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A Different Drummer 

Local musicians recall the life and music of the late Elvin Jones.

Elvin Jones already was taking jazz drumming to new dimensions when he arrived in New York in the 1950s. By the time he joined the John Coltrane quartet in 1960, Jones had developed an explosive style that would transform jazz and prefigure advances in fusion, rock and funk. After leaving Coltrane in 1966, Jones went on to lead a number of outstanding groups. Versions of his 'Jazz Machine' have included New Orleans stalwarts Nicholas Payton, Greg Tardy and Delfeayo Marsalis. Jones died May 18 of heart failure after a long illness. He was 76.

Saxophonist and New Orleans native Greg Tardy vividly remembers meeting Jones in 1993. Jones had hired Tardy on a recommendation, and the two first met at the sound check for Tardy's first gig with the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine. 'It was a dream come true,' says Tardy, who admits he had a bad case of the butterflies. 'Elvin was part of my favorite band of all time, the classic quartet of John Coltrane, so, for me, to see him in person was like seeing a ghost.

'Elvin was a real powerful, muscular man, lean but real muscular,' says Tardy, who played with the band for more than two years. 'He used to give people bear hugs, and it would feel like he was about to break your ribs.'

'He was such a strong force, but so sensitive,' recalls trumpeter Nicholas Payton. 'He allowed other musicians the space they needed to bring their own personalities to the bandstand.'

Payton was 18 when he joined the Jazz Machine in 1992. Jones changed the role of drums, Payton says, by skillfully swinging on the entire drumset -- the bass drum, the tom toms, the ride cymbal -- unlike anyone before him. 'Elvin had a way of sounding like 10 drummers, but not in an obtrusive way,' says Payton.

Like a host of other aspiring percussionists, Astral Project's Johnny Vidacovich grew up listening in amazement to Jones. Unlike most, he had the opportunity to meet him. 'The first time I saw him live was around 1972 in Worcester, Massachusetts,' says Vidacovich. 'I got to talk to him. He just hung out; he was very nice.' Vidacovich was impressed by the imposing stature of the man who seemed to defy gravity with his powerfully articulate four-limbed attack. 'He was built like a tank. He was very energetic, constantly in motion, he was sweating. We met in the men's room and got to talking. I told him I was a drummer and he was very gracious, very talkative and friendly.'

Vidacovich began listening to Jones' records as a teenager in the 1960s. Though inspired by Jones, he didn't try to copy his playing. 'It's useless to try to play like him because I really don't think anybody sounds like Elvin Jones,' he says. 'It's a spirit; you can try to write down the licks and practice it over and over but it ain't gonna happen. You'll never sound like him. It's very personal.'

Today, Vidacovich says, he hears Jones' sound all over the place. 'If you listen to Jimi Hendrix's early recordings, especially Axis: Bold as Love, you'll hear a lot of Elvin Jones' influence in Mitch Mitchell's playing. Lick for lick you just hear it.' It's also in New Orleans drumming, Vidacovich says. 'There's an open triplet relationship to the African 12/8 patterns, because he played very Africanish.'

'His swing was harder than anyone I've ever heard in my life,' says Tardy. 'When people think of Alvin Jones, they think of all the technical stuff and the power, but underneath that he was a deep swinging blues drummer. You could feel the blues coming out of his playing.'

'There was something very special about his touch,' Payton says. 'No one hits the drums like that.' Payton lists just what else was so remarkable: Jones' range of expression, his sense of dynamics, and his sense of rhythm, time and placement. 'The power that he played with really strengthened me as a player,' Payton says. 'Every night, you just had to play, or else he would just roll you over.'

Jones wasn't, however, the sort who expounded endlessly about jazz. Payton recalls Jones speaking on the topic only one or two times during his entire two-year stint with the Jazz Machine. 'I remember Elvin once saying that repetition is the key to music,' says Payton, who adds that he has thought of that comment many times as he takes themes and develops them throughout the course of a solo.

Vidacovich is hard-pressed to pick a favorite Jones album. 'There's too many of 'em,' he says. 'I have some of the latest things he did with, I think it was with George Mraz and Joe Lovano, those are superior records. I was just listening on the radio to some of the Ballads with John Coltrane -- I've had about three copies of that record and I just give 'em away to people, tell 'em you just gotta have this record.

'He's part of the entire history of the essence of American drumming. It will never be old.'

click to enlarge "The power that he played with really strengthened me as a player," says Nicholas Payton of Elvin Jones, who once hired the 18-year-old Payton to join his Jazz Machine. "Every night, you just had to play, or else he would just roll you over."
  • "The power that he played with really strengthened me as a player," says Nicholas Payton of Elvin Jones, who once hired the 18-year-old Payton to join his Jazz Machine. "Every night, you just had to play, or else he would just roll you over."
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