the evolution of the drums | and a guide to some recent recordings


Foto: © Zippo Zimmermann,

The liberation of the drums in jazz and improvised music has been one of the most incredible, yet neglected, stories of the past thirty years. First Kenny Clarke, then Max Roach in the Forties set aside the steady four-four beat of the bass drum, opting for a lighter, more legato style on the cymbals, roundly punctuated by occasional bass drum “bombs” and/or snare and high-hat accentuations. By the early Fifties, Art Blakey had drawn the various polyrhythmic conclusions from this, interpolating into his playing actual counter-rhythms or whole lines filled with new rhythmic suggestions. (As two examples, hear his work on “Little Willie Leaps,” Charlie Parker, One Night At Birdland, Columbia 34808, June 1950; or especially on “Dig,” Miles Davis, Dig, Prestige 7012, October 1950.)


art_blakeygretsch.jpgThis had a considerable impact on Elvin Jones (compare his work on “Chasin’ The Trane,” John Coltrane, Live At The Village Vanguard, November 1961, with Blakey’s on “Dig”) who, taking Blakey as his starting point, came to dispense with the stated beat entirely (in favor of pulse), the cymbals becoming only one of several, though more shimmering, impressionistic sound-and-rhythm sources to be drawn from.

Taking Blakey’s ideas in a different direction was Ed Blackwell who, drawing from a sparer (though sonorically advanced) sound palette, expanded and changed their conceptual application, shuffling rhythms about and occasionally holding the beat in full suspension while he engaged in unimpaired (and frequently “melodic”) improvisational discourse with the rest of the band.

Sunny Murray’s contribution was to suspend the beat completely, though he still maintained – Jack Cooke has pointed this out in Modern Jazz, The Essential Records, 1945-70, Aquarius Books, page 120 – and to some extent intensified the divisions of manual labor of the trap set handed down from bop times, using those very distinctions to set in motion against each other multiple (and generally ambiguous) rhythmic lines, colors, and tempos. This was as true of his work with Cecil Taylor as with Albert Ayler and can be heard as well through the thicker-textured soundings of his own ensembles.

sunnysunny.jpgMurray’s influence can be heard in the jaggedly layered (and more propulsive) rhythmic machinations of Rashied Ali – who in one sense drew Murray’ s ideas to something like their logical conclusion; also to a lesser extent in the work of Andrew Cyrille (more obvious in Cyrilles earlier playing – say, on Cecil Taylor ‘s Unit Structures, Blue Note BLP 4237, as compared to Murray’s playing on Taylor’s Cafe Montmartre dates – though even here Cyrille’s crackling explosiveness has little to do, except formally, with Murray’s ambiguities). Cyrille’s playing, in fact, seems to me to represent one type of synthesis of the most important innovations of everyone – Jones, Murray, Graves especially – making him one of the most versatile and truly polyrhythmic of all players (hear his work on Taylor ‘s Akisakila, Trio PA 3004-5).


In the period 1964-66, however, only Milford Graves seems really to have gone beyond and changed Murray’s formal assumptions – that is, changed the functional terms of relationship between the drummer and instrument. There was certainly a precedent for what Graves did – in the work of Elvin Jones particularly – but Graves’ stylings were less a new kind of rhythmic interpolation (though they were that too) than a somewhat inherently discontinuous textural maze, still capable of propelling an ensemble at all levels, yet – in Graves’ continual movement through all possible areas of the trap set, and in the way in which his phrases took shape: their unusual durations and mixed dynamic, timbral, and temporal characteristics – opening it to an immense (and unprecedented) amount of rhythmic/harmonic (i.e. vertical) space. Thus Graves is the essential link, if not always the dominant influence, to nearly all of the important European drum and percussion work of the Seventies, that mainly having to do with new harmonic/timbral extensions and (connected to that) the evolution of concepts that accept implicitly the terms of rhythmic relations that he set down.

mgraves.jpgMost important, however, is that – unrecognized by any major writer – by at least 1964 (as can be heard in Graves playing on the New York Art Quartet, ESP 1004), the drums had not only assumed a role equal to that of any other instrument in an ensemble but, in the hands of someone like Graves, actually began to outdistance them – in terms of the amount of sound capable of being produced and produced simultaneously, and in the extraordinary complexity of the rhythmic/textural/temporal and dynamic interaction. This was, to a large extent, not only a reversal of the role of the drums in the jazz context, but a different aesthetic stance from that being taken by the majority of instrumentalists in that period.


That is, the Sixties saw the evolution of new harmonic, timbral and rhythmic/conceptual choices but, by and large, the pace of rhythm slowed down – at least from what it had been in bop times. Certain drummers – Graves, Ali, Cyrille, and at times Murray, although his work generally involved a looser (and sparer) rhythmic tension – alone dealt with this dimension. And it is interesting that nearly every other attempt (both at the time and since) by anyone to achieve a similar type of rhythmic complexity on any other instrument other than the drums, or to approach another instrument with the same kind of percussive force – as say, Cecil Taylor has done with the piano (or Don Pullen was attempting to do with it a decade ago), or Derek Bailey has done with the guitar or Evan Parker with the saxophone – has been met with almost total emotional incomprehension by just about everyone.

It can be seen now that one of the most important features of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble – taking its aesthetic shape from John Stevens – was that it was the first real attempt in recent times to change the balance of rhythmic relations in a band. So that a quick, frantic, and microscopic rhythmic activity is generated from the band as a whole, of which Stevens’ drums are only a single, if at times more substantive, part.

First influenced, it would seem, by Billy Higgins, much of whose sound and sensibilities he subsequently retained, Stevens’ work came more to evolve through the conceptions of Milford Graves, mostly as a way of distilling their essence – meaning his sound is cleaner (more staccato, fewer lingering sounds) and lighter, and generally more spatial – the space positing a held tension between the lines and more clearly defining the specific character of the sounds produced. By no means does it have the force or even the complex inner workings of Graves, but the difference is that Stevens is less concerned with ensemble propulsion as such than with opening the ensemble itself up to its own inherent rhythmic dynamic. That, however, was one of the drawbacks of Stevens’ approach, in that in restoring a balance between the drums and the rest of the band, it sacrificed individual virtuosity for a group sound.


This becomes particularly evident on listening to Tony Oxley’s music from the same period (hear Ichnos, RCA Victor SF 8215, recorded 1971). Oxley seems to have come to Graves-like ideas via the crisp, post-bop textural conceptions of Tony Williams (compare, for example, Williams’ solo on “Red,” Lifetime, Blue Note 84180, with Oxley’s “East of Sheffield,” Tony Oxley, Incus 8; but also compare Graves on “Everything Happens To Me,” The NewYork Art Quartet: Mohawk, Fontana 881 009, with Oxley on “EIROC II,” Incus 8 ), though in the way in which Oxley was able to place his sounds in space – utilizing their extreme qualities for contrast and differentiation, further delineating their dynamic and temporal schemes, and – by his own important technical innovation: extending and altering certain sounds through the use of amplification – he brought a peculiar 3-D quality to his work, a different and less definite kind of flow, and a sense of movement in all directions, even within fairly dense contexts. Oxley’s bands – following his compositional as well as aesthetic direction – reflect this in that the instruments are deliberately set apart from each other rather than brought together, as in the SME, which allows for greater individual expression (compare Ichnos, for example, with the SME’s “So What Do You Think?” Tangent 118, January 1971) while still retaining a strong rhythmic/textural conception as a whole. * (See NOTE below.)


Paul Lytton’s innovation was to bring electronics into the picture, expanding the sonic (and rhythmic/harmonic) frame of reference and using them to delve into heavier (and more elastic) textural areas that could serve either an open drone-like function or – in the manner in which they were drawn out or torn apart – work as new points of rhythmic tension/propulsion. As compared with Tony Oxley’s, Lytton’s playing may also be fairly straightforward (possibly reflecting some influence from Han Bennink), though always feigning this way and that (temporally, dynamically) to stoke the rhythmic fires.


Cecil Taylor and Han Bennink

Han Bennink, of course – as a kind of post-Elvin Jones. Elvin Jones on the one hand, or an expansive fleet-footed Milford Graves on the other – opened up a veritable textural/tonal menagerie, his work being simultaneously the densest, most direct, and most compelling of any of the post-Graves players, yet also the most illusive and utilizing the most (non-electronic) “outside” sound sources. There are often several layers to his work, or several somewhat divergent (and just as often as not, unconventional) sound areas moving side by side. Not so much pulling at each other, as in Sunny Murray’s work, they tend to shove each other along, churning compulsively, at the same time containing an incredible amount of rhythmic diversity (a la Graves). They also come and go without warning – quick and extreme contrast is one of the foundations of Bennink’s work, and he may sometimes cease playing altogether – altering the contextual sense of the music as a whole and opening it to other more determinedly broken-paced, and frequently more wide-ranging (though just as dense) rhythmic deliberations.

topographyofthelungscover.jpgBennink’s arsenal of instruments now includes clarinets, piano, banjo, accordion, violin, assorted homemade junk, and just about anything available to be sounded, all of which (like Oxley’s amplification and Lytton’s electronics) allows him to work in long, pitch-conscious areas as well as in those more traditionally defined as rhythmic-percussive. (Especially hear his playing on Topography of the Lungs, Incus 1, and on Elements, Couscous, The End, FMP 0030, 0040, and 0050).

fmp0040.jpgMore directly evolving from Sunny Murray’s sphere of influence (possibly as filtered through Sven-Ake Johansson) is Detlef Schonenberg, though his sound is heavier and different than Murray’s, and he is quite a bit more dramatic (for a drummer, almost melodramatic) – meaning he is less arcane than Murray, even while working through as wide a dynamic range, and with a more specific time sense. But he retains Murray’s penchant for mixed repetitive structures and substructures (though moving from a much larger sound array), and there’s the same sense of the sound washing over and against itself. Yet his sound itself and blend of ideas are highly original, wholly different from the path marked out by any other percussionist.

fmp0050.jpgThis survey, of course, barely scratches the surface of an area of jazz/improvisation that for too long has been inadequately dealt with, or not at all. In an effort to elucidate the main trends and to deal on some level with those whose work has had some special innovative significance, many musicians whose work is important and deserves a closer look have been left out – as, for example, Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Beaver Harris, Billy Higgins, Don Moye, Phillip Wilson, Steve McCall, Barry Altschul, Jerome Cooper; also Paul Lovens, Jamie Muir, Frank Perry, and Pierre Favre.


What especially impressed me in putting together this piece – which, incidentally, required many hours of listening, re-listening, and comparisons of different sorts (and it could have gone on, largely because the level of complexity that pervades this field requires the closest listening and scrutiny) – is the incredible strength and resilience of American drumming. Not to sell short anyone else, for the pioneering work in the areas of harmonic, timbral, and textural extensions/interactions and, more importantly, the evolution of new conceptual frames of reference have been – since at least the turn of the decade – the domain of European percussionists almost exclusively. But for the sheer time-honored virtue of rhythmic propulsion (which also has to do with attack) and the complexity of sound/rhythm achieved within a limited area (the “standard” trap set), it would hard to match the work of a Milford Graves, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, or Rashied Ali.


Of the European percussionists, Han Bennink’s work and that of Tony Oxley stand out the most, mainly because their conceptual advances also included an actual (rather than only implied) increase in the complexity of the whole (amount of extended sound activity generated simultaneously, and the manner of its interaction at every level).

Much more research needs to be done in this area, however, for its theoretical implications extend to the music as a whole, not only to a consideration of a way of playing drums or percussion. The work of Milford Graves, for example – of almost fifteen years ago – alone puts into practice notions about what music (and “jazz”) can be far more sophisticated than most musical theorists would today even suggest. That in turn suggests that it’s time to delve more fully into the music of Graves and of others, if only to confront head-on some of our own (fairly widespread) aesthetic/perceptual lag.

* NOTE: Interestingly, even though Oxley has always been more involved in composition than “free improvisation,” his work and Stevens seem to reflect the beginnings of two particular “schools” of English free playing. I mention this because more and more it seems to me that (in its purest sense) a natural tendency of non-idiomatic free improvisation may be toward becoming percussion music (or percussive music) – that because it is non-idiomatic and, by virtue of its form, free from harmonic necessity and thus any of the more usual melodic inclinations. The two English “schools,” however, run somewhat counter to each other: one, as an outgrowth of John Stevens’ work, seeking to minimize instrumental difference by bringing all of the sounds produced into an extremely close, if not necessarily harmonious, individual relation (Iskra 1903, Incus 3 & 4, is one early and slightly mixed example by players who later took a different direction; Balance, Incus 11, is more clearly demonstrative of this approach, as is a more recent recording, Sparks Of The Desire Magneto, Bead 7); the other – if not having a direct relation to Tony Oxley’s work, at least drawing out some of its formal implications – seeking precisely to broaden the instrumental (and at times conceptual) distance between the players involved, yet still maintaining some obvious aesthetic association (some good recent examples of this approach include the Bailey-Honsinger Duo, Incus 20, and Company 1, Incus 21, though Company 2, Incus 23, seems to refrain and even pull back from extending the boundaries of this approach much further.)




What is noteworthy, though, is the nature of these musics – the fact that they reflect an inherent willingness to re-look at the possibilities of playing instruments and to take those instruments out of the realm of their numerous, historically burdened contexts, redefining them for new, and what have become largely percussive, purposes. I expect this has not been an entirely self-conscious evolution – in fact, probably the opposite has been the case – for despite the hard-edged protrusions of musicians such as Parker or Bailey, there cannot generally be heard the kind of instrumental attack (and I’m speaking only of the attack, the manner in which a note or sound is struck) that would indicate that that is where much of the music is coming from. An exception – which would seem to prove the point – is Teatime, Incus 15, on which Dave Solomon, John Russell, and Nigel Coombes combine with Steve Beresford and Gary Todd to produce a thrashing, percussive sound mania.

A Guide To Some Recent Recordings


Sunny Murray / drums, Byard Lancaster / reeds, Dave Burrell / piano, Bob Reid / bass. Recorded: January 1, 1977.


Murray’s first recording since 1969 shows him in fine form, especially on the title track. It is closer in spirit to his work with Albert Ayler (of the Spiritual Unity, Prophecy vintage), though more fluid now, less subtle, and rolling more from the bottom of his drum set, making greater, more obvious use of the high-hat, and going to the top cymbals mainly for accents (as opposed to the drone-like function they served in much of his earlier work).

The band, however, leaves much to be desired. Lancaster has played with Murray previously – on two of the best recordings under Murray’s name: Sunny Murray (ESP 1032), and An Even Break (Never Give A Sucker) (BYG 529.332) – but he has trouble breathing life into Sunny’s slow, dirge-like themes. Dave Burrell – why does he always end up playing this role? – tinkles along, always wanting to pull things into some morbid harmonic space. Reid’s bass rumbles by, muddled in the overall poor recording quality. So the record’s main interest is as a contemporary document of Murray’s drumming, with the rest of the music often barely tolerable.


Andre Cyrille / drums, agogo bells, gongs, sansa, voice, Lisle Atkinson / bass violin, Ted Daniel / trumpet, flugelhorn, electric multi-divider (one track only), David S. Ware / tenor saxophone. Recorded: May 23 & June 12, 1976.


Cyrille’s finest work is that on Taylor’s Akisakila (Trio PA 3004-5): dense, polyrhythmic, versatile, stretched in all directions, and shifting with every turn of the music (and Taylor’s piano). Here his playing is generally more spatial, and he pays special conceptual tribute to Sunny Murray. You can hear it on the title track; also on “Okurinomo,” a slow, high-pitched, ritual-like chanted tune, that evokes from Cyrille the subtly repetitive wave-like motions (though the sounds are different, wider-ranging, and more mixed, and the way they are struck is harder, more regal in character) that have come to mark the work of Murray. Interesting that this should happen as Cyrille’s playing moves more in the direction of ritual – there’s also a track with him playing “sansa,” a large African thumb piano – for in that type of structure, repetition is frequently used to great dramatic and evocative effect. I doubt that Cyrille’s playing on these pieces is deliberately (ritually) derivative – even in the limited sense in which that term could be applied – but is likely more a felt improvisational response to the nature of his own compositions – the emotional demands of the moment. If Junction offers a bit less of Cyrille’s usual all-encompassing drum vision, it is a moving and, on its own terms, important musical statement.


Rashied Ali: drums, Leroy Jenkins: violin. Recorded: September 18, 1975.


Ali’s work relates to Murray’s as something like the next logical step in a functional continuum – overlaying areas of sound, playing them off against each other in a loose, dense, and multi-directional rhythmic/textural flow. Historically, Ali’s work on Interstellar Space (Impulse ASD-9277, duo with Coltrane) is his most important; if he doesn’t actually go beyond those parameters here, he continues in largely the same vein. More than anyone, he captures for me much of the spirit of Art Blakey, with all of the raw, explosive urgency that that implies. Driven by that, Leroy Jenkins offers some of his finest playing on record. He also contributes the album’s four compositions.


Milford Graves / percussion, Arthur Doyle & Hugh Glover / reeds. Recorded: March 20, 1976.

babi.jpgRather than extend his own innovations outward, Graves has gone within to pursue his cultural heritage. Babi is about ceremony and ritual, less a musical performance than a recorded event. Graves’ playing is as powerful as ever, but there’s less subtlety, shading, nuance, and a lot more straightforward rhythmic propulsion, often tied to specific (repetitive) rhythmic patterns. The horns scream, shout, and cry in long, joyous tones, both extending to the heavens and setting a context for Graves’ more grounded rhythmic pulsations. The energy level throughout is high as a kite, and – of course – there’s the obligatory poor recording quality and balance.


Tony Oxley / percussion, amplified percussion. On two tracks: Evan Parker / soprano saxophone, Paul Rutherford / trombone. On one track: Derek Bailey / guitar, Dave Holdsworth / trumpet, Howard Riley / piano, Barry Guy / bass. Recorded: 1971-1975.


Tony Oxley / percussion, electronics, violin, Barry Guy / double bass, bass guitar, Phillip Wachsman / violin, David Bourne / violin, Ian Brighton / electric guitar. Recorded: February 1977.

tonyoxleyincus8.jpgIncus 8 is important as the only currently available document of the evolution of Oxley’s music in this decade. His solo playing stands out on both LPs: especially “East of Sheffield” (1971) and “P.P. 1” (1975) on Incus 8, and “Brushes” and “Combination” on February Papers. “Combination” is one of his most fully realized integrations of electronic and acoustic sound sources on record.


Incus 8 also presents two good and fairly compacted examples of his early ensemble music. The ensemble work on February Papers, however, tends to reverse their structural contexts – i.e. tending to blur rather than to accentuate instrumental difference (more akin to the John Stevens “school” of improvisation alluded to in the footnote to the main body of this article). Still, there are obvious compositional and developmental principles at work and well structured-in solos near the beginning of “Quartet 1.” For the advanced technical and conceptual ideas which they represent and as two of the only three recordings of Oxley’s music now in print-the other being his duo record with Alan Davie (ADMW 5), both LPs are essential listening.


Paul Lovens and Paul Lytton / drums, percussion, saw, homemade instruments, etc. Recorded: January 22, 1977.


A comparison with Milford Graves-Andrew Cyrille’s Diologue of the Drums (IPS 001) is instructive – largely because as bold, extroverted, overtly ritualistic as that record is, with a sense of urgency (physicality) spilling over into dance, so Was It Me? is introverted, meditative, highly tangential, and rather like an ongoing textural collage. And yet the sense of ritual is still there, because each sound or sound area is drawn out to the fullest, evoking a sense of timelessness in the context of its temporality. You could also dance to this music, though not DANCE! – but there’s a felt extension to the physical, something that wants to move, yet be as flighty and uncommitted (yet committed) in each moment as the music itself. (Some of Leo Smith’s solo music has a quality like this, as does some of Eugene Chadbourne’s solo work.)

There are also many “new” sounds here; that contributes to the “airiness” of the music – mainly because they must be heard as “just” sound, unable to be connected to some specific manual function. This occurrence of sound without reference (to the listener) of the maker of sound adds to the music’s abstractness – and here it is even more obtuse because each player’s work is virtually interchangeable. While this can set up a certain distance or barrier between the listener and the music, it can also clean the air, allow the music to be heard only for itself, opening up whole new soundscapes of color and movement.

Much of Paul Lytton’s body of work – because of his electronic involvement – has a similar quality to it, and overall this recording would seem to reflect something more of his aesthetic than Lovens’. Lovens’ work evolved from Elvin Jones through Han Bennink, and he can be heard in a wide variety of settings – from piano trios to the Schlippenbach quartet to the Globe Unity Orchestra – but I haven’t heard him do anything quite like this before. Was It Me? is a significant recording for both musicians. While it is not strictly speaking innovative as to conception, it evokes new feelings through the use of recently established aesthetic principles in a totally percussive context.



Sven-Ake Johansson / drums. Recorded: October 1972.



Detlef Schonenberg / drums and percussion. Recorded: December 1 & 2, 1974.

There’s a lot of similarity between these recordings, both in basic drum sound and in conceptual design. Both Johansson and Schonenberg work from a structural formula close in kind to that laid down by Sunny Murray and bring to the forefront his tendency toward repetitive substructural designs. With Johansson it is a virtual fetish, but he somehow makes it work because there’s enough dynamic and temporal variation and shifting of emphasis from one area of the drum set to the other.

Schonenberg’s work is more varied – as to sound sources, texture, overall expansiveness, directional and dramatic (dynamic/temporal/spatial) shifts. This is not his best work nor his most unique, even for this period (hear, for example, We Play, FMP 0120), but it is not unimportant and, despite the apparently strong influence of Johansson, is indicative of Schonenberg’s increasingly original and individual stylings that he would further in years to come. (Hear Remarks, FMP 0260, and Live at Moers Festival, Ring 01012, both with Gunter Christmann, the latter LP being a particularly assertive example of his work.)



Steve Lacy / soprano saxophone, bird calls, pocket synthesizers (crackle box), Andrea Centazzo / drums, cymbals, gongs, percussions, whistles, vocals. Recorded: February 20, 1976.


Derek Bailey / electric and acoustic guitars, Andrea Centazzo / percussions, drums, cymbals, gongs, kalimba, whistles, steel drum. Recorded: April 3 & 4, 1977.

Extremely sparse, discontinuous, and timeless are words that might best describe the work of Centazzo. Not unlike John Stevens, he seems deliberately to have chosen a path opposite that of the mainstream – that is, one based on a complexity of conception rather than on increasingly compressed internal rhythmic interactions. This is most apparent on the recording with Lacy where his spatial awareness and continual (though not continuous) percussive roamings – propulsive at the moment of their appearance only (and then mostly by virtue of their simply being at all) – move alongside and at right angles to Lacy’s playing, never overtaking it, thus enhancing it by allowing it to be totally itself, which makes it for me an especially satisfying recording of Lacy’s music.

With Bailey, Centazzo steps directly into the flow of sound. No less discontinuous than with Lacy, he’s nonetheless quite a bit more aggressive – largely I think because of Bailey’s aggressiveness and the fact that Bailey’s stylings suggest precisely the kind of wide-ranging but wide-open, percussive stance that he has adopted. He never overtakes Bailey, only interacts with him on Bailey’s own terms and at his own pace, extending the effect of Bailey’s pluckings by moving freely between them. Centazzo convinces me – by the sensitiveness and adaptiveness of his accompaniment to two very different and, I would say, difficult players to work with conceptually – that his work is important and worth watching. I’m also quite attracted to the “timelessness” of it and look forward to hearing more of his work in other contexts. Andrea Centazzo’s web page.

Henry Kuntz, 1978


Sunny Murray

James Marcellus Arthur “Sunny” Murray (born Idabel, Oklahoma in 1936) is one of the pioneers of the free jazz style of drumming.

sunnymurrayportrait.jpgMurray spent his youth in Philadelphia before moving to New York City where he began playing with Cecil Taylor: “We played for about a year, just practicing, studying – we went to workshops with Varèse, did a lot of creative things, just experimenting, without a job” He featured on the influential 1962 concerts in Denmark released as Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come. He was among the first to forgo the drummer’s traditional role as timekeeper in favor of purely textural playing. “Murray’s aim was to free the soloist completely from the restrictions of time, and to do this he set up a continual hailstorm of percussion … continuous ringing stickwork on the edge of the cymbals, an irregular staccato barrage on the snare, spasmodic bass drum punctuation and constant, but not metronomic, use of the sock-cymbal”

After his period with Taylor’s group, Murray’s influence continued as a core part of Albert Ayler’s trio who recorded Spiritual Unity: “Sunny Murray and Albert Ayler did not merely break through bar lines, they abolished them altogether.” He later recorded under his own name for ESP-Disk and then when he moved to Europe for BYG Actuel.


Andrew Cyrille

acyrilleportrait.jpgAndrew Charles Cyrille is an avant-garde jazz drummer. Andrew Cyrille was born on November 10, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. He joined the Cecil Taylor unit in the mid-sixties for about 10 years and eventually went on to do drum duos with Milford Graves. In addition to recording as a bandleader, he has recorded and/or performed with musicians like David Murray, Irène Schweizer, Marilyn Crispell, Carla Bley, Butch Morris and Reggie Workman among others.


Rashied Ali

rashiedaliportrait.jpgRashied Ali (born Robert Patterson on 1 July 1935 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) is an American free jazz and avant-garde jazz drummer best known for playing with John Coltrane in the last years of Coltrane’s life. His brother, Muhammad Ali, is also a drummer, who played with Albert Ayler, among others. More recently, Ali has played with Sonny Fortune. Ali has also recorded or performed with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, James Blood Ulmer and many others. In addition, Ali was scheduled to be the second drummer, alongside Elvin Jones, on John Coltrane’s landmark free jazz album, Ascension, but he dropped out just before the recording was to take place. Coltrane did not replace him, and settled for one drummer.

Among his credits is the last recorded work of John Coltrane’s life, the Olatunji Concert and Interstellar Space an album of duets with Coltrane, recorded earlier in 1967. Ali also briefly formed a non-jazz project called Purple Trap with Japanese experimental guitarist Keiji Haino and jazz-fusion bassist Bill Laswell. Their double CD album, Decided…Already the Motionless Heart of Tranquility, Tangling the Prayer Called “I”, was released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label in March of 1999.


Leroy Jenkins

leroyjenkinsportrait.jpgLeroy Jenkins (March 11, 1932 – February 24, 2007) was an American composer and free jazz violinist and violist. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Jenkins became a music teacher after graduating from Florida A&M University. Jenkins was involved in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) while a public school teacher in Chicago. He co-founded the Creative Construction Company with Anthony Braxton and others. He led the Revolutionary Ensemble and formed a trio with Anthony Davis and Andrew Cyrille. During 1987 he toured Europe as part of Cecil Taylor’s group. He gained recognition for music-theatre works such as The Mother of Three Sons (written in collaboration with Ann T. Greene), Fresh Faust and The Negros Burial Ground (in collaboration with Ann T. Greene), and “The Three Willies” (in collaboration with Homer Jackson). He died in Brooklyn, New York of lung cancer.


Milford Graves

mgravesportrait.jpgMilford Graves (b. Queens, NY, August 20, 1941) is an American-born jazz drummer and percussionist, most noteworthy for his his early avant- garde contributions in the early 1960s with Paul Bley and the New York Art Quartet. Graves has worked with a variety of established jazz musicians throughout his career, including Don Pullen, Eddie Gomez, Andrew Cyrille, Rashied Ali, Kenny Clarke, Don Moye, Philly Joe Jones, John Zorn and Albert Ayler. Graves teaches at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont.


Tony Oxley

moxley5.jpgTony Oxley (born 15 June 1938 in Sheffield, England) is a drummer active in free jazz and free improvisation. Oxley’s playing has been described (in the Penguin Guide to Jazz) as “a unique blend of lumpen momentum and detailed percussive colour”. He often augments the traditional drum kit with nonstandard/homemade percussion and electronics. Oxley, along with drummers such as Han Bennink and John Stevens, was one of the first and most important free-improvising drummers in Europe. He was a member of two key free-improvising ensembles in the 1960s, Joseph Holbrooke (with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars) and the Howard Riley Trio (with Barry Guy); he was also a key member of Guy’s London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra in its earlier incarnations. In the 1980s he became a regular partner of the American free pianist Cecil Taylor; Taylor’s group with Oxley and bassist William Parker became known as The Feel Trio, recording albums for Free Music Production and a mammoth 10-CD set, Two T’s For a Lovely T (Codanza). Oxley has also become a regular partner of the trumpeter Bill Dixon, and has worked with Anthony Braxton, Alexander von Schlippenbach and many other free jazz musicians.

Oxley is also an accomplished “straight” jazz drummer. He is still perhaps best known in this capacity for his work on John McLaughlin’s debut album, Extrapolation (1969); he was also briefly a member of the Bill Evans trio, and has also worked extensively with Tomasz Stanko and Paul Bley. His early conventional playing can be heard to good effect on his collaborations with Gordon Beck Experiments with Pops and Gyroscope. He also made a substantial contribution to John Surman’s second album How Many Clouds Can You See?. He was house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s club for some time and can be heard on Ronnie Scott’s live album Ronnie Scott and the Band. He also collaborated briefly with Vangelis in the early 1970s.

Oxley’s first albums as a leader – The Baptised Traveller and Four Compositions for Sextet – were released in the late 1960s on the CBS (Columbia) label, but quickly deleted; they were later reissued on CD but a followup album on RCA Victor, Ichnos, remains an exlusive collector’s item. These unfortunate experiences with major labels prompted Oxley to join with Bailey and Evan Parker to create Incus Records, the first musician-owned label in the UK (though Oxley left the label early on). Recent recordings have been for the labels FMP, Sofa, a/l/l and Incus, among others.


Andrea Centazzo

centazzo.JPGIn an artistic career that spans over twentyfive years, Andrea Centazzo has given more than 1000 concerts and live performances in Europe and the United States, as well as having appeared and performed on numerous radio and television broadcasts. He has recorded over 60 LP’s and CD’s, and has authored 350 compositions and eight musicology books. His musical endeavors and creative expression range from the sublime to the passionate, from lyric opera to orchestral symphony and solo percussion. He has performed in momentous festivals as soloist of his own compositions or as conductor of symphonic orchestras.

Centazzo is a pioneer of contemporary percussion. In the early years, he performed with some of the greatest avant-garde soloists and composers, including J. Zorn, S. Bussotti, S. Lacy, D. Cherry, A. Mangellsdorf, E. Parker, etc. Deservedly, Centazzo has received a number of prestigious music and video Awards (Premio Speciale della Critica Discografica Italiana, USA Downbeat Poll, International Video Festival Tokyo, Prix Arcanal of French Culture, etc.) A doctoral graduate in musicology, he has taught seminars and workshops in Europe and the USA. Since 1983, Centazzo has been dedicated to creating multi-media experiences.

This expansion began with an exhibition of his scores rendered as painted ideograms, and evolved into video performances combining both live performance with video images. These efforts culminated in his directing award-winning videos and films. As a soundtrack composer, he unites traditional instrumentation with current technological advances in musical expression through sampling machines and computers. These efforts give a new perspective to the fusion of sound and image through his theatre, television, video, CD rom, and feature film scores. The music of A.C. captures and expresses the rhythm and pulse of life by synthesizing the mystery of Oriental percussive vibrations with the timbral harmonic understanding of contemporary music and the soul of jazz and rock post-culture. A.C. continues to contribute his unique artistic vision to the evolution of contemporary culture.

Han Bennink

hbenninkportrait.jpgHan Bennink (born April 17, 1942) is a Dutch jazz drummer, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist. Bennink was born in Zaandam, the son of a classical percussionist. He played the drums and the clarinet during his teens. Through the 1960s he drummed with a number of American musicians visiting the Netherlands, including Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy (he can be heard on Dolphy’s final studio recording, Last Date (1964)). He subsequently became a central figure in the emerging European free improvisation scene. In 1963 he formed a quartet with pianist Misha Mengelberg and saxophonist Piet Noordijk which had a number of different bassists and which played at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival, and in 1967 he was a co-founder of the Instant Composers Pool with Mengelberg and Willem Breuker, which sponsored Dutch avant garde performances. From the late 1960s he played in a trio with saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove, which became a duo after Van Hove’s departure in 1976. Through much of the 1990s he played in Clusone 3 (also known as the Clusone Trio), a trio with saxophonist and clarinetist Michael Moore and cellist Ernst Reijseger. He has often played duos with Mengelberg and collaborated with him alongside other musicians.

As well as playing with these long-standing groups, Bennink has performed and recorded solo (Tempo Comodo (1982) being among his solo recordings) and played with many free improvisation and free jazz luminaries including Derek Bailey, Conny Bauer, Don Cherry and Alexander von Schlippenbach, as well as more conventional jazz musicians like Lee Konitz.

Bennink’s style is wide-ranging, running from conventional jazz drumming to highly unconventional free improvisation, for which he often uses whatever objects happen to be onstage (chairs, music stands, instrument cases), his own body (a favourite device involves putting a drumstick in his mouth and striking it with the other stick), and the entire performance space — the floor, doors, and walls. He makes frequent use of birdcalls and whatever else strikes his fancy (one particularly madcap performance in Toronto in the 1990s involved a deafening fire alarm bell placed on the floor). He is also a talented multi-instrumentalist, and on occasion his recordings have featured his playing on clarinet, violin, banjo and piano. Han is the brother of the saxophonist Peter Bennink.

Han Bennink – Solo Part One

Han BenninkSolo Part Two

Tony Williams

tonywilliamsportrait.jpg Tony Williams (December 12, 1945 – February 23, 1997) was an American jazz drummer. Born in Chicago and growing up in Boston, Williams began studies with drummer Alan Dawson at an early age and began playing professionally at the age of 13 with saxophonist Sam Rivers. Jackie McLean hired Williams at 16. At 17 Williams found considerable fame with Miles Davis, joining a group that was later dubbed Davis’s “Second Great Quintet.” His first album as a leader, 1964’s Life Time (not to be confused with the name of his band “Lifetime,” which he formed several years later) was recorded during his tenure with Davis.

Williams was a vital element of the group, called by Davis in his autobiography “the center of the group’s sound”. His inventive playing helped redefine the role of jazz rhythm section through the use of polyrhythms and metric modulation (transitioning between mathematically related tempos and/or time signatures). But perhaps his overarching achievement was in demonstrating, through his playing, that the drummer need not be relegated to timekeeping and accompaniment in a jazz ensemble; that the drummer may be free to contribute to the performance as an equal partner in the improvisation.

In 1969, he formed a trio, “The Tony Williams Lifetime,” with John McLaughlin on guitar, and Larry Young on organ. Jack Bruce on bass was added later. It was a pioneering band of the fusion movement, a combination of rock, R&B, and jazz. Their first album, Emergency!, was largely rejected by the jazz community at the time of its release. However, Miles Davis was so impressed with the album and its highly experimental direction that he asked to head the group as his own; Williams declined. Nowadays, Emergency! is considered by many to be a fusion classic.

After McLaughlin’s departure, and several more albums, Lifetime disbanded. In 1975, Williams put together a band he called “The New Tony Williams Lifetime,” featuring bassist Tony Newton, pianist Alan Pasqua, and English guitarist Allan Holdsworth, which recorded two albums for Columbia Records, Believe It and Million Dollar Legs respectively.

In mid 1976, Williams was a part of a reunion of sorts with his old Miles Davis band compatriots, pianist/keyboardist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Miles backed out of the reunion at the last minute and was replaced by Freddie Hubbard. The record was later released as V.S.O.P. (“Very Special OneTime Performance“) and was highly instrumental in increasing the popularity of acoustic jazz. The group went on to tour and record for several years, releasing a series of live albums under the name “V.S.O.P.” or “The V.S.O.P. Quintet.” (The CD reissues of these albums are sold under Herbie Hancock’s name – making things a bit confusing since the original V.S.O.P. album, which alone was a Hancock album, is not currently available on CD.)

In 1985, Williams recorded an album for Blue Note Records entitled Foreign Intrigue, which featured the playing of pianist Mulgrew Miller and trumpeter Wallace Roney. Later that year he formed a quintet with Miller and Roney which also featured tenor and soprano saxophonist Bill Pierce and bassist Charnett Moffett (later Ira Coleman). This band played Williams’ compositions almost exclusively (the Lennon/McCartney song “Blackbird“, the standard “Poinciana“, and the Freddie Hubbard blues “Birdlike” being the exceptions) and toured and recorded throughout the remainder of the ’80s and into the early ’90s. This rhythm section also recorded as a trio.

Williams lived and taught in the San Francisco Bay Area until his death from a heart attack following routine gall bladder surgery. One of his final recordings was Arcana, a release organized by prolific bass guitarist Bill Laswell.

Tony Williams 1985

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