Elvin Jones tribute preview: Straight from the heart

Veteran Portland drummer Alan Jones leads Portland Jazz Festival tribute to one of the Coltrane Quartet's other immortals


Editor’s note: This year’s Portland Jazz Festival is dedicated to the memory of the great saxophonist, improviser and composer John Coltrane, born 90 years ago. Two of this year’s concerts, at 7 and 930 pm February 19, focus on the drummer in Coltrane’s classic quartet, Elvin Jones. Led by the great Portland jazz drummer and teacher Alan Jones, the shows feature national jazz stars Azar Lawrence and Sonny Fortune and Portland bassist Jonathan Lakey. ArtsWatch asked one of Alan Jones’s students, percussionist Kaleb Davies, to talk to his teacher about Elvin Jones’s influence on jazz — and on both Alan and Kaleb.

Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones

When I first listened to the albums A Love Supreme and Sun Ship by the John Coltrane Quartet, I didn’t understand them. They just sounded like improvised music and stuff with the label “Jazz” stamped on it. As I was listening Sun Ship again recently, I sensed a flow of energy and emotion. It was more than four guys who had practiced their instruments a lot and learned a lot of licks. It was four musically sensitive men letting themselves transcend above the mere act of playing random licks that they’ve practiced for hours and letting the feeling of the music they were making choose the notes for them. I pictured them playing their instruments and what their faces looked like and how they were looking at each other and suddenly I got it! My body turned to jelly and this wave came over my body and I felt like I was in the same room as them, standing right in among the four of them. I could see the sweat drops flying off their faces and see their flexed muscles and the contorted faces as they were simply allowing these feelings to come straight out of their instruments without first stopping to reference the decision-making portion of the brain that chooses which notes would appropriately fit the situation.

The John Coltrane Quartet as a whole had more influence on me than just Elvin, but the quartet wouldn’t have been the same and wouldn’t have given me that same chill if Elvin wasn’t the drummer.

I want to have this feeling in my playing. I want to take his passion and learn how to apply it to every song I play in every musical situation I’m in. I want to practice my parts a lot harder and memorize them better, so that I too may be able to transcend regular note-playing and play like Elvin did: straight from the heart with no interaction with the brain. The practice room is where I’ll memorize my music and learn licks and hone my technique, and performances will be where I let my heart speak unfiltered.

Elvin changed the way I listen to music. I will now try to find the pure, gut-wrenching emotion in the music I listen to, no matter the style.  He changed my definition of good music. Before my definition was this: music played well and with intention. Now it includes pure expression of emotion.

This Friday February 19th, Alan Jones is leading Elvin Jones tribute concerts at Portland jazz club Jimmy Mak’s. He’s planning to play two tunes that Elvin wrote, an original tune from each member of the band, and pieces that Elvin has famously played on. We talked about those concerts and Elvin’s impact on Alan and on jazz.

Elvin’s place in music history

Alan Jones: He’s one of the most creative, fascinating, musicians that’s ever been produced on earth. The spirit that he brought to the American art form of jazz is really the embodiment of what jazz has come to symbolize and mean. He was fiercely independent and unique, while at the same time being completely receptive and open to what everybody else was saying at the same time. He was the ideal musical relationship: someone who has complete confidence and fearlessness with their own voice, while at the same time 100% aware of everyone else’s voice.

The John Coltrane Quartet was the perfect environment for him to be able to contribute what he had to contribute in his lifetime to the music. The unique voice that he did bring to the music was combined with three other extremely unique voices that changed the landscape of American music forever.

Elvin’s impact on later musicians

There’s almost no drummer on earth now that plays the same as he would play if Elvin hadn’t lived. Now, it may be pretty hard to pinpoint exactly what that is in a rock and roll drummer at this point, but it’s there in any case. His contribution was massive, because he just allowed us to include more activity in the role of the drums in the band. He increased the dynamic range, and played with more complex rhythms and more sophisticated rhythmic complexity.

Alan Jones

Alan Jones

As a drummer, one of our most important roles in music is to color the music. That’s a word that is difficult to define, but it’s to create different textures, different timbres, different dynamics in the music. A lot of times our job is seen as a time keeper, but all great drummers know that that’s just the foundation underneath what the real job is. Elvin recognizes that what he’s doing when he hits a cymbal at a certain time in a certain way is he’s changing the color of the music for everyone else. Everyone else is seeing the music differently now because of that choice — the sound that he made.

The way in which he soloed was also unique in that he was NOT afraid to NOT clearly state the time in the actual drums that he hit and the cymbals that he hit. In other words, most drummers up until Elvin felt an obligation to hit the drums in perfect time. Elvin kept that time in his body. His arms and legs would hit in all kinds of places in and around that beat, so the person listening couldn’t tell where the beat was anymore. For most people and many of the musicians who played with him, they had a hell of a time figuring out where he was. Up until that point, nobody really did that, so that was something that was very intriguing and exciting to me as a musician.

Alan’s relationship with Elvin

I didn’t study formally with him; I didn’t pay him money and go to his house to study with him. I studied with him by begging him to show me things *small chuckle*, and hanging around with him. Every once in awhile he would answer my questions, and sometimes he wouldn’t.

Once, I had been listening to a record that he played brushes on, and I had listened to it over and over and over again, and I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. I tried everything that I could think of to emulate what he was doing. No luck. So, the next time we had a gig in the same place at the same time – it was like a week long jazz festival, so I had a lot of time to bug him — I kept asking him if he would show me what he was doing on this record. At first he would go, “Ah psh, figure it out.” “Yeah, I’ve been trying to figure it out.”

Eventually [he said] “Okay, I’ll show you.” Over the course of about three days I practiced hours and hours and hours without stopping on this brush pattern. Every time I would see Elvin, he would correct something else about the pattern. I practiced so much that I got huge tendonitis in my elbow. My elbow swelled up like the size of a football.

The important thing about that story is that Elvin – not only did he care, he took so much time to show me that pattern in extreme detail. But, on top of that, it was an understanding for me that he understood the pattern in extreme detail, that he understood the pattern to sixteenths of an inch of how your arm has to be in order to make it sound the way it sounded. That was something that slowly dawned on me over years after that experience. What he plays can sound messy, and complicated, but the fact is he was extremely detailed and knew every single thing he was doing on the instrument and in the music. That was a great lesson, more than just the brush lesson.

He was a major influence on my playing throughout my entire life, and so there’s already so much of his influence in what I do that it’s become a part of my own personal voice. It would be a disservice to who he was to try and play like him, because nobody can and nobody ever will. And yet, he’s such a massive influence -— him and a number of other people. His voice is so present that there’s no way that that influence won’t be there.

Alan Jones leads Puttin’ It Together: A Tribute To Elvin Jones, with Azar Lawrence and Sonny Fortune, at 7 and 9:30 PM February 19 at Jimmy Mak’s, 221 NW 10th Avenue, Portland.

Kaleb Davies is a young percussionist studying jazz at the Alan Jones Academy of Music. He is also forming a garage rock band with a couple of friends, and recently played a mini tour with the amplified strings + keyboard group ARCO-PDX.

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