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Before & After with Lenny White

A listening session with the Return to Forever powerhouse

Lenny White

Drummer Lenny White, now 63, was barely 20 when he cut Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay and only 19 when he played on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Just three months after the Miles sessions, in November of 1969, he joined Andrew Hill to record what would become the pianist’s superb 2003 Blue Note release, Passing Ships. From there he cut two recordings with the powerful but overlooked Latin-fusion outfit Azteca in ’72 and ’73, the same year he joined the signature jazz-rock outfit Return to Forever.

White has since appeared in a striking variety of bands and made and produced numerous recordings under his own name. The latest is Live From 97 (BFM Jazz), an archival concert recording featuring trumpeter Mark Ledford, saxophonist Bennie Maupin, keyboardists Patrice Rushen and Don Blackman and bassists Foley and Victor Bailey.

This B&A session was held in front of a pre-concert audience at the Hamilton in Washington, D.C., as part of the DC Jazz Festival. Later that June evening, White performed in trumpeter-keyboardist Nicholas Payton’s trio XXX.

1. SFJAZZ Collective

“Do I Do” (from Music of Stevie Wonder and New Compositions, SFJAZZ). Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Miguel Zenón, alto saxophone; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; Edward Simon, piano; Matt Penman, bass; Eric Harland, drums and arranger. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: That was a very interesting take on a Stevie Wonder song. I liked it. The music today, while it’s still in the jazz tradition, from the rhythmic standpoint the drums make it sound like hip-hop tracks, which [is interesting because] basically with hip-hop music they used sample tracks.

Do you think that’s more about the recording process today or the actual players?

No, it’s about the approach the musicians use. They tend to want to sound like the beats that were created back in the ’60s and ’70s that were done with real musicians, but when hip-hop came to the fore they sampled those records. So now they want to have drummers that sound like the sampled records. [But] the samples came from real drummers playing.

So it’s kind of a third-generation effect?

[chuckles] Yeah, you could say that. It’s interesting because most of those records that were done back in the ’60s, where they got the samples from, were made by studio musicians, and a lot of them were jazz drummers. With compression and everything it made those hip-hop records sound great, the real classic hip-hop records, but the rhythm stayed somewhat structured. So now they have drummers trying to play in a style somewhat structured.

AFTER: I know [Eric Harland and Avishai Cohen] both very well! Great musicians.

2. Jaimeo Brown

“You Can’t Hide” (from Transcendence, Motéma). Brown, drums; JD Allen, tenor saxophone; Chris Sholar, guitar; Geri Allen, piano; Kelvin Sholar, keyboards; Andrew Shantz, harmonium; Gee’s Bend Singers. Released in 2013.

BEFORE: That was interesting; it took me back to the ’60s, to what was then called protest music. In the black community everybody was pretty Afrocentric, and there were a lot of vehicles like that that would have some meaningful words and directions. There’s a Max Roach piece called “Mendacity” that Abbey Lincoln sang, and it was kind of like that situation.

AFTER: I had heard about his record. Detroit people-Chris is from Detroit, too. That reminded me of the ’60s; it had that attitude, that style. I liked it, it was nice.

3. Tarbaby

“Korean Bounce” (from Ballad of Sam Langford, Hipnotic). Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Orrin Evans, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums and composer. Released in 2013.

BEFORE: [laughs] Bitches Brew messed up a lot of folks! Was that record made this year? It’s interesting because Bitches Brew was made in 1969 and the influence still rings loud. I don’t know who that was, but I do know where the influence came from.

AFTER: I know Nasheet, Eric and Orrin too. … As I said, this has a Bitches Brew vibe to it, the last record had a vibe that was like the ’60s-“Mendacity” and things like that-and the first thing was the Stevie Wonder tune, which had a hip-hop vibe to it. These past couple reverted back to music of another era but just done differently today.

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Originally Published