New Orleans, quite literally, moves to the beat of a different drummer, a stuttering, syncopated sound that reaches back to the slaves who gathered in the city’s Congo Square. After fusing with European marching band traditions, the sound eventually manifested itself in Dixieland jazz, second-line parades and brass bands, rhythm & blues, and funk.
In a city teeming with talented drummers, Herlin Riley, Johnny Vidacovich, Russell Batiste, and Stanton Moore rank among the best. After Riley joined trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’s famed Septet in the early 1980s, the group reached its apotheosis, recording some of the most vital modern jazz of the decade and delivering consistently stellar performances. Riley, 44, still collaborates with Marsalis in the larger Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra; he also fronts his own group, incorporating gospel, jazz, funk, and rhythm & blues in his playing.
Johnny Vidacovich, 52, is one of the city’s most beloved drummers, both for his irrepressible spirit and a resume that includes a tenure with Professor Longhair (the great New Orleans pianist) and two decades with Astral Project, New Orleans’ leading modern jazz quintet. Vidacovich is also the go-to drummer for visiting jazz greats in need of a timekeeper, and has contributed to dozens of sessions of every description, using New Orleans’ second-line tradition as a jumping-off point.
When three original members of the hugely influential 1970s New Orleans funk band the Meters reunited in 1989, they recruited Batiste to fill the drum chair vacated by the legendary Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. Batiste, 35, and his muscular attack have powered the Meters, now rechristened the Funky Meters, ever since. In 2000, he also teamed up with veteran keyboardist John Gros to form Papa Grows Funk, now one of New Orleans’ fastest-rising new bands.
Moore, 29, and his Galactic bandmates grew up idolizing the Meters; much of Galactic’s early repertoire was built on classic Meters grooves. But as the band has established a sizeable national following – Galactic now sells out theaters from San Francisco to New York – its sound has evolved, taking on more of a rock edge. Moore anchors it all, drawing from and expounding on tradition. He also leads a groove jazz side project, Moore & More; his second solo album is due this fall on a subsidiary of Verve Records.
Given their schedules, corralling all four for a round-table discussion on New Orleans drumming was no mean feat. Finally, a single afternoon in late July opened up. Batiste had returned from a West Coast trip with Papa Grows Funk earlier in the week. The day before, Riley had flown back to New Orleans from a series of gigs in Spain with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The following day, Moore embarked on a six-week Galactic tour. And Vidacovich squeezed in a couple of hours between an afternoon rehearsal and that night’s gig.
Much laughter ensued as they swapped road stories and reminisced about characters encountered along the way. All four hail from the same tradition, though each puts his own stamp on it. Vidacovich and Riley represent the still-vital old guard; both Batiste and Moore cite them as major inspirations, even as younger players listen to and learn from them. They started, appropriately, at the beginning.