Cindy Blackman: Playing The Breaks

Talk with Cindy Blackman, and the name Tony pops up almost immediately. “Sometimes people say, ’You talk about Tony an awful lot,’” she admits. “I can’t help it. He’s done so much for music and the drums. Tony is my hero.”

Tony who? Are you kidding? Tony Williams, of course. The man who in his teens began changing the face of jazz drumming while playing with Miles Davis. Williams’ influence touches all drummers, whether they know it or not. However, those aware of his musical history need only hear a snippet of Blackman’s jazz drumming to hear more than the usual trickling down of influence.

“I was about 16 years old, living in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Tony played a drum clinic in the basement at Creative Music – Bob Gatzen’s old shop – where they had a little playing area,” Blackman remembers. “I saw that and it just tripped me out. Tony was incredible. His technique was blistering. The sound of his drums was amazing. His musicality with all that technique was mind boggling, and his intelligence on top of that was incredible. I had heard him on record and was extremely impressed and excited by what I had heard. That’s why I went to hear him.”

At this point some of you may wonder: “Jazz? Isn’t Cindy Blackman the drummer in the Lenny Kravitz videos?” Well, yes she is. But that’s only one side of this busy multi-faceted musician. Blackman also leads her own jazz band and has put out at least eight albums as a leader over the past decade. Drumming with Kravitz does keep her busy, though. Especially when they tour.

“When we did our last tour we toured for about a year and a half,” she says. “We only had a week off here and there, so I wasn’t home very much. I remember at one point we were gone so long I came home and I’d forgotten which key opened my door. I had to remember how to get into my own apartment. I love it though. I love being busy. I love being on the road. I love playing. I love travelling. It gets tiresome but I love it.”

And when she’s off the road with Kravitz? What else? “My band has already recorded another CD, and I actually go in this weekend to mix it. We’ve had a nice period recently. When we got done playing in San Francisco we got a call to play a private party for President Clinton, and I go to Europe in a couple of weeks doing an electric project.”

Her most recent album, Works On Canvas, is strong evidence of her aggressive Williams-influenced jazz drumming style as well as her skills as a bandleader, composer and arranger. The CD features 12 tunes, six of which are Blackman originals, with the rest arranged by the entire band.

Blackman learned firsthand the importance of letting your bandmates contribute to the music. “I have been fortunate enough to see a few leaders up close that I thought were incredible leaders, like Art Blakey,” Blackman says. “He was a wonderful bandleader. Miles Davis, although I didn’t see him in the ’60s, was another great leader. All the great bandleaders were great in my opinion because they’re strong enough to lead but smart enough to know that for the music to grow people have to have a certain amount of freedom.

“In my situation I like to give some direction but I also like to leave the playing field open for other people to direct me or just give their own input because that’s how it grows. I like people to come to the table with whatever they’ve got and then we shape that and deal with it in a musical sense.”

And as for Art Blakey, she did more than just observe him as a bandleader. His influence was a little more personal. “I had a really close relationship with Art Blakey, like a father and daughter. I never had formal lessons with him but he taught me a lot.” Hardcore jazz fans might also be surprised to learn how many ingredients she has brought to her own music from her work with Kravitz. “At this point I add more of the elements that I get from his group into my own group because I’m not so shy to do it now. Because I’m playing that music a lot, I hear things that way too. There are elements in there that I like. If you’re playing honestly, that happens. Things become a part of you. And I do play honestly.”

One of Cindy’s arrangements on the CD, the lovely ballad “My Ship,” is a wonderful example of how she is able to use her own distinctive voice as a drummer and bandleader, while giving the members of her band the room to have their input. “I just used a piece of that tune because that’s a tune that’s so well known, or should be because it’s so beautiful, that you don’t really need to play the whole tune to get the gist of it,” she explains. “I just took a piece of the tune and changed the harmonies. I told the guys what I was looking for and just let it go at that. We developed things together. Structurally it’s unconventional. Harmonically it’s unconventional and the feeling is unconventional. I like to think of ways I haven’t heard things played before and approach them from that direction.”

Speaking of unconventionality, while Blackman’s CD is primarily an acoustic jazz date, she does employ some electronic keys. This may cause jazz traditionalists to turn up their noses, but that’s how she hears it and it integrates into the recording very well. “I love textures and having different layers of sound and things happening,” she says. “My favorite period of music is the ’60s because there was just so much incredible and innovative music that happened in that period that hasn’t really been surpassed at this point. But I do think that some great things happened later as well. And I do think that the use of electronics can mesh and not detract from the beauty of acoustic music if done in a certain way.”

The transcriptions are from a tune entitled “My Isha” off of Works On Canvas, which was penned by her piano player Carlton Holmes. “That tune has no melody,” Blackman says. “We just start playing, and we’re playing over a certain form, and the last four bars of the form are always mine. Sometimes I walk through it. Sometimes I play solo drums through it, doing fills. It’s fun. I remember that one of the engineers said, ’I don’t know about that tune. There’s no melody. Why are you going to do a tune with no melody?’ I think it’s hip enough and it’s cool enough, and if you listen to what the guys are playing they’re playing melodically enough when they’re trading that to me you don’t need a melody. So it worked out fine.”

As the tune’s 24 bars cycle around, each pass alternates between piano and sax solos. Whenever it’s her turn to solo, Blackman listens closely to her bandmates. “I draw ideas from what the last person soloing is playing as well as trying to mix in my own ideas,” she says. “If you do that it’s got a musical continuum because you are playing off of each other. You’re listening to everything. You have to be aware of things that are happening.”

These transcriptions are of Blackman’s four-bar musical statements in the order they appear in the song.

Most importantly, Blackman likes to push the envelope further whenever she plays. “As Art Blakey said, ’If you don’t make a mistake you’re not trying.’ No matter how great you play, if you’re just playing and coasting and everything is perfect, how hard are you really trying? Are you really trying to push yourself as far as you can go? I don’t think so. I think you’re coasting.”

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