Constantly the brunt of other musicians’ jokes for their supposed fixation on rhythm, over the years drummers have actually proven themselves as organized band leaders and sophisticated tunesmiths. Edmonton-born, Brooklyn-based percussionist Owen Howard strikes a blow for his stick-wielding brethren with Drum Lore (BJU Records BJUR 017 www.bjurecords.com), as he leads a sextet through compositions by 11 different drummers, including himself. His notable CD, along with others by drummer/leaders, demonstrates these players’ overall improvisational and compositional smarts. Howard proves his percussion adaptability with strategies ranging from understated paradiddles and pops backing muted trombone and slurry bass clarinet on Shelly Manne’s Flip, to cross pounded bounces and clattering opposite sticking that adds an undercurrent of gravitas to Alan Ferber’s trombone ostinato and call-and-response patterns from the three saxophonists on Ed Blackwell’s Togo. He’s even more impressive guiding the slinky polyrhythms of Jack DeJohnette’s Zoot Suite, as clattering cymbals and popping bass drum subtly shifts tempos from andante to moderato as the layered horn riffs expand in scrappy, cascading counterpoint. The drummer’s own Roundabout vibrates with shifting pulses as alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher’s refracting flutter-tonguing alters the melody already trilled by soprano saxophonist Adam Kolker. Howard’s blunt rebounds and splashing cymbals keep things moving until pianist Frank Carlberg’s wide-spaced comping signals the finale.
Howard’s CD shows jazz percussionists’ compositional versatility, while the six compositions on Woodblock Prints (No Business NBLP 18 www.nobusinessrecords.com) presents a singular vision by another drummer, Toronto native-turned Brooklynite Harris Eisenstadt. Program music based on celebrating the art of Japanese wood bock prints, this chamber-improv is played by a brass-heavy nonet. What isn’t expected is that Mark Taylor’s French horn and Jay Rozen’s tuba are frequently lead voices, with the burbling timbre crepuscule of Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon often used for its unique tincture. Most demonstrative of Eisenstadt’s skills as a colourist is Hokusai, energized by his bell-tree shaking and tambourine smacks. Meanwhile hoarse, stuttering, bassoon patterns deconstruct the slow-gliding theme alongside Jonathan Goldberger’s guitar licks. Following Michael McGinnis’ squealing clarinet trills backed by the drummer’s ruffs and drags, Rozen’s extended tremolo line shepherds the variants towards Eisenstadt’s conclusive cymbal shimmies. Similarly on The Floating World, the narrative is defined as much by waddling tuba slurps plus diffuse French horn brays as liquid clarinet runs and pumping unison horns. The tubaist’s penultimate snort dissolves into pitch-sliding polytones as the drummer outlays shuffles, ruffs and bell-pings.
Less upfront as a performer, but responsible for all compositions on Sonnenschirm (Jazz Werkstatt JW 093 www.records-cd.com) is Heinrich Köbberling, a professor of percussion at Germany’s Leipzig University. He’s content using his cross strokes, opposite sticking, drags and rebounds to keep the session moderato, but with infectious, flowing rhythms. Rather than taking solos, Köbberling’s compositions and accompaniment give full reign to bassist Paul Imm, piano/accordionist Tino Derado and especially bass clarinettist Rudi Mahall. An unflappable tone explorer, Mahall adds sonic vitality to the often-jaunty tunes. Zahlen Bitte is a particular example of the reedman’s skills. Here his coloratura slides and tongue-stuttering face chiming piano lines. Circling around one another, all the textures then join to complete the melody. Meanwhile the drummer rolls and pumps in the background. Built on light-fingered piano harmonies, Konbanwa is another standout as the repeated theme variants are expressed sequentially by lyrical reed voicing and cascading piano chords.
Completely antithetical to the preceding discs is Pool School (Clean Feed CF 185 CD www.cleanfeedrecords.com), the first disc under the leadership of busy New York percussionist Tom Rainey. Consisting of 12 instant compositions, the CD depends as much on the inventiveness of guitarist Mary Halvorson and tenor and soprano saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock as Rainey’s drum dexterity. Yet as low-key and unforced as Rainey’s rhythms are, it’s their unruffled surge which keeps the dozen tracks moving. More Mesa for instance is taken agitato and moderato, with Laubrock’s pressurized vibrations as intense as the angled crunching runs from Halvorson. Yet the piece’s atmospheric identity is maintained through Rainey’s rim shot accents, hi-hat strokes and cymbal slaps. The drummer’s swirling cauldron of broken-octave rebounds and solid ruffs also create a subversive swing rhythm by the finale of Semi Bozo. Earlier, his ratcheting clicks and drum-top pops, the guitarist’s disconnected chording and slurred fingering plus the saxophonist’s rasping, low-pitched warbles appear to evolve in parallel rather than connective lines, until Rainey’s inverted sticking pushes them into harmonic concordance.
As these sessions prove, giving a sophisticated drummer freedom to innovate, results in much more than a rhythmic free-for-all.