(VERY) ABLE SEAMEN
I’d like to share with you from time to time some opinions and reminiscences about British drummers I have known/listened to/been inspired by.
There is only one place to start – the legendary genius and madman Phil Seamen. He was the leader of the pack in the 1950s, his star still blazed in the 1960s and his career was tragically cut short in 1972 (a few months before Tubby Hayes, one of Phil’s greatest musical companions) at the age of 46. How come? His body just couldn’t take his lifestyle any more.
I knew Phil slightly (wish I’d known him better).
Our paths first crossed in 1966. I went to the Bull’s Head to hear the Joe Harriott quartet with Phil on drums. High on the buzz of having done a concert in Oxford with Joe a couple of months before (see the music page for extracts from this), I boldly approached Joe in the interval and asked if I could sit in for a number or two. He graciously said “Well, it’s alright with me but you’d better ask Phil.”
I duly did. The drum maestro stared at me, incredulous at my effrontery. “OK” he said reluctantly. Treading further into the mire, I added “Oh by the way I’m left-handed so I’ll have to change the kit round.” After a pregnant pause, he snarled “You put everything back exactly as you found it or I’ll burn your ears off!”
Two years later, I turned pro and we began to run into each other on the jazz circuit. I quickly got used to his barbed and surreal sense of humour. He dubbed the Tubby Hayes rhythm section of Mick Pyne, Ron Matthewson and myself “Freeman, Hardy and Willis”. (For any younger readers, that was a famous chain of cheap shoe shops.)
Shortly before Phil died, he booked Tubby’s quartet to appear at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington (a dingy venue known affectionately in the trade as the grope and wanker). Tubby wanted me on the gig and Phil wanted to play so we ended up as a quintet with two drummers. It was a privilege to play alongside him (an honour shared along the way by Pete “Ginger” Baker and John Stevens).
There is little point in my repeating the more outrageous anecdotes about Phil’s antics which are the stuff of legend. You would need to have asked intimates like Ronnie, Tubby, Bobby Wellins (with whom he shared a flat for a while) and Alan Branscombe who are all no longer with us. You would also get some original stories from my 80 year old friend Bob Spanswick who used to drive Phil to and from gigs during the Harriott quintet days of the mid sixties.
What I would rather do is talk briefly about Phil’s playing.
The thing that makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest of his generation is the authority he exudes. The style started in the be-bop bomb-dropping mode (a la Roy Porter, or early Roy Haynes) but as he and British modern jazz in general progressed, he became more magisterial and in a way more old fashioned. He was never afraid to give the bass drum a serious boot and his stick work was full of military paradiddles etc.
In a nutshell, Philly Joe with a dash of Papa Jo (Jones).
His cymbal beat was swinging and driving. Unlike some of his contemporaries (including very fine players like Bill Eyden and Jackie Dougan), he never “sat on” the beat but was always propulsive in a way that anticipated the looser styles of drumming which would follow. His appetite for a strong pulse meant that he instinctively played “time” even when appearing as part of free improvisation groups!.
I have chosen two examples of Phil at his best on the Music page this week.
One is a quite elaborate drum feature: Seamen’s Mission written for him by Victor Feldman and performed on an Esquire recording from 1954 by a Ronnie Scott nine-piece band. This shows off his powerful technique. Note the showbiz-zy changes of tempo in the arrangement!
The other is a personal favourite of mine. A live recording of an informal gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 1971. Don’t miss the preliminaries: the small audience is not fully engaged (Ronnie himself would have said “First time I’ve seen dead people smoke”). Phil scathingly marks the applause out of ten as he introduces Brian Lemon on piano “opening the batting from the gasworks end”, Dave Green on bass and Tony Coe on tenor. Then, “My name is George Hayman”, ironically referring to the brand name on the bass drum. (Phil, along with a number of other drummers including Mitch Mitchell, Tony Oxley and myself, endorsed the make in return for a free kit - they were good drums.)
Next, he announces sardonically that band needs to loosen up with a “blues with no title, so we’ll call it ARISTOTLE blues”. His mind!!!
This is vintage late Phil in his pomp (the year before his death). He swings fiercely, his snare drum fills are dictatorial, his “fours” with the tenor are thrilling and between solos, he “clears his throat” and “changes gear” on the drums just like Philly Joe.
Phil the inscrutable hipster has been a huge musical inspiration to me and I get a particular thrill every time I hear a recording of him.
(And I must have put his kit back correctly because I didn’t get any more grief from him that night at the Bull’s Head in 1966. He even gave me a gruff word of encouragement.)