Meridian native Alvin Fielder was in New Orleans at Xavier University studying pharmacy when he met New Orleans’ legendary jazz drummer Ed Blackwell, and then moved to Chicago where he joined the nascent Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and played with Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Muhal Richard Abrams. Returning to Mississippi in 1968, he was for many years the only African-American pharmacist in the state, but he continued to perform, often with Kidd Jordan’s Improvisational Arts Quintet in New Orleans. Quite appropriately, he named his record label Prescription Records, with an RX on the label. But while Alvin Fielder has remained in demand as a first-rate avant-garde jazz drummer, his gigs are usually in Europe or New York, and it is relatively unusual for him to be performing in Jackson, so when I saw that he was scheduled to play at Cassandra Wilson’s excellent jazz club The Yellow Scarf, I purchased an advance ticket and drove down to Jackson to see him. Fielder performed with a trio on this particular night, with Andrew Lewis on piano and Dr. London Branch on bass, and with a vocalist named Rhonda Richmond (who also handles the clubs live music bookings) on a couple of tunes. Despite Fielder’s reputation as an avant-garde drummer, his style is actually melodic and firmly rooted in the work of Max Roach, whose influence he acknowledges. When he solos on drums, it is usually very easy to follow the form of the composition he is playing. He is truly a living legend, and he doesn’t appear in his hometown nearly often enough.
4 Soul Band is Memphis’ premiere soul and contemporary jazz group, and on Monday night, July 28th, they held an open rehearsal at Aji’s Sports Bar and Grill on Lamar Avenue in Southeast Memphis so that they could shoot photographs and video footage for publicity purposes. The band played about an hour of tunes, featuring their vocalist Shenea, trombonist Suavo J and drummer Otis Logan. They will be playing at Aji’s again on Friday night, August 1.
In the field of Black music worldwide, no other musical instrument is as important as the drums. Not only is percussion the musical foundation for much Black music and dance, but the instrument looms large in the cultural memory of people throughout the African diaspora. So it was only fitting for Arkansas’ best drummers to be honored at an event called The Drummer Is In The House, which was held at the Revolution Room on President Clinton Avenue in the River Market area of Little Rock on Thursday July 10. The event, sponsored by Clifford Drummaboy Aaron, featured performances by current and former Little Rock drummers Yvette Preyer, Rod Pleasants, Steve Bailey, Aerion Jamaal Lee, Jonathan “JJ” Burks and Charles Anthony Thompson. Rather than just a lot of extended solos, most of the drummers played with their individual bands, and even some singers, performing songs from the neo-soul, jazz and gospel traditions. But there were great solos too, including one from Jamaal Lee full of afro-caribbean rhythms and patterns, and one from Charles Anthony Thompson exhibiting extended sticking and tone techniques including pitch bends, and plenty of jazz influence. The final highlight of the evening was an event called the Roundabout, at which drummers moved across the stage from the first drum set, to the second, to the third, while Yvette Preyer kept a basic conga pattern for them on an octapad. As one drummer would exit the stage, another would come on from the left, enabling all the drummers to have an opportunity to shed three at a time, and to play each of the three drum sets. The Drummer Is In The House was truly a major event that highlighted some really great drummers, and a lot of other great horn players, guitarists, bassists, keyboardists and singers. I am told that future events will be held at the Revolution Room to highlight the other instrument families, and I am looking forward to it.
Last week on Hangtime (which is a great way to keep up with events in your hometown, by the way) I read about an event called My Jam Session at the ICE Bar out on Hacks Cross Road. Subtitled “Drums and Drinks”, it featured a live drummer paired with a DJ, and for someone who loves hearing a funky drummer as much as I do, I had to attend, as I had not heard of anything like this in Memphis before. As it turns out, the drums and DJ trend is very cutting edge, at least in New York and Los Angeles, and the people that organized this event have been doing it in Nashville, and decided to bring it here to Memphis. Not surprisingly, the drummer they brought is from Nashville, a young man named Jeremy Williams who was very impressive indeed on the set. The rationale behind this is to heighten the excitement for the crowd by augmenting the traditional DJ-based club atmosphere as the live drummer adds rolls, fills and breakdowns to the continuous mix. In my opinion, it works fairly well, although the standing-room only crowd in Memphis wasn’t familiar with the concept. Whether the trend will catch on in Memphis remains to be seen (we have plenty of great drummers for it if it does), but Jeremy Williams is very much a drummer to keep an eye on.
R. L. Burnside was one of the most famous musicians in the blues tradition of the North Mississippi Hill Country, and many of his children and grandchildren have carried on that great tradition, including Cedric Burnside, a grandson of the late R.L. who is accomplished on both the guitar and the drums. After coming to prominence as part of a duo with another Mississippi bluesman, Lightning Malcolm, he more recently has formed a band called the Cedric Burnside Project, which is really just him on drums and Trenton Ayers on guitar (I suspect that Trenton Ayers is kin to the older Marshall County bluesman Little Joe Ayers). On Saturday June 21, Cedric brought his music to the Levitt Shell in Memphis’ Overton Park, and an overflow crowd despite hit and run showers early in the evening. Beginning on acoustic guitar, Burnside soon switched to drums, and performed most of the Hill Country standards, including “Coal Black Mattie”, “Don’t Let My Baby Ride”, and even the late Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me In The City.” It was a great evening of great Mississippi blues.
There is a Black marching band tradition which is distinct from its white equivalent, despite points of similarity, and, not surprisingly, that tradition is deeply loved in Memphis. In fact, the city has had some legendary band directors, including Jimmie Lunceford, the internationally-known big band star who was Manassas High School’s first band director, or Emerson Able, also at Manassas, or W. T. McDaniel at Booker T. Washington or Tuff Green at Melrose High School. Memphis musicians routinely enrich the Black college marching bands at Pine Bluff or Jackson State or Tennessee State. But the band culture doesn’t end during the summer, either, as there are alumni bands like the Memphis Mass Band, comprised of former HBCU band members, as well as current musicians home from college for the break, and perhaps a few high school students as well, and these summer aggregations battle each other during the summer months. This past weekend, the Memphis Mass Band battled its Birmingham equivalent, the Magic City All-Stars Band at Oakhaven Stadium during what was billed as the HBCU Alumni Weekend. About a hundred or more people turned out to see these two all-star bands battle, and I was impressed with the quality of both bands. The Memphis Mass Band was the larger of the two, but both groups had great arrangements, and a tightness and togetherness that I don’t always hear in established college bands. And the arrangements were largely unfamiliar to me and fresh. The Memphis band’s unexpected reading of Johnnie Taylor’s “Running Out of Lies” was definitely the high point in my opinion. I might add that despite a lot of trash talk between the bands, there was not one untoward incident. Just good fun and great music.
Cameron Bethany is one of Memphis’ best soul singers, and the Hard Hitters, led by drummer Mike Mosby, is one of Memphis’ best soul bands, so they were a natural choice to kick off the weekly Unplugged Fridays at K-2 Ultra Lounge on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis. Each Friday, beginning at 9 PM, the band plays two sets of excellent contemporary jazz and neo-soul.
Cameron Bethany (@ShoobyDoowah) and Brittany Shelby close out an evening’s entertainment at Onix Restaurant in Memphis, January 10, 2013
Cameron Bethany (@ShoobyDoowah) and Brittany Shelby sing with the Hard Hitters band at Onix Restaurant in the South Main Arts District in Memphis, January 10, 2013