The Hand, The Head And The Heart
By Dave Liebman
© Chuck Stewart
I would venture to say that most jazz musicians of a certain generation would place Elvin Jones among their favorite all time artists. Obviously this is because of musical reasons, but equally I think it is about charisma, an undeniable presence that Elvin has brought to the music. Some of the words one might use to describe him are joy, strength, intensity, focus, commitment and love. In fact, when musicians speak about Elvin, it seems the rhetoric elevates to another level of awe and respect. Not to mention that he is probably playing on more than a few of anyone’s “desert island” list of indispensable recordings.
The Complete Blue Note Elvin Jones Sessions
How is it that Elvin can play just quarter notes on the whole drum set with both hands and feet in unison as he might do at times for several choruses and light up the stage and entire audience? Even the casual listener is drawn into his vortex and aura. One has to only look at the expression on his face, the sheer joy and light he spreads with that famous grin of his to realize that this is one very special human being with a power that reaches far beyond the music itself.
For the sake of clarity I am going to describe Elvin’s style in terms of a three-part metaphor because I think it nicely summarizes the artistic process.
The HAND refers to how an artist technically plays: the HEAD to the actual musical concepts which provide a basis for one’s style; the HEART is the emotional and psychological milieu which frames an artist’s vision. (Another way to conceptualize this threesome is body, mind and spirit.)
When drummers describe Elvin’s style, as they admit, words fall short. In general, the way Jones plays seems to be beyond analysis. Equally, it is difficult to pinpoint antecedents concerning the source of his concepts. With other drummers it seems easier to say that so and so evolved from this or that major voice on the instrument, or is linked to a particular stylistic period. But not so with Elvin. Of course there are obvious physical attributes that he possesses. For example, he has large hands and long limbs enabling him to have a very circular approach as opposed to a more stationary posture. His basic body movement emanates from the back and waist. Nothing is rigid; everything is in motion producing a flowing, legato style.
When Elvin plays there is a balance between opposites, meaning a strong and centered beat, yet with an unparalleled looseness. A marked fluidity and continuity between his hands and feet is clearly observable. Also his strokes, both from the arms and legs, appear to be thrown at the drums resulting in a kind of rebounding motion, which looks like his whole body is recoiling off the instrument. Then there is the golden touch that drummer Adam Nussbaum describes as if Elvin is striking fine crystal rather than bronze when he “tips” on the cymbal. The Jones ride beat can be light as a feather or bashing. He holds the sticks extremely loose in both hands. On the cymbal, the sticks often bounce high off after the stroke. The left hand “patter” on the snare drum which constantly percolates under the cymbal beat at a low to medium volume level can be raised in a split second to a very loud single stroke attack. The same dynamic range is true for Elvin’s brush and mallet work.
© Walter Hibert
On brushes he can caress the snare surface so lightly that the beat is hardly discernible. On the other hand the degrees of strokes he possesses on the snare and toms with the brushes is tremendous in range. For certain dynamics the brushes remain quite close in proximity to the drum producing a dark sound. For more intense percussive strokes he holds them in a pronounced horizontal plane and strikes the drum where the rubber handle and wires meet. On mallets, which he tends to use more often than other drummers, his range of dynamics from a soft roll to thunderous cascades on the tom-toms are part and parcel of Elvin’s playing. This is especially true at the finale of a ballad under a horn cadenza which usually segues into the last chord. In fact, some of Elvin’s ending cadences after the last note has been played can be longer and more thunderous than other drummer’s full solos!
What this adds up to is an incredible ability to tread lightly or strike forcefully throughout the drums at a moment’s notice. Elvin’s natural physical attributes and sensitive ear have enabled him to be one of the greatest dynamic masters of all time in jazz beyond the drums itself. One can take this for granted especially in light of the high intensity that the Coltrane group achieved on the volume scale, which I can personally attest to having seen the group many times in the 1960s. But sensitivity to dynamics is an essential component of Elvin’s entire approach to music and a major factor in his role as a bandleader.
20” K. Zildjian Ride
An Autographed Edition of One of Elvin’s Old Rides
Photo Courtesy of Bill Hartrick
The equipment he uses is unique to what he hears. The relatively light sticks with a narrow bead tip means there is a lot of wood bearing down on the cymbal, most often a twenty inch K.Zildjian which has a warm, rich sound without the need for a strong attack. When angled to different degrees on the cymbal, the stick can produce a large variety of colors. Elvin is not averse to using the butt end (back part) of the stick which has a timbral character all its own. The very highly pitched tuning of the 18-inch bass drum is basic to Elvin’s sound as he uses a great deal of it in his playing. The snare drum is also tuned quite tightly which means the downward stroke is often executed with very little physical exertion. Therefore the drumhead provides a good deal of the bounce rather than the arm or wrist-all of this contributing to the loose “Elvinish” approach.
Elvin Jones Signature
Yamaha Snare Drum
The use of double floor and mounted tom toms over the years has increased Elvin’s powerful and full bodies approach. Finally the sizzle cymbal is a hallmark of his entire sound, especially on ballads. In a great artist, equipment choices are a direct reflection of the best means to translate what one hears inside his head. Though for these Blue Note recordings under discussion Elvin exclusively used the famous Gretsch drum set, one of the favorites of drummers in those days. But over the years as he has played Tama and Yamaha sets, his tone and touch have been emblematic of his style regardless of the brand, making him one of the great colorists
I would say in the final result, most musicians’ comments about Elvin would be that it feels both great to play with him and exhilarating to listen to. One of the most important characteristics is the ride beat on his main sizzle cymbal. The wide space between the accented last part of the basic swing triplet and the next downbeat is quite exaggerated in Elvin’s case. This became more apparent over the years following his development from the 1950s onward. Also the many “skipped” or silent cymbal beats, which are filled in by the left hand, contributing to the overall feel of his pulse. One of the results is that the beat appears stretched and very laid back or as musicians would express it, behind the stated pulse. This is especially true at certain slower tempos where it is even more obvious that Elvin is behind the beat. In fact, he is one of the only drummers who can play a certain tempo range, especially a slow blues with such a wide beat and big sound that it feels like the entire ocean is beneath you. And at fast tempos he doesn’t articulate using the more orthodox ride beat pattern, but instead one hears a lot of “swallowed” strokes and less obvious downbeats.
The primary activity taking place under the ongoing ride beat is in the left hand, playing a lot of displaced triplets using varying degrees of accents and dynamics throughout the entire drum set. With Elvin there seems to be a separate left hand conversation taking place resulting in a kind of undertone to the more apparent ride pattern and emphatic bass drum hits. As he stated: ”I figured that a lot of things drummers were doing with two hands could be done with one hand-like accents with just the left hand on the snare, so you wouldn’t have to take your right hand off the ride.” Incorporating a flow of accented upbeats, the essence of Elvin’s style in this regard is the triplet, which can be also recognized as a 6/8 or 12/8 division of the bar. This gives the beat a broadness as compared to a more duple oriented concept. He has the uncanny ability to seamlessly switch between subdivisions of four and six which although are similar metrically, sound very different to the ear.
Combining with the ride beat and left hand action is pronounced bass drum interaction. Although he does at times “feather”(play all four beats lightly-a component of many of the older drummer’s style), he has a wide array of bass drum strokes. For example, he may slide forward on the ball of his foot thus shortening and quickening the stroke.
Using a wood beater, he may leave it held to the bass drum skin after the stroke thus pushing the air through to the outer head for a more staccato sound. Or he may pull the beater off the head after impact to produce a boomier tone, in a spring-back motion, which can be visually observed especially when he plays intensely. Also, there is at times a pronounced heel-toe stroke with the back of the foot going to the floor first, followed by the front. This all coalesces into a wide array of tones and colors from the bass drum, which as mentioned earlier is tuned higher in pitch than as is the case for most other drummers. Thus all of these varied colors are heard quite clearly.
Elvin’s use of the hi-hat cymbals is rather unorthodox and in a sense historically contributed to its emancipation from the norm, which is to traditionally accent the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 measure. He will at times keep this two and four going, especially in ballads, but by and large the hi-hat is used for freely placed accents. The avoidance of the clichéd two and four is a big factor contributing to Elvin’s overall loose and coloristic approach.
As a soloist, Elvin will go down in history as one of the giants. Even when trading bars with the other musicians as in fours, eights or twelves, the way he stretches the beat is unimaginable and can be hard to decipher, but it always seems to feel great. He is a master of motivic development, taking one rhythmic combination and by means of augmentation (longer) and diminution (shortening) of the phrase throughout the entire drum set, makes one idea serve as the centerpiece for an entire section of his solo. This is essential for cohesion and unity which are aspects often missing, especially in drum solos. Combined with a wide range of dynamics, the listener is not only drawn in due to Elvin’s obvious power but unconsciously on the compositional level also. And certainly for the most part at the beginning and end of solos, the form of the tune is clear.
Elvin has several fills or cadences that are signature phrases. Often they appear at the beginning of an eight bar phrase, especially after intense activity has just occurred. These cadences serve a significant unifying purpose, helping the other musicians and listeners alike to collect their thoughts and prepare for the next round of action. In general, Elvin is what I describe as a plateau player meaning the intensity rises as a result of a barrage of polyrhythms, then returns to the clearly stated pulse (but still at a certain intensity) before leading to the next round of activity. This was particularly true during his tenure with Coltrane and most obvious when they engaged in duets. I wouldn’t consider Elvin overall as an interactive drummer in the sense that he directly comments on another musician’s ideas or orchestrates “hits” with the rest of the rhythm section, although with McCoy Tyner he did often join together in this way under Coltrane. In general, Elvin’s vision is broad and all encompassing—the forest rather than the trees.
One other stylistic element of Elvin is his unique way of playing several different idioms. For his various Latin-based feels the kind of syncopation he plays on the bell of the ride cymbal is unique and incisive. Along with movement around the toms and some side sticking on the rims of the snare, he alters the clave constantly with a lot of emphasis on the fourth beat. Furthermore in this genre, his bossa nova concept is quite individualistic but still retains an overall authentic feel. Then there is the unique dotted quarter feel he brings to 3/4 and 6/8 meter coupled with the way he moves around the set sounding like several drummers, emphasizing the low tom-toms and bass drum. Playing a slow six feel with Elvin is one of the most exhilarating experiences in rhythm a musician can have. Finally, there is the intense backbeat, which on occasion he will use, subsequently igniting musicians and audience alike—reminding everyone what a true “bump and grind” beat can feel like.
any direct sources for Elvin Jones’ drumming style? There was no doubt the
influence of his brothers, Hank and Thad and their wide musical associations,
since they were all contemporaneously part of the
is his stay in the Army band playing bass drum where he may have been exposed
to march beats, something he definitely employs from time to time. And of course Elvin came to
But what made Elvin so special and in my opinion is
the true essence of his playing is his generosity and openness of spirit. The man will talk to anyone, even immediately
after raising an unbelievable sweat on the bandstand. He has touched many people who have not only
been in his musical presence, but have personally spoken with him. Norwegian
drummer Jon Christensen told me how he was playing as a young musician in
These types of stories are numerous and they make Elvin one of the most loved as well as respected musicians of his time. To have such a combination of passion and a sense of humanity is rare in great artists who are usually by nature more self-centered. This ability to touch people is what separates Elvin from most others in his field and it is a special gift, especially when combined with such incredible talent.
I would not be exaggerating if I say that if it
weren’t for Elvin and Coltrane I wouldn’t be writing these notes. In fact I doubt whether I would’ve seriously
pursued jazz at all. It was the
experiences of seeing the Coltrane group live many times in
Also there are numerous recordings including Elvin that were influential to my musical development. His ability to interpret so many styles of music along with that indescribable feeling he achieves caused many leaders to use him as a sideman. Elvin knows how to change his accompaniment according to the soloist and is ultra sensitive to telling a story even within the confines of the limited time that was available on LP recordings. Some of the recorded highlights for me are “Motion” with Lee Konitz, on which Elvin plays very quietly, yet intensely, featuring drum solos over the walking bass of Sonny Dallas; McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy, including that incredible 6/8 feel I described earlier on “Contemplation”; Wayne Shorter’s several mid-1960s Blue Note recordings, most notably Speak No Evil with one of the most dramatic, held-back sendoffs ever recorded after the horns finish the melody to “Witch Hunt” before Wayne’s solo; Sonny Rollins’ A Night At The Village Vanguard, which was one of the first records to demonstrate that a new drum voice was on the scene; Ornette Coleman’s New York Is Now and Love Call, where Elvin sounds like he is playing free time on a few tracks; with Coltrane on “Afro Blue” from Live At Birdland, when Trane comes in after the piano solo and Elvin introduces him with an incredible buildup; the light, yet swinging feel of the rhythm section after the melody to the title track from Trane’s Crescent; and of course the countless versions of “Impressions” when Trane and Elvin go at it in duo so often.
There is no doubt that for me Elvin Jones was a major influence on how I heard music, well before I played with him. When circumstances converged for me to be in his band, it was a dream come true. I was with him from mid-1971 through January of 1973, when I joined Miles Davis. Also in that group were Gene Perla on bass, and at the beginning either Joe Farrell, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman or Frank Foster on saxophone—until it settled in with Steve Grossman (Don Alias was with us for a time on congas). This period, along with my earlier stint with drummer Pete LaRoca was my training ground in jazz.
Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman
The first months with Elvin I was so overwhelmed that I had to pinch myself. In retrospect, my musical weaknesses were very obvious to me. For example, no matter how I tried, I rushed the beat for the first six months. There were some specific musical things I learned from Elvin which I am still putting to practice nearly thirty years later: how to play eighth notes behind the beat; to play a really slow ballad; to let intensity build naturally by being patient; to seek refinement rather than change for changes sake; and most of all to play every time like it could be your last. But more than just learning the essence of swing, it was Elvin Jones as a human being that ultimately had an even greater effect upon me than the actual music.
The Final Perspective
Elvin Jones has recorded as a leader since the Blue Note period and of course he had several dates before. But in retrospect these recordings can be seen as a unit and therefore their significance noted. Leaving Coltrane in 1966, Elvin could have easily continued on as the magnificent sideman he had become, enhancing everyone’s recordings and carving a deeper niche than he already had. To his credit, he decided to follow in the tradition of drummer/bandleaders like Art Blakey, Max Roach and others, making the necessary effort both business-wise and musically to record some great music.
Elvin did not have formal musical training, so it was up to him to use his own intuitive powers to find the right people for executing a vision. Relying on a few older associates at the beginning and then gradually letting the circle grow wider to include a new generation was his course. Using his immense charisma and personality, he was able to make things jell.
Elvin On His 75th Birthday
With Wynton Marsalis
These Blue Note recordings are not jam sessions. They are great jazz products in the sense of the short timings of the tunes, variety of moods through excellent choices of material, wide ranges of instrumentation, good sound, risk taking, spontaneity and above all, always swinging. I can tell you that the dates themselves that I was present for were uniformly loose and relaxed, yet disciplined. People knew their roles and were able to excel, often with little rehearsal. For all of these accomplishments by Elvin throughout these past several decades, credit must also be given to the single mindedness and dedication of wife Keiko Jones. She has been an important and indispensable assistant to Elvin in bringing his best abilities to bear.
The Blue Note years are a monument
to one of the greatest jazz musicians
who has ever played—with gratitude to,
as Max Roach once referred to Elvin
in my presence,
The Emperor Jones.
These are the liner notes
as originally included in the 8-CD,
limited edition Mosaic Box Set,
© Chuck Stewart
POSTSCRIPT: From his earliest studies with Lennie Tristano and Charles Lloyd, Dave Liebman has long pursued a path of emotional and spiritual commitment to music. Dave Liebman is an adventurous improviser and one of the compelling saxophone virtuosos in all of jazz—a commitment he readily communicates to young people through his tireless efforts as a jazz educator.
My path and Dave’s path have been curiously linked over the years, and with this web site, we seem to have come full circle. I would have first heard Dave playing with Genya Raven and Ten Wheel Drive in Washington D.C. back in the spring of 1970 (although I didn’t know it then), when protests over American incursions into Cambodia shut down my college and damn near every other college in the United States, as young people took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War.
When as a young tadpole I began going out to hear live jazz beginning in 1971-1972, Liebs and Steve Grossman were young tadpoles themselves in drummer Elvin Jones’ working bands with bassist Gene Perla—although I’ll be damned if Dave ever sounded less than commanding to these ears. He went on to play in one of the fiercest editions of Miles Davis’ fusion bands, and then formed his own groundbreaking ensemble, Lookout Farm (with bassist Frank Tusa, tabla master Badal Roy and long-time collaborator, pianist Richie Beirach) in 1974. Subsequently, I got a chance to hear this wonderful band live when my brother Richard booked Lookout Farm as part of a concert series at SUNY Delhi latter in the decade. Liebs went on to perform and record with the cooperative ensemble Quest (comprised of Beirach, Ron McClure and Billy Hart)—who did an in-store for performance me in 1991 when I ran the jazz department at the huge HMV Records store on 86th Street and Lexington on the East Side of Manhattan. Damn…I just can’t seem to shake this cat.
Dave is among the most commanding soprano saxophonists in all of jazz, and for many years he put aside his tenor to concentrate on the straight horn, though I’m pleased to note how he has been playing wonderful tenor again in recent years. Dave’s mentor and close friend Elvin Jones once said, “You should not judge other people’s music by your values. You have to take it on its own terms.” Liebs’ music certainly reflects that dictum, as he has remained open to a host of different musical forms, and some thirty-plus years after I first heard him, the saxophonist continues to push the envelope in his search of some ever-elusive musical perfection, and is just as comfortable playing bebop as free jazz, ballads as world music, small combo or big band. Dave Liebman is a master musician who plays with the spirit and for the spirit. As such, he remains a continuing inspiration to me, and I’m honored that he would participate in the launching of my web site.