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)
Roy Haynes—one of the few living earthlings to have played with Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell, and Lester Young—is a true original. His drumming seems to have no precedent. His own Out of the Afternoon and We Three are jazz benchmarks, and so is Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, also featuring bassist Miroslav Vitous. The music on this album is disruptive, changing shape at every turn. It features the flat ride sound that became one of Haynes’ trademarks, as heard in “Steps – What Was” and “Matrix,” where he charges, drags, glides, and propels Corea’s sparkling piano. Haynes’ use of the hi-hat as an independent voice meshing with the entire kit (or not at all) is well documented here. His innovation in using the entire drum set as a percussive force beyond mere timekeeping still shocks.