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)
Jack DeJohnette’s performance on this live 1969 3-CD/DVD set with Miles, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, and Chick Corea (the so-called “Lost Quintet”) shows his incendiary, multidirectional drumming at full force. Combining the artistic shadings of Roy Haynes with the sprawling time conception of Elvin Jones, it’s ceaselessly creative and combustible. The DVD, recorded in November 1969 at the Berliner Jazztage, provides a rare view into DeJohnette’s early evolution. From sensitive, march-like snare drum figures and Afro-Cuban bell patterns in “Directions” to the full-set immolations of “Sanctuary,” he’s constantly in motion, painting with broad swaths of rhythm, dynamics, contrasts, colors, explosions, murmuring commentary. His touch on the instrument is an important ingredient, equally delicate and grainy, ferocious and willowy.