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Artist’s Choice: Matt Wilson’s Favorite Ride Cymbal Melodies

"The beat is a song," says the drummer

Louie Bellson
Jack DeJohnette
Matt Wilson

It’s amazing how much music thrives through the sheer beauty of a jazz drummer’s ride cymbal melody. A melody, you ask?

That’s how I hear the sound of the groove. It’s much more than just a rhythm played on a disk concocted of various metals. The beat is a song. Give a concentrated listen to a swinging ride cymbal beat and a world of music will unfold before your very ears. I also invite you to experience the space between the drummer’s beats; this space is a glorious element of the cymbal melody. Here are some of the ride cymbal melodies that have helped shape my cymbal song.


Clifford Brown and Max Roach
Study in Brown (Emarcy, 1955)

The title says it all. Mr. Roach had a way of playing fast tempos with so much intent. I believe the ride cymbal and bass represent the horizontal plane of time; the hi-hats and comping of snare and bass drum represent the vertical. I love how Mr. Roach presents both planes with a deep melodic feel. Amazing!


Gerry Mulligan/Ben Webster (Mel Lewis, drums)
Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (Verve, 1959)

I met Mr. Lewis in college. A friend and I stayed up all night talking with him about music. I remember him telling us, “I don’t have bad nights, just better nights than others.” I think on this cut it was a better night. The melody of his cymbal beat is so swinging and light, and it blends so beautifully with the song.


Hank Mobley (Art Blakey, drums)
Soul Station (Blue Note, 1960)

An opportunity to hear Mr. Blakey and bassist Paul Chambers offer one of the greatest “in 2” feels ever. I adore the clarity of the beat-talk about singing! I dance whenever I hear this time melody, even while I’m driving.

“Surrey With the Fringe on Top”

The Miles Davis Quintet (Philly Joe Jones, drums)
Steamin’ (Prestige, 1961)

I was 15 when I heard this in a record store. I can recall how I could not only hear the beat but see the stick tip striking the cymbal surface: It was a total-sensory experience. I rushed to the counter to purchase it. Check out how Mr. Jones orchestrates the beat with each soloist. Brilliant!

Fly Me to the Moon”

Roy Haynes Quartet
Out of the Afternoon (Impulse!, 1962)

The first time I saw Mr. Haynes live, I realized that every part of the drumset can represent the ride cymbal. How he allows the song to happen is so phenomenal! I lobby for a Roy Haynes postage stamp. Are you with me?

“Monk’s Dream”

Larry Young (Elvin Jones, drums)
Unity (Blue Note, 1965)

Elvin Jones is my wife Felicia’s favorite drummer. They had a brief flirtatious exchange one night at a club in Boston that was truly memorable. I didn’t care-it was Elvin Jones! I love this track because of how his cymbal beat and time melody really hug the sound of the song. And we all know Mr. Jones could hug!

“Cotton Tail”

Louie Bellson
Thunderbird (Impulse!, 1966)

Mr. Bellson was a huge inspiration to me as a young drummer. His hometown of Moline, Ill., was 50 miles away from my hometown, and his regular appearances there were always extraordinary. This track has a very brisk tempo, and his cymbal melody blends with the sonic proceedings so effortlessly. I must also note that his beautiful countenance was evident in every note he ever played.

“Happy House”

Old and New Dreams (Ed Blackwell, drums)
Playing (ECM, 1980)

I remember when I bought this record in Salina, Kan. I listened to it over and over, and I was fascinated by how each band member’s sound was a vital source of the other musicians’ sounds: a blend of sounds and souls. Mr. Blackwell was melody, folks. There was no way I could not welcome his influence in my 12 great years playing with Dewey Redman.

“Ahmad the Terrible”

Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition
Album Album (ECM, 1984)

This is one of the greatest albums of the ’80s and this tune has so much personality. A couple years ago, bassist Martin Wind and I saw Mr. DeJohnette’s band at Birdland, and our view was limited to his right hand playing the ride cymbal. No doubt, we had the best seats in the house!


Paul Motian
Misterioso (Soul Note, 1987)

I love the melody of the time on this recording. Mr. Motian’s buoyant ride cymbal aligns, collides and weaves with the music so gorgeously. You feel every aspect of every beat and sound. How did he do it? He was the Picasso of the ride cymbal.

Matt Wilson is a drummer whose latest release is An Attitude for Gratitude (Palmetto) by his band Arts & Crafts. JT

Originally Published