Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ed Thigpen: 1926-2002 - The Drummer as Colorist and Percussionist [From The Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Over the course of his career, Ed Thigpen, never got the attention he deserved as a drummer especially for the additional dimensions he brought to the instrument when played in a Jazz setting.

Ed didn't just blast away back there. He thoughtfully "colored" the music with different percussion effects to enhance the richness of its sound.

“ … everything he played had this beautiful sound, profound swing and great sense of orchestration. It was amazing to watch his hands—he was so powerful and yet, at the same time, he was able to coax all these subtle colors from the set.”
- Mark Dresser, JazzTimes, March 2011

In 1959 Ed joined the Oscar Peterson Trio.
The Trio still considered by many musicians and the public to be the greatest piano-bass-drums trio in the history of Jazz.  Ed recorded more than 50 albums with Peterson before he left the group in 1965 and toured with Ella Fitzgerald.
- Drummerworld Biography

In terms of making it big in the Jazz world, nobody ever had it more difficult than Ed Thigpen.

The gig that brought him fame also brought him infamy – at least, initially.

Perhaps, “infamy” is too strong a word for the reaction of many in the Jazz world when pianist Oscar Peterson decided to forsake the guitar in 1959 and add a drummer to the trio he had formed with bassist Ray Brown almost a decade earlier.

Jazz purists thought that guitarists Barney Kessel and later Herb Ellis had kept the overall sound of the trio light and melodic while doing nothing to diminish the intensity of its swing.

Aside from taking away another melody voice, they argued that drums would harden the sound of Peterson’s trio and make its rhythm more pronounced and aggressive.

Jazz drummers push; they drive the time or the meter of the music. It’s what they do.

Some musicians contend that drummers are always moving you in directions you don’t want to take so you eventually wind up competing with them and becoming less musical as a result.

But nobody ever pushed the late Oscar Peterson [“OP”] anywhere, let alone a drummer. He had a presence at the piano that was virtually overpowering.  If you were lucky, Oscar would let you come along for the ride.

And so it was in 1959 when OP welcomed ET into his trio.

This act of grace on Peterson’s part and the fact that Ed always wanted [?!] to perform with Oscar and Ray’s trio made it difficult for any of us fellow drummers to have any sympathy for him when the gig came his way.

Ed explains it this way.

"I always wanted to be with Oscar's group, even when Herb was with that band. I told Ray in Japan [while I was stationed there during the Korean War and they were in Tokyo performing with the Jazz at The Philharmonic tour], 'The only thing wrong with this group is you need a drummer.' Ray said, 'Well, y'never know, kid.' I said, 'I need to play with this group. I love this group.' And they went out and proceeded to swing so hard I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll miss it, but I still would like to play with the group.' So it was four years later that I joined them. Yeah, it was a lot of pressure though. It was. Because whatever insecurities I had... I was in awe of those guys, I loved them, I really loved them, and when it's like that, you give everything you have. They were so heavy, so fantastic and, obviously, so acclaimed, that I was in awe of both of them. Ray was very kind. All the time. He just took me under his wing and saved me." [Gene LeesOscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, p. 143]

Oscar never considered Ed as only a drummer. To mix metaphors, OP thought of him as someone who broadened the canvas on which the music took place and added colors and textures to it with the strokes of a percussionist.

Additionally, as he describes in the following excerpt from Gene Lees insert notes to the Verve double CD anthology, The Will to Swing [847 203-2], he viewed the challenge of working with a drummer from an entirely different perspective.

"The trio with Ed and Ray" Oscar said, "that was six years of unbelievable music. Again you had a tightness and a cohesiveness between members of the trio. I seldom had to call tunes ... Ed Thigpen was a very reflective yet complete percussionist. He wasn't really a drummer, he was a percussionist. He had that feeling . . . that it wasn't just drums he was sitting at. It's the way he thinks. He sees his drums as a complete, not instrument, but orchestra.

"Ed Thigpen has a touch on the drums that you seldom hear. Jo Jones had that same thing. Ed was not the gorilla Bobby Durham was. Ed came in another door altogether. And if you mixed that with Ray Brown! At that time, there was a question of, Oscar can't pull all that off, it's all right to do that with the guitar, because it's light, it's up here. You can skim over the keys and all that.' When we brought in Ed, it was a chance to prove that I play the way I play, that's it.…"

There’s more about Ed Thigpen’s character and ability in this vignette by pianist Dr. Billy Taylor. Ed was a member of Billy’s trio before joining Oscar:

"’In 1958," said Taylor,’ … ‘I was musical director of a show called The Subject Is Jazz on National Public Television. At the end of the thirteen weeks, I was asked by the producers to make a prediction: where is jazz going?’ I said, 'There's a young man who's just recorded a piece written by a friend of mine. I'm not good at predicting, but I believe this is one of the directions that jazz is going. George Russell has just written this piece called Billy the Kid and the soloist is Bill Evans.' I said, 'We don't have sufficient time to rehearse a work of this difficulty, so why don't we bring in the guys who did the record?' So we brought the band in and for some reason the drummer on the record date couldn't make the TV date. So Ed Thigpen, who was my drummer, read the son of a bitch at sight! I mean, sight read the son of a bitch! And played the hell out of it. He's one of the damnedest musicians on earth.’" [As quoted by Gene Lees in Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, p. 142]

Ed primarily used a scaled down drum kit. With only a 5” inch deep snare drum, an 8” x 12” mounted tom tom, a 14” x 14” floor tom tom and a bass drum that was 20” in diameter, his emphasis was on quickness and lightness.

He once said at a drum clinic that I attended words to the effect that although trying to move Oscar was like trying to move a freight train, he wasn’t kicking any big band, so he wanted his drums to have a bright quality about them.

He also used small cymbals. Ed was one of the few drummers that I ever saw play on 13” hi-hat cymbals [most use 14” and some use 15”]. Both his ride and his crash cymbals had a dishy and swishy quality to them that cut through Oscar’s full bodied piano sound.

At the clinic, Ed commented further that given some of the fast tempos that Oscar set, the last thing a drummer needed were big, tubby sounding drums that were unresponsive and had to be “played down into.”

As you will see in the video feature that concludes this piece, Ed added more drums to his kit over the years, but I would suspect that this was thanks the free samples from drum manufacturers.

Ed prided himself on his brush work. Many drummers shun these because they are much harder to play than drum sticks. Not Ed: to him, if you could play it with sticks, you could play it with brushes.

Given how high Ed liked to hold his left-hand in relation to the snare drum – almost at a 45 degree angle to the snare drum - it was remarkable how fast he could play with brushes. I have no idea how he developed speed with brushes from this starting point.

But then, it seems, that Ed never sought the easiest way.

Few other drummers could have achieved what he did. Six years and 50 recordings as a member of Oscar Peterson’s trio is a creative accomplishment to rival any in Jazz.

While others demurred and declined, Ed sought out Oscar. It was his destiny and he handled it beautifully.

The following video tribute to Ed features his unique use of tympani mallets on tom toms, cymbals and cowbells for pianist Oscar Peterson’s marvelous arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's Con Alma with trio with Ray Brown featured on bass.

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