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Rock ’n’ Press Rolls

JT’s Managing Editor introduces November 2010 issue by making connection between jazz, drums and rock’n’roll

Lenny White. Cindy Blackman. Tom Rainey. Barry Altschul. Terri Lyne Carrington: This is our annual drum issue, if you hadn’t already guessed. Admittedly, we don’t always adhere so closely to our scheduled themes, but this book is the real deal: a rhythmically minded edition all around, from the features to our Opening Chorus departments to Gearhead and even our monthly columns.

Two of those columns deal with opposing sides of jazz’s percussive sensibility. In Solo, Fernando Gonzalez catches up with the groundbreaking pianist, composer and bandleader Guillermo Klein at his home in Buenos Aires. Klein, as anyone who’s heard his Sunnyside albums Domador de Huellas and Filtros can verify, is the architect of an arrestingly unique music, one that, as he tells Gonzalez, doesn’t have too much use for received wisdom or traditional swing drumming. Instead, Klein prefers to couple postbop harmony with the folkloric rhythms of his native Argentina, or, often astonishingly, invent his own feels. I recall one concert in Washington, D.C., in which Klein directed his Los Guachos band through polyrhythmic ensemble sections that suggested a DJ remixing in real time. It was a mind-blowingly skillful display that was also utterly musical.

The other piece in question is Nate Chinen’s The Gig, which is funnier and more personal than his usual blend of deft analysis and finely crafted prose. In “Drummers & drummers,” Chinen remembers his youth in Honolulu, when he was an unabashed drum geek-loitering in instrument shops to eavesdrop on musician conversations, taking in clinics, buying instructional videos on VHS, working to build his chops with a body builder’s sort of commitment, worshipping Dave Weckl and quite possibly growing a mullet. Reading the piece, I began to feel really nostalgic, and also extremely lucky that I was into music before the Internet put the hurt on brick-and-mortar retail (and, for that matter, publishing): Sure, there’s still Guitar Center and a few decent record shops around, but I can remember when these places-like the magazines and videos they stocked and the expert personnel they employed-made information feel special, and fostered a community.

Anyway, I, like Nate, had the idea to be a professional musician long before the thought of music journalism ever popped into my head. (But I’m not, as Nate also denies, a frustrated musician: That clichéd accusation of music critics is as ridiculous as saying a sports columnist failed in life because he never made it to the NFL.) I was also a chops-obsessive, though my focus was guitar: I scoured the lessons in magazines like Guitar, Guitar World and Guitar Player, carried my guitar to school even on days when I had no jazz- or pep-band rehearsal, and un-ironically listened to the music of Yngwie Malmsteen. (And this was the ’90s, mind you.) My sorry “alternate-picking speed” was a major life concern, fitting in somewhere between getting cut from the baseball team and trying to avoid being recognized at my movie-theater job.

A lot can happen in a bit more than a decade, however, and tastes mature as people do. Just as Nate admits his drum-shop education didn’t prepare him for a tremendous stylist such as Paul Motian, I recall Motian’s longstanding trio-mate Bill Frisell going way over my adolescent head. I couldn’t fathom someone playing so few notes. Now, of course, I can’t get enough, and that kind of transition has marked my relationship with a lot of jazz.

There’s one particular period of music that satisfies me in full, however-then and now, geek and non-geek (or, rather, less-geeky). It’s the original-generation fusion; say, electric Miles and the immediate fallout. From the late ’60s through the ’70s, jazz-rock presented an imposing and inevitable ideal: a combination of stadium-sized sonics and contemporary technology with studied technique and real theoretical knowledge. What could go wrong?

A lot it turned out, but just as bebop was sterling and self-contained for the few glorious years directly following its inception, jazz-rock has its golden age, and fusion fans should be reminded of those times throughout this drum issue. There’s Cindy Blackman, who tells her own tale of drum geekery, detailing an awkward exchange with her lifelong idol, Tony Williams, at a local drum clinic. Blackman’s latest record, Another Lifetime (Four Quarters), pays homage to Williams albums like Emergency! , which offered a sort of high-decibel psychedelic bop that still sounds otherworldly.

You can bet our cover subject Lenny White dug Lifetime: After all, the Return to Forever drummer is currently on a mission to “put the rock back into jazz-rock” with his Anomaly (Abstract Logix) album and its namesake band. (With White and guitarist Jimmy Herring, the drummer’s goal isn’t such a tall order.) Even drummer Tom Rainey, who personifies the selfless, anticommercial, restlessly creative ideals of the avant-garde, admits to playing in a faux-Weather Report outfit as a young man. Often, geekery is a path to greatness.

Originally Published