Friday, March 30, 2012

Babatunde Olatunji & The African Connection

I had an interesting conversation with Kenny Washington awhile ago about the series of records that Art Blakey did for the Blue Note label that featured Art playing with ensembles of various drummers and percussionists (such as "Orgy in Rhythm", "Drums on the Corner" and "The Afro-Drum Ensemble"). Kenny offered that a lot of this had to do with the popularity of the album "Drums of Passion" by Babatunde Olatunji and his overall influence and impact on Jazz musicians during the 50s (record companies were also keen to demonstrate the new capabilities of Hi-Fi technology during this time and drums were the perfect vehicle for this). Interestingly enough, John Coltrane's final performance took place at the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem (which Babatunde founded).

Here's a couple clips of Olatunji demonstrating some of his native Nigerian rhythms:

It's easy to hear how Art Blakey would have been inspired by something like this!

I've also long been interested in Blakey's various projects that involved percussionists. I first purchased a copy of Art Blakey's "Afro-Drum Ensemble" at Chicago's infamous Jazz Record Mart while still in my teens (they've seen a lot of my money over the years!) and I always admired the energy and intensity that Bu played with when partnered with other drummers and percussionists.

Max Roach also experimented with groups like this on such albums as "Percussion Bitter Sweet" and with his percussion ensemble M'Boom. I also really enjoyed the friendly yet competitive vibe on the album "Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland" that features Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Charlie Persip (Persip total kills on this one btw!) Joe Lovano's recent US5 project with two drummers (Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela) and Josh Redman's two bass + two drummer band (with Brian Blade and Greg Hutchinson) also come to mind as well. The bottom line is that I think it's an important skill to be able to play drums with other drummers and percussionists in an amicable and cohesive way. This might seem like a no-brainer for your average percussionist who is used to playing in a percussion section (!) but as a Jazz drummer who is usually the only percussionist in a band it sometimes takes a bit of an adjustment.

From a compositional standpoint I think having an entire battery of percussion and drums to deal with certainly offers a lot of sonic possibilities and rhythmic textures and densities to play around with. For example, here's Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performing the big band suite "Congo Square" featuring Yacub Addy and a full ensemble of Ghanaian drummers:

Now that is something I'd like to try and write for someday!

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