Elvin Jones' dynamic energy swirled in a circle of sound

Drummer saw shapes and colors when he played

Appreciation

May 23, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Drummer Elvin Jones was the great propelling force that drove the John Coltrane quartet into vast new territories of jazz, territories that new generations of musicians are still exploring .

He was a drummer of inexhaustible energy - physically, emotionally and spiritually - which was a very good thing indeed, because Coltrane could play for hours, wringing the last scrap of meaning from a musical idea. Jones played with Coltrane from 1960 to 1966, an extraordinarily fertile time for jazz music.

He said playing with Coltrane was like "a young boy going to the circus and stopping at the stand selling cotton candy and ice cream cones."

He was still playing with scarcely diminished enthusiasm when he died Tuesday at the age of 76. During these last few months of failing health, he took an oxygen tank on stage with him when he played. He left a schedule of bookings unfulfilled, and unfulfillable.

"Playing is not something I do at night," he once said. "It's my function in life."

To praise Jones and Coltrane is not to disrespect McCoy Tyner, the quartet's pianist, or Jimmy Garrison, its bass player. The quartet came together with rare collective force. They rank in seminal influence with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, the bebop bands of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk, and the post-bop quintets of Miles Davis, with Coltrane in one and Wayne Shorter in the other.

"That feeling is always there," Jones once told a Downbeat magazine interviewer. "If you want to call it jazz, you can call it jazz. Anything you want to call it, but it's a spirit ... a cohesion ... joint effort."

You can hear that spirit expressed in pieces as varied as My Favorite Things, where the quartet transforms a pop song into art, or A Love Supreme, one of the great spiritual works in jazz.

Jones played with dynamic power, often setting rhythm upon rhythm, pushing and pulling the music along in an interaction with other musicians that some have called a circle of sound. His drumming was constantly active, a sort of continuous solo without losing rhythmic clarity, adding punctuations and annotations and a flow of inspiration to both solos and ensemble playing.

"I can see forms and shapes in my mind when I solo, just as a painter can see forms and shapes when he starts a painting," he told Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker writer. "And I can see different colors. My cymbals will be one color and my snare another color and my tom-toms each a different color. I mix these colors up, making constant movement.

"Drums suggest movement," he said, "a conscious, constant shifting of sounds and levels of sound. My drumming can shade from a whisper to a thunder. I'm not conscious of the length of my solos, which I've been told have run up to half an hour. When you develop a certain pattern, you stay with it until it's finished."

Jones was born in Detroit, the youngest child in a family of 10. His brother, Thad, a trumpet and flugelhorn player who died in 1986, led a much-acclaimed band with drummer Mel Lewis that played for more than 20 years at the Village Vanguard, the hallowed New York jazz sanctuary. Hank Jones, now nearly 86, remains one of the great jazz pianists.

Elvin was once asked what his brothers thought of his music: "I don't know," he replied. "They just love me. I'm the baby."

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