About 6 months after saying goodbye to Bob Cranshaw, we do the same with his batterymate in Milt Jackson’s group and on literally dozens of other records, the fabulous drummer Granville “Mickey” Roker. I only shared the bandstand with him once (at Ortlieb’s in Philly when I was 20) and wish that I’d understood his contributions better then. I have since dug into many records he’s on and realized how many records I was already listening to then with which I hadn’t made the connection to this unassuming gent. Few have swung as hard, and while he was not the most famous of drummers, the feeling in his beat speaks to me in a unique way. Here are some of my personal favorites from his discography.
1 ) “The Sorcerer” from Speak Like a Child (by Herbie Hancock)
This is simultaneously one of the hardest-swinging and most harmonically hip tracks in jazz piano trio lore, and the incredible propulsion from Mickey and Ron Carter is a huge part of that.
2 ) “Baby Man” from Free Spirits (by Mary Lou Williams)
Playing at a slow tempo with a strong groove is a particularly challenging task for a drummer or anyone else, and this is one of my all-time favorite examples of that, courtesy of Mary Lou, Mickey, and Buster Williams. John Stubblefield’s tune is one of the most hauntingly soulful things I’ve ever heard.
3 ) “Big Bertha” from Sweet Honey Bee (by Duke Pearson)
The subtle hi-hat playing in the opening bass solo by Ron Carter here gives way to a clinic in hard bop medium-up-tempo swinging goodness during the melody and fiery solos by Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson (and some tasty piano by Pearson)
4 ) “Goin’ Down South” from San Francisco (by Bobby Hutcherson)
While Mickey was known for his swing feel, this is one of the fattest backbeats I’ve ever heard on a straight-ahead jazz track. Joe Sample’s tune, Bobby’s marimba and Harold Land’s tenor are all buoyed by this amazing groove.
5 ) “Summer in Central Park” from In Pursuit of the 27th Man (by Horace Silver)
The first recording of this classic latter-day (1972) Horace classic also includes some of his hippest piano playing, particularly since it comes at a time when he was largely pigeonholed as a “funky” player. The modern waltz feel that underpins this owes a lot to Mickey and the electric bass of Mr. Cranshaw.
6 ) “Milestones” from Con Alma (by Ray Bryant)
Mickey’s brushwork is fairly underrepresented on this list, but this up-tempo trio romp features him prominently and feels totally relaxed and totally energetic at the same time, without his picking up a stick.
7 ) “Tin Tin Deo” from Happy Time (by Junior Mance)
Here is the tandem of Mickey and Ron again, backing the hard-grooving Junior Mance. I love this whole record, but this performance of a Dizzy Gillespie classic is a particularly tasty example of Mickey’s Latin feel.
8 ) “Three Little Words” from the Standard Sonny Rollins (by Sonny Rollins)
This very short but ridiculously swinging trio track epitomizes the way Sonny’s sound evolved while still retaining the essence of his late 1950s pianoless trio work. The grooving fury of Mickey’s playing is the perfect complement here.
9 ) “Good Morning Heartache” from Sa Va Bella (for Lady Legends) (by Milt Jackson)
It’s hard to choose one track to typify the roughly 30 year relationship between Mickey and Bags (including Mickey’s stint in the Modern Jazz Quartet after Connie Kay’s death) but this one, from their last album together, does a decent job as it goes from achingly lyrical balladry to booty-shaking swing and back.
10 ) “Sunday” from Hank & Frank II (by Hank Jones)
Mickey is one of the “young guys” on this 2009 date, one of his last sessions, swinging hard alongside Hank Jones and Frank Wess.