Tony Allen: A Night in Lagos

Drummer Tony Allen seeks a singular groove between hard bop and Afrobeat

Afrobeat and jazz drummer Tony Allen (photo by Bernard Benant)

On a pair of 2017 releases for Blue Note, a resolute EP called A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and a radiant album titled The Source, drummer Tony Allen conjures up not a mix of two genres but a fresh outlook born from the mixing. Now 77 and the undisputed architect of Afrobeat drumming—he maintained the groove for Fela Kuti starting in the mid-’60s and up through the end of the ’70s—Allen is molding jazz music in his unique, rhythmically taut image. Though he refers to this music as “Afrobeat-jazz,” that tag sells his sound short. Something new is afoot.

The Blakey EP, featuring a horn-heavy septet, is an electrifying journey through the repertoire of the indomitable hard-bop drummer; “Moanin’” and “A Night in Tunisia” are especially gripping, shot through with Afrobeat feel. But Blakey wasn’t the only swinger Allen was into while getting it together in Nigeria; he was merely the one Allen was drawn to the most. “There’s Jo Jones, there’s Philly Joe Jones and there’s Tony Williams,” Allen said backstage at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge this past summer. “It’s my combination, taken from there and there.”

One Brooklyn-raised percussionist in particular has also prominently influenced his style. “My hi-hat playing really was taught by Max Roach,” he said. “I fused it with [the popular African style] highlife, which has made my highlife playing kind of different.”

Still, Blakey’s inspiration has been the most significant, and though no relationship was ever forged between Allen and his hero, the pair did cross paths. “I met him in ’85, in London,” Allen recalled. “[He was] playing a gig at Ronnie Scott’s, so I went to meet him. I watched the concert and later I went backstage, and kind of introduced myself to him and [told him] he was my idol, and that I’ve been following in his footsteps. I just gave him compliments, you know?”

With other jazz legends, more than kind words were exchanged. Trumpeter Lester Bowie appears on the 1977 Fela album No Agreement, and Allen remembers that time well: It followed the infamous ’77 torching of Fela’s residence in Lagos by the army there. “Good trumpet player, good techniques, cool guy,”

Allen said of Bowie. “He was participating on that recording because it was just after the accident at Fela’s house. Fela’s house burned. And [Bowie] was in town. Fela has to do eight albums at a go. Fela just invited him as a guest, and what we did together was hip.”

Allen has also made music with vibraphonist Roy Ayers, a collaboration that almost didn’t happen. In 1980, Ayers and Kuti shared dates in Nigeria, fronting their respective bands; Allen was no longer playing with Fela, but came along to do sound for the shows. But when the drum chair in Ayers’ band suddenly opened up, he found himself in the right place at the right time. “We had three major shows to do in Lagos,” Allen recalled, “and Bernard Purdie decided to leave. He left and went back to the States. And ‘Who’s gonna play drums for Roy Ayers?’ He was thinking about using one of Fela’s drummers. Fela has two drummers. So one of Fela’s managers suggested to him, ‘Hey, Bernard Purdie don’t play; I’d take Tony Allen.’ And Roy was, ‘Tony Allen?’ He knew Tony Allen to be a sound engineer.”

If at one time Allen wasn’t a household name to musicians like Ayers and Blakey, that likely isn’t the story today, as his reputation as a rhythmic pioneer has grown exponentially in the past few decades. The Source is a powerful addition to that legacy. Recorded with an expanded version of the Paris-based crew that laid down the EP, and with saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz pitching in to write and arrange the music alongside Allen, the album travels from the mellow magic of “Woro Dance” to the brisk majesty of “Cool Cats” (which features piano from Damon Albarn, of Blur/Gorillaz fame); harder jazz influences can be heard in the Mingus-like intro to “Moody Boy,” the quasi-avant-garde piano of “On Fire” and the collective horn soloing of “Push and Pull.”

“It’s Afrobeat-jazz,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t call it Afrobeat, because everyone is playing Afrobeat now. If you listen to my record, it’s different patterns.”

Read John Murph’s recommendations for the top albums by Afrobeat and jazz drummer Tony Allen.