Drummer says Much of Today’s Music Lacks “Evenness and Identifiable Sound”
By Margaret Summers
Renowned drummer Lenny White built his reputation through his work with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, and has clearly listened to, been influenced by, and respects classic jazz artists. But his jazz knowledge was thoroughly challenged Thursday, June 6, during a live JazzTimes “Before & After” listening session. The free event was held at The Hamilton music venue and supper club in downtown Washington, D.C. White was in town to play at The Hamilton with Nicholas Payton as part of the D.C. Jazz Festival taking place around the city at various locations June 5 to June 16.
Hosting the session was Willard Jenkins, a D.C.-based independent consultant, writer and producer under his Open Sky Jazz company. He is also a former radio broadcaster with, among other places, national satellite radio network Sirius XM and “jazz and justice” D.C. public radio station WPFW-FM.
With Jenkins and White seated on a stage facing each other, excerpts of jazz compositions were played over the performance space’s speakers. White was to guess the names of the compositions, the artists playing them, and critique what he heard.
Among the compositions was Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do,” which White defined as “having more of a hip-hop vibe.” White couldn’t identify the instrumental that followed, but he shook his head and chuckled, saying of its style, “(Miles Davis’) ‘Bitches Brew’ messed up a lot of folks!
“This music has a ‘Bitches Brew’ vibe. ‘Bitches Brew’ was released in 1969, but you can still hear its influence, its insolence, in jazz today.” Jenkins said the music came from a not yet completed CD by a cooperative band called Tarbaby, which is recording on Hipnotic Records, a D.C. label.
After the Tarbaby piece, an excerpt of music was played in which the lead saxophonist dominated. “The saxophone is the loudest instrument on this cut,” White commented. “This has to be a sax player’s CD.”
“It’s Joe Lovano and Us 5,” confirmed Jenkins. “It’s from his recent CD “Cross Culture” on Blue Note. “I knew it!” White responded. “It’s nothing against it, just that the sax is so loud.”
“Lovano used two drummers throughout this CD (Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela),” Jenkins noted. “But the sax is so loud you don’t get the sense of two drummers playing on this cut,” White insisted.
“Do you think the producer felt it would be hard to hear the sax with two drummers, and increased the (microphone) volume on the sax?” asked Jenkins. “What sense does that make?” said White. “They were in a recording studio, which is already a controlled environment.
“When I was coming up,” White explained, “the music on jazz records was even. You could hear everyone in the band equally. You could hear Art Blakey. You could hear Wayne Shorter.” One instrument didn’t dominate or drown out the others, he said. “You think of compositions like ‘Kind of Blue,’ ‘Time Out,’ ‘Speak No Evil.’ ”
White listened intently to the next jazz excerpt. “I like it already,” he said, breaking into a smile. “It’s musical, I can hear everybody. I don’t know who this (artist) is, but I liked it.” Jenkins said it was drummer Winard Harper and Jeli Posse, playing “Helen’s Song,” from their recent CD “Coexist” on the Jazz Legacy Productions label.
Although White didn’t know who the next artist was, he correctly identified the composition. “‘Teen Town,’ that’s my favorite Jaco Pastorius tune,” he said. “When he recorded it, he was at a high point of his virtuosity, his performance. What I miss in this version is the rhythm. In the original composition, it (the rhythm) was brilliant.” Jenkins said the version of “Teen Town” was by drummer Matt Wilson and Arts & Crafts, from their most recent CD, “Attitude for Gratitude” on the Palmetto label.
The “Before & After” session concluded with a snippet of a composition by drummer Allison Miller, which White described as “Nice” and “Free flowing.” “Everything you played for me is great. It ran the gamut,” said White. If he had one overall criticism, he said, it’s that “Today’s musicians don’t think in terms of having a specific sound. If I had heard (some of the) artists 15 years ago, it would have been difficult to identify them.”