Steven Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
If Kenny Washington had played in the 1950s - modern Jazz's heyday - he would be legendary today. It’s that simple. He’s that good a drummer.
For the better part of the last ten years, Kenny has perhaps been best known as the ultimate “New York” trio drummer. During this period, he has appeared in the Gotham City based Jazz piano trios of Kenny Barron, Walter Bishop, Jr., George Cables, Bill Charlap, Tommy Flanagan, Benny Green, John Hicks, Mike LeDonne, Mulgrew Miller and Richard Wyands.
Not a bad pedigree in and of itself.
Yet, there is more. Outside of the trio context, there have also been long associations with vocalist Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, and Don Sickler [in terms of both Dameronia and the two Super Blues on Blue Note]. And shorter associations with Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry and Phil Woods. But you get the point and further name-dropping isn’t necessary to establish the fact that Kenny Washington is one of the premier drummers of our time, if not, of all time.
In order to better understand the exceptional qualities that Kenny Washington offers as a drummer, let’s concentrate on  what I think makes his playing so distinctive and  his recording career on Criss Cross Records because this discography is available in its entirety through most CD outlets and because I think his output on Criss Cross, in many ways, represents Kenny’s best collective oeuvre if it can be said of drummers that they have a “body of work.” These 44 Criss Cross recordings will provide a focus and a great laboratory in which to examine his playing. You can find a detailed listing of Kenny’s Criss Cross recordings here:
As to the first focal point of this feature, while Kenny very much plays in a manner similar to that of Philly Joe Jones, it would be a mistake to think of him simply as a clone. He does things on drums that Philly didn’t do and has found ways to take this fiery and intense manner of drumming to new levels of complexity without sacrificing in any way the music or doing a disservice to the other musicians with whom he plays.
What makes Kenny so distinctive is the sound that he gets on drums and the two major elements that combine to make Kenny’s such a singular sound can be seen in the following photo:
Kenny’s right-hand or ride cymbal is a huge, original 22” K-Zildjian drilled for rivets that provides a perfect “clicking” sound to accent the cymbal beat as well as harmonic overtones to keep the cymbal’s sound from becoming overbearing and dominating the group.
Art Blakey, Jimmy Cobb and Louis Hayes as well as many of the drummers on the classic Blue Note recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s such as Billy Higgins and Al Harewood [a drummer with a very limited technique, but who had a wonderful sense of time] made a living riding on a 22” riveted K-Zildjian.
The other significant quality that I think sets his drumming apart from others and helps provide Kenny’s drumming with such an idiosyncratic sound is the 8” deep snare drum, which can also be seen in this photo. This snare drum is somewhat unusual in modern drumming circles, and its depth helps to produce either crisp, snappy accents or resonating, powerful blasts depending on where and how it is struck.
Kenny uses two tom toms: a bass drum mounted 8” x 12” tom [not shown above] which he tunes fairly “high” and which offers an excellent contrast to the deep snare drum and the 14” x 14” floor tom. This smaller tom also serves to produce a timbales-like sound when he strikes it on the taut portion near the rim on Latin Jazz tunes.
The pair of 14” hit-hat cymbals that he employs cut through very audibly on two-and-four and help emphasizes and magnify the initial stroke on his ride cymbal beat. His other main cymbal is mounted on a stand to the left of his snare and hi-hat. It is not drilled for rivets and is used alternately as a crash cymbal and, when he’s not playing brushes, as an accompaniment behind piano solos as the lack of the rivets produce a clearer sound and overtones that diminish more quickly.
You can get a full look at Kenny’s kit from the top-down view displayed below:
However, let’s not make the mistake of believing that this is a situation where – not to mix metaphors- “the drums make the drummer.” None of the best stuff in the world makes another drummer the equal of Kenny Washington. Kenny’s “chops” and conception are the key ingredients that make all this fit together.
What ears this guy has and he never, ever plays anything that doesn’t belong in or with the music. His concentration is bar-by-bar; nothing is mailed in or just thrown in for effect. He is listening all the time and adding figures and textures to enhance or color the music, the group and/or the soloist. Kenny approaches every bar of every track with undiminished vitality.
He’s right on top of “Ones” – the beginning of the next refrain or chorus – and what he plays in the background rarely interferes with what is going on in the foreground. Complete control and command of the instrument results in impeccable taste.
Kenny is a student of Jazz and is extremely knowledgeable about its recorded history. This background allows him to draw on a wide variety of percussion effects. He has listened to and absorbed those who have come before him and his knowledge of Jazz’s history becomes a resource that enables him to contribute to the rhythmic presence of whatever musical setting he’s playing in.
Gene Lees commented:
“Benny Golson warned me about Kenny Washington before I met him. ‘Unless you are prepared to listen for three hours, don’t ask him anything about jazz history, especially drums. He’ll start probably with Baby Dodds and take you on to Tony Williams and beyond.’ Benny was right. I asked a question or two, and found that Kenny – aside from being a highly admired drummer in the bebop tradition – is a formidable scholar of the music’s history.” Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, p. 186.
Turning to the second focus on Kenny drumming, the broad scope of Kenny’s Jazz background and knowledge can be heard on the forty-four  albums he made to date for Criss Cross Records, the Dutch label owned by producer Gerry Teekens. Interestingly, of the 44, nine of them are one-off’s or single appearances backing Criss Cross artists and there are also nine multiple CD appearances. We will offer selections from both categories to help us talk more about Kenny’s drumming and to provide some examples of it.
Since the Criss Cross label, for the most part, highlights new and relatively young players on the Jazz scene, the many recordings Kenny has done with Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, George Coleman and Cedar Walton, among other Jazz notables, are not included with this label.
A closer look at Kenny’s ‘body of work’ serves the dual purpose of revealing more about Kenny’s superb drumming while at the same time helping to bring to light Criss Cross’ stable of “new” Jazz faces.
Because not everyone is familiar with “drum-speak,” relevant quotations from the “Give and Take” chapter in Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: the Infinite Art of Improvisation [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994] will be used to help emphasize particular aspects of Kenny’s considerable technique and style as reflected in these recordings. I will indicate these citations by noting the page number/s at the end of the quotation.
Beginning what is now a twenty-three year association, Kenny’s first appearance with Criss Cross was on January 2, 1985 when he recorded at van Gelder Studios with the Hod O’Brien Quintet on Opalessence CD . And what a quintet! Tom Harrell [trumpet/flugelhorn] and Pepper Adams [baritone sax] form the front line with Hod [piano], Ray Drummond [b] and Kenny making up the rhythm section. Each of the “horns” contributes hard-bop original to the date, but the outstanding cut is the group’s version of Clifford Brown’s The Blues Walk. In addition to constantly propelling the soloists forward on this track, its conclusion finds Kenny trading a series of beautifully crafted 12 bar exchanges with the soloists, which are as musical as anything offered by the horns on this tune.
On this recording and throughout his playing in general, Kenny seems to achieve what drummer Akira Tana offers in the following as a drummer “ideal:”
“The goal is to mesh your sound with all the other instruments and to create a balanced group sound. I don’t just mean this in terms of volume. I’m talking about balancing the figures you play with all the things that you hear coming from other instruments. As a drummer, I’m listening to the rhythm section in relation to what the soloist is doing. I’m still learning how to hear the whole group and all the individual instruments in relationship to my own.” [p.362]A year later in April, 1986, Kenny appeared with Michael Weiss, with whom he had been playing as part of tenor saxophonist Junior Cook’s group, on Michael’s only Criss Cross recording – Presenting Michael Weiss .
Joining them on this CD are Tom Kirkpatrick on trumpet [who almost eerily evokes a tone reminiscent of Kenny Dorham], Ralph Lalama on tenor saxophone and Ray Drummond on bass.
On Après Vous, a Weiss original based on the changes to After You’ve Gone, after laying down a nice Latin beat with strong accents on the ride cymbal bell, Kenny does a marvelous job of establishing a groove that is strongly in support of the other player’s solos before trading eights and taking a magnificent 32-bar chorus himself using the last three bars to return to the Latin beat that gently guides the band back into the top of the arrangement for a closing theme.
Here’s what Charli Persip and Lou Donaldson have to say about the shared sense of the beat, or ‘striking a groove,’ something that Kenny is always brilliantly adept at doing:
“… the groove provides the basis for everything to come together…. ‘When you get into that groove,' Charli Persip explains, ‘ you ride right on down that groove with no strain and no pain – you can’t lay back or go forward. That’s why they call it a groove. It’s where the beat is and we’re always trying to find that.’ The notion is shared. ‘I don’t care what kind of style a group plays as long as they settle into a groove where the rhythm keeps building instead of changing around,’ Lou Donaldson asserts. … 'After a while, it’s there, it’s tight.’” 
There are also examples of Kenny's brilliant brush work on J.J. Johnson’s Enigma and Joe Zawinul’s all-too-infrequently-heard Riverbed - the two trio takes on the recording that also serve to provide early examples of why Kenny would be so widely sought after as a trio drummer.
The first of the multiple artist recordings for Kenny began with Mike Le Donne’s ‘Bout Time  on which he brings the band to excellence in performance with his blisteringly pulsating drumming on Hank Jones’ Minor Contention. Thanks to Kenny, this thing it out-of-the-gate like a shot. And what a band it is with Tom Harrell once again in fine form on trumpet, Gary Smulyan on baritone [whose playing would put a big smile on Pepper Adams’s face]. The contrast for this cooker is made all the more greater by the fact that the album opens the with Boo’s Blues, a medium tempo blues original by LeDonne.
Kenny’s performance on Minor Contention is a sterling example of hard bop drumming at it’s best as he unrelentingly pushes the soloists forward. His playing throughout this CD is made still more persuasive by the thudding sound he gets from his bass drum adding even heavier punctuations to his kicks and fills.
Kenny’s solos are integrated into this track by having the horns play an ascending six note riff over the first four bars of each “A” chorus with Kenny following to complete the 8-bar phrase while continuing through the bridge after the second “A” of this 32-bar tune.
As was the case with the Michael Weiss CD, Mike LeDonne performs a number of trio selections on his first Criss Cross date, one of which, the slow tempo Kelly’s Gait offers an intricate and very musical full chorus in which Kenny takes the first sixteen bars in tempo, double times the bridge and then returns to the original tempo for the last eight.
Dennis Irwin is the bassist on this recording and together he and Kenny achieve a critical, precise coordination upon which a strong groove is especially dependent [see figure 13.1 below from Berliner, p.350.]
As bassist, Chuck Israels explains:
"When I listen to the drummer and the bass player together, I like to hear wedding bells. You play every beat in complete rhythmic unity with the drummer, thousands upon thousands of notes together, night after night after night. If it’s working, it brings you very close. It’s a kind of emotional empathy that you develop very quickly. The relationship is very intimate.” [p. 350].
Kenny would go on to appear on three additional Mike LeDonne Criss Cross CDs, but we will reserve further comment on these until an upcoming feature on Mike.
Next up for Kenny would be Introducing John Swana , another masterful stroke by Criss Cross’ owner/producer, Gerry Teekens, to have Kenny anchor the debut album of this young trumpeter from Philadelphia. Since the release of this album in 1990, Kenny has made 5 Criss Cross CD’s with John, including two that John co-led with New York trumpeter Joe Magnarelli [Philly-New York Junction[1150 and 1246].
Joining John on his Criss Cross maiden voyage are Billy Pierce on tenor saxophone, pianist Benny Green and bassist, Peter Washington. Despite the common last name, there is no familial relationship between the Kenny and Peter. However, in terms of the number of recordings they made together on all labels from 1988-2008, Peter has become, hands down, Kenny’s “bassist of choice.”
On this recording Kenny’s use of sticks on the Swana original - Gert’s Lounge is an excellent example of the following observation by Chuck Israels [one, which perhaps bassist Peter Washington would also agree with]:
“The drummer has such a percussive sound because the beat is carried on the ride cymbal: a wood or Teflon drum stick hitting that metal cymbal makes such a definite sound when it articulates the beginning of each beat. As a bass player, you add your somewhat less defined and fatter bass sound to fill up the space in between those cymbal beats. It feels good when you fall right in between those cymbal beats. If you feel like your sound is leaking out the front or back of them, you feel a whole lot less comfortable.” [p. 351]
Kenny’s flawless use of brushes behind Swana’s Harmon-muted solos on Three Little Words leads to trading 8’s and 4’s with John and then a chorus for drums before he picks up sticks and helps the tune explode out of the Harmon-mute-brushes mode behind Billy Pierce’s fiery solo. Kenny’s sensitive drumming gives this straightforward well-known ditty a complexity of rhythms and textures that make it sound anything but commonplace.
Feelin’ and Dealin’  was to be the first of five albums that Kenny made with tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama [with whom he played on many occasions while substituting on the Monday Village Vanguard Orchestra during Mel Lewis’ prolonged illness]. We will focus our remarks about Kenny’s playing with Ralph on Momentum  the second CD he made with Ralph along with Kenny Barron on piano and Dennis Irwin on drums [also from the Village Vanguard Orchestra]. As one would imagine, Ralph is partial tunes written by tenor saxophonists and the album features three:  The Rainbow People by Dexter Gordon; The Break Through by Hank Mobley  Kids Now by Sonny Rollins. Kenny’s playing is mature and restrained throughout and as Ira Gitler points out about The Break Through in his insert notes: “It’s a blues with some altered changes leading back into the next chorus. The ‘fours’ between Lalama and Washington [that occur immediately following the statement of the very up tempo theme] further heighten the urgency of the theme statement.”
Additionally, this 1992 abounds with examples of the interplay between piano and drummer that Kenny Barron describes as follows:
“When you [and the drummer] just lock up and play rhythmic things together that are not planned … it sounds like you actually rehearsed it all, and it makes a rhythm section sound cohesive. One small example might be to anticipate the ‘and’ of a phrase together with a drummer. Many drummers anticipate the first beat of a measure by playing two eight notes, accenting the ‘and of four’ and the ‘and of one’ of the next measure. When I do those kinds of things together with drummers, many are surprised and go, “Oh, yeah?’ But I can only do that because I listen to drummers so much. The figures we play together are most likely to occur at the end of phrases, like four or eight-bar phrases. That helps to define the form of the tune." [p.356].
Kenny had a five record association with baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan on Criss Cross and I must admit to being very partial to the second in the series that they made together – Homage . All of the music on this album was composed by baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and the recording stands as a magnificent tribute to Pepper, Gary’s instrumental inspiration.
Working with Gary and Kenny are Tommy Flanagan [in whose trio Kenny played for much of the 1980s] on piano and Ray Drummond on bass. As Gary Carner writes in his insert notes to this CD:
“Listen to the way Washington punches accents in ‘Twelfth and Pingree,’ behind Smulyan’s and Flanagan’s solos, while sustaining the groove. Or to the way he builds excitement in ‘Muezzin’ and ‘Trentino.’ And observe, in ‘Bossallegro,’ how Washington locks into Flanagan’s descending sequential figure in the third chorus of the piano solo. Here’s a drummer who listens closely, who accompanies (in the truest sense of the word), who responds to rhythmic and melodic motives that soloists build, while they are building them.”To my ears, in many ways the most interesting multiple series of recordings that Kenny has done on Criss Cross with any artist are those on which he performs with Hammond B-3 Organist – Melvin Rhyne.
Of these, six have Kenny with Mel in either a trio, quartet, or quintet format and two feature The Melvin Rhyne Trio with “The Tenor Triangle” – Eric Alexander, Ralph Lalama and Tad Shull. For our purposes, we’ll discuss more about Kenny Washington drumming by selecting a Criss Cross CD from each of these categories.
In case you are not familiar with Mel, he achieved almost legendary status on the Hammond B-3 for a series of small group recordings that he made with the late guitarist Wes Montgomery for the Riverside label in the early 1960s: West Montgomery Trio, Boss Guitar, Portrait of Wes and Guitar on the Go.Indeed, Criss Cross owner-producer Gerry Teekens held Mel’s work on these albums in such high esteem that he simply labels his first recoding for the label – Melvin Rhyne: The Legend . Lora Rosner’s had this to say about the Montgomery-Rhyne Riverside collaborations:
“Wes and Rhyne both played with great imagination and a certain disregard for convention; they also shared great respect from one another. Wes loved his ‘piano player’s touch.’ … [Having grown-up together in Indianapolis] from 1959-64, Rhyne played and toured with the guitarist except when Wes had the chance to work with his brothers as part of the Mastersounds.”As a point in passing, I should mention that the guitar chair on all of the Rhyne Criss Cross CD’s is most capably handled by Peter Bernstein, a very accomplished player on the New York Jazz scene, as well as, himself a Criss Cross recording artist who will be a future subject of a Jazzprofiles feature.
Another significant aspect of Kenny’s playing on all the Rhyne recordings is that he has to keep everything together without the aid of a string bass player as Rhyne plays the bass lines with his feet on the organ’s pedals. For a lesser drummer, the lack of a string bass to fall back on could prove daunting in the extreme, but Kenny just seems to take it all in stride and doesn’t alter or compromise his style of playing to accommodate this absence. Mel’s organ pedaled bass lines do make their presence felt, but in a way that’s more understated.
Along with a Melvin Rhyne trio made up of Mel, Peter and Kenny, Stick to the Kick  offers the added bonus of brilliant trumpet playing by Ryan Kisor and the sparkling tenor work of Eric Alexander.
Whether it’s on the bouncy, boppin’ title tune, the boogaloo and Latin-inflected J. Robin, the slow back beats of the bluesy Captain McDuff – both Rhyne originals – or the blisteringly fast tempo version of Bud Powell’s Wail – Kenny is everywhere and nowhere. His drumming on this album is a perfect reflection of what drummer Leroy Williams posits in the following statement:
“You can never know in advance of the situation what you will do at the time. Maybe the soloist will play a phrase, and you will feel like grabbing the phrase and taking it someplace else, doing something else with it. What makes creativity is playing half of this and half of that, interjecting your own thing into it. Or you might let the soloist’s phrase go by completely because it would seem too obvious to play it. The unexpected is as cool as the expected, at times. Like Dizzy said: ‘It’s not always what you play that’s important. It’s what you don’t play.’ Silences can be just as important.” [p. 370].
From the opening bars of Wayne Shorter’s Tell It Like It Is, the listener knows that this album subtitled, The Tenor Triangle & The Melvin Rhyne Trio , is going to bring forth a delightful cornucopia of “tenor madness.”
Bret Primack explains in his insert notes:
“Teaming three tenors, a first for Criss Cross, was the brainstorm of producer Gerry Teekens and Kenny Washington, who in addition to his drumming duties, is a serious aficionado and historian (…). ‘The interesting thing about this date,’ Washington recalls, ‘is that all three tenor players are unique stylists. That’s what made those dates from the fifties like ‘Very Saxy’ so successful. Buddy Tate, Hawk and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis played completely differently. And so do Tad, Ralph and Eric. They play as different as night and day.”
Primack goes on to offer some specific comments from Kenny about playing in an organ trio format:
“First of all, playing with Melvin is a great experience. He’s the easiest of all the organists to play with, because his time is so strong and solid that you can’t miss. But when you play with an organ, for a drummer, it’s different. There’s a certain thing you have to dig into, you have to hook up with his feet. So you play less, you groove more, you have to play a little heavier, especially down in the bottom of the bass drum.
I learned from cats like Idris Muhammed, Grady Tate, Donald Bailey and Billy James, who were masters of playing with organists.
…you really have to know something about the organ tradition. Growing up, that’s one of the things I really listened to, people like Jimmy Smith and Melvin Rhyne with Wes Montgomery. It’s really a different way of playing. You can’t play all of the super cute BEBOP stuff. It does not work. You have to lay in there and play a strong groove. Grits and gravy.”
How can you not love a drummer like this? One who goes to school and can also take you to school.
Taken as a body of work, there is no more representative or comprehensive review of Kenny’s skills and talents as a drummer than what he puts on display on the Melvin Rhyne Criss Cross recordings. We are talkin’ Desert Island stuff, here.
If you want to hear one of the great Jazz drummers of this or any era, listen to Kenny Washington on any of his Criss Cross CD's. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.
The following [since added] Kenny Washington playlist provides ample opportunity for you to sample his work on Criss Cross as well as with many of today's top Jazz players on other labels.