How different can four acclaimed jazz drummers sound when playing on the same drums, in the same hall, four different nights, with four different bands?
San Diego music fans will soon be able to experience it firsthand during the Winter Jazz concert series at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla. Drummers include Mark Whitfield Jr., 29; Brian Blade, 49; Matt Wilson, 55; and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, 58.
Between them, they’ve performed with a host of big names in music, from Sonny Rollins, Joni Mitchell and Chick Corea to Herbie Hancock, Elvis Costello and Dave Holland. The maple drum set they will perform on here was custom made by the esteemed Paul Bleifuss of San Diego, who died in 2007.
Legends and near-legends who have performed on this set at the Athenaeum and Athenaeum Jazz at TSRI concerts include Billy Higgins, Antonio Sanchez, Leon Parker and at least two of the four drummers – Blade and Wilson – who will perform in Part of the Athenaeum Winter Jazz Series 2020.
“Wow! It’s an impressive list,” said Mark Whitfield Jr., who will make his Athenaeum debut as a drummer in pianist Aaron Goldberg’s trio.
What makes this illustrious drummer quartet all the more impressive is that they are not part of a drum-themed concert series here. Rather, their inclusion is a happy coincidence for Daniel Atkinson, Athenaeum’s longtime jazz program coordinator, and for anyone attending the four upcoming performances.
“A lot of times when booking a group you don’t know who all the members will be,” Atkinson said, “unless it’s a long established group that has the same staff. for an extended period of time, and unfortunately that is not often the case.
“For this series, I booked the Matt Wilson group and the trio with Brian Blade. I didn’t have the names of the drummers from the other two bands, which are led by Aaron Goldberg and (fellow pianist) Orrin Evans, at least not when we booked those two bands. But I was confident that Aaron and Orrin would choose people who would make their music shine. And it’s a big moment when you find out their drummers will be Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and Mark Whitfield Jr.
Everything about this key
The series begins January 28 with Evans’ Trio, drummed by Smith, veteran of the group “Tonight Show with Jay Leno”, who has 14 years of experience. Next up is Blade, the longtime percussion marvel of the Wayne Shorter Quartet, performing on February 4 with a trio led by bassist, singer and UC San Diego alumnus Jeff Denson.
Whitfield performs on February 18 with the Goldberg trio. The series ends on February 23 with the dapper Wilson at the helm of his Honey & Salt Quintet, which will feature selections from the group’s 2018 album, “Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg”. (Wilson typically chooses local music luminaries from the audience to do impromptu readings of Sandburg’s poetry, while his group accompanies them.)
Each of the four drummers will provide their own cymbals, sticks, mallets and brushes. And Smith sometimes brings his own drums from Los Angeles. But it doesn’t matter who plays the Bleifuss here, they will each sound like themselves.
“It’s largely because of their personalities,” Wilson said.
“And that’s largely because of their touch and the way they approach the sonic aspects of the instrument. Physically, because of the different way we play our strokes, the same drum set, tuned the same way, will sound different when each of us plays it, just like a piano does when different people play it. It also has to do with our intention and our different concepts.
There are a number of qualities that can make a good drummer. These include skill and vision, flair and finesse, tenacity and daring. Equally important is the ability to support or lead a group as needed – in some cases virtually at the same time – while being sensitive to the music at hand, other performers and the audience.
“My biggest goal is to always try to listen, to be faithful to what is going on and not to make it be too artificial, even if it is is arranged, ”said Whitfield, who plays with his left hand on a right-handed drums.
“By ‘artificial’ I mean that – even though I know what I’m going to play or what I mean in a song – I’ll try to play it differently each time. Each song has its point that you need to get to. You try to shape it in different ways and get the same results.
Equally important to Wilson is the flexibility of sound and feel, who attributes his approach as a conductor to the jazz alumni he played with early in his career.
“Dewey Redman totally inspired me,” said Wilson, who also credits Duke Ellington Orchestra drum giant Louie Bellson as a key mentor.
“Dewey always thanked me for playing with him and he said, ‘People always sound their best when they play with me.’ I was baffled, as I had never heard a word of ego from him. What he meant by saying was that he always let you go to places and he gave you great music to play. He was very kind.
There is a 26-year age difference between Wilson, born in 1964, and Whitfield, born in 1990. But the two have things in common, beyond their common musical passion.
Both grew up out of the spotlight – Wilson in the Illinois college town of Knoxville, Whitfield in Shreveport, Louisiana, and (from age 11) Jersey City, NJ Both grew up in families musical and quickly turned to the drums. Both began their performing careers very early and both obtained degrees in music (Wilson at Wichita State University, Whitfield at Berklee in Boston).
“I started playing concerts when I was in eighth grade,” Wilson said. “My parents drove me. And I went to concerts as often as I could. I remember that in a week when I was 15, I saw Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson and the Count Basie Orchestra, with Duffy Jackson on drums.
Wilson first rose to prominence as a drummer in saxophonist Dewey Redman’s band in the 1990s. He now has nearly 20 albums to his name as a full-fledged bandleader. The bespectacled drummer and songwriter is also the co-founder of the stunning Trio M, which pairs him with pianist Myra Melford and great bassist (and UC San Diego music teacher) Mark Dresser.
Whitfield, though two and a half decades younger than Wilson, hands down his fellow drummer when it comes to an early start.
Son of famous jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield, he has music in his genes. The precocious drummer was not yet 5 years old when he made his national debut playing with his father and older brother in the Whitfield Family Band for a TV show “Good Morning America”.
“I remember coming to New York City from Louisiana to do the show,” said young Whitfield. “And I remember coming back to New York when I was 5 to listen to a song with my dad at Blue Note. “I definitely started playing early. I don’t really remember when exactly, because I was also busy being a kid.
Due to his father’s importance as a guitarist, Whitfield grew up in the company of an array of famous musicians.
“I thought George Benson was my rich uncle! Said the drummer, barely out of his teens when he made his recording debut with saxophonist Hailey Niswanger.
Whitfield has since recorded with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, trumpeter Sean Jones, saxophonists Tia Fuller and Kenny Garrett, former San Diego pianist Geoffrey Keezer and others. For the past few years, Whitfield has worked with Brian Jackson, the former musical partner of the late rap pioneer Gil-Scott Heron.
“I haven’t done a solo album yet; maybe I will in the future, ”said Whitfield. “I would like to see what doors open before I decide where my career will go.
If Wilson wasn’t a drummer himself, there’s a good chance he would consider Whitfield exactly the kind of musician he would want to join one of the many bands Wilson leads.
“I’ve thought a lot about every band I have,” Wilson said. “I hope that while we challenge the audience, we also make them feel welcome. And, wherever I play, I don’t change what we do. If I play in New York or Nebraska, I don’t change my approach. You never want to assume what people like or dislike. The best part about music is honesty.
Give some to the drummer!
The Athanaeum Music & Arts Library’s Winter Jazz Concert Series in La Jolla will feature four outstanding drummers – Brian Blade, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Mark Whitfield Jr. and Matt Wilson. We asked Wilson and Whitfield to comment on their fellow drummers on the show. Here is what they said.
Whitfield on Wilson: “He’s one of the drummers I admired growing up. Because of his creativity and the way he expresses the drums, he uses them like no other. He makes so many sounds! He can get things out of the drums that even the most seasoned musicians can’t imagine.
Wilson on Whitfield: ” He is fantastic. He has a great feel and sound, a warm sound, that comes from inside of him and translates into the drums.
Whitfield on Smith: “He’s one of the masters, a technical genius with a good feeling. Marvin, along with Brian – in different ways – shaped a whole generation of drummers who came after them. I am eternally grateful.
Wilson on Smith: “What a legend. The game Marvin played on Dave Holland’s (1984) album ‘Seeds of Time’ was a real influence on me, on his own.
Whitfield on Blade: “He’s a living legend and he’s shaped so many drummers my age. It is pure emotion.
Wilson on Blade: “Brian is obviously one of our greats. Wow. I’m in good company here!
Athenaeum Winter Jazz Concert Series
When: All concerts are at 7:30 p.m.
January 28: The Orrin Evans Trio, with Marvin “Smitty” Smith
February 4: The Jeff Denson Trio, with Brian Blade
February 18: The Aaron Goldberg trio, with Mark Whitfield Jr.
February 23: Matt Wilson Honey and Salt Quintet
Or: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla
Tickets: $ 25 (members), $ 30 (non-members); series tickets are $ 92 and $ 112
Telephone: (858) 454-5872
In line: ljathenaeum.org/jazz-at-the-athenaeum