I missed posting this on the 100th birth anniversary of Philly Joe Jones by a day, but my celebration thereof continues. Generally I’m very careful in suggesting any superlativeness in these inherently subjective Top 10 lists. However, there has never been a musician who has swung harder than Philly Joe and there never will be, as much as we all may aspire to get as close as possible to that mythical peak. That is not the only wonderful trait of his drumming, but if you value swinging grooves, Philly Joe Jones is necessarily a central figure in your consciousness.
I value that, so whittling this list down was rough, necessitating that I omit records totally foundational to my conception (Bags Meets Wes and Sonny Clark Trio and Portrait of Cannonball, oh my) as well as other classics by Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Betty Carter, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Elmo Hope, Cannonball Adderley, Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Drew, Wynton Kelly, Art Pepper, Freddie Hubbard, Ben Webster, Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, and many others, including a bunch of artists mentioned below. As such, this is my feeble yet hopefully somewhat constructive attempt to pick out a variety of tracks that have particularly moved me over the years.
1 ) “Stablemates” from Miles: The New Miles Davis Quintet by Miles Davis (1955)
While not his first recording with Miles nor his first with other jazz royalty (Elmo Hope, Lou Donaldson/Clifford Brown, etc.), this to my ears represents the very unofficial arrival of a fully-realized Philly Joe. The “new” Miles Davis Quintet here is of course the incalculably influential group with John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe. This is the first recorded track from their epic and influential string of 1955-56 recording sessions with which they fulfilled Miles’s contractual obligation to Prestige Records before they could begin releasing music on Columbia. It is also the first of a half-dozen Philly Joe recordings of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates” (including classics by Wes Montgomery/Milt Jackson and Golson himself). Oh yeah, and it grooves. A lot.
2 ) “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” from Newk’s Time by Sonny Rollins (1957)
This whole album is wonderful, but this track is a landmark duet between Sonny and Philly Joe. I often play this for students to demonstrate how a soloist (Rollins) can play with such rhythmic and harmonic command that no other pitched instruments are needed. But, of course, that wouldn’t work with just any drummer, and the mix of wisdom and groove is impeccable.
3 ) “Billy Boy” from Milestones by Miles Davis (1958)
Though this is ostensibly a Miles Davis recording, the track in question features just the trio of Philly, PC, and Red. It may seem odd to represent the Columbia Records tenure of the band (now also featuring Cannonball Adderley) on a song with no horns, but this is no ordinary trio track. Indeed, if I had to pick one tune to demonstrate swinging tightness in a jazz trio and more specifically drum perfection, this would be the one. Philly Joe does everything you need to hear – brushes, sticks, solo phrases, accompaniment, making the rhythmic hits of the song, all perfection.
4 ) “Flugelin’ the Blues” from In Orbit by Clark Terry (1958)
Philly’s work on up-tempo tunes is superlative, but it’s also important for a drummer to be able to swing at slower tempos, and his work alongside bassist Sam Jones behind Terry’s joy-oozing flugelhorn is a textbook example of that mix of propulsion and restraint, albeit with some also-tasteful double-time thrown in. The pianist, meanwhile, is some guy named Thelonious Monk, with whom Philly Joe also had a fruitful relationship over a period of years.
5 ) “Gwen” from Philly Joe Jones Quintet (1959)
I’m honestly not sure if having basic facility on a pitched instrument is necessary for someone to be a great drummer, but it sure doesn’t hurt. On this gorgeous ballad, Philly Joe (courtesy of an early example of sonically convincing overdubbing) plays both piano and drums in a trio with bassist Jimmy Garrison, and it reveals a lot about the musical depth that made him such an extraordinary accompanist.
6 ) “Daahoud” from A World of Piano by Phineas Newborn, Jr. (1961)
I could very easily make a Top 10 (or 20 or 40) list of wonderful up-tempo swing performances featuring Philly Joe. This one in particular changed my life – I vividly remember, when my special order of this album (having read about it) arrived at Cutler’s Records, sitting in my bedroom and listening to Side A of the record, utterly slack-jawed. This track specifically demonstrated, in a way I’d never heard before, how a burning tempo and the essence of the blues oozing out of every note can coexist. More than thirty years later, I remain amazed.
7 ) “The Scene Is Clean” from The Two Sides of Jack Wilson by Jack Wilson (1964)
This track by the great West coast pianist Jack Wilson represents a few important things. One, it demonstrates how vital he remained in the mid-1960s, even as his recorded output was slowing down. Two, alongside Wilson and Leroy Vinnegar, he offers a clinic in hard-swinging medium tempo drumming. Three, it shows the depth of his sensitivity toward the music of Tadd Dameron, one of his most important collaborators and the focal point of an important band that Philly led in the 1980s.
8 ) “Rain Forest/Oleo” from Poem for Malcolm by Archie Shepp (1969)
This is my third summer teaching a course on jazz in the 1960s to incoming first-year students at Wesleyan, and each time I do that I get the opportunity to revisit Philly Joe’s fascinating interview with fellow drummer Art Taylor as part of the central text for the course, Notes and Tones. In it, Philly discusses his thoughts on “freedom music,” something that one might not expect one of the great straight-ahead players in jazz history to have thought about. This track, however, is one of my favorite examples of how equipped Philly was to play compelling drums in an avant-garde setting, matching the fire of Shepp and Grachan Moncur III before Hank Mobley joins in towards the end for a teaser of “Oleo,” a staple of the post-bebop era with which Philly also has an important history, having participated in definitive recordings by Miles Davis and Bill Evans.
9 ) “Sweet Dulcinea Blue” from Quintessence by Bill Evans (1976)
While not as heralded for this, hearing Philly Joe play a moody waltz (from the pen of Kenny Wheeler) is a highlight of this record, one of the last of his many collaborations with pianist Bill Evans. The session features Harold Land and Kenny Burrell on the front line as well as Ray Brown on bass in his only in-studio session with Philly Joe.
10 ) “Star Eyes” from Four Seasons by Bobby Hutcherson (1983)
It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that Philly Joe’s pocket was as consistent during the waning years of his career as it was in his heyday. However, the “vintage” moments remain delightful, as on this swinging performance steering the Hutcherson-ship alongside pianist George Cables and bassist Herbie Lewis.