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Drummers & Percussionists: What Makes Their Unions Work?

Rhythm squared

Gretsch drum kit
Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra's "Manteca" album
Bobby Sanabria (left) with percussionist Candido, 2014
Sangam: Zakir Hussain, Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland
Airto Moreira
Giovanni Hidalgo, Umbria Jazz Festival, July 2014
Daniel Sadownick (l.) and Marcus Gilmore
Antonio Sanchez (l.) and Daniel Sadownick
VIc Firth American Jazz Hickory drumsticks

In his useful book What Jazz Is, published in 1997, Jonny King writes, “Drums have an intrinsic physical magnetism. … Maybe the draw is rhythm itself, the most innate of musical elements.” Think of the last time you heard live jazz. What got the loudest crowd reaction? Right. The drum solos. One reason the Bad Plus is popular is that drummer Dave King essentially never stops soloing. As Jonny King (no relation) points out, “Drummers themselves are, like the rest of us, victims of drum appeal.”

For victims whose appetite for drums is insatiable, there are percussion ensembles. M’Boom, founded by Max Roach, made six records between 1973 and 1992. Art Blakey’s imposing Drum Suite, recorded in 1956 and ’57, was finally reissued on Columbia in 2005. Blakey, Papa Jo Jones, Specs Wright, Candido Camero and Sabu Martinez drown the world in a sublime deluge of beats.

But percussion ensembles are rare. Since 1947, when Dizzy Gillespie added Chano Pozo of Cuba to his orchestra, the most reliable, most widely available way for rhythm junkies to increase their dose has been the drummer/percussionist tandem. The format is a specialized niche of jazz history, not often discussed. But it is a lens through which important subjects can be inspected. Among them are the elasticity of the jazz art form, the dynamics of collaborative improvisation and when too much is just enough.

Gillespie and Pozo delivered the epiphany that bebop phrasing could be superimposed on Cuban rhythms. Structures like the 12-bar blues and the 32-bar song form could incorporate the two- and four-bar cyclical patterns of Afro-Cuban music. “Latin jazz” was launched as a permanent ongoing category. The first noteworthy drummer/percussionist pairing was Pozo and drummer Kenny Clarke of the Gillespie band. Clarke’s linear pulse, when blended with Pozo’s subdivisions of the beat, created a new, powerful, irresistible rhythmic drive. Bop was no longer exclusively art music for the hip elite: Afro-Cuban bop could make the masses shake their asses.

Clarke/Pozo set the paradigm. Tandems usually had a jazz drummer from the United States and a percussionist from somewhere else: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Africa or Brazil. Probably the second significant tandem was Candido Camero of Cuba and a drummer, now barely remembered, who was the Steve Gadd of his day: Ted Sommer. They recorded a seminal album for ABC-Paramount in 1956 called Candido, with a straight-ahead jazz band (Al Cohn, Joe Puma, Dick Katz, Whitey Mitchell). Candido incorporates the tumbao, the basic Latin dance rhythm, but he swings it. He plays jazz figures on congas. The Candido/Sommer four-bar exchanges are electric. They are rhythmic flowerings new to jazz.

By 1958 it was common for jazz projects to bring in percussionists. On Lou Donaldson’s Blues Walk (Blue Note, 1958), drummer Dave Bailey and conguero Ray Barretto commingle their drum languages and tonalities. What results is funk with fresh cachet. On Art Taylor’s A.T.’s Delight (Blue Note, 1960), the leader and conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdés sound natural together. Their diverse rhythms layer organically.

Miles Davis was on the leading edge of trends in jazz for 40 years, and he did not miss the boat on percussionists. In August 1969, for the sessions that became Bitches Brew, he hired three drummers (four if you count Jumma Santos on shaker). He put Lenny White in the left channel and Jack DeJohnette in the right, both on drum kits, and Don Alias in the center, on congas. Bitches Brew is music that constantly changes shape like an amoeba. What holds it together are three clean streams of energy from the drummers, intersecting.

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Originally Published