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Bending the Beat

Bop and swing give way to new percussive influences in jazz

louis hayes offers a master class on his new album.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/28/2009

The Louis Hayes Quartet

Eubie Blake Center Nov. 1

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"The rhythm section is the essence of every style of music," the late Max Roach told me back in 1992. "Charlie Parker can play whatever he wants on the saxophone, but if I play a polka beat on the drums, the music's going to sound like a polka-if I play swing, the music's going to sound like swing, and if I play bebop, the music's going to sound like bebop."

Roach, of course, did play drums with Parker, and the unspoken implication of Roach's argument is that he and Kenny Clarke deserve at least as much credit for the bebop revolution as Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, for it was the drummers' reorganization of time that changed jazz from swing to bop. That lesson remains true today, as jazz is undergoing another contentious transformation from bop to funk. And, once again, the drummers are the arbiters of change.

As one of Roach's most important disciples, Louis Hayes is a master of bebop drumming. The 72-year-old Hayes, who brings his quartet to the Eubie Blake Center Sunday, was the drummer in the 1956-'59 Horace Silver Quintet, the 1959-'65 Cannonball Adderley Quintet, and the 1965-'67 Oscar Peterson Trio, and recorded with John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, and Baltimore's Gary Bartz. On his new album, The Time Keeper (18th & Vine), Hayes displays all the glories of that era's approach to jazz drumming.

The leader is backed by three gifted young musicians-New York saxophonist Abraham Burton, Brazilian pianist Helio Alves, and Panamanian bassist Santi DeBriano-and on four of the nine tracks by Pittsburgh vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Though the sidemen are two generations younger than the leader and often a continent removed, the sound is firmly grounded in the '50s. With his crisp cymbal and rim work on Horace Silver's "Peace," Hayes demonstrates the nervous tension that gave bop its edge; the beat has a syncopated swing but in an elastic way that expands and contracts and never allows the music to fall into a rut.

On Silver's "The Preacher," with its catchy, gospel-flavored chorus, Hayes brings each refrain to a climax with two double hits and a cymbal crash as if he were the evangelist of the title. When Burton takes off on a tenor sax solo, Hayes is right on his heels, nipping at him with tom-tom rolls and unexpected cymbal accents. On Hayes' own composition, "Check In," he trades eights with Burton, the drummer's combinations sounding almost as melodic and always more physical than the saxophone phrases. Even when he's seemingly in the background, Hayes' rumbling, ever-changing sound radiates through everyone else's solos-just as Roach claimed it would.

Almost no one disputes the achievements of bebop and swing percussion. The big argument today is whether that's the way jazz drumming has to sound or whether it's just one of the ways jazz drumming can sound. The neo-conservatives at Lincoln Center will argue that jazz is defined by its rhythmic feel and that without that phrasing it's no longer jazz. The left wing of the jazz community counters that the collective improvisation and syncopation known as jazz can have its time organized in any number of ways, that jazz can adapt the rhythms of today's popular music-funk, rock, and hip-hop-as readily as it adapted the rhythms of yesterday's popular music.

Many drummers are proving the left wing's case: Baltimore's Dennis Chambers, who has played with everyone from George Clinton to John Scofield; Baltimore's Nate Reynolds, who plays with Lafayette Gilchrist; Nasheet Waits, who plays with Jason Moran; Anthony Cole, who plays with Sam Rivers; and Denardo Coleman, who plays with his father Ornette. In recent months, two albums led by drummers have concentrated that argument.

Matt Wilson, who has frequently visited Baltimore as part of the Chamber Jazz Society, Creative Differences, and Jazz in Cool Places series, has a new album, That's Gonna Leave a Mark (Palmetto), that climaxes with a new arrangement of War's 1975 funk hit, "Why Can't We Be Friends?" Wilson plays the funk beat with authority, smacking the snare on the off-beat. Unlike real funk drummers, however, he never stays in one pattern for long, always finding a new way to restate the groove. This constant reinvention is what allows the funk feel to become a jazz rhythm.

Wilson can also be a solid bop drummer; he leads his quartet through a convincing version of Gillespie's "Two Bass Hit." But Wilson is most exciting when he draws from the funk of his own generation and transmutes it into jazz. Listen, for example, to his own, previously recorded composition, "Arts and Crafts." It boasts a melody nearly as catchy as the War tune, and Wilson's snare attack on the off-beats is just as funky. But he never surrenders to the fallacy that funk has to be steady and unchanging; he's forever altering his phrasing-sometimes with a loud snare, sometimes with a rattling cymbal, sometimes with a tom-tom lick-without the listener ever losing track of the beat. In the end, he achieves the ultimate goal of any jazz drummer: a steady pulse and continual surprise.

Alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo switches to bass clarinet for his composition "Rear Control" and announces his deep-throated, two-bar theme over a James Brown drum pattern played by Wilson. But when Jeff Lederer plays the high, dreamy second theme on soprano sax, Wilson switches to circus patterns, building excitement. Back and forth the two themes alternate as Wilson, bassist Chris Lightcap, and the two reed players push the tendencies of each section further and further to delirious extremes. It's superb jazz, but it stems from funk, not swing.

Drummer Jim Black describes his AlasNoAxis quartet as "melodic singer/songwriter music without vocals, instead with distortion, electronics and a saxophone." In other words, this is jazz that grows out of rock rather than funk, bop, or swing. This is obvious on Black's new album, Houseplant (Winter & Winter), where Hilmar Jensson's electric guitar and Sk?li Sverrisson's electric bass echo the tonalities of a modern rock band with tenor saxophonist Chris Speed filling the role of the lead vocalist. But it's Black's drumming, a relentless 4/4 push, that really establishes the rock influence on these dozen originals.

But Black is not a rock drummer in the way that Dave King, the heavy-handed percussionist for the Bad Plus, is. Black never falls into a repetitive pattern-he endlessly varies the rock patterns he borrows, omitting expected accents, adding unexpected accents, even adding secondary patterns from his laptop. Thus he transforms steady rock grooves into elastic jazz rhythms, much as Papa Jo Jones transformed ballroom dance bands into jazz in the '30s. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Black writes ravishingly gorgeous tunes and chord changes, so that the high-octane rockers are broken up by equally arresting ballads.

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