Thursday, January 9, 2014

Kenny Clarke's centenary

Kenny Clarke (source:
Kenny Clarke, born one hundred years ago today, is one of the great drummers in the history of jazz. Any reference text will tell you about his role in the development of be-bop, his bomb-dropping, his shifting of the rhythm from the hi-hat to the ride cymbal and all that, which is correct and just fine, but there's much more.

Like Don Byas, he's one of those musicians whose place in posterity has been diminished because they left the US, the "out of sight, out of mind" principle. Before that, he played in the major leagues, he was part of the original line-up of the Modern Jazz Quartet (the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie's big band), with whom he recorded this

which seems to be the basis for what Miles Davis recorded as "Two Bass Hit". Interestingly, in the MJQ's version Milt Jackson quotes Clarke's "Epistrophy", a tune he co-signed with Thelonious Monk with origins in Minton's and the sessions with Charlie Christian (the theme was figured out by Clarke while playing some phrases Christian taught him on the ukulele).

A favourite piece of Clarke is the famous recording of "Topsy" from Minton's, with Christian on guitar, Monk on piano, and Nick Fenton on bass. Clarke's time, swing, and punctuation are flawless, but do listen for the way he interacts with Christian. That's peerless, on the spot creativity.

Another personal favourite is the opening track in Bud Powell's A Portrait of Thelonious, recorded in Paris and produced by Cannonball Adderley. If I'm not mistaken, on "Off Minor" Clarke plays exclusively brushes on the snare drum throughout. Lesser musicians would be limited by this. Not Clarke (Spotify):

Talking about Adderley, he and Clarke went back to 1955, when the saxophonist made his first ever recording, for the Savoy label; Clarke was the unofficial house drummer for the label, and Cannonball and his brother Nat are both featured in one of Clarke's groups.

As Kenny Burrell explains in Gary Carner's Joy Road: An Annotated Discography of Pepper Adams (Scarecrow Press, 2012), Clarke was instrumental in the introduction of a number of Detroit jazzmen in the New York scene, through his Savoy album Kenny Clarke Meets the Detroit Jazzmen, featuring the then unknown talents of Burrell himself, Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, and Paul Chambers.

These are just small pieces of Clarke's long and fruitful musical life, there's much, much more worth exploring.

I leave you for now with a duet with another unjustly forgotten emigree, organ magician Lou Bennett.

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