This is actually my second post on Elvin – I also interviewed Dave Liebman about his time with Elvin, if you’re interested, you can see it Here)
I recently had a Coltrane blow-out. Watched all of the great ‘Jazz Icons’ DVD from start to finish, listened to ‘Transition’ which for me, (at least the track ’Transition’ itself), is even greater than Love Supreme in terms of the depths it reaches) and a few other things. If ever there was such a thing as a ‘perfect’ band in jazz the Coltrane Quartet could be said to be it. They were like a monolith, once Garrison joined the band they were no longer in the act of becoming something, they just were. When I listen to the Miles Quintet of this period – the other incredibly influential band in the mid-60s – I get a sense of the band changing and evolving all the time. With Coltrane’s band there’s a feeling of everything being perfect as soon as the final personnel of the ‘classic’ quartet is in place. Of course the band did evolve and Coltrane in particular constantly explored every aspect of his playing, but nevertheless there is a sense of certainty, and a homogeneity about the group sound that’s different to the Miles band in the sense that the ensemble sound you hear on the recordings from 1963 is very similar to the one you hear in ‘65, just before the group broke up. It’s as if they found the ideal vehicle for their creativity early on and it didn’t need to change after that, it just got deeper and deeper
And as so often happens to me when I’m listening to that band I found myself listening as much to Elvin as I do Coltrane.................
As far as I’m concerned, and I know this is a ridiculous statement to make, but I’m going to do it anyway, Elvin is THE jazz drummer. Big words, as a friend of mine would say, but for me he represents the art of jazz drumming in its most complete form. The combination of innovation, tradition, mighty swing allied to incredible virtuosity and the sheer depth of his playing puts him on a level that few jazz musicians on any instrument have ever reached. He was a genius. That word is bandied about far too freely these days in all kinds of contexts, (I saw Lady GaGa referred to as a genius recently – sigh..............), but I think Elvin did represent that word perfectly. What he did was beyond even the exceptionally good – it was in a league of its own and to listen to him play at his best is to hear something that is ultimately beyond the explainable.
Yes, the details of the playing can be explained – the polyrhythmic juggling, the giant triplet that hovers over everything he does etc. - but how he came up with this concept in the first place, how he put these elements together, and then made them swing SO much, is unexplainable. And then there’s the conviction........... when he plays, what you’re hearing is certainty – his playing is of an intensity and power that brooks no argument. It says THIS is where it’s at, there can be no other option. It’s this combination of emotional and physical power, innovation, swing, and virtuosity that marks him out above all others for me, on an intellectual level at least. And on an emotional level (and I admit this is completely subjective) his feel just does more for me than anyone else’s.
And what a feel that is! His beat has this slightly behind feeling that seems at times to defy logic in terms of how he manages to propel the music forward while playing behind. I remember talking to Tom Rainey about this one time, and Tom made the additional point that when you see Elvin playing, what you see is often not what you hear – he seems to play, at least visually, almost in slow motion sometimes, yet what you’re hearing can be incredibly busy and active. Tom said Elvin seemed to have the ability to almost suspend the laws of physics and movement when he played, and I know exactly what he meant. Even on fast tempos, when Elvin hits that big ‘1’ at the beginning of a new section, it’s a split second behind where others would play it and this creates a spaciousness about the time feel that both allows the music to breathe while at the same time making it swing even more. Watch Elvin playing here with Coltrane on ‘Impressions’ and check out that almost imperceptible pause before the ‘1’ is struck – that tiny little micro-second gives the music so much space – it’s the art of ‘back-of-the-beat’, even at this tempo
Of course the other thing that’s noticeable on this piece is the polyrhythmic activity that churns underneath the music at all times (check out the snare drum triplet on the bridge of the 3rd chorus of Dolphy’s solo!). A lot of discussion of Elvin’s polyrhythmic style focuses on the stuff he plays on the drums, but in my opinion Elvin’s whole polyrhythmic thing starts with the cymbal. That cymbal beat just changes all the time – it’s no longer the traditional Spang-Spang-A-Lang beat, but an endlessly moving tattoo around which all the other drums revolve. It’s the power of this cymbal beat that gives Elvin’s playing the incredible swing feel that it has – somehow by varying the traditional swinging pattern he makes it swing even more. Of his contemporaries, Roy Haynes was the only other drummer who had this varying ride cymbal beat (it’s no surprise that when Elvin wasn’t available Coltrane used Haynes if he could get him), but he has a very different feel – more edgy and definitely lighter.
Haynes of course is a very interesting drummer since he not only was (and is!) a great drummer in his own right, he strongly influenced the other drummer who changed the way the instrument was played and conceived of in the 1960s – Tony Williams. Williams and Elvin completely changed the role and concept of how drums could or should be played in the core repertoire of the jazz tradition, but their playing couldn’t be more different. Williams' playing is front-of-the-beat edgy, with a tight cymbal beat, and with a crisp explosiveness about it. Elvin is back-of-the-beat and utilises a kind of relentless polyrhythmic approach rather than than Tony’s explosive thing.
But despite the fact that both changed the way drums are played in contemporary jazz, (and you can’t hope to even understand contemporary jazz drumming unless you’ve checked both these guys out), I think it’s true to say that Williams’ influence is more to the fore these days than Elvin’s is. And I think the reason for this is two-fold:
Firstly (and probably most importantly) Tony’s style is more suitable for straight-8s playing than Elvin’s is. Tony was after all one of the pioneers of bringing straight 8’s playing into the jazz mainstream (’Eighty One') and through ‘Lifetime’ was one of the most important figures in the integration of rock music energy into a creative jazz context. Post-Bitches Brew/Weather Report/Mahavishnu, straight 8’s were here to stay in jazz, and if as a drummer you were looking at how to use the drums in this new rhythmic landscape, Tony provided a great model. His influence permeated the drummers who came after him – Lenny White, Billy Cobham etc., and down through subsequent generations. Elvin, though his influence became greatest at around the same time that Tony made his first big impact, was an older player whose playing was rooted in the swing idiom. Although he did so much to open up that idiom, and in showing how a drummer could engage in an equal dialogue with a soloist, his style of playing, based as it was (in a structural sense at least) on the 3:2 polyrhythm, never really lent itself to straight 8’s playing.
Secondly, I think Tony’s thing is easier to codify into something comprehensible to the aspirant drummer. This is not to say that what he did was conceptually of a lower level than Elvin, but his approach lends itself more readily to the kind of intellectual analysis that people like to make. This is especially true in the later Tony style of the 4 in the bar swishing hi hat and endless flams. Put simply – and somewhat superficially, Tony is easier to cop than Elvin. Elvin’s thing is more mysterious in a way, it lends itself less easily to analysis. OK, one can identify the constant triple versus duple stuff going on, but the juggling act of keeping all those rhythmic balls in the air while playing behind the beat, not getting in the way of the music, AND swinging the whole band is beyond technical analysis. A comparison (simplistic but with some truth in it) of the two approaches could be that Tony’s playing is linear, while Elvin’s is multi-layered. The linear thing is easier to comprehend, but to figure out how to make that multi-layered thing work requires a conceptual intelligence, not just an ability to technically analyse patterns.
(Interestingly, I think Jack DeJohnette has shown a way to integrate the two approaches. He has a real affinity for straight 8s playing yet also espouses the all four limbs in perpetual motion approach of Elvin. His ride cymbal beat can have the edginess of Tony on fast tempos, yet maintain that perpetual motion thing of Elvin's. At slower tempos his beat can be broad like Elvin's, yet feature the explosiveness of Tony. He's figured it out somehow, but few have followed in his footsteps......)
So this combination of the difficulty of figuring out what exactly is going on in Elvin’s playing allied to the fact that his work was mostly in the swing idiom at a time when swing began to cede some of its dominance to the straight 8’s feel pushed the influence pendulum more in the direction of Tony rather than Elvin. Of course most good contemporary jazz drummers can approximate some of the Elvin thing when they feel it’s required, but the predominant influence I hear in most contemporary mainstream drummers would be coming more from Tony than Elvin.
But actually if you look at what Elvin did beyond the Coltrane group, he was pretty much game for anything. Back in the 60s, with Andrew Hill, he played in 7/4 (on Siete Ocho), and he also recorded with Earl Hines. He played with Ornette as well as Duke Ellington. In the 70s he was happy to play with synths and played on a little-known but particular Elvin favourite of mine 'On The Mountain’ with Jan Hammer and Gene Perla. Have a listen to him deal effortlessly with the quite complex vamp (at 4.07) on ’Destiny’, or play some savagely swinging brushes (he was a true master of brush playing) on Oleo with Tommy Flanagan.
And to hear him at the peak of his polyrhythmic virtuosity outside of the Coltrane Quartet, listen to him here with George Coleman and Wilbur Little from a live date in the Vanguard – the solo on this is just extraordinary, the way it goes from clearly metric to a kind of impressionistic outline of the beat and back again, and check out the way he sets up the re-entry of the melody. Nobody really played drums like this before or has since.
And it could be argued (and no doubt someone will argue with me!) that even leaving aside his landmark work with Coltrane, Elvin appeared on more truly classic albums than any other single drummer – with Wayne on ‘Ju Ju’, ‘Night Dreamer’ and ‘Speak No Evil’, with Joe Henderson on ‘In and Out’ and ‘Inner Urge’, with Rollins on ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and ‘East Broadway Rundown’, with Lee Konitz on ‘Motion’, with McCoy on ‘Inception’ and ‘The Real McCoy’, with Freddie Hubbard on ‘Ready for Freddie’, with Larry Young on ‘Unity’ etc. etc. - the list goes on and on. He played with Charlie Parker, with Monk, with Mingus, with Miles, Trane, Rollins, Ornette, Bud Powell, Ellington, he lead bands that included people like Dave Liebman, Sonny Fortune, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Steve Grossman, (Check out the classic ’Live at the Lighthouse'), and in later years he played with John McLaughlin, Michael Brecker, Bill Frisell and Bennie Wallace. He did it all.
And he did everything with a conviction that has always been an inspiration to me. I first saw him play at Ronnie Scott’s Club on a rainy Tuesday evening in 1979 – the club was half empty, the band comprised of unknown young players, and yet Elvin played as if that was the most important thing that anyone could be doing anywhere. For me it was, musically speaking, a life-changing experience to see that. Of course I was thrilled just to be in the same room as him, and to hear that extraordinary playing live – but what left the biggest impression on me was the intensity. This was the way music should always be played – with complete conviction and immersion on the moment. I’m still inspired by what I saw that evening over thirty years ago.
As an example of that conviction allied to the science of his playing, check out Elvin with Trane towards the end of the quartet’s life, in Belgium in 1965. It’s outdoors, it’s freezing cold and yet both Trane and Elvin play as if their lives depended on it (Elvin is playing so hard there’s steam rising from him!). For me, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ever.