I’m thrilled that I’ll get to play this weekend with the phenomenal drummer Billy Drummond at St. Peter’s in NYC, as I’ve been a fan of his playing for thirty years now. The first time I heard him was just weeks after I began college – my friend Jeff invited me to go with him to Tavern on the Green to hear the James Williams Trio with Billy and bassist Bob Cranshaw. I soaked in every note for two long sets (this I remember vividly because it resulted in literally sprinting through Port Authority bus terminal to catch the last bus back to NJ). As wonderful as James was, as always, it was a night of Billy giving me what I sometimes refer to with students as “involuntary stank-face.” That is, his playing was so tasty and grooving that it made me grimace in disbelief over and over. Not surprisingly, this is the experience I’ve had ever since when listening to him in different musical contexts.
There was a lot of wonderful music I couldn’t fit on this list, including his own records as a leader and as a sideman, particularly in pianist-led sessions by the likes of Larry Willis, George Cables, Renee Rosnes, Freddie Redd, Donald Brown, George Colligan, Andrew Hill, and Frank Kimbrough. But here are some of my favorites over the course of three decades, with surely more to come
1 ) “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” from Sam I Am by Sam Newsome (1990)
Given how hard Billy swings, it makes sense to begin the list with a ridiculously swinging medium-tempo performance, here of a classic tune by another important jazz Billy, Mr. Strayhorn. Speaking of horns, we hear the historical blip of the innovative soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome’s debut album, back when he was “just” a great tenor saxophonist – Billy puts a fire under his solo as well as those of Steve Nelson and Mulgrew Miller.
2 ) “Turning Point” from The Art of Organizing by Dr. Lonnie Smith (1993)
Here Billy gives a clinic in bright Latin-jazz grooves and organ trio dynamics, accompanying Dr. Lonnie alongside the guitar of Peter Bernstein (whose own organ-heavy Brain Dance record narrowly missed inclusion on this list).
3 ) “Caffeine” from Notes From the Underground by Jonny King (1995)
As suggested by the title, his tune by the wonderful pianist/composer Jonny King is very energetic. Alternately Latin and swinging, Billy navigates both seamlessly and with ample fire. Nelson is featured again, as are King and Joshua Redman, here on soprano saxophone.
4 ) “Dubai” from Dubai (1995)
This original tune by Billy is my favorite from my favorite of his bandleader records, making it something of a no-brainer. The two-saxophone, bass, and drums format doesn’t suffer from the absence of a chordal instrument thanks to his tasty playing and the groove is so organic that I probably heard it 10 times before I noticed it’s in 7/4 time (except when it’s in 6). Aside from Billy himself, the featured soloists are Chris Potter and Walt Weiskopf, both of whom have multiple excellent albums featuring Billy.
5 ) “Poem for #15” from The Best Things by Steve Kuhn (1999)
Speaking of “multiple excellent albums featuring Billy,” there are over a dozen with him and Steve Kuhn, a half dozen of which are Kuhn trio sessions with bassist David Finck and Billy. Talk about trio telepathy and soul. I could easily have made a top 10 list just of their collaborations, ultimately picking this epic and rhythmically/texturally shape-shifting version of perhaps Kuhn’s best-known composition (also known as “Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers”).
6 ) “Fantasy In D” from Cedars of Avalon by Larry Coryell (2001)
It might be heresy to suggest that any version of this important Cedar Walton tune (also known as “Ugetsu”) could compare to the original version by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but this slick performance by guitarist Larry Coryell, featuring Cedar, belongs in the conversation in large part due to the pocket that Billy and Buster Williams lay down.
7 ) “House of Chan” from Hidden Treasures by Gary Smulyan (2005)
As with “Dubai,” this trio session with Christian McBride and baritone saxophone virtuoso Smulyan provides a chance to hear how well Billy navigates chord-less environments, though in this case on a more bop-oriented tune.
8 ) “Five Banana” from The Lost Chords Find Paulo Fresu by Carla Bley (2007)
This infectious Latin tune (in 5/4, not surprisingly given the title) is a lovely example of Billy’s sensitive yet propulsive contributions to Carla Bley’s music. He fits perfectly into both her large and small ensemble music, and he and bassist Steve Swallow hook up equally perfectly.
9 ) “The Wedding Recessional” from Are You Real? by Stanley Cowell (2014)
This delightful original by the brilliant pianist Stanley Cowell is a highlight of the first of three of his albums featuring Billy and bassist Jay Anderson. It also provides an opportunity to hear Billy lay down a subtle yet funky backbeat.
10 ) “Lonely Woman” from Picture in Black and White by Tessa Souter (2018)
This potent arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s most famous composition demonstrates two important aspect of Billy’s work: his supportive work as an accompanist to vocalists and his ability to create dynamics and texture (here alongside bassist Yasushi Nakamura) on a rubato (free time) performance. He really makes the drums sing here.