Elvin Jones - drums
Art Blakey - drums
Max Roach - drums
Buddy Rich - drums
As part of a big Radio City Music Hall show on July 7, during the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival, impresario George Wein assembled four of the greatest drummers in jazz for a drum extravaganza. And as he prefaced before the proceedings began, "This is not a war or a battle; it's four great artists playing together."
Essentially borrowing an idea pioneered by the Gretsch drum company for its regular "Gretsch Nights" at Birdland back in 1960, this historic encounter features four legendary drummers - each an individual stylist and respected bandleader in his own right - exploring to the fullest extent the rhythmic and melodic possibilities of their respective kits.
The pure polyrhythmic nature of the first soloist, who holds to a swinging ride cymbal pulse while deftly traversing his tom toms and snare with explosive aplomb, indicates Art Blakey. Next up is Elvin Jones, whose looser approach to the beat, along with some of his African-influenced polyrhythms on the kit, is instantly revealing. Following a distinct break of applause, we hear remarkably rapid hands on the kit with impeccably clean technique and a few bebop references thrown in, along with some incredibly slick rolls on the snare, all of which suggest Buddy Rich. The well-executed nature of Rich's solo, in which he sounds like he's emulating a well-choreographed routine by a virtuosic tap dancer like Fred Astaire, is a dead give-away, as is his ability to play nonchalantly through in double-time phrases. And he builds to a show-stopping crescendo in classic Buddy Rich big band fashion. Next up is the very skillful drummer-conceptualist-bandleader Max Roach, who begins in a more understated manner, making references to his famous "The Drum Also Waltzes" solo from his landmark 1966 release, Drums Unlimited. The opening bass drum ostinato figure and slick hi-hat work, along with the African influenced melodic tendencies on the kit (which he explored in greater depth with the seven-piece percussion ensemble he formed in 1970 called M'Boom) are Roach signatures.
The four drumming greats continue in that order - Blakey, Jones, Rich, Roach - making impressive, personal statements on the kit and revealing themselves along the way by their signatures (Blakey's sheer drive and African polyrhythms, Jones' loose-limbed whirlwind traversing of the kit, Rich's uncannily swift hands and 'mop-mop' bebop references, and Roach's sizzling hi-hat work and creative ways of cutting up the beat). They all converge on a massive four-drum crescendo to take this drum summit out in high-flying fashion.
There are plenty of sparks here over the course of 36 minutes. Drummers and all fans of outrageously brilliant drumming are highly encouraged to check out this thrilling skins summit from Radio City Music Hall, circa 1974… And pick your own favorites. (Milkowski)