Elvin Jones for me is the secret ingredient. Have you ever discovered the secret ingredient in your food? You go along eating stuff and there are many things you like, and then one day you discover that a particular ingredient (be it garlic or ginger or high fructose corn syrup) is present in a disproportionate amount of the stuff you like? Me either, but I have had that experience in music. The first Coltrane to really knock me out . . . and the first Wayne Shorter . . . and the first James Williams . . . oh man, Larry Young . . . wow, Art Pepper didn’t just play “cool jazz” . . . and on and on. It was kind of eerie to trace back how much of this great music was great in large part because of Elvin’s drumming. I’m always hesitant to offer definitive “favorites” for most anything (Top 10 lists are better because I can hedge my bets and don’t have to pick just one) but Elvin is my favorite drummer, period. Heck, I named my cat after him.
There is some room for interpretation, of course, as to what constitutes a top “Elvin Jones Track.” I could focus on his drumming as a sideman or his own records or great historical moments of which he was a part. The fact is that there are so many great moments in his discography that I’ll be drawing from all of this and still leaving out many profound musical moments that he provided us. Likewise, I’m going to limit myself to two Coltrane tracks on the list of 10, as that partnership could easily produce a list of its own (and worry not, ‘Trane will get his own list before long). The number of great and historically significant tracks that I have to omit is large, so remember these are totally subjective favorites.
1 ) “Pursuance” (from A Love Supreme by John Coltrane)
I wanted so badly to cheat and include the whole album, as it encapsulates so much of Elvin’s contributions to the Impulse-era Coltrane “classic quartet.” This track begins with a drum solo for which I am at a loss for adjectives (Elvin-esque is a pretty lame solution to that, but it’s the best I can come up with). And then the time comes in and the propulsion and groove just don’t quit. And the intensity goes up and up and up and up into the stratosphere and then up some more and up . . . whew! As much credit as Coltrane justifiably gets for the heights of intensity his music reached, there is no question in anyone’s mind (as there wasn’t in his own mind) that Elvin’s drumming was an absolutely necessary element.
2 ) “Witch Hunt” (from Speak No Evil by Wayne Shorter)
Elvin was an essential contributor to some of Wayne’s most essential music (also providing a fascinating contrast to Tony Williams, Wayne’s cohort in the Miles Davis Quintet), and I could have just as easily picked Juju or even Night Dreamer to represent that. Ron Carter and Elvin also had an amazing hook-up, which also could’ve been represented by many albums, perhaps most notably McCoy Tyner records like The Real McCoy and Trident. I chose this track in part because the McCoy/Elvin partnership is already well-represented here on the Coltrane tracks and Elvin’s hook-up with Herbie Hancock on Speak No Evil is brilliant and makes one wonder why they collaborated so seldom. I also chose it because it is simply put one of the most grooving, creative and interactive cuts in modern jazz history and totally rocked my world back in 1991 (and has done so repeatedly since).
3 ) “Shiny Stockings” (from Heavy Sounds)
Another aspect of Elvin’s playing that gets comparatively little attention is his use of brushes. This trio track with bassist Richard Davis and tenor saxophonist Frank Foster (both essential collaborators of Elvin’s) demonstrates how essential his brushwork was. It’s hard to play with this kind of power on brushes and it’s similarly hard to create this much fullness with neither a chordal instrument nor the reverberation of sticks on cymbals. But Elvin does all of this effortlessly while helping to transform Foster’s tune, which had been most associated with the Count Basie band’s tightly arranged large-ensemble rendition.
4 ) “As We Used To Sing” (from Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock)
First of all, there is no joy quite like the rhythmic stew cooked up by Elvin playing in waltz time. Second of all, this whole (vastly underrated) record is full of vintage Elvin, years past the point when he was in his purported “prime” as an artist. His fiery interactions with Sharrock on guitar and old cohort Pharaoh Sanders on saxophone would alone be worth the price of the record, but the rest of it is burning as well.
5 ) “Night Has A Thousand Eyes” (from Coltrane’s Sound by John Coltrane)
What the heck do you call the groove that Elvin plays on the quasi-Latin section of this tune (more or less replicated a few years later when he and McCoy Tyner played on Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No” from the Juju album)? Whatever it is, it makes me smile giddily every time I hear it. And the swing part is awesome too. And even though they go back and forth between these grooves over and over throughout the tune, it’s dramatic and exciting every time. Oh yeah, and that saxophone player is pretty good too.
6 ) “Crisis” (from Ready for Freddie by Freddie Hubbard)
One of my Rutgers professors, William Fielder (a.k.a. “Prof”) used to talk about differences in rhythm section conceptions. Elvin’s playing to him was emblematic of forward motion, where the individual beat operates in the service of the overall momentum of the phrase. As much as prof respected the bassists Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman, he felt that the pinnacle of this conception could be heard in the collaborations between Elvin and bassist Art Davis on this record and on McCoy Tyner’s Inception. We also get more Wayne and Elvin, more McCoy and Elvin and a great opportunity to compare Elvin’s approach to this song to that of Art Blakey, who recorded another classic version (also with Freddie and Wayne) less than 2 months after this session.
7 ) “Lullaby of the Leaves” (from Magical Trio 2 by James Williams)
I’ve mentioned this album on several different Top 10 lists, and it’s bordering on criminal that it’s out of print. Aside from my personal affection for the music on this album (which is reason enough to include it here), I’m also including it to show Elvin’s ability to play a bluesy, hard-swinging groove like nobody’s business. Above I mentioned Prof Fielder and his citation of Elvin as representing the pinnacle of rhythmic forward motion. Well Ray Brown, the bassist on this track, was one of Prof’s primary examples of the opposite conception, one in which every beat is driven home with authority and the longer phrases get comparatively less attention. As such, you’d think this collaboration (which had previously occurred in a trio with Cedar Walton and on several Phineas Newborn, Jr. sessions) wouldn’t work. But throughout the record, they find incredible middle ground. And particularly on this track, the pocket is just so deep and swinging as to render that sort of analysis pretty much irrelevant (sorry Prof) – perhaps the blues, when in the hands of artists like this, can simply be such a unifying force that it can trump any comparatively more subtle musical differences. I don’t know, but if your booty remains still when listening to this, I hope you have a note of explanation from your doctor.
8 ) “Thorn of a White Rose” (from Elvin Jones Is On the Mountain)
Have you ever wondered what Elvin would have sounded like as a rocker? The most obvious answers to this query can be found in the music of some of the drummers who incorporated his energy and polyrhythmic grooves in the late 1960s such as Ginger Baker (of Cream), Keith Moon (of the Who) and Mitch Mitchell (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience). But you can also get some insight from performances like this electric trio track with Gene Perla and Jan Hammer. Based on this evidence, I still wonder how Elvin would have fit in with a bona fide rock mega-band, given the contradiction between the elasticity of his beat and the rigidity of a typical rock song (which I suppose is only relevant when I think about him playing “Hey Jude” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”). In this context, though, boy does he rock. The groove is hard and deep, as virtually all of his grooves were.
9 ) “Sweet Mama” (from Elvin Jones Live at the Lighthouse)
It is interesting, though not surprising, that so much of Elvin’s career as a bandleader was defined by his hiring a series of powerful tenor saxophonists. Some of them were directly and clearly coming out of the vocabulary established by Elvin’s former boss, John Coltrane (Joe Farrell, Pat LaBarbera, Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman) and some were older and already had well-formed conceptions coming in (Frank Foster, Frank Wess, George Coleman). Two of the most important post-Coltrane tenorists to work in Elvin’s band were Grossman and Liebman, both represented on this fiery record, considered by many to epitomize Elvin as a bandleader. Props also to bassist Gene Perla, who also composed this catchy tune (which was re-done by Elvin a few years later featuring Grossman, LaBarbera and Foster, as well as some gnarly work by bassist David Williams and guitarist Ryo Kawasaki).
10 ) “You Are Too Beautiful” (from Elvin!)
Because of his remarkable fire, Elvin’s ability to play with sensitivity often gets short shrift. There are lots of great examples of this, of course, but I find that his elegant side was brought out particularly well when he collaborated with his brothers Thad and Hank, who are the featured soloists on this ballad. I could write pages on the sheer awesomeness of having three of this genre’s heaviest contributors as brothers, but I’ll simply focus on encouraging you to check out this record! There’s a lot more where this came from in the sense of Elvin’s collaborations with Thad and/or Hank (with Hank’s Thad-tribute Upon Reflection album warranting special mention).
Honorable Mentions (so I don’t toss and turn at night for failing to at least mention certain other facets of his legacy):
* Elvin with his fellow Detroiters (aside from the other Jones Brothers): “All of You” (from Kenny Burrell by Kenny Burrell) with Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and Doug Watkins, or “I’ll Remember April” (from Into Something by Yusef Lateef) with Yusef and Barry Harris (and that doesn’t even address stuff with Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Billy Mitchell, etc.)
* “Broad Way Blues” (from New York Is Now by Ornette Coleman): Elvin, Jimmy Garrison, Dewey Redman and Ornette, an underrated period in the careers of all of these men.
* “Shaw” (from African Exchange Student by Kenny Garrett): Elvin contributing to the music of those who grew up inspired by his music, like Garrett and pianist Mulgrew Miller.
* Elvin with Joe Henderson: “Punjab” (from In & Out by Joe Henderson) or “Inner Urge” or “Isotope” from Inner Urge or anything from McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy or Larry Young’s Unity. . .
* “A Night In Tunisia” (from A Night at the Village Vanguard by Sonny Rollins) debatably the most essential pre-Coltrane Elvin. And who needs piano?
* “Caravan” (from Complete Village Vanguard Sessions by Art Pepper): Elvin adding fire to the music of someone associated with “cool jazz” (other examples of this include Stan Getz and Tony Bennett)
And now I must stop before this gets ridiculous . . .