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Jeff Hamilton: Capitol Drums

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton has just returned from touring Scandinavia with the Clayton- Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. At the Musician’s Union hall in Hollywood for a CHJO rehearsal, the drummer is calm, cool and collected. If he’s jet-lagged, he’s not copping to it.

Recently Hamilton began to concentrate on just the big band and his own trio, and that feels right to him. “This year I decided to whittle down all the responsibilities I had taken on with other groups and focus on my projects, as opposed to being everyone else’s drummer,” he says. It was a big decision, considering Hamilton’s played with Ray Brown and Monty Alexander’s trios, Diana Krall, the Count Basie band, Oscar Peterson and more, and he’s recorded with Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Benny Carter, Milt Jackson and many others.

Earlier this year Hamilton released a fifth album with his trio, The Best Things Happen (Azica). It’s a collection of standards and jazz gems rendered in beautiful and surprising ways, thanks to some unique arranging by bassist Christoph Luty and pianist Tamir Hendelman. “This CD is a bit of a departure from the things I was doing before because I was doing most of the arranging and I did have a couple of originals on each CD,” Hamilton says. “But the group that I’ve come up with has really taken standards and put their own ideas on them, dressed them up a bit.”

These arrangements give Hamilton the perfect launch pad for his style: plenty of sizzle, rhythmic diversity and a stunningly light touch when needed. Hamilton packs controlled punch into the swing of “I Love Being Here With You,” displays Latin percussion on the opening of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” and again on “Poinciana,” and his caressing brushwork turns “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” “Skylark,” and “Moonbird” into tender poetry. The set was recorded at the legendary Capitol studios, where Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and others made magic. “It’s funny to see people look at the pictures of all the people that have come in and made music in the building,” Hamilton says. “They get sort of startled about what they’re there to do. But I look at it like, hey, now it’s my turn. Not putting myself on their level, but it is a recording studio and a place where great music has been made, and now I get a place to do it.”

Hamilton’s confidence was spawned as a youngster in Richmond, Ind., listening to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and playing along to Oscar Peterson records. With practice, exposure and a great teacher, soon he was meeting his heroes and being asked to sit in. At the University of Indiana, he forged a friendship with John Clayton that led to the formation of CHJO, which debuted in 1990 with its first album.

Now Hamilton is trying to map out live gigs for the trio amid the CHJO schedule. And though he’s been known to pen a song or two, Hamilton is happiest interpreting and studying the music he loves. “I’m still researching this instrument and trying to be a better player. Jazz players become better the older they get, because they are smarter, they know what to edit, they’re not trying to play so many things, and they know what to leave out. It takes time and maturity to really figure that out.”