If you get into a room with some of the most amazing drummers alive, who is the luckiest person in the place? I’d say the bass players for one and that is exactly where Michael Feinberg will find himself this weekend at the Generations of the BEAT Festival. Leading a project of his own origination in tribute to the late-great Elvin Jones is one feat, but Feinberg didn’t stop there. Bringing in one of the baddest drummers alive in Billy Hart has proved to bring the Elvin Jones Project to a whole new level. Read on below as we discuss the project and more!
What was the original inspiration behind putting together the Elvin Jones Project?
My best friend growing up was a drummer and his teacher at Berklee was a guy named Ian Froman and Ian actually studied with Elvin. He won a scholarship when he was in high school or college and got the opportunity to study with Elvin for a month. He’s got this great collection of just about every Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette records that exist. So I just ripped all of that music from his hard drive and this one album called Earth Jones from 1982 with George Mraz, Kenny Kirkland, Dave Liebman, and Terumasa Hino just hit me. It was my favorite music that I was into and I learned every note on that record.
Of course I knew about Elvin from Trane’s band, but I didn’t know about him from any of his own music. But that was kind of the beginning of the discovery for me. Over the last two or three years I’ve just been collecting records from around the world and it became a personal mission of mine to transcribe all of the Elvin tunes. The music deserves to be heard. There are a lot of European and Japanese imports that didn’t do well critically and thus people don’t know about them. They were really progressive though, like he was making records with two percussionists and drum sets, a lot of odd meters and stuff back in the ‘60s and early-‘70s. These are records that never took off. And even beyond that I found that he played with Mingus, Ornette, and that Jones boys record they did with Quincy Jones, Sam Jones, Elvin Jones, Pat Jones, you know. This guy had probably one of the most diverse careers in music, but people only know him because of Coltrane. There’s a lot more work to check out and that was the beginning of the project.
You were also inspired partially for this project from a bassist’s perspective. Tell me about that side of it.
Yeah, through just finding records and learning more about music in general, many of the bass players who I am very drawn to have these very important records or bands with Elvin. Of course Jimmy Garrison with the Coltrane band is one of if not my favorite bass player. Then also George Mraz, Ruchard Davis, Dave Holland. These are all guys who I think are very influential to rhythm-section-playing.
Of course everyone knows how great Ray Brown was and how great Paul Chambers was, and Mingus, but as far as progressing rhythm sections, there’s not a more creative bass player to me than those guys. If you transcribe Jimmy Garrison’s lines, I mean, he was really out there as far as what he was doing harmonically and rhythmically. It also really had a big effect on how Elvin played. People look to McCoy and Elvin first, but I would look to Jimmy as a bass player myself. He was really the glue that locked everything together. So in the end I just found out that the guys I aspire to be like all really had this thing with Elvin. There’s this mutual relationship between these great bass players and the king of modern drumming.
How important is it for you as the bassist to lock in with a drummer in terms of making the band feel solid?
I’m learning more and more how important it really is. Definitely the number one priority is making the band feel good — and that can mean a lot of things. Hooking up with the drummer is number one as far as the importance of function. But really the role of the bass player is to bridge the gap between the drums and the piano. Each of those instruments — bass, piano, and drums — kind of get lost in the fact that they’re all melodic and percussive instruments. The drums are not really a harmonic instrument, but bass and piano are. So if you think about a typical rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, you have a harmonic-melodic instrument in piano, a rhythmic-melodic instrument in bass, and a rhythmic instrument in drums. The way that those guys approached it was a little more even amongst the three of them.
The drums can be as melodic as the piano player, you know, why not? The piano player should definitely play as much time as the drummer. That for me was the great thing about the Coltrane quartet and also the great Miles quintet. But Elvin, Jimmy, and McCoy really understood how utilizing the different aspects of their musicianship on their instruments could impact the performance. McCoy was forced to play however many choruses by Coltrane. He would just say, “Keep going, keep going! More, more, more!” You only have so many notes and so many chords, so you’ve got to play really rhythmically and with different voicings. On the drums, it’s exactly the same way. To me Elvin is the king of that as well. He really understood that the drums could be a melodic instrument as well as a rhythmic instrument. He was really the first jazz drummer to display that in a group as far as I’m concerned. Jack DeJohnette is another one though; he’s a very melodic drummer.
Billy Hart is an equally impressive figure in the drum world. How did he get involved with the project?
I was very fortunate that George Garzone helped me produce my record, because it was all his recommendation. As far as I was concerned, someone of Billy’s stature was pretty out of reach. I wouldn’t even know how to get in touch with the guy. So George did me the favor and put me in touch with him. He was talking about who I wanted to play on the record and I was naming off names. He was like, “Well what about Billy Hart?” I just laughed at him. I was like, “Yeah, sure let’s just call the baddest drummer who is alive right now and have him play on it. Sure.” But then I went to Billy’s house and we hung out for about four or five hours listening to music and talking. We really connected. We both share a lot of our favorite musicians. Then the first note we played together was in the studio though.
The first note he played on the drums was when he hit a snare drum. Everyone turned around and was in awe. You can really hear that the guy is a true master, even just from one single stroke on the snare drum. That doesn’t happen very often. Take someone like Chris Dave who could probably play anything you would ever want him to play on a drum set, but I don’t think if he sat down and played a snare head that it would take everyone’s attention. That is something that is pretty ridiculously amazing, especially for an instrument that is as impressive as the drums as far as chops are concerned. So really just how Billy hit the drum was amazing. And also there’s not someone easier to play with than a guy who you have twenty of his records. He played with McCoy for ten years, he played with Miles, and he played with Wayne. It was something that was so familiar to me as far as making music with him. It’s a dream come true — what else could you want? I guess Jack DeJohnette is the only other guy who is alive and on this level. Billy and Jack have that history and that sound that you’ve heard on all of those records. It’s definitely been the highlight of my life so far [laughs].
As far as Elvin Jones goes, did Billy have insight into that style?
When Billy was coming up —he was a couple years younger than Elvin—Elvin was kind of the elder statesman of his generation. He was a big brother to the drummers of New York. There were a couple of those guys that were Billy’s age, so every time Elvin would come to town they would all go check him out. He would sit down with them, show them some stuff, give them some sticks, and so on. It’s the same thing that happens now among jazz musicians. For me I go hang out with Luques Curtis or someone like that who is a few years older than me and he’s been one of my biggest supporters. I’ve learned so much from him just going to see him play. I try to check him out whenever I can. From what I understand, Billy had a similar type of relationship with Elvin.
I don’t think Billy ever did any gigs with Coltrane, but he was asked. I think that everyone who really got to check out Elvin really gets it though. As far as what I’ve gathered from Ian and Billy is that he wasn’t necessarily the best teacher, he would just play for you. I think that the osmosis worked and Billy does a couple things that are especially Elvin-esque. He has a huge emphasis on the one, the downbeat of the phrases, which is classic Elvin Jones. It’s a typical music thing, but a lot of drummers will play it on the four or the and-of-four. Billy definitely has that emphasis on the one though with that intensity. I haven’t seen Elvin live, but I have to imagine Billy is as close as it gets. He hits a drum like no one else.
Will you guys be playing tunes from your record or some new material?
We’re going to do some of the stuff from the record and then a couple different tunes as well. It’s going to be kind of a mixed bag. With the first record I kept it sort of close to home as far as the selection, but I think the next record we’re going to do some more adventurous material. This time around it will definitely be in the vein of the early Coltrane material — the hard-bop era.
What are you most excited about as far as the festival goes?
Well, I’m nervous and anxious to play in front of all these amazing drummers as a bass player [laughs]. That’s a lot of pressure! I want to sound really good. Especially because everyone is going to come check out Billy, I know that there are going to be some drummers there and I’m trying to get some gigs man. I need to show up and sound good. I’m excited to get the opportunity to do it and the band’s been working hard, so I think it’s going to be a great chance for me personally to get a chance to play for musicians. It’s not so typical to play concerts for other musicians primarily as opposed to fans and students and friends. I feel like this festival is going to draw a lot of musicians because of the lineup. Anyone who plays in a rhythm section will want to show up. Who wouldn’t want to see Jimmy Cobb, Lenny White, and Billy Taylor? You couldn’t have asked for a better lineup.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)