by Scott K Fish
September 14, 2014
I first heard Alan Dawson on at least one of his many sideman dates for Prestige records. I heard it said Mr. Dawson was an in-house drummer for Prestige – which, according to Dawson during my interview with him, isn’t true. He was just the first choice drummer on many recording sessions. He drummed on so many dates it seemed as if he was Prestige’s house drummer.
But my first stop-me-in-my-tracks memory of Mr. Dawson is the 9/8 Indian Song on the Dave Brubeck/Gerry Mulligan Mexican concert Columbia album, Compadres. As of this writing, that album is not readily available in any format. Too bad.
Dawson plays a great drum solo on Indian Song. But what really grabbed my attention was the maraca playing during the solo. It was smack dab in sync with Dawson’s solo. I could not figure out if one of the other band members and Dawson had worked out this routine. That didn’t make sense. It didn’t sound as if Dawson was shaking the maraca and, with one hand, playing the intricate drum solo. Had some blistering Mexican percussionist been invited onstage uncredited on either the LP or the liner notes? It all remained a mystery.
Fast forward to the early 1970s. Living in Iowa, I attended an Alan Dawson drum clinic at a forgotten Iowan college or university. Dawson focused on the importance of learning drum rudiments and of using them musically, demonstrating each spoken example on his four-piece drumset. One example I’ve used since was a double-paradiddle used as a Latin beat. For right-handed drummers, the double paradiddle was played with a triplet-feeling, right hand on the bell of the ride cymbal, left hand starting on the snare, but also moving between snare and tom-toms. Dawson learned it from a young drum student who discovered it following Dawson’s advice to use the drum rudiments musically.
And at one point in the clinic, Dawson solved the Indian Song mystery. He played the song using a maraca in his right hand, a drumstick in his left! As soon as I saw him do that I thought, “Of course!” But, I was not able to solve the riddle relying on my ears alone. I had never seen another drummer use a maraca as a drumstick substitute. It just didn’t cross my mind as an answer to what I was hearing on Indian Song. Drummers who grew up with internet access may be unable to appreciate my dilemma.
In the last couple of years I was once again awed by Alan Dawson’s playing in two places. First, on Booker Ervin’s album, The Freedom Book.
Second, on a series of YouTube videos of Dawson playing in Sonny Rollins’s trio. Holy smoke! Totally relaxed, in command, always musical, sounding great.