I'm off to Copenhagen to spend a week working with the celebrated Danish Radio Big Band. Long one of the preeminent European radio bigbands, this is the ensemble of which Thad Jones assumed the helm when he relocated to Denmark in the late 1970's. It's since been led by Brookmeyer and McNeely, among notable others. Clearly it's a massive honor for me to be afforded the opportunity to rehearse and perform with these great musicians, and I'm very much looking forward to our concert on Friday night:
In the wake of Dave Brubeck's recent passing, I was thinking a lot about Dave's writing, especially "The Duke," which is famously (although incorrectly) thought to modulate through 12 keys during the first [A] section, all while featuring a jaunty, infectious melody on top. (What actually happens is that there are chord roots on all 12 chromatic tones.) I kind of wanted to try my hand at that, so I wrote a folksy, somewhat countrified waltz where the bass line of the first phrase lands on all 12 tones (albeit in a way that I hope does not draw undue attention attention to itself).
However, I often find that while I'm in the thick of the compositional woods, the music tends to assert its own ideas about where it wants to go, and this piece strayed pretty quickly from its early Brubeckanian origins into something that is actually more in the spirit of the great drummer Levon Helm, who also left us last year. (Believe me, I know full well how absurd that transition sounds... ) And so the piece became, inevitably, "Last Waltz for Levon."1
When young drummers are first trying to get their rock backbeat together, they still almost always gravitate towards the British Invasion Rock Gods: John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, Bill Ward, Charlie Watts.2 These guys are fine drummers, all perfectly suited to their iconic bands, but I worry that many young players tend to absorb the wrong lessons from them. In their totally understandable desire to thrash like Moon or throw down like Bonzo, they are missing an important truth: the rock backbeat is an American rhythm.
Joe Henderson's Page One is a great record, but you wouldn't suggest that anyone could learn to play authentic bossa nova just from listening to "Blue Bossa" and "Recorda Me." You need to go to the source. Similarly, players trying to develop the fundamentals of an authentic rock backbeat — a deceptively subtle and challenging thing to wrap your head around — do themselves a disservice by not checking out the great pioneering American rock and roll drummers: Earl Palmer, Bernard Purdie, Jerry Allison, D.J. Fontana, Hal Blaine… and Levon Helm.
Levon was coming out of Earl Palmer, of course — Earl was his hero. But Levon didn't just learn by copying from records. Growing up in the American South, he was fortunate enough to be fully immersed in many of the musical streams that would eventually converge to form rock and roll. His first memorable live music experience was seeing Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys when he was six years old. At age 10, he started showing up at the radio station in Helena, Arkansas, where Sonny Boy Williamson broadcast his King Biscuit Time radio show, and learned from watching Sonny Boy's amazing drummer "Peck" Curtis. He saw Elvis in '55 with D.J. Fontana. He saw Jerry Lee Lewis with Jimmy Van Eaton. And of course he played guitar and harmonica and sang in 4-H Club talent contests with his sister. All of this early lived experience comes out in Levon's feel, which is a highly personalized blend of New Orleans street beat and Memphis rockabilly, as filtered through the sensibilities of rural Arkansas. And in his mature work with The Band, Levon integrated and modernized these sounds better than just about anyone. His playing is a great model for young drummers because of the way it priveleges feel over flash, not to mention playing the song over playing the beat.
It's no small thing for a white rock drummer to earn the respect of significant jazz artists. (It probably helps if you're the kind of player who wouldn't be caught dead getting into cheesy drum battles with jazz legends.) Levon's supple feel has made him a favorite amongst multiple generations of jazz drummers: his devotees include Buddy Rich, Jack DeJohnette, and Brian Blade, among many others.
"Last Waltz for Levon" isn't exactly the sort of thing that would have been in Helm's wheelhouse, nor is it meant to be. But I hope it captures, in some small way, the feeling I get when I get lost in Levon's big beat.
1. Notwithstanding Helm's well-known distaste for the film.
2. Almost never Ringo, though -- they've bought into the deeply unfair conventional wisdom that "Ringo couldn't play."