Music

Bronx Native Will Calhoun Pays Tribute to a Giant in Jazz Drumming

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One night in 1978, Will Calhoun headed downtown from his home in the northeast Bronx. He was fourteen at the time — still ten years away from playing drums in the seminal band Living Colour — just a curious kid, into all kinds of things: science, sports, and especially his growing, eclectic record collection.

His mother would’ve never allowed it. New York was different then, more dangerous, not the real estate opportunity it is today, and she was, like many mothers in that part of the Bronx at the time (mine included!), a worrywart and strict. He told her he was off to one of his teams, basketball or bowling, he forgets which, but instead headed to the Village Vanguard to see this drummer he’d heard so much about: Elvin Jones, who was most famously associated with John Coltrane, but who was so much more. Calhoun sneaked in — asked the guy at the door if he could run down and use the bathroom and just kind of stayed — and then, he says, “got my head done in.”

Now, all these years later — after working at a Mobil gas station on Boston Road while at Evander Childs high school to buy his first drum kit, after Berklee College of Music, after the acclaim and two Grammys with Living Colour, after his collaborations with rock, jazz, and hip-hop all-stars alike — comes Calhoun’s tribute to the jazz great, Celebrating Elvin Jones, out August 19 on the Harlem label Motéma.

“Anyone who has any ear in jazz can hear Elvin in anything I do,” Calhoun says by phone from Detroit — coincidentally, Jones’s hometown — where Living Colour recently played on tour. (They’ll perform August 17 at City Winery and August 28 at the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn.) “Every Living Colour thing, every Jungle Funk, any hip-hop, with Mos Def, it’s there. I know it’s there.”

It’s hard to summarize Jones, the drummer in Coltrane’s transcendent 1960s “classic quartet” and the younger brother of two other jazz heavyweights, Hank and Thad. Amiri Baraka, who once dedicated a poem to Jones, wrote in his liner notes to the 1963 recording Coltrane Live at Birdland: “There is no way to describe Elvin’s playing, or, I would suppose, Elvin himself.” Jones himself said as much. “I could never really accept the standard form, so I was, in a way, a rebel,” he told filmmaker Ed Gray in the 1979 PBS documentary Different Drummer. “I had a lot of criticism from playing like that. The word was out that nobody could play with me because I was too — they couldn’t understand it or something.”

That unorthodox style wasn’t lost on Calhoun, who still lives in the Bronx (“I bought a place, I can make noise, I have cool neighbors”) and keeps a bootleg tape he made from that Jones Vanguard gig in ’78. “Elvin was the guy for me,” he says. “There was a jazz language that was going on [at the time], there were licks, technique, a sound, [but] Elvin was not really playing that language. He had a different way of speaking…. His drumming reminded me of electronic music, of African music, of heavy metal, of fat rock ‘n’ roll.”

Despite his passing in 2004, Jones continues to inspire young musicians today. “He was one of the first drummers who changed my perception of how the drums as an instrument could sound,” says Jeremy Dutton, an up-and-coming 22-year-old drummer in New York. “You can’t talk about playing drums, about approaching the drums, without mentioning Elvin.” Calhoun he learned about in his later studies. “There’s a lot of exchange that happens between styles of drumming, and you can hear that happening between Will and Elvin.”

For this album — reverential but effervescent — Calhoun put together eight unpredictable, thoughtful tracks. “It was tough, I have to tell you honestly. I had 25 I wanted to play.” He chose songs, he says, “that, for me, stood out in Elvin Jones’s magical life and expression.”

Those include “Harmonique,” a Coltrane piece (though, cleverly, one recorded by Coltrane pre-Jones); another by Wayne Shorter (” ’cause [Jones] played great on so many Wayne records,” Calhoun says); “Shinjitsu” by Jones’s wife, Keiko; and Calhoun’s own original, “Sarmastah,” a quiet composition that runs counter to the usual image of Jones as a high-energy ecstatic. “He was such a genius at swinging at very, very slow tempos,” says Calhoun. “He just sounded like, I can’t describe it, like a turtle with a bad leg but still in time.”

Calhoun assembled saxophonist Antoine Roney and pianist Carlos McKinney, who both played with Jones later in his career, the trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and bassist extraordinaire Christian McBride, who’s been a Living Colour fan since high school and jammed late-night with Jones at the sorely missed club Bradley’s in the early 1990s. (McBride recalls being “scared to death” about playing with Jones. “I knew that was a higher level than I ever experienced before,” he tells me. “In terms of being a bass player playing with Elvin, I think it’s pretty simple: You just had to follow him.”)

Then there are cameos by keyboard-synth idol (and frequent Jones collaborator in the early 1970s) Jan Hammer — “a huge deal,” in Calhoun’s words — and the late Senegalese percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose, because, as Calhoun says, “Elvin’s thing was very organic, very spiritual, and, I think, very, very West African.”

As a whole, the album might well encourage a new look at the richness of Jones’s material, both pre- and post-Coltrane. Calhoun, who never played with Jones but talked with him on several occasions, certainly hopes so. “He’s a special guy we shouldn’t forget about. He’s made unbelievable contributions. He was a beautiful soul.”

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