Dennis Mackrel is at once a giant as a jazz drummer and as a composer, arranger, and conductor. There are certainly important jazz drummers who’ve written great tunes, but at least until recently the list was much smaller if the criteria include a high level of arranging and orchestration skill. That standard was probably set by Louie Bellson, and I view Dennis as one of the most important descendants of that tradition, continuing to do both at a high level throughout his career. And his drumming embodies all we teach students about how to be a contributor to any band – he’s assertive when he needs to be and deferent when he needs to be, can make his playing as straight-ahead or as quirky as the music demands, and all the while demonstrating sensitivity, soul, and his singular sense of pocket.
I’m delighted to be hosting him as the guest artist for Resonant Motion’s Jazz Up Close series ten days from now, both because of the opportunity to play in a trio with him and because of the opportunity to dig into some of his compositions. Both have further given me the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite recordings to feature him over the four decades now since he joined Count Basie’s band at a young age. Here are ten of those favorites, presented in chronological order.
1 ) “Bus Dust” from Long Live the Chief by Count Basie Orchestra (1986)
It was hard not to include an example of Dennis playing with the Count himself, but I chose instead to include this hard-swinging performance of an intricate contribution from Dennis’s pen, though the way his drums enhanced any performance by that band is well-represented as well.
2 ) “Kissing By the Mistletoe” from That Holiday Feelin’ by Joe Williams (1990)
This was my first direct exposure to Dennis’s playing, here in on a subtle but grooving calypso-flavored performance, thanks to the tasty featured solo by Ted Dunbar, an important teacher of mine at the time I first heard it. Kenny Burrell also gets a solo, and of course you can’t avoid smiling when Joe Williams sings. I could have easily made a top 10 list of Dennis’s vocal accompaniment, with records by Carol Sloane, Chris Connor, and Chaka Khan among my favorites.
3 ) “Birds of Paradise” from Big Band Theory by Carla Bley (1993)
Dennis’s work in big bands is so authoritative and so varied that I could also have easily populated the entire list with examples of that. I fully acknowledge that including this track by the brilliant Carla Bley is in a sense cheating, because it’s so epic and includes multiple moods and grooves, all buoyed by way the drumming adds fire and spotlights the goings-on throughout the band.
4 ) “I Hear Music” from That Shearing Sound by George Shearing (1994)
My first live exposure to Dennis Mackrel was at the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, where in my early 20s I had the good fortune (dumb luck?) to play on a bill that included this edition of the George Shearing Quintet, featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, guitarist Louis Stewart, and Shearing’s go-to bassist for over 15 years, Neil Swainson. All the Shearing records Dennis played on sound great and he is in a sense a perfect fit for his capacity to add just the right balance of fire and elegance.
5 ) “Favors” from Favors by Hank Jones (1996)
While there are a couple examples above of music featuring Dennis that I’d heard prior to this album’s release, this is where I was officially converted to a fan and student of his playing (going back, subsequently, to the collaboration that this trio, also featuring the late bassist George Mraz, had with the Meridian String Quartet six years prior). Every song on this album is a masterclass in the trio’s empathy and rhythmic oneness, both as a standalone unit and, on the last several tunes, with big band accompaniment. This moody Claus Ogerman composition is one of the trio numbers and grooves subtly yet deeply throughout.
6 ) “Joy’s Blues” from Bass, Buddies, and Blues by Keter Betts (1998)
Keter Betts was an important bassist whose decades living in the Washington, D.C. era likely contributed to his having a lower profile in the broader jazz scene than his skills and accomplishments warranted. All his records as a bandleader feature Dennis, and this track, an original Mackrel composition, swings like crazy thanks in large part to the sympatico hook-up of those two and pianist Bill Charlap, another frequent collaborator of Dennis’s.
7 ) “Simple Pleasures” from Inside-Out: Back to Work by Randy Sandke (2000)
While often pigeonholed as a swing/traditional player, trumpeter Randy Sandke is quite broad in his musical pursuits, and that eclecticism made Dennis’s versatility of particular value over the course of the five albums to which he contributed between the mid-90s and mid-2000s. This Mackrel composition is an angular Latin tune in 6/4 and also features a probing solo by pianist Uri Caine.
8 ) “Queen of Hearts” from For My Father by Hank Jones (2004)
I’ll be honest, I didn’t even notice that this James Black composition was in 5/4 time until maybe the 15th or 20th time I listened to the rendition on this, the last album by this edition of the Hank Jones Trio. The three musicians insert so much joy, groove, and fluidity that it doesn’t in any way present as being in an “odd” time signature.
9 ) “With All My Love” from Collectables by Todd Coolman (2015)
This slow, lyrical Latin tune is the last on this list to come from Dennis’s pen. The trio, also including pianist Bill Cunliffe, deftly navigating the “grown folks tempo” and soulfully taking their time.
10 ) “Tenor Twelve” from Tenormore by Scott Robinson (2018)
I almost chose the tune “Tenor Eleven” from the same album (featuring multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson sticking to tenor saxophone, alongside Martin Wind and Helen Sung) to further highlight Dennis’s ability to make asymmetrical music sound totally natural, but in a near coin-toss picked this one for the swing and fire, particularly in the drum solo and duo-with-saxophone moments towards the end of the performance.