What gets me excited about drummers is when they elevate the music, and when they do actual creative magic— they play things that are great and it's not obvious where it came from and/or how they did it. Increasingly I appreciate mastery of the drums as a percussion instrument in the classical sense, playing effects and colors to fit and enhance the music. You would think that's an obvious thing, but it's not— a lot of people just play their stuff, and only think that way, maybe, when playing ballads.
Playing at the Ballard Jazz Festival recently I got to see Clarence Penn, who was the featured artist for the event, and a master of that kind of playing... that, and much more. He was playing music from his Origin CD of Thelonious Monk arrangements, which are very hairy indeed. The band was very impressive— it's really, really great to have great players who know your material— but the most legitimately amazing feat of the night was pianist Geoff Keezer apparently reading these insane charts, and still sounding great. Here's an example from the record:
Hit the link above to buy the record.
Penn is a generation after the original neo-bop young lions, but he's of that school, and has played with a ton of people, and played on a lot of records as a sideman over the last 30+ years. I found him to be great in an unexpected way. In recent years jazz education seems to have figured out how to speed talented young players along to sounding real impressive, and there's no shortage of players like that. You could almost start thinking that was the real shit until you encountered someone like Penn, with whom there's obviously something way deeper happening; deeper background with more of the history, and a lot of experience doing the actual job with top players. Very interesting to hear extremely modern music that was clearly informed by the entire history of jazz, but which didn't much reference it directly. And which also didn't reference any of the other current streams in modern jazz— a lot of which suddenly feels like shake'n bake modernism by comparison. Follow this drummer.