11pm, Chicago, Illinois, 11/04/08
11pm, Chicago, Illinois, 11/04/08
Big night next Sunday (Nov. 16) at the Jazz Bakery: The Gathering, a multi-racial, multi-generational ensemble representing over 40 years of L.A. jazz history, will stage a two-set performance celebrating the release of its new CD The Roots and Branches of LA Jazz, recorded at CalArts in October 2005. Here's a short list of players who will be signifyin': Dwight Trible (vocals), Phil Ranelin (trombone), Michael Session (alto sax), Kamasi Washington (tenor sax), Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (viola), Roberto Miranda (bass), Nick Rosen (bass), Brandon Coleman (piano), Kharon Harrison (drums), and J.J. Kabasa (African drums). Led by reedman Jesse Sharps, this amazing line up will be featuring music from the CD as well as many new pieces, including some based on Eddie Harris' Intervallistic Concept. (Go here for our archived Downbeast interview with Mr. Sharps.) This is a once-in-a-lifetime concert -- and one hell of a way to celebrate the country we awoke to on November 5.
As I lay down to go to sleep on the night of Tuesday, November 11, for some reason I found my thoughts turning to my first real drum hero and one of my musical life's biggest influences, Mitch Mitchell. As I lay there, I began a mental survey of his work, from the early recordings with the Jimi Hendrix Experience through Hendrix's last official album recorded what seemed like a long time later but which was in fact only a few years later, The Cry of Love. My concentrated overview, pondering Mitch's trademark early style--prodigious technique, distinctive touch, beautiful sound, swinging feel, fire, crisp articulation, and strong musical contributions to Hendrix's visionary musical innovations--and later work--more slack, somewhat more tired feel, more slack tuning, yet still strongly contributory and irreplaceably integral to the music that Hendrix was then making--triggered indelible memories, powerful associations, deep appreciation, and pure awe. It also caused me to wonder if he still played. I knew he endorsed DW drums, but I had no idea what he was doing. I wondered what he might sound like now, so many years later. I considered his distinction as the only surviving member of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. I also wondered why on earth I was spending so much time lying there engaged in such a thorough analysis of Mitch Mitchell's music making and its overwhelming influence on my own life and music as a drummer. Then I fell asleep, forgetting all about it.
I learned the following afternoon that Mitch Mitchell had died. I was stunned. At 62 years of age, he was only ten years older than I. And he was on tour; he was playing. Then I suddenly remembered my thoughts of the previous night. It was chilling. It was also extremely sad. Not only had another of my strongest drumming influences passed out of manifestation, the one who in many ways was the source of the trajectory of all the drummers to follow was gone. My reverie turned to mourning.
My brother Nels and I were eleven years old when we first heard what we immediately, after having eyed the compelling cover of their first album, knew had to be the Jimi Hendrix Experience. We were listening to Top 40 AM radio one afternoon, which was then beginning to experiment with playing album tracks, when the song "Manic Depression" came on. We were stunned, transfixed. We couldn't even figure out how most of the sounds were even being made--that eerie, wailing guitar, that drum part (a waltz!) with all those cool fills--yet the impact of the music itself was immediate and ultimately transformational. It was so powerful that it was almost like hearing music for the first time. It was a revolution in our midst. We were never the same after that, and we knew it. As soon as we had the necessary dollars saved from our allowance, we went out and purchased the album, Are You Experienced? It was one of our musical life's most important milestones. Besides the visceral yet other-worldly guitar virtuosity, there was the drumming. It was dazzling, driving, fluid, solid, intense. At the time I didn't recognize that Mitch's approach was essentially that of a master jazz drummer playing cutting-edge rock. Just listen to "Third Stone from the Sun"! I had no idea how he was doing what he was doing, but what I did know was that it was what I myself wanted to be able to do.
As instant Hendrix fanatics, we ardently followed all the subsequent recordings and developments. The music certainly doesn't need to be reviewed at this point, but some of the truly memorable and outstanding examples of Mitch's drumming that I'd like to mention in this moment are the driving groove that exemplifies the title of the tune on which it is heard, "Fire"; the already mentioned "Third Stone from the Sun," where Mitch seems to be pushing a crazy cosmic big band with his flurries of swinging accents and free-form waves of toms and snare; the free jazz/noise insanity of "I Don't Live Today"; the deep pocket-cum-free-against-the-time soling on "If 6 Was 9" (and where he seems to drop a drumstick in the middle of a furious phrase, ending it midstream); the amazingly swinging, pure jazz brushwork on "Up from the Skies"; the furiously blazing bashing on the otherwise totally silly Noel Redding tune "She's So Fine"; the glorious flanger-heavy close of "Bold as Love" (which I honestly felt at the time was sort of the most ultimately perfect, heavenly musical moment I'd heard till then; I used to play it over and over); the astounding solo on, of all things, a slow blues (!), certainly one of the most amazing slow blues jams of all time, "Voodoo Chile"; and the slushy, wonderful slow backing for the moving "Angel" from Hendrix's last album. These are only few standouts in a catalog of consistently stellar performances, as most people already know. Everything Mitch recorded, which sounded so fresh and remarkable at the time it was waxed, still sounds absolutely astounding today. Adding to the astonishment is the fact that when he started making this music he was only 19 years old! I don’t think I ever realized the weight of this until now. It's almost a Tony Williams scenario! I certainly never sounded anything close to that good when I was that age! Mitch was a phenomenon.
Mitch was my favorite drummer when I was a kid, and his busy, jazz-drenched rock style led to my enthusiasm for drummers charting similar territory who came shortly thereafter: Clive Bunker with Jethro Tull and Michael Giles in the first King Crimson band. Later in my life I realized how this foundation helped lead me straight into the world of jazz drumming that would become my area of endeavor once I was about16 years old (and after Hendrix died). Mitch Mitchell not only set me up for my next major, life-altering drumming encounter to follow, which was my hearing Tony Williams for the first time, but he made my appreciation for every major influence to come possible, from Elvin Jones to Jack De Johnette to Roy Haynes to Sonship Theus to Tony Oxley to Pierre Favre and so on down the line. While my earliest drumming experiences were that of playing Charlie Watts parts to old Rolling Stones records at my friend (and young drum prodigy) Pat Pile's house, it was Mitch who opened my ears and mind to what drumming could be in the hands of a more complex and flashy master. Mitch and the Hendrix Experience totally changed my life.
So today I remember with deep gratitude, reverence, and love a brilliant artist whom I never met but who profoundly shaped the course of my life as a drummer and musician and who still inspires me now. To me, Mitch Mitchell is not just a fine drummer, not just a big influence on me, he is someone who deservedly resides in the pantheon of the greatest, most important drummers/musicians of all time. Thank you, Mitch. I pray that I may in some way be your continuation.
Ran into Nels Cline a couple of weeks ago at his brother Alex's memorial concert for the late percussionist Dan Morris. Nels revealed that he contributed his thoughts to a new book entitled State of the Axe: Guitar Masters in Photographs and Words by musician/photographer Ralph Gibson. Some of Nels' postmodern compadres in the book include Adrian Belew, Jim Hall, Fred Frith, Mary Halvorson, Allan Holdsworth, Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, John MacLaughlin, Lou Reed, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Andy Summers and James "Blood" Ulmer. He also told us that he just got back from the new Das Vilco sessions in Chicago, where they are recording material for a new album, including "Wilco The Song," that impossibly catchy piece of hilarity that should quell anyone who says this band is too "serious." I asked Nels if that great sludgy, punky riff was his idea. "Nope, it was all Jeff [Tweedy]. The new stuff is a lot like that song. We wanted a sort of John Cale-in-the-1970s feel."
SoCal's own Nate Morgan, one of the premier jazz pianists/composers of his generation, recently suffered a stroke. "His left side is paralyzed," said a friend who visited Nate at a Torrance hospital. "But he is speaking and his mind is fine as ever."
Morgan, the very definition of the oft-used phrase "musician's musician," was a cornerstone of Horace Tapscott's Ark (it was he who told a teenage Jesse Sharps about this cat named "Horace" and this band he practiced out in front of the Watts Happening coffeehouse) and led the famous late-night jam sessions in the mid-nineties at the 5th St. Dick's Coffeehouse. He spent a few years in the 1970s with Rufus and Chaka Khan and collaborated in the early 90s with rappers Bone Thugs N' Harmony. He is also one of the best-kept secrets of Los Angeles jazz: besides his frequent residencies at Charlie O's in Van Nuys, Morgan most often popped up in a private home salons in Encino given by writer/historian Mimi Melnick, spinning his intoxicatingly fluid.style (heavily influenced by Stanley Cowell and McCoy Tyner) on a prime-condition 1922 Steinway with the likes of Arthur Blythe, John Heard, Charles Owens, Onaje Murray, Michael Session, Roberto Miranda, Nedra Wheeler and Sonship Theus. He provided some of the salon's best moments, including a memorable "double piano" duet with Elias Negash and a 2-hour solo performance that many who attended consider the best live show they have ever seen, especially when Morgan played his ode to the late Horace Tapscott, "Tapscottian Waltz," a song that has never been recorded. "I think it's one of the most beautiful compositions I've ever heard--and the way he played it that day, everybody was crying," writer Steven Isoardi recalls. "I had to get up and leave. I was pacing in the front room. It was just too overwhelming."
For a taste of the master, check out his Nimbus West CDs Journey To Nigrita and Retribution, Reparation and Sharps & Flats, his collaboration with lifelong friend, woodwind player Jesse Sharps.
When we spoke with Mr. Morgan at a show a few years ago, he was going in on Mondays for dialysis, but he said playing the piano made the stent in his arm feel better. Now, he begins physical therapy, and hopefully a full recovery over time.
Get well soon, Sir Nate!