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Kenny Washington


"There exists in all people, either consciously or unconsciously, a tendency toward rhythm," writes Hazrat Inayat Khan. "Rhythm in every guise...is the very nature of a man's whole constitution...the whole mechanism of the universe is based on rhythm." These words are a fitting beginning for a series of articles on jazz drummers. Drum stylists play a variety of roles within the music. Figuratively speaking, they act, among other things, as despots, poets, dancers, and diplomats. There is indeed something extraordinary about the juxtaposition of abandon and restraint that characterizes the drum set's finest artists. The great (and near-great) ones have a lot more going on than dazzling sticking and footwork. Their playing has a singular purpose that both stands alone and coexists with other instruments. Utilizing Khan's phrase "Rhythm in every guise" as a guiding light, I'll explore the recordings of drummers who have amazed, enlightened, and moved me.

Since bursting onto the New York jazz scene with Lee Konitz's Nonet in the late seventies, Kenny Washington has been a favorite of veteran beboppers (Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin, Tommy Flanagan, Milt Jackson, etc.), who appreciate his unerring time, tradition-minded ways, and resourcefulness in booting bands of various sizes. Working within various offshoots of the modern mainstream, he's one of the most frequently recorded drummers of the last twenty-five years.
Washington's performance with Eric Alexander on the tenor saxophonist's "One For M" (New York Calling, Criss Cross) is a fine example of the demonstrative side of his musical personality. Taken at a brisk tempo, the composition begins with a repetitive, three-note vamp that spans a portion of two bars, each time leaving Washington with three beats of space to fill-in as he pleases. All elbows and sharp edges, his brief cadences are abrupt, authoritative, and brilliantly timed, sending shock waves through the music. While Peter Washington's walking bass maintains a steady pulse, during a round of solos by the band the drummer constantly repositions himself by shifting dynamics and playing with varying degrees of assertiveness. He heckles John Swana with an unrelenting barrage of ingenious accents (mostly on the snare), and jams acrobatic figures into the trumpeter's every pause. The effect is profoundly unsettling but Swana stands up to the volley and the music swings in a mad, unhinged manner. Washington displays more derring-do on Alexander's solo by anticipating the tenor man's changes in direction, and during cacophonous, out-of-tempo passages he leads the band to the brink of chaos and back. Then he settles down for the duration of pianist Richard Wyands' concise turn. The ride cymbal rhythms are steadier and more prominent, and his playing exhibits equal parts of thoughtful accompaniment and bustling interaction.

Washington's ability to blend in and furnish subtly shaded rhythms to a conventional, piano trio format is evident on Wyands' version of the standard "I'm Old Fashioned" (Half and Half, Criss Cross). The hiss and snap of Washington's brushwork augment the pianist's refined statement of the melody. Then a thickset closed roll on the snare announces his switch to sticks as Wyands' solo begins, but there's nothing resembling fireworks to come. The drummer and Peter Washington hold the lilting, medium tempo as if it's something precious and not to be disturbed, allowing the leader room to maneuver without interference. The light tapping of Washington's ride cymbal with mostly straight quarter notes is a thing of unpretentious beauty, as nearly every stroke simultaneously makes a distinct metallic ping and rings ever so slightly. In the middle of Wyands' second chorus, he coaxes Washington into playing more spirited rhythms on the snare, which complement the pianist's manner of seeming to briefly suspend the pulse then suddenly charging forward...

By David A. Orthmann


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