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JazzTimes 10: The Composing Drummer (or the Drumming Composer)

A tentet of works by players who are as mighty with the pen as they are with the sticks

“I know that ad nauseam, when you hear a drummer/composer, the compositions are centered on the drumming,” Tyshawn Sorey told JazzTimes in 2009 in a discussion of his then-new album Koan. “This music, this album, is challenging the idea of what drummer/composers are supposed to do.”

There is indeed a history (oft-overlooked) of drummer/composers in jazz, and they do indeed tend toward drum-centric compositions. It’s understandable and expected. But there have also been plenty of drummer/composers who weren’t willing to rest on those laurels, and wanted a bigger piece of the tonal action. More than 10, in fact, making this limited selection mostly a matter of prominence and taste.

The first three drummer/composers on the list below are no longer with us; the other seven are very much alive and at work. The first entry needs another caveat: It could indeed be called percussion-centric. You almost surely know it best for other reasons, however.


Max Roach's "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite"
Max Roach’s “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite”

1. Max Roach: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960)

We Insist! remains the gold standard of the drummer/composer in jazz, a revolutionary achievement. Roach wrote the music, with singer/actor Oscar Brown Jr. penning the lyrics (which Roach revised after the fact, without Brown’s knowledge). Roach’s then wife, Abbey Lincoln, was the featured vocalist. However, as honest and poetic as Brown’s lyrics are (“Driva’ Man” and “All Africa” in particular are stark and evocative), it is Lincoln’s wordless performance on the eight-minute centerpiece “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/ Peace” that is the album’s signature moment. Roach’s writing is heavily inclined toward percussion; “Triptych” only features Lincoln’s voice and his traps, and the percussion trio of Michael Olatunji, Raymond Mantilla, and Tomas du Vall join in on the album’s second half. However, the composer could also write deeply memorable melodies like “Freedom Day.”

Check the price of We Insist! on Reverb!

Originally Published

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.