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Jim Keltner: A Before & After Listening Session

The legendary session drummer has never lost his jazz smarts

Jim Keltner
Jim Keltner soundchecking with Simon & Garfunkel at Madison Square Garden, New York, December 4, 2003 (photo: Ebet Roberts)

Jim Keltner is, in two words, a legend, since the 1960s one of America’s most in-demand session drummers, lending not only impeccable chops but an unequaled touch and tact to a ridiculous number of records, from 1965 (Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “Just My Style”) to 2020 (Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher). He’s probably working as you read this.

Always based in Los Angeles, Keltner hit his stride in 1969 with Delaney & Bonnie’s Accept No Substitute, which led to Joe Cocker’s sprawling Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour and double album (1970), Carly Simon’s Anticipation (1971), Randy Newman’s Sail Away (1972) and Bonnie Raitt’s 1973 classic Takin’ My Time. Keltner has recorded extensively with every ex-Beatle except, for some reason, Paul McCartney. A long association with Bob Dylan began with the 1973 single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (“the first time I actually cried when I was playing,” Keltner recalls, “it was such a touching song”), continued through the Christian years, continued to continue with Empire Burlesque (1985) and the Traveling Wilburys albums (1988 and 1990), and finally, but then again maybe not, with Time Out of Mind (1997). In 1972, Jim began a collaboration with Ry Cooder that spans 40 years, perhaps both musicians’ most fruitful association, including John Hiatt’s breakthrough Bring the Family (1987) and the abortive supergroup Little Village (1992). And of course that’s Keltner on Steely Dan’s “Josie” (1977), including the garbage-can lid in the bridge.

And the road goes on, from Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine (2005) through John Mayer’s Born and Raised (2012) to Diana Krall’s Wallflower (2015). And on. That’s Jim, brother.

What is not generally known is that Keltner began his career as an ardent, up-and-coming jazz drummer. The best albums on which to hear Jim’s jazz are Gábor Szabó’s Bacchanal and Dreams (both 1968) and Gabor ’69 (1969). His chops are self-evident on these records, especially Bacchanal, but his smarts, taste, and boundless love of the music shine through equally in his extensive reflections below. Did Jim walk away from jazz too early? You could say he’s never really walked away. That hip musicality is evident in every note, every flam, on the many thousands of records Jim Keltner has brightened.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Frank Sinatra
“I Get a Kick Out of You” (Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass, Reprise). Sinatra, vocal; Earl Palmer, drums; with big band arranged by Neal Hefti. Recorded in April 1962.

BEFORE: Is that with the Basie band? Neal Hefti, hmmm. I grew up on that stuff. Is that Irv Cottler [Sinatra’s main drummer for more than 30 years]?

Nope.

All right, who is it?

AFTER: That’s Earl? I would never have guessed it, never.

Earl said that when Neal Hefti asked him to be on the record, “that’s when I knew that I’d arrived.”

I can hear him saying that.

He prided himself on being better than everybody else. It’s that Black exceptionalism—you have to be better.

Well, in music, it’s like, the poor white guys just don’t have it like the Black guys do. I hate to admit it, but that’s basically true. And that’s why you celebrate someone like Irv Cottler, who’s like your Jewish uncle, but is killin in his way.

Earl wasn’t a chopsmeister, just like Irv wasn’t. You wouldn’t want to be a chops guy playing Sinatra’s music, unless you’re one of those guys who know how to control it. Buddy Rich could swing your butt right down in the ground, and with no use of those amazing chops. Sonny Payne had all kind of chops. He could play real disciplined, but then he’d let it go and you’d go crazy. I’m glad you played this for me.

2. Chico Hamilton
“Passin’ Thru” (Passin’ Thru: The New Amazing Chico Hamilton Quintet, Impulse!). Hamilton, drums; Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Gábor Szabó, guitar; George Bohannon, trombone; Albert Stinson, bass. Recorded in September 1962.

BEFORE: That’s Chico, right? Nobody played like that. Chico’s sound and the way he approached the drums was completely unique. He didn’t play the ride cymbal in a conventional way, and he utilized the drums in a way that people just don’t do. There are young players today who are doing things kind of similar, and they probably don’t know who Chico Hamilton was. He never got the love, the appreciation, that he deserves. Chico Hamilton. Bad-ass drummer.

That’s Gabby. And Charles, obviously, and Bohannon. And that’s Albert Stinson. He was my very, very best friend. He was the guy I told them to hire for this little band that played up in the mountains. The Aristocats. All I knew was when I played with Albert, I sounded great. The whole band sounded great with Albert. He was this strange kid. He was younger by three, four years. He had the mustache going all the way down to here, and the Eric Dolphy beard sticking way out. He wanted to look like no one else. So he didn’t.

We were just kids! But Albert was a monstrous musician. You hear the word kicked around a lot, but he was a true genius. He built his own bass. He died when he was 25, and by that time he had already played with Miles, who asked him to be in his band, and Albert turned Miles down! He subbed for Ron Carter when they were playing in Berkeley, and you can hear that all over YouTube.

3. Miles Davis
“Stuff” (Miles in the Sky, Columbia). Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE: Don’t tell me that’s Tony.

That’s Tony.

AFTER: I would never have guessed that! Wow.

As far as I know, that’s the first song where he played a rock beat.

I don’t own this record and it was probably for that reason. I didn’t want to hear Miles playing like that.

You played me something here that’s important on several different wavelengths. Remember when I told you that I’m a different person now, reading Sartre? I read it in my twenties and it didn’t hold my attention. It’ll be interesting to listen to this again and see how I feel about it today.

Tony insisted that he invented fusion.

I’m not gonna argue with that. But I didn’t listen to any of that stuff in those days. That jazz snob part of me in those days didn’t allow it.

Too much of a purist.

That’s exactly right.

You’re playing straight jazz on that Gábor Bacchanal record from ’68. I love your playing on that.  

Well, that’s really nice of you. I have friends who say the same thing, but I can’t listen to that record. I love Gábor, but my playing isn’t connected. I was set free too soon! They loved what I was doing and so I just kept on doing it until I said, “Wait a minute, this is not what I wanna be playing.”

You didn’t make enough jazz records. You left too soon.

I was snatched right out of the jazz world. I shouldn’t say snatched, I went willingly. I ran. From $85 a week to $250 a week, that gets your attention. It was after we did “Just My Style,” by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. I was a jazz player that did some pop sessions, for the bread. They didn’t know whether to use Hal [Blaine] or me on it. Hal had just played on “This Diamond Ring.” When I played “Just My Style” I was fortunate to be able to lock in on that little track, and on the playback is when Leon Russell turned to me and said, “Hey, you’re gonna make a great rock drummer.”

I remember I suddenly felt 10 feet tall. Because by that time I had begun to realize that rock & roll was not just dumb-ass playing a backbeat on two and four. I think I heard Bernard Purdie and realized what real pop/rock could be. And when I sat down to play it I said, “Wait a minute, there is way more to this than I thought.” That’s just a simple shuffle on “Just My Style.” But I realized that just a simple shuffle is harder to play than a lot of stuff. That session was a revelation.

Tony Scherman

Tony Scherman was a contributor and editor at Musician magazine from 1987 to the mid-’90s, and he co-edited The Rock Musician and The Jazz Musician (1994), collections of some of the magazine’s best material. From 1994 to 2001, he wrote about jazz regularly for the New York Times; he has also covered music of many styles for a variety of other periodicals, from Smithsonian to People. His first book, Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, won a 1996 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Deems Taylor Award in 2000.