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)
Kenny Clarke’s drumming is the sleek epitome of classic swing, with only Jo Jones as a comparative figure. And while his work as coleader of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band placed his role in high relief, his mastery is most evident in his trio playing. Clarke always served the music, his seamless, pristine forward-motion style surrounding the other musicians with a silken glove of faultless rhythm. On The Jazz Trio of Hank Jones (originally Savoy MG 12023), joined by bassist Wendell Marshall, Clarke displays his powerful and harmonious brushwork on “We’re All Together” and “Odd Number,” conjures an air of swirling mystery on “There’s a Small Hotel,” and creates one of the most massive brush-groove pockets ever in “My Funny Valentine.”