Elvin Jones | Essential Albums by The Iconic Jazz Drummer

Known for redefining the role of the drums and for his incalculable contribution to the classic John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones is one of the most influential jazz drummers of all time. In this article we dive into some of his most famous albums.

Elvin Jones was born on September 9, 1927, into a musical family.

His two older brothers who were 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, Elvin Jones would record prolifically as leader in his own right, redefining the drummer’s position in jazz with his innovational use of dynamics, timbre and polyrhythms.

Jones 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 Machine band through numerous incarnations.

With so much to choose from, here are 8 essential albums from the Elvin Jones discography…

Elvin! (1961-62)

Recorded for the Riverside label over three sessions between July 11th and January 3rd 1962, the music on this album is relatively straight ahead.

Featuring Elvin Jones with brother Thad and Hank alongside Frank Foster on tenor and Frank Wess on flute, the music runs from the quaint ballad ‘You Are Too Beautiful’ to the driving and energetic ‘Buzz-At’ written by Thad Jones.

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 Jones, George Coleman on tenor saxophone and bassist Wilbur Little. With trumpeter Hannibal Peterson featured as a guest on the lengthy ‘Mr Jones’, the music is bruising and uncompromising.

As he would with Coltrane, the drummer looks to establish a dialogue with the sax-man; their rapport 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)

Puttin’ It Together was Elvin Jones’s leader debut for Blue Note records and what a band!

It features his regular trio with Joe Farrell (tenor/soprano saxophone & flute) and Jimmy Garrison (his colleague from the classic Coltrane Quartet) on double 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.

Farrell’s tenor playing is full of twists and turns on ‘Reza’, spurred on by Elvin’s powerful drumming and anchored by Garrison’s assured accompaniment.

On Jimmy Heath’s jazz standard ‘Gingerbread Boy’ the trio provide a refreshing and original take with the drummer less insistent and providing a more laid-back feel for Farrell’s unfolding solo.

This a great jazz record and perhaps an overlooked gem in Blue Note’s discography.

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 plays sensitivley on ‘Round’ by bassist Gene Perla, in complete contrast to the rendition of ‘Lungs’ by Jan Hammer.

This see-sawing between differing stylistic bases continues with a lyrical flute feature for Joe Farrell and a guest appearance by pianist Chick Corea on ‘A Time For Love’.

There are some interesting compositions by Dave Liebman and Chick Corea which make this album, while not a classic, a fascinating opportunity to hear Elvin’s concepts in a modern and varied setting.

Elvin Jones: Live at the Lighthouse (1972)

An altogether different animal, this live album from 1972 features Gene 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 memorably 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, Elvin Jones Music Machine 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 playing 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)

This album provides 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. At this point in his career though, the altoist was processing some of Coltrane’s methodology into his own playing, and the results here are riveting.

The alto saxophonist seems to be struggling to come to terms with the count on ‘Tin Tin Deo’ but his playing on Roland Hanna’s ‘The Witching Hour’ is haunting and beguiling, whilst ‘Sweet Mama’ challenges Pepper nicely with a compelling solo.

Elvin Jones is relaxed and in control, and his duet with bassist Richard Davis on ‘Pitter Pat’ is masterful.

In Europe (1991)

Once again capturing the drummer live in concert with his band Jazz Machine, it’s a nice touch after his association with John Coltrane that he should 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 starkly contrasting solos.

It’s another captivating live performance that serves notice that some of the Elvin Jones’ best albums as leader were made outside of the confines of the recording studio.

Thanks for joining us for this brief dive into the best albums of Elvin Jones.

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