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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)

6. Art Blakey
“Lover” (from Drums Around the Corner, Blue Note). Lee Morgan, trumpet; Bobby Timmons, piano; Jymie Merritt, bass; Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Blakey, drums; Ray Barretto, congas. Recorded in 1959.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Damn. That’s what those guys did! They were so tough and strong and had that endurance. Today if you call “Lover” at this tempo, oh boy. Everyone comes down with a bad valve or their lips are hurting and they can’t do it. But this is the status quo from these guys back then. [Listens to end]

I was playing with Cedar Walton and one time he told me he was at this recording. I asked him, “What was it like?” He said Blakey came up to him and said, “I’m kicking those two behinds.” I’ve listened to this many times and you know, on different days, I think Roy Haynes really kicks butt. Light and right, man: snap, crackle, and crispy. So right on the money. Punching with these fast jabs, like Sugar Ray Leonard. Then Philly Joe comes in and he’s like Ali, bobbing and weaving. Then Art comes in with his big bounce. You can imagine the swagger and how strong he was. But one thing undeniable is the sound of Blakey—really thunderous. Drums Around the Corner, right? Ray Barretto used to live two flights up from me, up in Riverdale.

I love those battles, man. I do it with Kenny Washington and maybe a third drummer like Billy Hart—I think more people should do it. Some people say it’s not a battle, it’s just getting together. I say no, it is a battle. It’s a drag-out, smack-down battle! It’s a love fest, but they want to knock you out, and you got to stay in the ring. That’s what I tell my drum students.

See, now you’re getting me really excited. I always think: You’ve got to come up with a sound on the drums. You’ve got to imagine yourself up on the stage in one of those Newport Jazz Festival drum battles. There’s Roy Haynes there. There’s Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and then there’s you. What are you going to do? What can you possibly do? Whether you’re sitting there with only a snare and cymbal at a restaurant, or you’re on stage at Carnegie Hall, you need to put yourself out there. Or you’ll be knocked out.

7. Johnny Griffin
“Blues for Harvey” (excerpt from French TV taping of performance at Antibes Jazz Festival, YouTube video). Griffin, tenor saxophone; Ronnie Mathews, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Kenny Washington, drums. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: I knew right away this was Johnny Griffin, and so probably it’s with Ronnie Mathews and Ray Drummond. [Listens to drum solo] Is that Kenny Clarke? [Listens more] No, it’s more modern, and I heard a cymbal and I said, that’s Kenny Washington. You can hear it. It’s very funny that I was just talking about drum battles with him. The first thing that comes to mind is how strong his hands are. It’s just amazing. He can do anything he wants—it’s dynamics, and he’s not playing any differently loud than he is soft. I’m not sure if he’s underrecognized, but Ronnie Mathews was one of the greats of all time. And Ray Drummond, he’s one of those guys that always sounds great and when you play with him, it’s even better.

When you play drums in New York City, Kenny Washington has got to be on your mind, you know? Him and Tain have set the level. He studied with Philly Joe when he first came to town, and his nickname was “Mean Streets” before he was the Jazz Maniac. I don’t know why, but that’s what they called him. He’s really one of the last of the bebop drummers. Whatever he does, he does 100%.

He’s one of the reasons I live in New York City. I owe a lot to Kenny—he hooked me up with a lot of people, and got me on a lot of gigs I would not have gotten on. He got me my gig with Diana Krall, with Horace Silver, with Tommy Flanagan. He had me sub on a Sunday night at the Vanguard with Johnny Griffin and a group that had Dennis Irwin and Michael Weiss in it. I remember Roy Haynes came in in his cowboy hat, and that was the second time he saw me play that week; the first time I was with Benny Golson. I went up to him and almost had to apologize: “I’m sorry you’ve come out twice this week and both times I’m playing drums”—but he laughed and was so nice to me.

8. Joshua Redman
“Whittlin’” (from Wish, Warner Bros.). Redman, tenor saxophone; Pat Metheny, electric guitar; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: That comping has to Billy Higgins, or someone doing Higgins. That’s the snapshot. But it’s got to be an older, more recent Billy Higgins because the cymbal is more open than he normally played it. That cymbal, the snare drum, and the fills have got to be Billy. I’m trying to think of who he’d be playing with who plays tenor like that, and guitar! It’s not George Coleman, it could be Harold Land but no, it’s got to be a newer player and he’s playing with a beautiful sound. Is that Joe Lovano? Or maybe it’s Josh Redman. I’m going with Josh. It’s got to be him.

The main thing is that’s Billy Higgins—the king of all kings. He is the drummer I went to see the most. [Listens more] Man, I heard that press roll too many times at Bradley’s on the third set! What we have here is the Quartet West people. That’s Charlie [Haden], and if there’s a guitar player in that quartet I would go with Bill Frisell.

AFTER: Okay, so what year is that? ’93. When I came to New York there were two universities I wanted to go to: the George Coleman school or the Cedar Walton school, and Higgins was the drummer in both. The clarity of his cymbal sounds is like shiny jewels—that touch and that beat. What he did in the breaks of Cedar Walton’s tunes, that seemed like part of the tune to me. So I tried for years and years to play like that. A lot of people would say, “Oh, you’re trying to play like Higgins.” The thing is, when I played with Cedar, I couldn’t conceive of those tunes without the breaks I heard Billy play. I love him to death.

“That’s Billy Higgins—the king of all kings … Man, I heard that press roll too many times at Bradley’s on the third set!”

9. Paul Bley
“When Will the Blues Leave?” (from Footloose!, Savoy). Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, bass; Pete La Roca, drums. Recorded in 1962.

BEFORE: Wow. Let’s see. I’d say that was in the ’60s, and it seems like it was live but I didn’t hear any clapping. Bass has a great sound, and what got me is it sounds like an upright piano and it’s an Ornette tune. Not many piano players in his world. The piano player was ripping off some lines and I was like, Damn, that’s Brad Mehldau. But it has to be someone older. He was playing some really over/under rhythmic lines, but in the changes. I don’t know who could play like that, maybe Albert Dailey. The bass drum sounded open, so I was thinking Clifford Jarvis or Pete La Roca, but then it seemed like someone like that would’ve ripped a little more on the drums. I’m going with Pete La Roca.

AFTER: One of my favorite records of all time is New Soil by Jackie McLean, and Pete La Roca is cooking on that with the snare and bass drum: Dat! Doo! Dat-dat, duh-Doo! Doo, Dat! The ride cymbal is straight but the comp between the snare and bass drum is something I’d never heard before. So I went to Arthur Taylor, and said, “What do you think of Pete La Roca?” “Pete’s cool,” he said, “but really the guy for that style is Clifford Jarvis.” I hadn’t heard of Jarvis at that point. But anyway, that comping between the snare and the bass, that’s what got me Pete La Roca.

About 1988, La Roca was retired but he came back [as Pete Sims] and started playing with Hal Galper again, and so I was able to go see him. Then he started playing with Mal Waldron and started getting his own group together, called SwingTime. One of the best nights I’ve ever had in my life, I started at this club called Yardbird Suite on 3rd Street and I think 2nd Avenue, and La Roca was there on Sunday nights. He would play “Two Bass Hit,” and he was just wiping out the drums. It was like Comping 101 and really insane. I saw him at the 7:30 set, then walked over and saw Arthur Taylor at the second set at the Vanguard, and then Arthur and I walked over to Bradley’s and saw Billy Higgins. It was this perfect meal: appetizer, the main order, and then the dessert! Now it seems like a dream, like it couldn’t have possibly happened.

10. Matt Wilson Arts & Crafts
“Stolen Time” (from An Attitude for Gratitude, Palmetto). Terell Stafford, trumpet; Gary Versace, piano; Martin Wind, bass; Wilson, drums. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: I was trying to figure this out. Main thing for me was the guy was playing a [Zildjian] China Boy cymbal. There’s guys that play China Boys and there’s guys that don’t. So I was asking myself about that, and then the trumpet player quoted some Charlie Parker, then the piano player hinted at some blues and, I mean, I’m trying to figure out the meaning of that whole thing. It was like a free-for-all. What was interesting was that they played things that made me think that they have some sort of tradition in their playing. Because if it didn’t it would have been semi-annoying. It’s not Andrew Cyrille. If I had to make a guess, maybe Leon Parker, because obviously the drummer has technique. It was swinging and there was motion. This could have been in the 2000s, or it could’ve been last year.

AFTER: Okay. Who’s playing trumpet? Terell. Yeah. He was playing the blues, and he had a great sound. And the piano player? Versace—all great players. I was thinking, Is Dave Douglas playing the blues like that? What threw me off was I was trying to figure out was this straight-ahead people playing out for one tune, just like a little mood piece, or do they do this all the time.

11. Art Taylor
“Off Minor” (from Taylor’s Wailers, Prestige). Art Taylor, drums; Donald Byrd, trumpet; Jackie McLean, alto saxophone; Charlie Rouse, tenor saxophone; Ray Bryant, piano; Wendell Marshall, bass. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: This is Donald Byrd playing on Taylor’s Wailers, AT’s masterpiece. [After Byrd’s solo] You hear that? AT would get in a crouch and get his shoulder up and he called it The Stroke. I can see him doing that now, man. He had the greatest ride cymbal I ever saw in my lifetime. That’s heaven. [Listens to end]

One of the great lessons I learned from Arthur Taylor was seeing there was a person behind all these records I’ve been listening to. There’s a person behind that cymbal beat. There’s a person behind that comping. Outside of my three boys being born, the greatest moment of my life was actually meeting that man for the first time for a lesson in 1988. I went up to his house at St. Nicholas Avenue [in Harlem] and I’m looking at his drums and cymbals—he’s the only drummer out of all those guys that had his original cymbals. They survived and he didn’t lose them. What you heard him playing onstage was what you heard on Giant Steps.

So we’re sitting on his couch and he puts on a Sarah Vaughan record and we’re listening, and he’s talking. I didn’t know but that was the lesson: Sarah Vaughan, and then he put on some Bud Powell. I never met a man like that.

I love this music. I love playing, but I think I loved watching those guys play more than playing myself. I loved meeting guys like Charli Persip and Pete La Roca. Those were special human beings, man. They lived in a different stratosphere of humanity, like AT. When you saw these people, immediately your posture got better, you know? And I’d be talking to AT and I would slow down and he’d listen and I’d be saying smarter things. He raised life up. Then when he got on the drums, forget about it. My motto is, an AT a day keeps the doctor away.

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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.