ELVIN THE TERRIBLE
No, Elvin Jones was definitely NOT a terrible drummer. In fact, he is up there among my very favourites, along with Roy Haynes, Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones. The title is a feeble pun on IVAN, the “terrible” 16th century Russian Tsar, but I am informed that a better modern English translation of the Russian would be “Ivan the formidable” and Elvin was certainly that.
Perhaps we’d better settle for ELVIN THE INIMITABLE. He is perhaps the only one who nobody else can ever convincingly sound like. It’s a magic one-off style and, to begin to understand it, we need to feel the 4 crotchets in a bar as 12 quavers grouped into 4 triplets. In other words, he’s always playing in 12/8. I don’t mean the Latin beat with cymbal bell and rim shots but anything straight ahead in 4/4. As I tell my pupils, he starts with the normal cymbal beat but gradually fills in all the other quavers of each triplet.
In fact, if you listen to the recorded evidence of how he developed between the late fifties and mid- sixties, you can hear how he started with a very “bare” beat but with all the other silent quavers implied simply because of the time feel and then, as he became steeped in Coltrane, he got more and more busy with his famous cross-rhythms inking in all the other quavers of the 12/8 bar with different accents and complicated phrases.
Such was his intuitive skill with polyrhythms that, when he took fours, eights or choruses, I strongly suspect the rest of the band often had to count rather than try to follow him and get lost!
And his genius certainly was lost on those listeners with limited horizons. It was reported in Jazz Journal that a Scottish semi-professional drummer – who shall remain nameless – tried to interview Coltrane backstage during a quintet concert on the 1961 tour and had asked him, out of either ignorance or insolence, when the drummer was going to stop messing around and play properly. Coltrane, clearly unprepared to engage with this idiot, replied with mock perplexity: “Ah dunno man!”
But never mind the complexity. The unique beauty of Elvin’s playing is the fierce and hypnotic swing. You can hear this as early as 1957 in his superb brush work with the “Tommy Flanagan Trio Overseas”. You can hear it of course throughout his time with the seminal John Coltrane quartet. My personal favourite example of that powerful swing would be the track Passion dance from the album “The Real McCoy” by McCoy Tyner with Joe Henderson.
After he left Coltrane, he made two Blue Note albums with a trio including Joe Farrell and Jimmy Garrison. He then led, and toured with, a succession of different line-ups under the name “The Jazz Machine” Some of these are tremendous fun. Watch him having a ball on the burning groove Is there a Jackson in the house? from the DVD “Elvin Jones Jazz Machine”, featuring Sonny Fortune and Ravi Coltrane with the eponymous Chip Jackson on bass.
Elvin the fierce drummer gives me a shiver of awe. Elvin the man was a sheer delight, welcoming and friendly with his wonderfully open smile and warm eyes. I was lucky enough to meet him both at Ronnie Scott’s and in Norway when he was staying with my late mother-in-law Randi Hultin, who was not only a well-known jazz writer and photographer but held open house to the likes of Rollins, Dexter, Jaki Byard, Dizzy etc etc. Elvin proudly showed off his skills on the patio one evening in producing barbecued hot dogs which he described as “real authentic Pontiac dogs!” recalling his childhood home.
Jazz drumming has evolved a great deal in the past 20 or 30 years. Today, the likes of Jack De Johnette, Brian Blade and Bill Stewart seamlessly combine dotted-feel triplet swing with the rhythms that came from soul and funk, that is to say 8 straight quavers or 16 straight semiquavers to the bar. This was an idiom that Elvin was never interested in and, to my ears, never mastered. Fair enough – that is an essential part of him and, if he had started seriously “crossing over”, who knows? - he might have lost his magic originality. In any case, we will never hear his like again. That is for certain.
John Coltrane once gave him a brand new Cadillac which Elvin promptly wrote off in a crash from which he miraculously emerged unscathed. “There are plenty of Cadillacs”, commented Coltrane, “but only one Elvin.”
AMEN TO THAT.