The Great Jazz-Drummer Takeover of 2009

Here are four percussive big shots not too shy to run the show

Though devoutly worshipped by fans, jazz drummers don't often lead groups; the late Art Blakey's long-running Jazz Messengers are a prominent, if rare, exception. But all of a sudden in 2009, a clutch of drummers/composers are cutting records that demonstrate a broad range of approaches to music, leadership, and bashing the kit.

Brooklyn's Ben Perowsky shuttles between the worlds of jazz and rock, backing everyone from John Zorn to Steely Dan's Walter Becker. His solo nod, Opus Esopus, will register as a jazz disc to the casual ear, but it includes interpretations of Beatles and Hendrix songs alongside his own originals. Meanwhile, his band Moodswing Orchestra's self-titled release is a studio assemblage that combines jazz and trip-hop, with guest vocals from such luminaries as Miho Hatori, Bebel Gilberto, and Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman (another frequent Perowsky collaborator).

Those vocals were added last, and in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, the drummer recalls: "One by one, I got everyone on it. It was like me coming to their house with a microphone and setting up, or a church, or wherever I could get people." With its lounge-pop vibe (plus Gilberto), the resulting record recalls Mike Patton's Peeping Tom, while Opus Esopus, by contrast, features unorthodox instrumentation (saxophone or clarinet, accordion, bass, drums) and tunes that swing like a Balkan wake; the band's take on Hendrix's "Manic Depression" makes full use of the accordion's ability to lurch and wheeze.

Mike Reed in his rehearsal space
Jen Reel
Mike Reed in his rehearsal space

Newark-raised Tyshawn Sorey started out playing piano and trombone, but now he's one of New York's most in-demand drummers, working with Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, Dave Douglas, and others. His playing is subtle and introspective, frequently choosing introspective dialogue with his fellow players over mere propulsion. His most recent CD, Koan, goes far beyond the bounds of jazz, featuring a guitar-bass-drums trio with a sound closer in spirit to recent work by the formerly drone-metal, now trance-Americana group Earth than to any jazz guitarist except maybe Bill Frisell.

"One of the [main] aspects of my composition now is mostly focusing on time and duration," Sorey explains, sort of. "Seeing two similar events, how they happen, and what is the noticeable difference between the two, and how the listener actually perceives that. Do they perceive those two events as being the same, similar, or completely different?"

Chad Taylor divides his time between jazz and indie rock (and between New York and Chicago); he performs with folks like saxophonist Fred Anderson and guitarist Marc Ribot, while also collaborating with trumpeter Rob Mazurek in various Chicago Underground groups and the Exploding Star Orchestra. But he's also a member of Iron & Wine, and appears on both of Sam Prekop's solo albums. "Doing the Iron & Wine thing is a pretty big challenge," he says, "because it's pretty much the opposite of what I do as an improviser. With that band, I'm playing the same thing over and over every night. I have to change it in very subtle ways that won't throw people off; it's a much more subtle way than I usually approach drums."

His new solo record, Circle Down, is a piano-trio session that avoids typical piano-trio clichés through rhythmic independence and "flipping the roles of the instruments." Each player has the opportunity to seize the spotlight at any moment, and the results are a kind of swinging chamber music, beautiful as a kinetic sculpture gleaming in the sunlight.

Chicago-based drummer, composer, and booker Mike Reed is in the middle of a three-part investigation/celebration of his hometown's jazz scene, past and present. Last year, his group People, Places & Things released Proliferation, which offered new interpretations of tunes by Chicago jazz composers, both famous (Sun Ra) and obscure (Tommy "Madman" Jones). The sequel, About Us, features brand-new work, including five tunes written by Reed himself. The core group features two saxophonists, bass, and drums, which forces the horns to play together more than they might otherwise. As Reed puts it, "Since there's no piano player, if one of the horn players is soloing, the other one acts as the piano player and comps behind him. If the guy who's comping gets excited, he can take it, and they'll switch back and forth like that. I always hate it when a horn player takes a solo and then he steps aside. And this way, people have to be engaged all the time."

As a booker (he's helped put together the Pitchfork Music Festival, among other high-profile events), Reed is keenly aware of jazz's precarious economic position: "There are no gigs, there are no places to play, there's no money to get paid, nobody buys the CDs." But his assertion of the music's innate value—not as history, not as something that's good for you, but just as highly enjoyable art—is both logical and contagious. "People say music education is about teaching kids how to play music," he says. "But it could be about teaching people how music is important to their lives. If you can do that, you're creating an audience." Also, you get to hit something.

Ben Perowsky plays the Stone with John Medeski and Chris Speed November 8. Chad Taylor plays Rose November 17. Tyshawn Sorey plays the Community Church of New York November 13.

 
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