Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Different values

I usually keep just one CD in my car for days or occasionally weeks at a time- recently for me it's been Don Cherry's Art Deco, an old favorite that had been languishing in the stacks for some time. Repeatedly listening to Billy Higgins' solo on When Will The Blues Leave, it's striking how alien the working value system is to so much of what's going on in drumming now. I imagine it would be hard for drummers immersed in the current amazingness cult to know what to do with something that really isn't even trying to blow them away.

I don't even know how to make a case for this. Stuff like "why Billy Higgins is great" is usually just something you figure out by listening. Your ears get a little tired of rimshots and barrages of 32nd notes, and there's Billy waiting to fill the void. Sometimes it takes a little independent credibility boost- like knowing that he's one of the most recorded drummers in history- to encourage you to try to get it. "Either all of those producers and bandleaders were idiots, or he's a great drummer in a way you don't understand yet."

After the break is a little thumbnail analysis of the solo, written for my own benefit as I was thinking about this- I can't promise you'll find it educational. I always thought the analytical tool of stating the obvious was kind of BS, and I feel like I'm BSing when I do it. So, skip it if you want and just enjoy Billy Higgins' drum solo on When Will The Blues Leave, from Don Cherry's Art Deco:

Sketch: Opens with a quasi-African 3/4 motif, then the big marquee crossover lick- the one nod towards traditional showmanship, followed by some familiar boppish material, then the long, relaxed set up for the horn entrance. After a loose beginning, at about 0:30, the solo appears to follow the melody of the tune. There is a lessening of tension over the arc of the solo.

Sound: The tone of the instrument is light and round- it's a personal sound in the sense that he could be playing to a small group of people. He's not attempting to project to the back of the LA Forum- he's not playing for impact, and the now-universal post-funk hacking tone is nowhere in evidence. He's not playing extremely softly, either- mostly he's in the mf-f range; small club dynamics, where background noise can be an issue.

Execution: In this period of music when crystalline perfection is the ideal- across all genres- his execution is pretty loose. The more technical parts, such as there are any, are a little rough. The feel is lightly swinging, legato.

Content and density: The dominant rhythms are 8th notes, quarter notes, dotted quarters, and 8th note triplets. There are a a number of quarter and dotted-quarter length rests- nothing longer. The longest note value is a half note. It's predominantly a hand solo- there's very little hi-hat, and the bass drum is played occasionally as a special contrasting voice- it's mostly not integrated into the body of the licks. It's a little back in the mix, so it's possible he is playing it lightly throughout. There are no cymbals played with sticks anywhere in the solo.

Conclusion: For me, this is an example of a pure music solo. There are no attempts to dazzle with technique, novelty, or general bombast, or to manipulate for emotional effects. Overall it's easily melodic, with a feeling of awareness of the history of jazz, with hints of New Orleans and Africa.


Albert Ross said...

Brilliant post. I totally agree with everything said here. Drumming is in a perilous state right now in some ways. Bill Bruford talks about rather well in his autobiography concerning the steroid-sterile style of drumming on the clinic scene.

Tim Paxton said...

I was still in Florida when Higgins died. I had a gig that night, and I pulled out all the Higgins stuff I could muster. I even attempted his signature ride pattern, which Mel Brown assured me he did on purpose in order to "keep the bass p...layer in line". Must have done OK, 'cause midway through a tune the bass player turns to me and goes, "Higgins?" People really are too caught up in the whole athletic drumming thing these days and can't appreciate a simple, beautiful musical statement when they hear it. One of the most memorable musical drum solos I ever heard was on a Joey Baron CD called 'Down Home'. The tune is "Aren't We All". Technically nothing special, but musical as all get out. Great post..