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)
Jazz instigator/innovator, fusion mastermind, staunch traditionalist, Tony Williams had many musical personalities and as many drumming tributaries, and thus is impossible to categorize. One could point to his neuron-aligning performance on Miles Davis’ “Four” & More as an early peak. Williams’ own Emergency! and Believe It are just as profound, as was his work with the Great Jazz Trio, his power and precision never overshadowing his innate swing. Miles’ Nefertiti finds Williams at his most exploratory, his drumming entirely free of boundaries, painting in a scale never equaled. Responding in waves of emotion to the music, he moves from delicate to explosive in “Nefertiti,” scalding the senses with off-kilter rolls, ride cymbal chugs, and nerve-cracking cymbal crashes. “Fall” is similarly cathartic. “Hand Jive” erupts like a police siren, Williams coaxing ominous tones from his dry K Zildjian cymbal while slapping his snare-drum rim like machine-gun fire. “Riot” percolates and dances, Tony the ninja rhythm warrior. “Pinocchio” closes the set, as Williams accompanies Miles’ solo with a ceaseless stream of brilliance that resounds 55 years later.