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Joe Farnsworth: Before & After

Soaking up the spirit of jazz drumming, from Taylor to Tain

Joe Farnsworth
Joe Farnsworth (photo: Jimmy Katz)

Joe Farnsworth, whose drumming has been the driving wheel in bands led by McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Harold Mabern, and Pharoah Sanders, is coming to grips with the idea of generational ascendancy. “Usually I’m getting behind an older great. This gig in Moscow was with Peter Washington, Mark Whitfield, Craig Handy, and a Russian piano player—Yakov Okun—and it was interesting to be in a group of people your own age, you know? I guess we’re all getting older.”

Older maybe, but not old—neither in spirit nor sound. The overseas performance he’s referring to, at the Esse Jazz Club in Moscow, took place this past August 24 and was an eye-opener for Farnsworth, being his first taste of touring since lockdown. “I was a little nervous about leaving New York, [it] being my first flight since the tours stopped. But I’d give the experience an A-plus,” says the man who could call Smoke, Manhattan’s uptown venue, his true home. “Once I got there, it was beautiful. The people were at first a little wait-and-see about the music, but once we started hitting, man, you felt it right away.”

Farnsworth’s 2020 Smoke Sessions album Time to Swing—featuring Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Barron, and Peter Washington—and its 2021 follow-up City of Sounds demonstrate that he’s assumed a leading position in today’s postbop drum hierarchy, humbly and confidently. He’s exceedingly proud of the music on Time to Swing, which was crafted to match the level of talent on the project. “I’ve been waiting for the right time to ask Wynton. Waited, waited, waited. We worked together years ago and I played with him on the Live at the House of Tribes album [2005]. Then we were doing the soundtrack to Motherless Brooklyn [2019] and I just asked him and he couldn’t have been nicer.”

In that film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel, Farnsworth made his big-screen debut, playing behind the recently deceased Michael K. Williams, who plays a Miles Davis-like character. That was before the pandemic. Now in the post-lockdown world, we opted to use a small screen for Farnsworth’s first Before & After, done via Zoom the day after his return from Russia—jet lag be damned. “I can’t wait, man,” he said as we settled in front of our respective laptops. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.” That’s the spirit we love.

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

1. Dave Brubeck Quartet
“Blues for Newport” (from The Last Set at Newport, Columbia). Brubeck, piano; Gerry Mulligan; baritone saxophone; Jack Six, bass; Alan Dawson, drums. Recorded in 1971.

BEFORE: Hmmmmm. I was thinking, right off the bat, Randy Weston and Cecil Payne, but that’s impossible. The piano player’s got me ’cause he really stretched out there. I would say it’s in the late ’60s, but it can’t be Jaki Byard. I’m still thinking. The drummer’s playing a lot of triplets, a lot of syncopation between the snare and bass drum. That’s not a new drummer—he has complete control. He’s obviously a guy that’s older than me. You can tell by the sound of the drums, though the cymbals weren’t recorded very well. That’s some old-school stuff, but it sounds a little frantic for it to be Alan Dawson.

That’s what I was thinking of at first: maybe Alan Dawson with Jaki Byard, but I don’t see them playing like that, and who’s the baritone? [Listens] That’s Gerry Mulligan. [Listens more] There’s a concert he did with Alan Dawson and Dave Brubeck, and that’s where I’m leaning. It’s a live date, called something like One Last Time. It could be Dannie Richmond and Don Pullen, or it’s that Dave Brubeck record with Alan Dawson. I would say that’s my final choice—Dave with Alan Dawson.

AFTER: I would never have known Dave Brubeck played like that, that threw me off. But the drumming was obviously modern and old-school at the same time. What separates a lot of the old stuff from the newer is the bass drum, and you could tell it was old-school drumming the way he put up the triplets—snare drum, bass drum, snare, hi-hat—but maintains the swing. It had to be someone from that age period. That’s my teacher right there, Alan Dawson. The thing is I didn’t listen to him that much on records.

Looking at this photo right now of him, it brings tears to my eyes. I’m looking at someone I love. I took my kids to Boston two months ago and went to visit his gravestone, and then went to his old house where I used to take lessons. John Ramsay lives there now. I asked John what he remembered first thinking when he met Alan and, man, he said the same thing I thought, and am still thinking about now that I’m 53: Alan had a nice little house in Lexington where he taught out of his basement. He was this drummer and teacher, and he had a house.

I hadn’t been there in 38 years! I was thinking that, as a kid, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I walked down those stairs and sat next to him, knee to knee, with a pad between us. It was never like, “Hey, how you doing?” Or “How you feeling?” It was all about teaching you his system, and his voice never changed. His demeanor never changed. It was never up and down. It was straight music, man. He was teaching eight in the morning until eight at night, and each class was an hour. It was nonstop, and he was never flustered or tired.

His system was perfect! All you have to do is just listen to the students he produced: Jeff Watts, John Robinson, Tony Williams, Clifford Jarvis, Keith Copeland, Terri Lyne Carrington, Gene Jackson, on and on. I still hear him saying, “Slow down, Farnsworth, slow down!” That will never go away.

2. Branford Marsalis
“Tain Mutiny” (from Contemporary Jazz, Columbia). Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Joey Calderazzo, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums. Recorded in 2000.

BEFORE: First thing that comes to my mind is that’s some incredible drumming, and it can only be one guy: Jeff Watts. Is that with Branford? I’ve never heard this before. I thought it might be Ralph Peterson, but the sound of the drums, the technique and the hands and the endless flow of ideas, this is the game-changer. That’s Jeff.

When I first came to New York I was still studying with Alan Dawson and I saw Ralph Peterson at Rutgers [University] playing in my brother [tenor saxophonist] John’s recital, and here I was coming from western Massachusetts and it was, Welcome to New York, man! I’d never seen drums played like that. Then I went and saw Tain and I was in big trouble, man. I was like, this is not where I’m coming from—I don’t know what’s happening here! It put a hurting on me. Then there was Smitty Smith—those guys almost made me want to quit.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, because I tried to play like that but I couldn’t do it. But divine intervention came one night. I walked into a club and saw Louis Hayes taking a brush solo and it snapped me back out of it. I just realized I had to follow my own path and I was going to go further into bebop drumming.

AFTER: He is a true king. There’s no one like him. I was just talking to Peter Washington about Tain. He came and sat in with Michael LeDonne when we were playing at Django and he just took everything up 10 notches. I was watching, and I don’t know how he’s doing it but he’s so clean doing it, his hands are so strong. It’s so clean, but it comes off just … nasty. All love to Tain. I tried to take a lesson with him, and I just want to be around him because he’s that great, man.

3. Charles Persip and the Jazz Statesmen
“The Champ (A Suite in Six Movements)” (from Charles Persip and the Jazz Statesmen, Bethlehem). Persip, drums; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Roland Alexander, tenor saxophone; Ronnie Mathews, piano; Ron Carter, bass. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: Not much sounds that good, man—that’s got to be Max Roach. It’s clear as a bell: the ideas, the tuning of the drums, the command, and just a complete conception. That’s Joe Farnsworth times 10 million. Let’s keep listening. [Listens] That was stunning, but I’ve never heard this before in my life. To be that great to play a tune that features his drums like that, and just nail it … there wasn’t one misstep. One thing got me a little confused: a couple of stick clicks. More like a Philly Joe Jones thing—a stick on top of a stick. Max never really did that, and that happened a couple of times.

I first thought it was the group with George Coleman and Booker Little [Booker Little 4], but then the trumpet player played some high notes that made me believe it was a young Freddie Hubbard, and then the piano was Ronnie Mathews, but I don’t know who the tenor player would be. So then the only possibility on drums is the great Lex Humphries on his best day, because he tuned his drums like that. But then I thought again, only one person can play that—the king, Max Roach. Obviously this is bebop and they’re playing in the early-to-mid-’60s because of the arrangements. It’s got different sections, which sounded like Booker and George, and then there was that [Max Roach] Drums Unlimited record, but this tune is not on there. Anyway, I’m sticking with Max.

AFTER: Whoa, shit. I have that record too. Charli Persip, man. That’s stunning. I used to see his big band many times. I was able to watch his big band rehearse; my brother John played in the band for a while. I just bought an old [Zildjian] K cymbal—I remember Charli hated them and said it felt like a gong to him. Another thing: Cecil Payne used to stay at my house every weekend, and we’d listen to Dizzy Gillespie’s big bands together, and of course he only wanted to hear the band with Joe Harris, but I always kept on playing the stuff with Charli Persip. I’m not trying to talk my way out of missing this [laughs]. 

There’s no right or wrong here, Joe. It’s how you hear it.

There were just some things in there that was so like Max, like the tuning. But it was so good. One other thing is back before it was Smoke, it was called Augie’s and I used to play with Roland Alexander there—beautiful guy, and I knew him because of this record. I have to listen to that again, man.

On Charli Persip: “Not much sounds that good, man … That’s Joe Farnsworth times 10 million.”

4. Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom
“Daughter and Sun” (from Glitter Wolf, Royal Potato Family). Ben Goldberg, clarinet; Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Myra Melford, piano; Todd Sickafoose, bass; Miller, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Damn. [Listens to the end] Okay, first and foremost, I’m still shaking from missing Charli Persip, and now to go to this track is like playing with people like Betty Carter, when they would play as fast as possible and then as slow as possible. My hands would be shaking. With most things, I listen for clarity. I like things to be clean. I don’t like sloppy stuff. These guys played clear. The drummer especially stood out: The sound of the drums was great, and there were some double-stroke rolls that were beautiful. I liked it also because it made me realize right away that this was someone who takes the instrument seriously—they spent a lot of time and effort to do what they want to do.

Also, I could tell that this very intricate sort of arrangement was like nothing to them. There was a clarinet and, you can’t quite hear it, but there’s a violin being played too. So I thought of John Blake—I used to see this group a lot up in western Mass., with Ronnie Burrage, Avery Sharpe, Onaje Allan Gumbs, and Joe Ford. I don’t know who this is and I’ve never heard this combination. I would have to go with Terri Lyne Carrington—it had that open feel but with strong hands, and even though it had that eighth-note vibe, it was still swinging. And that’s the mark of a great player.

AFTER: Okay. When was that recorded? Two years ago. Allison’s great, man. That’s just odd that I would’ve picked Terri Lyne—that they’re two females. Obviously, you can’t tell whether a drummer is male or female by their sound. I’ve seen Allison play, but it’s been a long time. I think it was in Italy maybe 15 years ago. I’m so happy she’s doing so well with her own thing—Boom Tic Boom. I look up to her because we both have really been grinding it out for a long time, taking gigs and sticking to it, and her playing just keeps going up and up. Jimmy Lovelace used to say, “It swings harder underground”—talking about clubs that are not well-known but allow you to just play. It’s great for someone like me to see, because sometimes when your perseverance and persistence wanes a little bit, it shows you that you just keep doing it and good things will happen.

5. Count Basie
“Counter Block” (from Breakfast Dance and Barbecue, Roulette). Wendell Culley, Thad Jones, Joe Newman, Snooky Young, trumpet; Henry Coker, Al Grey, Benny Powell, trombone; Marshall Royal, Frank Wess, alto saxophone; Frank Foster, Billy Mitchell, tenor saxophone; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Sonny Payne, drums. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: [Laughs] When I first heard the talking and laughter and the little clicking on the hi-hat, I said, Oh man, Sonny Payne, and we’re going into a little “One O’Clock Jump” here. I’m also thinking, Okay, is this Duke Ellington? Because the sound is Sonny Payne all the way—the drum fills are fantastic. But then it went into another tune. I guess it’s part of that Basie live record—I’m not sure of the title—Breakfast or Barbecue and something. Now I’m not sure again—but it’s Sonny all the way. I grew up from 1973 to 1982, playing along to only Buddy Rich and Sonny Payne. I’d put on my headphones and I couldn’t get enough [Count Basie’s] “April in Paris” and “Shiny Stockings” and Buddy’s “West Side Story,” just over and over.

Sonny established that you had to be very charismatic to play the drums. Whether you’re Billy Higgins or Art Blakey, they had a way. Even Max Roach, who was very serious and very straightforward, he’s very charismatic to me. But Sonny Payne was on a different level. His father was Chris Columbo, a show drummer, and obviously Sonny got a lot of his stuff from him: playing these incredible fills and meanwhile swinging with this natural ease, throwing sticks in the air, sitting there with a tuxedo on, and maybe everyone was wearing black jackets, but he gets to wear the paisley red jacket because obviously he’s got a little more cache. Effortless, man.

To me, Sonny’s the greatest big-band drummer ever. I know there’s also Papa Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, Sid Catlett, and way back to Chick Webb. Let’s just say Sonny’s my favorite of all time. Harold Mabern told me his favorite thing to do after a gig was go down to Birdland and see the Count Basie band. My dream is to be able to play “One O’Clock Jump” like he played on Live [Sinatra] at the Sands.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.