Elvin Jones & Philly Joe Jones
By Bobby Jaspar The Jazz Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (February 1959) (posted by http://jazzstudiesonline.org/ )
Years ago, I wrote an enthusiastic letter to a friend about a drummer, John Ward, an emulator of Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, who particularly impressed me then. After trying to describe his playing unsuccessfully I resorted to a little drawing. The drawing showed a little car moving straight along at a constant speed, symbolizing the constant tempo, and mounted on top of this car, a smaller car that rolled back and forth. The movements of the second car represent a secondary rhythm superimposed on the basic beat represented by the motion of the first car.
I now return to this drawing to describe the playing’ of the two drummers who recently have impressed me the most: Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones. The first time I played with Elvin Jones I found it hard to understand what he was doing. He played so many strange overlapping rhythms that I found it hard to hear the basic tempo. I thought that he was in poor form, and just couldn’t keep time. A talk with the bass player reinforced my opinion, for he told me that he had the greatest difficulty in playing with Elvin too. (That was during the earliest days of the J. J. Johnson quintet.) Then, little by little, I began to understand the mysteries of Elvin’s playing, so different from the metronomic ideas of Frank Isola and his school, and of other drummers I knew and understood. Then the drawing of the two little cars, which I had forgotten, came back to mind. I came to the conclusion that what Elvin was doing was really the continuation and development of the principles that Kenny Clarke and Max Roach had pioneered. Since then, working with him every day, I have had the chance to learn to appreciate Elvin. I have never tired of his complex and highly stimulating playing. The basic tempo is there once and for all; it never varies throughout a performance.
There is the basic metronomic pulse which each musician must register sub-consciously (symbolized by the constant speed of the larger car). Over this beat is grafted a series of rhythms so complex that they are almost impossible for me to write out. These rhythms (like the movements of the smaller car) create a sort of secondary or tertiary tempo. At times, playing with Philly or Elvin Jones, the whole band seems to be speeding up or slowing down in an astonishing way, when actually this is not so, since the basic tempo hasn’t changed at all.
While playing with J. J. Johnson’s quintet, Elvin, Wilbur Little, and Tommy Flanagan were able to develop a collective feeling for rhythm and for section playing. It was marvelous to hear them accompanying a slow blues, for example. At a certain point (in the second or third chorus of a solo) they will double the time in a very gradual and subtle way. At the double tempo, the bassist plays a line of triplets mixed with notes played on the beat, the pianist plays off-beat chords, and the drummer plays a series of fast triplets and semiquavers on the ride cymbal: the polyrhythm of the three instruments implies the basic tempo of the blues, doubled but creates enormous excitement and allows the soloist great freedom in improvising. After a roll on the snare, the band goes back to the original tempo, having reached an indescribable pitch of excitement.
Elvin Jones uses triplets freely, but he seldom uses the high-hat to mark a regular or symmetrical beat. The accent on the weak beat often disappears entirely, to be replaced by complicated cross-rhythms on the ride cymbal reinforced by the familiar snare drum accents of modern drumming.
I must especially emphasize the absence of the afterbeat accent on the high-hat. When one is not used to its absence, one feels a sensation of freedom, as though floating in a void with no point of reference. Actually this kind of freedom is a trademark of the greatest jazzmen. Charlie Parker carried this kind of floating on top of the time the farthest, I think”; and the great soloists at their best moments seem completely free of the alternation of “strong-weak, strong-weak” that some people mistakenly call swing.
At up tempo Elvin follows the same methods. At up tempos though, whether through intention or through flaws of technique, Elvin sometimes creates a rhythmic climate that cannot be sustained (at least when he drowns out the bass in volume). From that point of view, Philly Joe seems to be the better drummer of this school. I know of few soloists in New York who can improvise freely in front of Elvin at up tempo without falling off the stand. I suppose that Elvin will simplify his style in the end, but apparently he is still discovering new possibilities every day and looking toward wider horizons.
This concept of drumming, as I said, comes directly from Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones seem to me worthy successors in the tradition. Upon the innovations of their predecessors they have elaborated this kind of polyrhythm to a sometimes unbelievable degree. Their playing is only now beginning to win the recognition it deserves among musicians in New York. This previous lack of enthusiasm is not hard to understand. It’s much easier for a soloist to be backed by a comfortable metronome who hammers the tempo into your head and gives you constant sign-posts! Few musicians of the Basie-Lester school can get used to such complicated rhythms.
Stan Getz has become fascinated by Elvin’s playing, though, and it has been a revelation for me to hear these two musicians playing together. Getz has spoken appreciatively of this school of drumming, but he has had trouble finding a bass player strong and steady enough to hold his place in the fierceness of Elvin’s attack. At fast tempos Getz sometimes has to stop playing for a while and listen to the temporary confusion of the rhythm section. I have often had the same trouble with Elvin: the tension would build to a point where I had trouble finishing my choruses; I would begin trembling with internal excitement, but completely unable to tell where we were any longer … That is obviously a situation to be avoided. But I am sure that Elvin will eventually master this lack of precision which is luckily caused by nothing more serious than over-enthusiasm.
We often forget that syncopation is the essence of jazz rhythm. The famous phrase “syncopated rhythm” has become a cliche we laugh at. There was a time in Paris when we tried to play as exactly on the beat as we could. We then believed that swing could be achieved by placing notes with mathematical accuracy, by steady time, and strong pulsation with heavily accented afterbeats. How could we have been misled by such foolishness? I have found the same misconceptions in some lifeless bands in New York, where the least rhythmic freedom raises the eyebrows of the musicians. They have the expression of a clerk who finds his ink-stand out of place one morning.
The idea of tempo should be a more general one, an idea that each player should have firmly once and for all at the beginning of a performance. The rhythm will have changed often and in many ways. Elvin will deliberately put himself into the most dangerous situation for a soloist\u2014where he must find a way out by increasingly risky and always spontaneous improvising. Apparently, to do that, one needs perfect time, a sort of internal metronome in the “hypothalmus”. American musicians have an expression for this; they say “He always knows where the one is.”
Elvin Jones has a very powerful style, based on complete independence of all four limbs and an enormous volume of sound (probably the biggest sound of any drummer I know, which doesn’t make him any easier to play with!) His cymbal sound is especially individual. He is very interested in African music. He knows that’s the source of polyrhythms, and constantly listens to recordings of African tribal music. (After all, didn’t Blakey take a trip to the Congo and come back raving about his exciting musical experiences?) Philly Joe Jones is Elvin’s spiritual father in some ways. I have talked more of Elvin because I know his work better. Elvin still has some distance to go to match Philly Joe’s mastery, but I am sure we have some happy surprises in store for us.
We often speak of jazz as “an artistic expression of a racial emancipation.” I am not qualified to discuss such problems, though I face them every day; but it is certainly true that jazz is the most original art-form to have come out of the United States. That is not to say that we have no right to create an original and valid form of jazz in Europe, but it does seem to me that jazz is a protest, a relentless revolution. The moment that jazz is played without some sort of sense of liberation, it loses all meaning.
This tradition of liberation, of revolt against the symmetry of the tempo in this case, I have found to the highest degree in Elvin Jones and Philly Joe Jones. (This article appeared in the Jazz Review February 1959 and originally published in JazzHot)Read More
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