For exactly a year I have listened to jazz with very different ears. The change happened unexpectedly at last year’s Ottawa Jazz Festival when I saw drummer Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band play a set on the main stage. I was driven nearly to tears by his brilliance. Then a couple of days later drummer Eric Harland’s playing with Dave Holland’s Prism band left me mesmerized. Later that week it was Jack DeJohnette’s turn. At age 70 he sounded like a player half his age and showed the crowd, without any flash or over-playing, why he is an NEA Jazz Master.
I always had deep appreciation for drummers, but seeing these three players in the course of a week switched a light on in my brain that hadn’t been on before. Not being a drummer, I guess I never entirely “got it,” but now I get it. I’m reminded of this because this week here in Ottawa I have again had the chance to see drummers who are among the very best in the world at what they do, and it is a privilege to see and hear them. Folks like Jonathan Blake, Joey Baron, Bill Stewart, and this Sunday evening, Brian Blade with Wayne Shorter.
Like all musicians at the top of their game, they make it look easy. But it’s a thrill to see they way they lend so much to the rhythmic and harmonic structures of the songs they play. The other musicians on stage are completely at ease knowing that the beat and the song are built on solid ground.
All of this may seem obvious, and it’s not as if I’m just noticing drummers for the first time now…far from it. But seeing these players, often up close in small venues, has opened my ears anew to the power and beauty of the drums. And that has been an extremely pleasant surprise.