To use an age-old (but appropriate) simile, choosing the top 10 recorded examples of jazz drumming is like trying to pick your favorite child. Each has different traits that endear, in the same way various phases of a musician’s career yield different qualities of equally enjoyable fruit. The following recordings, ordered alphabetically by the drummers’ last names, (a) highlight a precise moment in the artist’s evolution, (b) frame them mid-stride in a defined stylistic arc, or (c) offer irrefutable evidence of genius.
Honorable mentions: Ed Blackwell on Don Cherry’s El Corazón (ECM, 1982); Justin Brown: NYEUSI (Biophilia, 2018); Jon Christensen on Ralph Towner’s Solstice (ECM, 1975); Mike Clark on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust (Columbia, 1974); Billy Higgins on Jackie McLean’s Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note, 1963); Marcus Gilmore on Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest (Blue Note, 2018); Milford Graves on New York Art Quartet (ESP-Disk’, 1965); Jo Jones: The Drums (Jazz Odyssey, 1973); Kassa Overall: I Think I’m Good (Brownswood, 2020); Mickey Roker on Stanley Turrentine’s Easy Walker (Blue Note, 1968); Bill Stewart on John Scofield’s Swallow Tales (ECM, 2020); Art Taylor: A.T.’s Delight (Blue Note, 1960); Kenny Washington on Ralph Moore’s Round Trip (Reservoir, 1987)
A one-off for Impulse! (recorded between Blue Note’s The Witch Doctor and Mosaic), Art Blakey!!!!! Jazz Messengers!!!!! doesn’t subscribe to the Blue Note house sound of the time. Perhaps it’s the lack of Wayne Shorter compositions or the fact of it being the last Messengers record with pianist Bobby Timmons, but there’s a sense of relaxed freedom that adds drive to Blakey’s hard-charging direction. His blazing buzz roll and loud two-and-four rim click fire the Curtis Fuller-penned opener “À la Mode”; the lilting darkness of “Invitation” recalls an outtake from the Taxi Driver soundtrack; “Circus” shows Blakey gracefully balancing swing and Afro-Cuban rhythms; dry-sticking tempo changes provoke “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.“ Blakey’s Blue Note catalog sometimes posits him as high-octane carnival barker; his single Impulse! release finds the master musician in thoughtful yet no less powerful repose.