Before & After: Leon Parker

The reclusive drummer worships Monk and praises Baby Dodds but isn’t so crazy about Ornette

Leon Parker (photo: Steven Sussman)

Leon Parker has been keeping busy since he returned to the United States a few years ago, having previously spent about two decades abroad in France—during which time he rarely performed or recorded. Now the 54-year-old drummer, who came to prominence in mid-’90s New York for his pared-down style, is active in a number of groups, particularly with Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein, and Aaron Goldberg.

Parker himself hasn’t released an album under his own name since 2001, but he is currently at work on a new release that he plans to put out at the beginning of next year, featuring contributions, he says, from Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, and Cécile McLorin Salvant

Though he is now stateside, Parker still lives a monastic existence. He doesn’t own a cellphone, and he doesn’t appear to have a fixed residence. His drum setup is minimal too: ride, snare, bass, two toms (and no hi-hat). Parker feels that being away from the scene for a while has given him fresh perspective. “I’m not proving myself on the drum set,” he told me during a recent interview in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. “When I was younger, I had to do that.”

In late August, Parker sat for his first Before & After listening session. The conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, veered all over the place, from stick work to astrology.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring songs in this Before & After:

1. Joshua Redman
“Sweet Sorrow” (MoodSwing, Warner Bros.). Redman, tenor and soprano saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 1994.

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BEFORE: [Immediately] Joshua. And since I know Joshua, that’s Brian Blade. The truth is, I’ve heard Brian on record, and judging from the way he plays mallets, I thought, “That’s Brian”—before I heard Josh. 

How would you identify his mallet style?

This is the moment. How would I define his mallet style? [Pauses] I want to put it in a positive light. What I can say about Brian Blade is he’s a Leo, he’s part of that incredible Leo astrology thing. They are assertive. They leave a mark. Like, for example, Vernel Fournier. Jack DeJohnette. Brian Blade. I think Dafnis Prieto also. Leon Parker. Leos. I’m a Leo. I feel that—what’s the word?—there’s a calm detachment in the way that Brian plays mallets. 

And you think that applies to DeJohnette and Fournier as well?

No, not at all, I think they’re the opposite. Calm, yes, but I don’t feel them to be detached, nor myself. Brian Blade is somewhat detached. But I do know that Leos make a mark.

2. Roy Haynes
“Moon Ray” (Out of the Afternoon, Impulse!). Rahsaan Roland Kirk, tenor saxophone, manzello, stritch, C flute, nose flute; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Henry Grimes, bass; Haynes, drums. Recorded in 1962. 

BEFORE: [Immediately] I could be wrong, but again, judging by the mallets, I was thinking Roy Haynes. Just from the mallets. I’ve seen Roy play so many times. I’ve seen him take a lot of mallet solos. [Band enters] Now I know it’s Roy. When I was younger, I kept coming back to this album because—is this Rahsaan?—because it’s really ingenious, the combination of musicians. It’s really special. 

What do you like about Roy? I know he’s one of your favorite drummers. 

The thing that Roy has, and why he’s my favorite, is that—it’s like God took Roy and dipped him in a vat of rhythm, like oil, and then took him back out. So basically, he is synonymous with the time. I don’t mean the tempo, but the time. Everything about him is swingin’, so no matter what he plays, it’s always swingin’. So it just feels good—number one. Number two, he’s a Pisces, so he’s always dancing on top. What I love about him is he’s a percussionist, what I consider myself to be, versus someone like Art Blakey, who is another one of my favorites, but Roy’s never dictating the time. He’s accentuating the swing that is inherently there, so he’s just always bringing it out; he’s bringing out the beauty. Pisces are about spiritual beauty and artistic beauty, and that’s what Roy is, man. 

Do you know him?

I met him when I was 11 years old. I saw him at a concert with my best friend Scott, who introduced me to a lot of live jazz when I was young. He was studying with Joe Morello, and his parents kind of adopted me and brought me along whenever they went to see live music. And Joe Morello and Roy Haynes were playing together, so Scott and I had to go see them. So I went up to Roy, and I didn’t know what to say, I just knew I had a connection with him, and I was like, “I want to study with you,” and he’s like, “I don’t teach, kid.”

3. Paul Motian
“I Have the Room Above Her” (I Have the Room Above Her, ECM). Motian, drums; Bill Frisell, guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2004. 

BEFORE: Tell you right now, I have zero idea who this is. Is this going to go on like this? [Laughs] So this is not an older group. If it’s a group, it’s a younger group, otherwise it’s just a get-together?

This particular trio used to play together a lot. 

Is this Lovano and Scofield and somebody else? Otherwise, I have no idea past Lovano. I kind of guessed at him. It’s interesting. If it’s Lovano, then it could be Joey Baron. 

AFTER: Paul Motian. Gotcha. That makes sense. I know there are similarities between him and Joey, maybe not in their playing, but in their philosophy, about being really musical. I know Joey. I didn’t know Paul at all. Maybe I saw him play once. 

It seems like there are a lot of different Paul Motians to relate to. Like, there’s the Bill Evans Motian, the Masabumi Kikuchi Motian, and so on. 

Well, I can relate to that now, because since I left New York, I didn’t try to maintain my niche, you know? So I’ve kind of let myself turn into whatever I am right now, and I don’t feel like I play the same way. I mean, I can hear hints of myself when I go back and listen to records with Jacky [Terrasson]. I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s me.” But I feel like I’m a different player now, mostly because I stepped away and I let myself age naturally, and I think that Paul was a very organic player. He just made music with people he was playing with at the moment; when you develop a style, and you become stylized, there’s a pressure to maintain it, and I don’t think he had that pressure. 

4. Ornette Coleman
“Embraceable You” (This Is Our Music, Atlantic). Coleman, alto saxophone; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: Is this Dewey [Redman]? 

No, but it makes sense that you would ask that. 

The first note sounded like Dewey, but it doesn’t sound like him anymore. [Pauses and refocuses on the drummer] So this style of drumming is like, keeping time and playing colors, but in my opinion not doing either one, and listening to this is like, I’d rather not hear that fuckin’ hi-hat right now, you know? [Laughs] It’s like, if you’re going to just play around, let me hear how you color. If you’re going to keep time, then keep time. I mean, this is his way of doing it, but it leaves me wanting more. I feel like the music’s not really going forward because of it. 

Do you think that the drummer is trying to create a sense of tension?

Now he’s doing consistent with the hi-hat. I have no idea who any of these musicians are. 

AFTER: I played at Ed Blackwell’s memorial with Dewey. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ed play brushes. I think I’m used to hearing his sticks on the drums, so I’m not familiar with this. [Listens more] Yeah, I think I really don’t like Ornette Coleman. [Laughs] I don’t think I dig it. His tone. Like, the first note sounded like Dewey’s universe, because Dewey came through him, but Dewey had so much love in his tone. Joshua has that too. Here I hear the universe of Dewey, but the tone, it doesn’t have the same love. There’s a certain kind of protection in his expression. Of course. This is a whole ’nother subject. When you’re a trailblazer, you have to develop protections because people are going to try to cut you down. Maybe for Dewey it was easier because he came up under Ornette. 

5. Dexter Gordon
“Second Balcony Jump” (Go, Blue Note). Gordon, tenor saxophone; Sonny Clark, piano; Butch Warren, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: This is the shit. Classic. The leader and the drummer? Synonymous, in terms of style. Dexter’s time and the drummer’s time—they make each other make sense. You can feel Dexter’s love of swing, and Billy’s love of swing. It’s not just an idea. They love it, man, and they can feel it. They’re embodying it. It’s like, oh my God. What is jazz? Dexter’s like all melody. I’m not saying I don’t like out shit, it’s not that. It’s just that Dexter loved melody, he loved swing, and he had a drummer to help him express that, which is fucking great. God

I mean, if I was going to be critical, the left hand, I love the swing of it, but to me the best left-hand drummers were the ones that played with Monk: Frankie Dunlop and Ben Riley. The cymbal is very distinct here—he’s articulating—and then the snare is just like … hanging out. [Laughs]

6. Baby Dodds
“Drum Improvisation #1” (Jazz à La Creole, GHB). Dodds, drums. Recorded in 1946. 

BEFORE: Oh! Wow. I have no idea, but I love it. Because of the sound of the drums, it sounds like it’s really old, but some of the stuff that he was playing … Is this Zutty Singleton?

AFTER: Baby Dodds. He was the first, right? I should have said that. God, wow

Have you communed at all with his music?

I haven’t spent time. I saw some videos of Big Sid [Catlett], but I haven’t checked out Baby Dodds. God, that’s what you call drum music. That was beautiful. Wow, wow, wow. Interesting. I loved it. Wow. That’s really, wow. Just drumistic melodies, you know, and finding the uniqueness in different instruments. I just came from Indonesia, and I saw this drummer using gamelan bells, just a couple of them, with his drum set, and it was like, yeah, just respecting the character of each instrument. I don’t know if I can articulate this, but, as opposed to manipulating the drums, it was more like, this instrument has this sound, and this instrument has this sound—let me discover the sounds and put them together. That’s what Baby Dodds was doing. And that’s what the drum set is. I don’t know how we got away from that, where you have distinct instruments and each of them has a purpose and you organize them. It’s gotten very complex, when I think it’s just about finding the beauty in each of the different instruments. So that’s what I hear. When somebody asks me now, “What’s the newest, hippest shit you’ve heard?” Baby Dodds. Ha!

7. Fly
“Spanish Castle Magic” (Fly, Savoy). Mark Turner, bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophone; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums. Recorded in 2003. 

BEFORE: Wow. I don’t know this record. I like it, and it’s real playing. I feel like if I were playing this I would be enjoying it. The drummer is really enjoying it. It’s real music. Okay, so I have no idea, man. [Listens more] All right, so, is this Mark? This is Fly? I wouldn’t have known it was Jeff, because I never heard him play this style of music. I feel like this is what he’s trying to do anyway. I love the way he’s framing the melody on the toms—so musical. I really feel his personality in this style of playing. I like to play out, and I feel it here. Everything is more open. Mark sounds great. Killin’

8. Ari Hoenig
“Pent Up House” (NY Standard, Fresh Sound). Hoenig, drums; Tivon Pennicott, tenor saxophone; Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Eden Ladin, piano; Orlando Le Fleming, bass. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: This is confusing to me, because we’re breaking up the meter but I don’t know why. [Interlude in music] Oh, that’s interesting. That’s creative. [Song starts swinging] I like what the guitar player is doing. Drumming’s crisp. [Drum solo] Wow, I like that. I really like the drumming. 

AFTER: That’s Ari? I’ve never heard him play so little fucking drums. I’ve never heard him sound so musical. Wow. Yeah, Ari! I really liked that. I was going to say Gilad. He asked me to play with him, and I haven’t had the occasion yet, but yeah, really interesting player. 

9. Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine
“I Almost Lost My Mind” (Prayer Meetin’, Blue Note). Smith, organ; Turrentine, tenor saxophone; Quentin Warren, guitar; Donald Bailey, drums. Recorded in 1963.

BEFORE: Older recording. This is just a wild guess. Wild. Billy Hart? 

The beat never seems to change at all. What do you think about that?

I like to do that. This is the shit, man. This is chitlin’ circuit music. So it’s one of those Smiths on organ? So the drummer could be one of those guys. [Laughs

AFTER: I was going to say Donald Bailey. This kind of playing, like, it’s solid, it’s consistent, but lacks personality.

10. Kenny Barron Trio
“Green Chimneys” (Green Chimneys, Criss Cross). Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums. Recorded in 1983. 

BEFORE: This is my shit, man. In the ’90s I was up onto this at Bradley’s. I worshipped them. This was it. I sat in with Kenny at Bradley’s sometime around this period. He was doing duo gigs, so I had my little cymbal and I would come by. [Listens] Again, that swing, man. Like I said, we’ve gotten away from sound. Everything’s become complex for no reason. I don’t understand it. Jazz is either too aggressive or too cerebral. But that’s America. Look at Hollywood. Fast and Furious 6 or some shit like that. It’s almost like we don’t know what else to do—let’s make it more complex and create one more thing to do; let’s figure out more harmonic substitutions. Let’s figure out more ways to subdivide the rhythm. Why? That’s my question. Why? There’s no reason. I’m not staying that we have to stay stylistically in one place, and I’m not a traditionalist, but I think that if you take out the blues and you take out the swing and you take out melody, then what are we trying to express? But when we talk about this—somebody called me nostalgic before—this came from Monk. So Monk to me is like a god in the music. That’s how I see it.

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.