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Lenny Kravitz Drummer Cindy Blackman Honors Jazz Legend Tony Williams

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By Tad Hendrickson

Cindy Blackman is best remembered by many up to this point as the badass woman behind the drum kit in Lenny Kravitz's band for many of his classic recordings and videos. Before, during and after the Kravitz gig, however, Blackman has drummed with countless jazz notables and young stars and released an eclectic series of jazz albums -- the latest, her 11th, is 'Another Lifetime.' Here she pays homage to her friend and hero Tony Williams, the drum legend who joined Miles Davis's mythic mid-'60s quintet at age 17 and went on to lead his own band called Lifetime as well as play with countless others.

“Nothing like him has ever walked the face of the Earth," Blackman says via phone from her Brooklyn, N.Y., home. “When I first heard him I heard the highest level of virtuosity and innovation, and that was -- and is -- completely inspiring for me to always push myself and reach for those same goals in terms of my playing."

Though they didn't meet until Blackman was 20, the two had a lot in common. Both had aggressive styles. Both studied under master teacher Alan Dawes. Both were born in the Midwest but grew up in the Northeast. Both played with Sam Rivers and Jackie McLean early on. Far from being a conventional bop player, Williams had a great love of rock music (particularly Jimi Hendrix) and his pioneering jazz-fusion band Lifetime, which also included organist Larry Young and guitarist John McLaughlin, was an early shot in the jazz-rock revolution of the late '60s. His avant-garde credits were in order too: He appeared on Eric Dolphy's classic 'Out to Lunch,' and his debut album as a leader, 1964's 'Life Time,' was one of the first avant-garde albums released by Blue Note.

From Williams (who died in 1997), Blackman realized that a drummer shouldn't limit herself to a certain kind of music, which has lead to opportunities with Kravitz and others. “It's music, man," she points out. “Different people have different concepts. So when you are playing in a rock situation, the drums or the role of the drums may be different than the role of the Modern Jazz Quartet, which is different than the role of drums in the John Coltrane Quartet or the Miles Davis Quintet."

Blackman herself enjoys interspersing and mingling the different flavors in her playing because it enables her to come up with different feels, different ideas and different sounds. It also makes her well-rounded as a person and a player. All this variety comes through on 'Another Lifetime.'

Because of her grueling schedule, she couldn't find a week to work with single group, so she grabbed time when she could and pieced different groups together to fill out the album that is varied but mostly high-energy electric jazz with the guitars out front, in the tradition of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Lifetime. A majority of the material is Williams's tunes, but there are two Blackman originals and three installments of 'Vashkar,' a Williams classic written by Carla Bley. Most of the material is done with a group that featured guitarist Mike Stern, though there is another lineup that features Vernon Reid. Blackman also hooks up with Joe Lovano for a sax and drum duet version of Williams's 'Love Song.'

'Another Lifetime' declaration of intent resides in the original '40 Years of Innovation.' A laid-back groove with some vocal narrative, it's not a great composition, but Blackman details some of Williams's accomplishments while the band plays an ambient funk groove. According to Blackman, “I liked what I had recorded, and as I listened to it I kept hearing this “40 years of innovation" thing, which I certainly wanted to address. A lot of times, Tony Williams gets some criticism that is really unfair -- not only unfair but also ignorant. Facts, not fiction or Cindy Blackman tell you who Tony Williams is and what his innovations are. Do a little bit of research, and you will see. This criticism is quite irritating to me and I wanted to address that in a very nonaggressive way."

Blackman is partially responding to comments made by fellow drummer Billy Cobham, who in a blindfold test of a Blackman song for JazzTimes magazine in 2008 asserted that Tony Williams was overrated, didn't have his theory together and that the guy was dead, so it was time to move on. He also said that Blackman had picked up the bad parts of Williams's playing and that Gretsch drums (Blackman's brand) were terrible-sounding. (There were a number of responses to Cobham's comments, most notably here and other places.) One wonders if Cobham ate some bad Wheaties that morning where he'd say such things about Williams, whom many (including fellow band members in Davis's band) see as a driving force in music.

“I read that and I got incensed," Blackman says, refusing to defend herself but throwing down for Williams. “I saw Tony Williams play the Blue Note on the same bill as Cobham. Every single set of every single night. And let me tell you, there is no way that dude should be saying anything about Tony Williams. Cobham got smoked every single night."


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