is important—what I’d expect to happen and engage with—is feel and tone, as to how they resonate in terms of dynamic,” Laswell says. “Time, or keeping time, not as much. Creating something that feels good, something you can build on, is paramount to me. If it feels good, it will only get better. If it’s bad, it could get worse.”

The bassist always hopes to come out of each experience with a drummer having “a little more perspective, a little more expectation” as to what’s possible sonically. “And I’ve had nothing but good experiences.” 

When he considers the best relationships and interplay between himself and key drummers in his life, Laswell goes back to early in his career: “The first examples that come to mind are Tony Williams [whose second album with Laswell under the band name of Arcana, 1997’s Arc of the Testimony, was re-released on Bandcamp last year] or someone as distinctive as Ginger Baker—you’re not going to find other drummers who played as they did. Ziggy Modeliste and Sly Dunbar could keep a beat that could hypnotize. [Playing] with challenging drummers such as Ronald Shannon Jackson and Milford Graves—if you did it right—held great results.”

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What drumming could possibly be “challenging” to a veteran like Laswell? “If you work with certain drummers,” he explains, “you develop a language that can only be done by the two people—some take time, some of it is immediate. Like Ian Chang, with whom I‘ve worked playing with Dave Douglas. He was a natural, and new, and our feel came fast. Aaron Johnston, Mark Guiliana too. They’re establishing unusual things and new languages. That’s challenging to me.”