Elvin Jones: Hard Bop Soloing

Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones! What can you say? This man is on everyone’s short list. He is one of the most important and influential drummers in the brief history of the drum set. During the early 1960s he gained recognition playing with celebrated saxophonist John Coltrane, then at the height of his powers. Those years alone cemented Jones’s place in jazz and drumming history, but he didn’t stop there. Since the 1960s he played, and continued to play, a pivotal role in the development of post-bop jazz drumming.

Jones developed the multi-limbed, polyrhythm-laden percussive voice with Coltrane that became his calling card. During that period, others experimented with newfound musical freedom, but great players like Jones revealed something that goes beyond experimentation: soul, feel, musical vision – it’s hard to define. Whatever it is, Jones had it.

Since Jones departed from Coltrane’s legendary quartet in 1965 he had been a bandleader as well as a sideman with such luminaries as McCoy Tyner, Larry Coryell, Art Pepper, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, John McLaughlin, and so many more. With a career spanning five decades (his first professional gig was in 1949) and hundreds of recordings, this master showed no signs of letting up right up to his death in 2004. So it came as no surprise when we found that at the age of 72, Jones had added yet another sax player to his discography.

Elvin Jones

Saxophonist Michael Brecker released the appropriately titled recording Time Is Of The Essence in 1999. This collection of organ jazz features Brecker with organist Larry Goldings, guitarist Pat Metheny and of course Jones, who plays beautifully on three of the nine cuts. The fiery Jeff “Tain” Watts also drums on three, as does the sensitive and slippery groove-meister Bill Stewart. This was not only a great recording of virtuosos playing exceptional organ jazz, it’s an extraordinary jazz drumming CD as well. All of these drummers were at the top of their game.

Jones was a logical choice for a recording of this sort, not only due to his considerable musical talents, but also because he was present for the recording of one the greatest organ jazz records ever made. Unity, the 1965 Blue Note album by the late organist Larry Young, was no doubt an inspiration to Brecker in the conception of this album. The saxophonist admits, “When I was in high school, I think I wore out Unity.” It’s amazing to hear Jones playing on that classic 34-year-old recording and then listen to him on this 1999 date. There’s just no sign that he’s slowing down!

The following transcription is from “Arc Of The Pendulum,” the opening cut on Brecker’s new CD. The tune is in 3/4 time and much of the melody is based on a dotted quarter-note rhythm eliciting a duple feel over the 3/4 time signature. Near the end of the tune (at 7:41) Jones takes a solo over a vamp based on that dotted quarter-note rhythm (see vamp example). This transcription of that solo is of the first 32 measures before Brecker joins in on sax. From there on out they both solo over the vamp.

With any transcription it is important to listen to the recording, as written notes often don’t do justice to the original performance. Factors such as subtle dynamics and swing feel are hard to translate onto paper. This is especially true with Jones. His swing interpretation is one of the main features of his personal drumming voice and there is no way to accurately convey it with standard notation.

The straight eighth-notes in this transcription should be played with a swing feel, but an awareness of that fact won’t tell you how it sounds when Jones does it. His feel is often closer to straight eighths than the typical eighth-note-triplet that swing interpretation implies. Jones even changes from moment to moment, but always with appropriate hard swinging musical results.

Take a look at measures 11 and 12 of the transcription. It looks fairly simple on paper, but when you hear Jones play it, with his dynamic variances and eighth-note interpretation, these simple notes take on a whole other meaning. Check out the second note on each of the two-note phrases. Jones places a slight dynamic emphasis on them and the whole phrase gently tugs back on the groove as he plays ever so slightly behind the beat. The result is a simple yet emphatic musical statement.

Throughout the solo Jones uses the bass drum musically. It takes on a melodic role, just as the toms do. If you listen closely you can even hear the sound of the beater dampening some strokes while others are left to ring free throughout his rhythmic flurries. Check out the last four bars of this transcription for some classic Jones hand/foot combinations, where, once again, rhythmic and dynamic inflections are the key.

Do yourself a favor. Go out and get Time Is of the Essence so you can actually hear how Jones phrases the following notes. And while you’re at it, you owe it to yourself to go out and get a bunch of Elvin Jones CDs. No matter what kind of drummer you are, you won’t regret it.

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