LEDONNE SPEAKS!

If you’re on Facebook and like jazz I’m sure you have come across a Mike LeDonne post. Say what you want,  but you cannot fault Mike for speaking his mind, backing his statements up with eloquent and factual discussion and not backing away from conflict.

It is however the posts about jazz music, or the musicians that play it that I really love.  He’s always reminding us of birthdays and posting YouTube clips and talking about his experiences. He has afterall played in the bands of Benny Goodman, Benny Golson, Milt Jackson etc.  Mike, like me, is a jazz geek. He loves to talk about the music and I think its phenomenal. Mike’s resume reads like a who’s who of jazz. Knowing how articulate Mike can be I thought it would be fun to ask him about some drums/bass tandems.

I simply emailed him some tandems and said “you can elaborate as much or as little as you want.”  I KNEW he would go on at length and its an enjoyable read! Thanks MIKE!!

BOB CRANSHAW/MICKEY ROKER – This is my family. We worked together for 11 years with Bags (Milt Jackson) and continue to play together whenever we can. We traveled all over the world and I learned so much from them it’s ridiculous. Bob is the guy I try to sound like when I play bass lines on the organ. Not his notes necessarily but where he places the beat. His idol was Milt Hinton and from him he learned to play long notes that always had an edge on them. This kept his pulse leaning forward but the length of the notes anchored them down. That’s why he sounds great playing jazz on an upright or an acoustic bass. He could play a rope attached to a wash bucket and swing his A off.

Mickey Roker is a natural instinctual drummer. He didn’t start playing drums until pretty late in his life. Not until after he finished his military service. He was a parachute jumper. His cymbal beat is totally his own and has a certain lightness and lift to it that no one else has. And his comping and soloing is completely instinctual. His hero was Kenny Clark but he never really studied so all that hip stuff he plays on Speak Like A Child is just coming from his gut. Because his natural instinct is to have a lift in his cymbal beat he might get out in front of the beat sometimes. But he and Bob love each other so much that Bob can just look over at Mickey and say “ROKER” and Mickey will look over at Bob with a look like a kid who just got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and know that Bob is feeling the time go up. Instead of getting mad or insulted he knows Bob is right and will adjust back on the time. Bob says it’s like two basketball players passing the ball back and forth as they run down the court. No egos at all. Just love for each other and total trust in each other’s commitment to the pocket. As a result they never feel saggy and have the same intensity and pocket playing fast medium or slow. Neither of them care about soloing even though they’re both fine soloists. They’re a couple of the most generous and giving people I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around.

And Mickey Roker is one of the funniest people on the planet earth. This allows every situation feel light and loose and not overly serious and heavy. He and Bob probably go back 50 years together by now. They always told me how they’d almost get kicked out of hotels together back in the day just because they’d be laughing so hard late at night.  So the music sounds fun because the musicians are having fun. Put Bags on top of that and you have heaven on earth.

JIMMY GARRISON / ELVIN JONES -Elvin jones is a natural genius and changed everything. He is what I call a language changer. That’s what I think of as THE top innovators on the music and there’s aren’t that many of them. Like Bird and Trane did Elvin broke open a whole new language on the drums that had never been heard before. I also see McCoy Tyner as a language changer so you had 3 of them in the same band.  In a way Elvin reminds me of Mickey Roker in that he is such a natural and instinctual player. Bags called him Thunder. Roker always said that nobody could play an arrangement like Elvin and Art Blakey. That’s because they’re playing has so much of what I call “humanity” in it. It’s that imperfect and human thing that keeps you on the edge of your seat and yet is so right all the time that you can’t believe that it’s all working.  I think it’s a misconception by young drummers that his powerful sound came from merely bashing the drums. I heard him play many times and was always surprised that he really wasn’t that loud at all. He had one hell of a touch and could draw any sound he wanted out of the set. In fact if you follow his career back you hear him playing brushes and tippin with his brother’s Hank and Thad. It shows that he evolved and knew the entire history. He could be a wild beast or a very controlled and purely grooving drummer. Listen to YouCan’t Buy Me Love on Stanley Turrentine’s Mr Natural recording for Blue Note. That’s McCoy, Bob Cranshaw and Elvin just swinging his ass off straight up. It’s like a dance band.

Everything he did had the essence of the African American aesthetic that is the life’s blood of this music. That feeling of 3 over 4 is an African thing and is really in all of this music. He just brought it out in the light and took it to another level. I think he’s done everything with a triplet that anyone will ever do. He’ll be playing the most complicated things and yet at the same time staying so loose that you think he’s going to loose it but he never does and that’s where the magic is.  After he arrived the drums were never the same.  Jimmy Garrison is one of those unsung greats that was happy holding down the fort and never really stepping into the spotlight. He developed a style that could put a beautiful bouncing quarter note under the band or a freer more open time feel that got away from walking but still held the music together. In fact I think he’s one of the best at doing that. The band can be basically swinging but the way he breaks up the time it feels loose and free.  He’s one of those guys that you don’t notice that much but who’s actually the glue holding it all together. I always loved his sound.

JOHN WEBBER / JOE FARNSWORTH – Now we’re talking about my family again. Only this time I’m the elder. In my humble opinion these are 2 of the most underrated musicians out here today. But people who really swing hard and play with a blues feeling tend to get overlooked these days which is ironic because history shows that those are the 2 main ingredients that are supposed to be in the music. Joe Farnsworth is someone who has a beautiful touch and like Mickey and Elvin also retains that human and raw thing. It’s not perfect and that’s why it swings so hard and sounds so great. He’s got power and great musicality, he is someone who also really did his homework. Art Blakey, Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Arthur Taylor, Tony Williams, Elvin and Philly Joe Jones. It’s all in there. But it comes out sounding like Joe Farnsworth. I love him because he has a big wide quarter note in his cymbal beat and a huge sound that raps around the music like a big glove. And he always brings all his energy to every beat he plays no matter if he’s playing in front o 2 people or 2,000. I know he’s a special cat because it’s almost impossible to replace him.

John Webber is a powerhouse and sits right up there as far as sound, time and swing with all the greats of this music. He reminds me of Bob Cranshaw in that he has the same concept in terms of the length of the notes and where he places the time. It always has just the right edge on it and propels the music forward. He also has a great soling concept that lies somewhere between Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware. In fact he also plays great guitar. Not just good but great. He could kick the butt of some of these so called big name guitar players out here today. But his soloing on guitar is a total guitar concept and not what he plays on the bass. To me this is the sign of a great musician. They hear the instrument not just the notes. The three of us have been playing together for at least 20 years now and I think it shows. We hear together. There are times when I’ll be comping behind someone and Joe and I will spontaneously play the some rhythmic fill as if we planned it that way. This has happened many times both live and on recordings. Telepathy. It’s a real thing and it happens in music when you’ve grown together like the three of us have. I only wish we could play piano trio more steadily to see what would evolve over an extended period of time. But we play in so many different settings together that it doesn’t take us long to settle into our comfort zone.

PAUL CHAMBERS / JIMMY COBB – This was actually the rhythm section that made me want to play jazz in the first place. Those 2 guys together with Wynton Kelly on piano. Now that was magic. My dad was a jazz guitarist so he had many records around the house and he used to play Miles Davis in Person Live at the Blackhawk all the time. I remember hearing it when I was a little kid and just standing in front of the record player not able to stop moving because I would get so excited. I didn’t know it was jazz. I didn’t know much about music at all except this music reached right inside me and lit me up. In my opinion Paul Chambers is the greatest bass player that ever picked up the instrument. And I don’t say that lightly as I love so many guys and have listened to a ton of this music. But on all counts P.C. takes the cake I’m afraid. I know they say in art there is no such thing as best just different so I guess I’ll just leave it at he’s my favorite. He came along and just put everything in the right slot. He has that bounce in his time, his notes are the best and his sound is incredible and consistently so.

I love him with Philly Joe Jones but Jimmy Cobb had a very special hookup with him. Things were always swinging with Philly Joe of course but Cobb put a kind of sizzle under P.C. that was unique.  Cobb seemed to feature the quartet note in his cymbal beat more than Philly did, and he has one hell of a quarter note. That’s something I’ve come to respect because I’ve heard younger guys try to play like that but it can feel very stiff. But Cobb’s is just bad assed and swings in a super tough way. And he’s the total package. He was incredible with Miles but he opened up even more after he left Miles. If you hear him on those Wynton Kelly live trio recordings or the live quartet recordings with different horn players like George Coleman, Hank Mobley or Joe Henderson you’re hearing comping on another level. Like Philly Joe he got that huge sound out of the drum set and had a very musical soloing concept. All these short rhythmic phrases that developed around the snare drum. And he still plays just like that at 84. He’s a freak of nature. I told you how I grew up with Live at the Blackhawk and Kind Of Blue. I remember when I first came to New York doing little gigs around the area with usually more traditional kind of bands but listening to my tapes of Live At The Blackhawk during the breaks and dreaming that one day I would play in a band like that. Fast forward about 30 years and I get a call to do a tribute to Miles Davis with Vincent Herring, Eric Alexander, Jeremy Pelt, John Webber and Jimmy Cobb at Smoke in NYC. And I have to say that I’m living proof that dreams can come true. There I was playing Fran Dance and all the tunes from all those recordings with Cobb himself. He and Webber have been playing together for years so their hook up is very much the same as P’C and Cobb. And me? I was like a kid on Xmas morning. I knew every note and every chord to play before I played it because I had heard those recordings so many times for so many years and it was just the same thing as what I heard on this stage. Magic. Every tune every night. One of the high points for sure.

RON CARTER / TONY WILLIAMS – What can I say about these 2 guys that hasn’t been said already. They opened everything up and changed the way guys thought about a rhythm section forever. I always thought Tony kind of came out of Jimmy Cobb. He had that same bad ass cymbal beat and used quarter notes a lot on his cymbal. I remember a great story Miles told Kenny Washington. Miles said that Tony got into the all 4 beats on the hi hat style after Miles got on him one night because he wasn’t playing his hi hat enough. Like Elvin I think Tony’s innovation’s got misinterpreted by many younger drummers. Tony was grounded in the tradition of jazz drumming and was also a genius. There”s no other word that can describe a kid of 17 playing like he did. But after Tony you start hearing the what I call the “constant drum solo” style of drummers. Guys who play so much stuff all the time you feel like you’re always accompanying THEM. That’s not what Tony did at all. He was tied into the music and served the music. Not the other way around. His genius wasn’t just that he could swing and play so well at such a young age but that he was so musical and had such mature taste as well. And plus the fact that he was playing things that no one had played before. You hear a fearlessness in him that is just plain inspiring. I heard a funny story Tony told about the famous Four and More recording. That is one of the most popular live recordings of the band because it’s so burning and has the addition of the great George Coleman to the band. But Tony said he never really got why everybody loved that stuff so much because to him the band sounded like t was always rushing. But that was how these guys played. WAY on top. Again that being on the edge and thinking that at any moment this could all come crashing down is what makes it so exciting to experience.

Ron Carter is the anchorman. That’s what he did in that band and that’s what he does now. He holds down the ship. To me he’s got a lot of Paul Chambers in him but also Sam Jones. He has the bounce of P.C in his time but also the heat and forward edge of Sam Jones But it comes out as all Ron Carter.  I know he loves Israel Crosby and I think that’s where he gets his concept of anchoring things down like he does and also finding the right notes. And he can find some notes. I’ve been playing with him for over a decade now and I can say that there is no one on earth that can do what he does. It’s all done in a very dry and low key manner like it’s no big deal. He just listens from note one and ties right into the music being played and hears along with the soloist simultaneously. I mean he seems to get in your head and think along with you. So when you go into some kind of idea he’s immediately placing some cycle under it that you never would have thought of and that gives it a whole new color. He also has huge hands and a background in cello. I think this made him explore playing more chordal things on the bass. His technique is amazing but never flaunted. He’s a very quiet and dignified man but he’s a fearless explorer when he gets that bass in his hands. As far as his playing with Tony I think he held down the fort leaving Tony free to go where he wanted. And they would also do these amazing metric modulations together. That’s playing in 4/4 but superimposing another meter on top of it. I think they’re the first rhythm section to develop that concept. But there’s another side to Ron and that is when it’s time to get greasy, he can. Same for Tony and that’s the part not many of his imitators picked up on. Bottom line for them boils down to what made any rhythm section on this music great – they could swing their A’s off.

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One thought on “LEDONNE SPEAKS!

  1. Mike is never at a loss for words but unlike many people his words and thoughts are always worth checking out…..this was great!

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