SKF NOTE: I first heard Elvin Jones on John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass album – also my intro to Coltrane – when I was about 16 years old. I bought a cut-out monaural copy of that LP in a Huntington, NY drug store. My drummer listening experiences, at that time, were confined to swing drummers like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and rock drummers of the day.
I didn’t know what Elvin was playing. That is, I hadn’t the ability to analyze it. Plus, I didn’t own a drumset at the time; not until I was 18 years old. But I liked Elvin’s sound: his crisp snare, rising and fall drum rolls, his cymbals, his ideas. Africa/Brass opens with Greensleeves – a song with which I was familiar. And it is a big band date. The Coltrane Quartet of Coltrane, Elvin, McCoy Tyner (piano), and Reggie Workman (bass) — Art Davis (bass) was added — with brass and reeds: A total of 21 musicians. I was, as I said, familiar with big bands.
But my first Holy smoke! intro to Elvin Jones came a few years later with his trio date, Puttin’ It Together, on the Blue Note label (1968): Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Joe Farrell (saxes). This LP opens with Reza. Puttin’ It Together and its companion LP, The Ultimate (1968), remain among my favorite albums.
Listening to those trio dates today is a 180-degree different experience than my first hearing 45 years ago. Three essentially single note, non-chordal instruments – no piano, no guitar, no horn sections riffing – my new ears were lost in search of familiar ground. And there was none. But the music – especially Elvin’s playing – kept drawing me back in, listen after listen.
Fast forward many years to my first time seeing Elvin playing live. It was at a forgotten New York City jazz club. Based solely on Elvin’s playing on records, and from still photos of Elvin in Down Beat magazine, from descriptions of him by other musicians and music journalists as a loud or busy drummer – I expected that night to see a basher. Elvin pummeling the bejesus out of his long suffering drum set.
Instead, I watched and listened to a very relaxed Elvin Jones playing just as he played on records, with almost no wasted motion, no wasted energy. That was, for me, a great lesson, a revelation.
Sometime in the 1990s I went back to really listening and studying Elvin Jones. Not so I could play like him, but so I could understand him. I bought every CD I could find on which Elvin was playing. Not only the Coltrane dates, but Elvin’s own CD’s, his dates with several Blue Note artists, i.e. Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Grant Green, Andrew Hill, Joe Henderson, and even his earlier work with musicians like Steve Lacy, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, and Pepper Adams.
In spite of decades of listening to Elvin, there were still cuts on albums – drum breaks, intros, drum solos – where I’d get lost and have no idea where Elvin was in the song. On a few songs I’d swear he dropped the beat! But that didn’t make sense. Even if Elvin did drop the beat – would Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and all those other great players let that mistake stand forever on their record date?
Also, the musicians on these CDs were never lost during Elvin’s breaks and solos. The problem was with my ears, my inability to hear Elvin. So I just kept listening.
One major breakthrough for me was learning to listen to Elvin without expectations. I would listen to a cut through the intro, other instrument solos. When it came time for trading fours, eights, or soloing – I was expecting to hear Elvin lead with his snare drum. That’s what my ears were trained to hear; what my brain was trained to expect. Elvin would lead, say, with his bass drum, followed by his snare – and that fresh combination of sounds threw my listening off balance. It was the same as hearing someone speaking my native tongue using unfamiliar words and phrases. Say, American English vs British English.
As my friend, Chip Stern, reminds me, those of us who were alive to see, as well as, listen to Elvin Jones, are truly blessed. What a gift.
For aspiring drummers who arrived here after Elvin’s spirit departed – fear not. You have a lifetime of joy absorbing Elvin Jones’s amazing legacy of recorded music, clinics to hear and to see.