Elvin Jones | Essential Albums by The Iconic Jazz Drummer

Elvin Jones is best known for redefining the role of the drums and for his incalculable contribution to the classic John Coltrane Quartet.

Spending five years with the saxophonist he played on timeless and essential albums including My Favourite Things, A Love Supreme and Ascension.

Born on September 9, 1927, Jones born into a musical family, He had two older brothers who both highly regarded musicians, pianist Hank and trumpeter/composer Thad, and while the three brothers would occasionally play together Elvin always veered towards a more cutting edge and contemporary side of modern jazz.

If his recordings with Coltrane cemented his place in jazz history, Jones would record prolifically as leader in his own right, redefining the drummer’s position in the music with his innovations with use of dynamics, timbre and polyrhythms.

Elvin would continue to perform and record his own unique brand of modern jazz, and throughout the seventies until his death in May 2004 would lead his Jazz Machine band through numerous incarnations

Elvin! (1961-62)

Recorded for the Riverside label over three sessions, July 11, and December 27, 1961 and a final date on January 3, 1962 the music is relatively straight ahead.

Featuring Jones with brother Thad and Hank alongside the two Franks, Foster on tenor and flautist Wess the music sounds a little quaint and outdated on the ballad ‘You Are Too Beautiful’. Thad Jones’s ‘Buzz-At’ is much more convincing with a fine solo from Foster, and some driving drumming from Elvin.

The best playing is perhaps reserved for two trio tracks featuring Hank, Elvin and bassist Art Davis.

Ernie Wilkins’ composition ‘Pretty Brown’ has some fine brushwork from Elvin, and ‘Four And Six’ by Oliver Nelson is a strong performance by the drummer that powers proceedings along nicely over Art Davis’s bass ostinato and Hank’s commentary at the piano without overpowering the balance of the trio.

Live at the Village Vanguard (1968)

A live recording from the Village Vanguard featuring a trio consisting of Elvin, George Coleman on tenor saxophone and bassist Wilbur Little (trumpeter Hannibal Peterson plays on the lengthy ‘Mr Jones’ only) the music is often bruising and uncompromising.

As he would with Coltrane, Elvin often looks to establish a dialogue with the tenor and this tends to leave Wilbur Little as a bit part player and by stander to the main action.

That said, the rapport with Coleman is fiery and intense. ‘By George’ is positively incendiary, and the saxophonist takes the honours on a superb ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’.

Puttin’ It Together (1968)

Jones’s leader debut for Blue Note records and what a band! His regular trio featuring Joe Farrell on tenor and soprano saxophones, and flute and with Elvin’s colleague from the classic Coltrane Quartet, Jimm Garrison on bass.

Farrell is inspired on this set with one great solo after another. Jones’s drumming pushes just hard enough and Garrison is not just his usual reliable self but hugely inventive. This a great jazz record and perhaps an overlooked gem on the label’s discography.

Farrell’s tenor playing is full of twists and turns on ‘Reza’ spurred on by Elvin’s powerful drumming, anchored by Garrison’s assured accompaniment while on Jimmy Heath’s standard ‘Gingerbread Boy’ the trio provide a refreshing an original take with the drummer less insistent and providing a more laid-back feel for Farrell’s unfolding solo.

Merry-Go-Round (1971)

This is a rather diverse offering from the drummer. Leading a larger ensemble that features veterans Frank Foster and Pepper Adams alongside the new breed of players Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman.

The ensemble is heard on ‘Round’ by bassist Gener Perla which now sounds no more than a pleasant enough while an immediate contrast is heard on ‘Lungs’ by Jan Hammer.

Confining himself to piano with a trio of Jones and bassist Gene Perla the three musicians’ breeze through a fast workout that takes the breath away. This see-sawing between differing stylistic bases continues with a lyrical flute feature for Joe Farrell and featuring Chick Corea on acoustic piano on ‘A Time For Love’, yet somehow feels rather insubstantial.

Some interesting compositions by Dave Liebman and Chick Cirea make this album, while not a classic, a fascinating opportunity to hear Elvin’s concepts in different settings.

Live at the Lighthouse (1972)

An altogether different animal this live album from 1972 features Perla on bass and the twin saxophones of Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman in an uncompromising performance that has some blistering solos and fiery duet interplay between the saxophonists.

This sometimes requires Jones to rein in his natural exuberance as he does on the opening ‘Fancy Free’ by Donald Byrd. Liebman’s composition ‘New Breed’ is a two tenor workout with some superb playing with brushes from Jones as he gently supports and nudges the saxophonists in their very different but exhilarating solos.

Switching to flute on ‘My Ship’ Liebman and supported by Grossman’s tenor saxophone, Kurt Weill’s ballad is given a lovely reading. Not so much an all-out attack on the senses there is a lot of subtly and careful listening on this fine live album.

Elvin Jones Music Machine (1978)

Sporting another two saxophone frontline, this time with Pat LaBarbera and Frank Foster, this is a live album recorded in New Haven, Connecticut in March 1978. A couple of weeks later, having now adopted the name Jazz Machine, the same band would be in Tokyo, Japan.

The music on Music Machine is more straight ahead that the Lighthouse band above, but this sounds more like the Elvin we have come to know and love. Whether with sticks or brushes, as on ‘Like Someone In Love’ Jones’s commentary is flowing and just assertive enough to lift the music.

Another change comes with the introduction of Roland prince on guitar as the chordal instrument. Prince proves himself to be a fine soloist and his accompaniment is never less that tasteful. Jones’s does get the chance to show a little tough love and his polyrhythmic finesse on Perla’s ‘Dealin’’.

Very R.A.R.E. (1978)

Something of a dream pairing, Art Pepper and Elvin on the same date.

Like the meeting with Lee Konitz, Pepper might not seem like an obvious choice as a musical partner for the drummer but at this point in his career the altoist was processing some of Coltrane’s methodology into his own playing, and the results here are riveting.

Pepper seems to be struggling to come to terms with the count on ‘Tin Tin Deo’ but his playing on Roalnd Hanna’s ‘The Witching Hour’ is haunting and beguiling and ‘Sweet Mama’ challenges Pepper nicely with a compelling solo. Jones is relaxed and in control, and his duet with bassist Richard Davis on ‘Pitter Pat’ is masterful.

In Europe (1991)

Once again capturing Jones live in concert with his band Jazz Machine, there is an inevitability that after his association with John Coltrane that he should get to feature his former boss’s son, Ravi Coltrane in this incarnation of the band.

Three compositions were released from this performance on in June 1991, with plenty of room given to the band to stretch out. The heart of the album is given over to the traditional ‘Doll of the Bride’ arranged by Elvin’s wife Keiko.

Sonny Fortune sets the mood for the piece with his unaccompanied flute introduction before Jones picks things up with his gently rolling drum patterns. Pianist, Willy Pickens acquits himself well in his solo while the two saxophonists deliver contrasting solos.

Another captivating live performance that serves notice that some of the drummer’s best albums as leader were made outside of the confines of the recording studio.

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