Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Joe Morello - Drummer Extraordinaire


To continue with the Dave Brubeck theme as introduced in the “Seeing Out a Bit” posting, JazzProfiles now turn its attention to the drummer extraordinaire of the DBQ – Joe Morello – for further and deserved elaboration.

To paraphrase Ted Gioia from his chapter entitled The San Francisco Scene in the 1950’s from his seminal West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960:

“At the start of 1956 Brubeck made a personal decision that proved to be a most important change in his group. After three years with the quartet, drummer Joe Dodge decided to leave. Brubeck took a chance by hiring Joe Morello. Actually, little risk accrued from this decision as Morello was a masterful choice as his polished virtuosity and marked creativity made an immediate contribution to the quartet.
Described by some critics as a sort of purgatory for jazz drummers, Morello was to absolutely flourish in the confines of this supposedly ‘unswinging’ ensemble, especially with its high visibility, daring improvisations and later experimentation with odd or unusual time signatures.

All these factors helped launch Morello to a position of preeminence in the world of jazz drumming and with good cause. The leap into the limelight was no concoction of media hype but well-deserved fame for an exceptional musician.” [p.96].

Morello was born in Springfield, MA and after gigging around New York in the early 1950’s and recording with guitarist Tal Farlow and arranger-composer Gil Melle’s group, pianist Marian McPartland brought him into her trio along with bassist Bill Crow where they appeared together at The Hickory House on new York’s famed 52nd street from 1954-56.

In her book, All in Good Time, Marian talks about how the word on the street was all about this “fabulous” young drummer from Springfield. But given how many times she had been disappointed after actually hearing the Mr. Fabulous in question, she remained skeptical. Nevertheless, given her generous heart, Marian decided to give Morello a chance to sit in although when he showed up “… he looked less like a drummer than a student of nuclear physics.”

I really don’t remember what the tune was, and it isn’t too important. Because in a matter of seconds, everyone in the room realized that the guy with the diffident air was a phenomenal drummer. Everyone listened. His precise blending of touch, taste and almost unbelievable technique were a joy to listen to…. I will never forget it. Everyone knew that here was a discovery. [Pp.34-35.]As Gioia concludes:

With the Brubeck quartet, this powerful young workhorse on drums continued to have the same effect on audiences, but now in larger concert halls rather than in small clubs. Soon Morello was no loner a discovery, but a known commodity, emulated by a generation of young percussionists. [p. 98 paraphrased]
When in 1938, the legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz was presented with one of the only 500 copies of Ansel Adams’ photographic masterpiece – Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail – Stieglitz declared: “I am an idolater of perfect workmanship and this is perfect workmanship.”

I, too, am an idolater of the perfect workmanship that is to be found in the drumming of Joe Morello as primarily exemplified in the many recordings he made with the Dave Brubeck Quartet from 1956-68. Sadly, Joe made too few recordings outside the DBQ including those under his own name.

Joe is a complete musician who listens actively to what the soloist is saying and tries to contribute to it. Equally as important in this context is that Joe can play brushes as well as he can play sticks so he doesn’t mind reverting to these unwieldy clumps of wire to express his drumming something which cannot be said about many contemporary Jazz drummers [some of whom don’t even carry a set of wire brushes in their kit].

Joe is a constantly inventive drummer. Unlike an Art Blakey or an Art Taylor or a Roy Haynes, Joe is not a drummer who played a prepared number of figures over and over again during his drums solos be these over a few bars or over a chorus or open-ended.

Although he played them with authority, Art Blakey repeated the same configurations in every solo he played. He may have combined these drum figures differently, but throughout his long and distinguished career Art’s arsenal essentially remained the same “licks,” “kicks” and “fills”.

While Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones were considerably more sophisticated in their approach to the instrument and had a larger repertoire of invented drum figures that they employed, they were also limited to what they had practiced and memorized when it came time to taking a solo.

Joe is from a school of drummers that includes Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson. They are drummers who, for all intents and purposes, know no limits and can create endlessly on the instrument. [Alan Dawson, Ed Shaughnessy and Dave Weckl are also in this category].

Like a professional athlete, these drummers essentially slow down the pace of things and are able to visualize and/or conceptualize how they are going to build a solo, especially and extended one.

What enables them to do this is their technical command of the instrument, a facility that is garnered over long hours of practice, as well as, the gift of talent.

Bill Evans once remarked to the effect that playing an instrument well was 98% hard work and 2% talent.

According the Eric Nisenson in his work Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest:

Any good Jazz musician has developed from hard work and hard thought, a personal conception. When he improvises successfully on the stand or in the recording studio, it is only after much thought, practice and theory have gone into that conception, and it is that conception which makes him different from other Jazz musicians. Once he knows what he is doing, in other words, he can let himself go and find areas of music through improvisation that he didn’t know existed. Jazz improvisation, therefore, is based on a paradox – that a musician comes to a bandstand so well prepared that he can fly free through instinct and soul and sheer musical bravery into the musical unknown. It is a marriage of both sides of the brain ….” [p, 53].

Morello devoted himself to mastering the drum rudiments [originally 26 but later expanded to 40] through long hours of practice essentially using only the snare drum. Drum rudiments are typically practiced slowly at first to gain control and to be able to initiate them or to alternate them with either hand.

Once these exercises are brought to a level of controlled speed on the snare drum, they can be expanded to include the tom toms that extend from the top of the bass drum shell and those that rest on the floor beside the bass drum through the use of telescoping legs. They can even be interwoven with the use of the bass drum as played with a foot pedal although very, very few drummers are able to execute this feat [no pun intended].

For those interested in the more technical aspects of drum rudiments, a narrative explanation can be found at
http://www.music.vt.edu/musicdictionary/appendix/drumrudiments/Drumrudiments.html. For the notation of drum rudiments go here -http://www.vicfirth.com/education/rudiments.html or to this site as sponsored by the Percussive Arts Society -http://www.pas.org/Resources/rudiments/rudiments.html.

Joe also spent long hours developing the independence of limbs that enabled him to use all four of these at the same time on different parts of the instrument, sometimes playing against one another in contrasting time signatures.

If a drummer doesn’t have to think about how to play a rhythmic pattern, he can begin to think of what he wants to play, how he wants it to sound [what drums and/or cymbals to employ to produce this sound] and how to “tell his story” either in fragments [four bar, eight bar, 12 bar etc. exchanges with the horns] or in an extended solo.

Just as it is incumbent for a horn soloist to “say something” in their solo, preferably something more than just a linking pf phrases that have been heard many times before as played by other musicians, so too the drummer has to originate ideas that fit the context of the piece that is being performed and which generate a certain interest in and make a contribution to the piece in their own right.

Beyond the customary long drum solo piece that is intended as a highlight of many of the DBQ concerts there are a number of tracks that demonstrate what Marian McPartland described as Morello’s “precise blending of touch, taste and unbelievable technique ….”

For touch and taste, one need only listen to his brushwork accompaniment to alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s enchanting and stirring solo on These Foolish Things from the Jazz Goes to Junior College Columbia recording [CL 1034/Sony Japan Sleeve CD 9523].

Desmond was a lover of ballads and he would use them as a platform upon which to build lyrically layered and titillating textured solos. He also once described himself as “the world’s slowest alto saxophone player." And while he was slowly weaving his wonderful solos he preferred that the drummer stay out of the way and simply keep time [quietly].

Paul was a major exponent of the style of drumming that the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young once described as “a little tinky boom.”

While they initially clashed when Joe first came on board the USS Brubeck bringing all of his firepower to bear, Paul and Joe were later to become close friends.

And although Joe is anything but “a little tinky boom” drummer he can lay down sensitive and unobtrusive brushwork behind a soloist, even helping to achieve new heights in the intensity of their solo as is the case with Desmond’s magnificent exposition on These Foolish Things.

More of Joe’s magnificent brushwork can be heard again behind a Paul Desmond solo, this time on a more up tempo version of Tangerine on the The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe album [Columbia CL 1168/SRCS 9529] and this album is also an excellent place to hear Joe as a fabulous colorist with his use of tympani mallets on Nomad and The Golden Horde.




These Jazz Impression albums are also an excellent superb point from which to enjoy his marvelously constructed extended drum solos such as Watusi Drums on The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe, his intriquing finger drum solo meant to sound like and Indian “tabla” drum on Calcutta Blues from Jazz Impressions of Eurasia [Columbia CL 1251/CK 48531] and his clattering homage to the noises of Chicago’s on Sounds of the Loop from Jazz Impressions of the USA [Columbia CL 984].


However, Joe may have reached a pinnacle of extended drum solos with the one he recorded on Castilian Drums from The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall [Sony Jazz 2K61455/Sony Japan 9365-6] performance given at this distinguished hall of the arts in February, 1963.






In 1961, RCA released Joe’s first album under his own name which was fitting entitled It’s About Time [RCA LPM-2486] which finds Joe in the company of a quintet made up of Phil Woods [alto sax], Gary Burton [vibes] John Bunch [piano] and Gene Cherico [bass]. It’s a corker of an album that was subsequently released in CD as Joe Morello [RCA Bluebird 9784-2-RB] and combines the six quintet tracks that made up the original LP with 9 tracks from previously unreleased 1961-62 big band sessions that were arranged and conducted by Manny Albam and which featured a bevy of prominent New York studio players.

Joe’s drumming on these recordings is hard-driving and aggressive and is an example of his ability to play in a cooking, straight-ahead manner which was not always possible in the more formalized and structured setting of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

I hope that in listening to these recordings and spending time in the company of Morello’s unparalleled talent that they will serve to confirm for you the adage -“God places occasional geniuses in our midst to help inspire the rest of us to greatness.” Joe Morello is one such genius.

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