Monday, April 10, 2006

Elvin Jones

Elvin Ray Jones was born 9th September 1927 into a musical family (brothers Hank and Thad had some success as pianist and trumpeter, consecutively) and by the 1940s he was playing in an army band. Following his discharge from the forces, he ended up in New York (where else?) and played alongside the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Unsurprisingly, he idolised drummers like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and could scarcely believe that he was playing in such exalted company. Of course, his early style was very similar to those drummers, but throughout the 50s he developed his own unique voice on the drumkit. The earliest LP I own featuring Jones is the 1957 Sonny Rollins set, 'A Night At The Village Vanguard' (although he also played with J.J. Johnson and Donal Byrd around this time), which finds Jones spending a lot of time in a fairly standard bop-based style. Here and there, though, there are signs of the adventurous Jones of the 1960s. He plays a great solo in 'Softly as in a morning sunrise' that's definitely not in the usual hard-bop mode - rather than the usual cacophony, he plays a spare, elegant part that's full of space and clever rhythmic touches. It foreshadows a lot of the work he was to do with John Coltrane in the 1960s as part of his great quartet in it's inventiveness, even if there's little sign of the connection with the other soloists that he was to display under Trane.

He joined Trane in 1960, contributing to some of his Atlantic material and after a start marked by some fast and furious playing, soon developed a deep connection with his bandmates, and leader in particular, that produced some incredible music. Also under the influence of Coltrane, Jones began to introduce elements of the avant-garde into his work. Although never totally a free jazz drummer, he nevertheless provides an appropriately shifting backdrop to later Trane recordings such as 'Ascension' or 'Meditations'. But while he was polyrhythmic in his approach, he did not play in totally free style and left the band in 1966 to pursue his solo career.

He had played with other musicians throughout the 1960s, both as sideman and leader, notably on albums like Andrew Hill's 'Judgement' where his avant-garde training came in very handy. He also had a stint with Duke Ellington (!) and recorded several albums with former-Trane bandmante McCoy Tyner. Jones carried on playing and recording into the 1990s, but poor health forced his retirement and he died, from heart failure, on 18th May 2004.

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