CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Johnathan Blake: Before & After

The drummer of prime pedigree loves his pockets

Johnathan Blake and Ashley Kahn
A snapshot from Blake’s listening session with Ashley Kahn (top) (photo courtesy of Ashley Kahn)

7. Billy Hart Quartet
“Teule’s Redemption” (One Is the Other, ECM). Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass; Hart, drums. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Billy Hart. I know that sound immediately. It’s a combination of both cymbal and drums. There’s nobody that tunes his bass drum like that. From the tuning, to the tips of the sticks that he uses, the way he attacks the cymbal … very distinct. Is this from All Our Reasons or One Is the Other? They feature the same band, Mark [Turner] and Ethan [Iverson] and Ben Street. He’s another one that’s always had a distinct sound. He always has one foot in the present and one foot in history. You can hear the history of Max and all those players in his playing, but he’s also inspired by what’s around him now. He’s one of my favorites.

I watched one of his live streams from the Vanguard during lockdown, and I tuned in both days. The first night he played this solo, an intro to this tune that they closed the set with. He told a whole story but it was the way he brought it back, he started with this idea and when he came back after playing all this other stuff, he came back to it and it just completed the story. It had this clear beginning, middle, and end. I called him the next day, and said, “Yo, what was that? What did you do there?” Of course he’s not going to tell me. He was like, “Aw man, you know that stuff.” We stayed on the phone for two hours and I still didn’t get the answer but it was all right. I was there with him in that moment, so it was perfect.

He’s known me since I was about two years old so he’s like my uncle, and I actually talked to him maybe a couple weeks ago for two hours on so many different subjects, like him coming up in D.C. He talks about that a lot. All his work with Jimmy Smith and the R&B scene. I’ll think I got it under my belt and then I go and hear him and I’m like, “Damn, I gotta go back to the drawing board.” 

Jabali never gets old. I feel like he’s always growing as an artist, never comfortable, never remains stagnant. He’s pushing this music and challenging himself too. He doesn’t shy away from challenges.

8. Carlos Santana and Cindy Blackman Santana
“The Star-Spangled Banner” (pre-game ceremony at Game 2 of 2015 NBA Finals, YouTube video). Carlos Santana, electric guitar; Cindy Blackman Santana, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: [The video performance ends with a back announcement identifying both players] Oh! You should have cut it out before that. That was great, though. Was that for a football game or something? Okay, NBA Finals. Was that the first or second year they did that?

AFTER: Incredible. Cindy’s a beast. I mean, I could tell that it was Carlos and the way she plays pocket is very distinctive too, very heavy with the floor tom and also on the bass drum. It kind of threw me for a minute because I’m not used to hearing them play duo. 

I remember all those records that she did with Lenny [Kravitz] back in the day. I don’t know, there was always something about when she would play funk or rock, it was very bottom-heavy. I think she has a 16″ [kick drum] and a 14″ floor tom and she utilizes both quite a bit. It’s really funky—it almost reminds me of some stuff you would hear Zigaboo Modeliste play with the Meters. I loved it, man. 

The spotlight’s really on Cindy, and Carlos plays it so straight.

He does, he does. It was nice to hear that he gave Cindy that room to breathe and to stretch out and she took full advantage of it. He doesn’t really do any variations with it, which is interesting. A lot of times when you hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” being played, you’re used to people taking so many liberties with that song. And on electric guitar, your mind always goes to the Hendrix version. It’s actually a beautiful melody so hearing it played it that way, you’re really able to put the words to the melody.

Carlos is another one that has a very distinct sound on his instrument. It’s really personal, and you can always tell it’s him. But this time it’s like he knows people have heard that song a million times. Even if he’s out in the forefront, he’s not thinking about himself, he’s thinking about the other people that are complementing him. It sounds great.

9. Andrew Cyrille Quartet
“Coltrane Time” (The Declaration of Musical Independence, ECM). Bill Frisell, guitar; Richard Teitelbaum, synthesizer; Ben Street, bass; Cyrille, drums. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Andrew Cyrille. I just know that sound, man. It’s funny the way the cats of a certain generation, the way each tunes their drums is really unique to themselves. The way he was playing the snare right in the beginning, I was like, “Okay, that’s Andrew.” Is that with [Bill] Frisell? That’s a great record. I have that one—I actually saw them at the Vanguard before they recorded this. I love the palettes they create within the music. I love that military thing Andrew does over that padding, a lot of five-stroke rolls. Even the way he attacks the snare, like his first attacks, you can hear the influence of Max, he’s a direct descendant, and it’s amazing to hear how he’s taken those influences and shaped it into his own. It’s also great to hear how his playing changed over time, from playing with Cecil Taylor in the ’60s. There’s a video from ’68 or around then, and you can hear how he was evolving back then into who he is now. 

I did a discussion with Andrew a few years back for Winter Jazzfest when he was artist-in-residence, at the New School—I remember I talked about how when I listen to him I hear the influences of Max, but what was interesting is that he said he didn’t hang out with Max that much, he said he hung more with Philly Joe and Elvin. They were more inviting to him when he was coming up. I was surprised, but it showed me just because people are listening to each other doesn’t mean they’re going to be tight.

10. Earl Van Dyke
“Ode to Benny B.” (The Motown Sound, Motown). Stevie Wonder, harmonica; Robert White, Eddie Willis, guitars; Earl Van Dyke, electric piano; James Jamerson, bass; Uriel Jones, drums; Jack Ashford or Eddie Bongo, percussion. Recorded in 1969.

BEFORE: What year was that recorded? It’s funny because I don’t know what it sounds like for you, but the recording for me is a little weird, like the balance is off for me. Is that Idris [Muhammad]? The way he’s playing the groove reminds me of something he would do. He’s coming from an R&B place. This one throws me.

It also reminds me of a band Ed Thigpen had in the ’70s when he was playing more pocket stuff. The harmonica player reminded me of Stevie [Wonder]. Wait, who’s that on bass? Is that [James] Jamerson? Did this come out on Motown?

AFTER: Wow. “Ode to Benny B.”—that’s for Benny Benjamin. Am I a fan? Are you kidding me? He’s on all the iconic Motown recordings. He played all those famous pickups that open up all the hits, and he knew how to find the pocket in anything he played. I read it or saw it somewhere that a lot of times the Motown session guys would defer to him to find the correct tempo of a tune, where it laid the best, where it made it feel good, and so he’d kick off the tune. He’s definitely one of my favorites. 

11. John Coltrane
“Saturn” (Interstellar Space, Impulse!). Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Rashied Ali, drums. Recorded in 1967.

BEFORE: [Immediately] Rashied. It’s a duo with him and Trane, something on Interstellar Space. What a great record. I knew it was him right before Trane came in. He had this feel that sounded just like him. I love that period of Trane too, but it sometimes gets overlooked. There’s some really beautiful moments after Elvin [Jones] and McCoy [Tyner] left, and what Jimmy [Garrison] and Rashied got to was really special. Like that live from Temple University recording [Offering, Impulse!/Resonance], just the way they played “Naima,” Rashied flowing over it is just unbelievable. You talk about stretching the bar line, man, it’s in his rearview mirror! [Laughs] It’s  just amazing what he was hearing, and how he was making Trane play too. It just takes it to a whole new level for me every time I hear it.

I first met Rashied in Philly. There was an outdoor festival there and after he played I followed him around, stalked him a bit. [Laughs] Another time, I want to say it was at the Knitting Factory, we had a chance to sit down and chat for a while. He was a very humble person, a very positive person too. I had one question I always wanted to ask him, and I did—what was he thinking about when he was playing with Trane, what was going through his head? He said he was thinking about colors, oranges and blues and things like that. So it wasn’t so much coming from a rhythmic aspect, he was thinking more in terms of trying to match the colors that he was seeing. I don’t know how that translates to the drum kit, but it was really interesting to hear him articulate it in that way. It’s funny because when you talked to Elvin about playing with Trane, he felt it more as a spiritual thing, while Rashied talked about colors and not necessarily feeling the spirit. I’m sure that was in there for both [of them] in some way, just they felt it differently.

12. Ghost-Note
“Pace Maker” (Swagism, Ropeadope). Jonathan Mones, Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II, saxophones; Nigel Hall, Bobby Ray Sparks, keyboards; Anthony “A.J.” Brown, Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas, Jr., basses; Robert “Sput” Searight, drums; Nate Werth, percussion. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: Oh man, that’s another one that’s killin’. This reminds me of this band from Chicago, Sabertooth. Do you know them? Is it a group—it’s not Galactic? I liked his pocket, and I loved the groove. It’s not something I would listen to every day because it’s not my go-to vibe. I listen more to stuff from the ’70s like Stevie, the Meters, Sly and the Family Stone. But I appreciate this sound too and I do listen to it sometimes. Is that Larnell Lewis, with Snarky Puppy?

You’re in the right neighborhood, for sure.

AFTER: Ghost-Note! That’s a talented group with MonoNeon, and it’s definitely coming out of the Snarky Puppy vein, which is nice. I love Sput, he’s a bad dude. Before lockdown Ghost-Note were doing a few of those Zildjian Days [live events sponsored by the cymbal manufacturer], they were like the house band. Now that I have time, I’ve been watching a lot of videos of them. I just watched one last night with this young cat, JD Beck, ridiculous. I saw Sput right before he left Snarky at the Monterey Jazz Festival. There’s a picture somewhere of four or five of us drummers, Jamison Ross, Sput, Justin Faulkner, Otis Brown, myself, all together in the lobby while we were waiting to check into the hotel. Another road moment.

Thanks for doing this, Johnathan—I hope it wasn’t too painful.

No, I had a ball. I like the pain sometimes. Originally Published

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.