The Melodic Joe LaBarbera


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In conversation with a casual listener who said he wanted to know more about jazz, I mentioned that the creation of melody in improvisation is not limited to what are generally considered melody instruments. I said that some drummers play melodic, even lyrical, solos.

“What do you mean?" he said, clearly puzzled. I tried, rather clumsily, I'm afraid, to explain that through combinations of phrasing, dynamics and tone control, a drummer who is so inclined (not all are) can create trains of musical thought as cogent as those of a horn player. I mentioned a few names, beginning with Jo Jones. They meant nothing to the man. I didn't think he was buying my proposition. I promised to look for an example and alert him.

For my acquaintance, and for anyone else interested, here's a case in point. Joe LaBarbera is one of the contemporary masters of melodic drumming. In the 1979 video clip below, he is featured with Bill Evans's last trio. Marc Johnson is the bassist. LaBarbera solos with wire brushes and with sticks, and exchanges phrases with Johnson. Concentration on not only LaBarbera's rhythm but also, to borrow Lester Young's term, his story-telling, may help our friend grasp the concept.

One further thought before you click on the play button: in this year before Bill Evans died, he more and more often returned to the muscularity that characterized his playing in the late 1950s and early '60s. In this version of a tune that he loved, that strength is apparent.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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