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Words by Hank Williams. Photos by Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | MAIN PHOTO: (L-R) Antoine Roney, Gerald Cannon, and Ravi Coltrane. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

Drummer and percussionist Will Calhoun’s musical journey made its latest stop last week at the famed Blue Note club in Greenwich Village for a 3-night midweek run of music focused on the late drum legend Elvin Jones. I caught the early sets on Tuesday and Thursday.

“Celebrating Elvin Jones” as the dates were called was billed as the release event for the CD of the same name, although it has been available since late summer 2017 and has garnered deserved praise from critics – and fans alike, depending how much stake one puts on Amazon’s customer reviews.

The logistics of arranging club dates (and syncing them with Calhoun’s ambitious travel schedule) pushed the event to the current period.

The material has been performed live several times already, though. Calhoun had a set at the 2016 Winter Jazz Festival with much of the current ensemble. This was followed by an August Jazzmobile event in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, a 3-night September run at Tokyo’s Cotton Club, and fall dates at Scullers in Boston and the San Jose Jazz Festival.

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Will Calhoun

For these Blue Note dates, Calhoun fortified his ensemble with some of the musicians on the CD – saxophonist Antoine Roney and pianist Carlos McKinney – while calling up veteran bassist Gerald Cannon to provide the heartbeat and adding a special guest each night: saxophonist Ravi Coltrane on Tuesday, trumpeter Randy Brecker on Wednesday, and guitarist Russell Malone on Thursday, respectively. The connecting thread is that they have all played with Jones. Calhoun, ironically, is the only one who hasn’t since the two share the same instrument.

Calhoun, however, may be the perfect person to approach the project. “With Will I felt the [same] spirit and looseness that Elvin had,” Cannon said. “It’s a very rare thing in another drummer.” Cannon would know: he held the bass chair in the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine until Jones’s death in 2004. While Cannon had been following Calhoun’s meteoric career with the popular rock band Living Colour, he wasn’t aware of the drummer’s range–and interest in Jazz—until a series of Blue Note dates after Jones’s death. The decision was made to honor the Jazz Machine’s pre-arranged run with someone different in the drum chair each night. Cannon persuaded the drummer’s widow Keiko to allow Calhoun to have a night and he made an impression. “This cat can swing, man,” Cannon thought after the sets.

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Gerald Cannon (left) and Ravi Coltrane

Additionally, Cannon’s the musical director for pianist McCoy Tyner, who he’s played with for 11 years. As such, his insight is even more valuable since John Coltrane’s alumni seem to take many common indelible lessons with them from their time with the band although they’ve followed varied musical paths. “What I’ve learned by playing with McCoy and Elvin is the spiritual aspect of the music,” he told me. “When you play with them, you just feel enlightenment.”

Gerald Cannon: What I’ve learned by playing with McCoy and Elvin is the spiritual aspect of the music

Calhoun, echoing Cannon’s point, described his approach to the music and choice of lineup as “a sacred thing,” carefully choosing musicians who could see the spiritual side of the project and join him on the journey. The investment paid off, as the assembled ensemble treated the work with incredible respect as they worked to form intimacy on the bandstand.

The more one sits with Calhoun’s Elvin Jones project (both the performances and CD), the more one realizes that a lot of thought goes into just about every detail. Hence, the choice of an ensemble was far from simple, though understandably somewhat dictated by logistics and availability.

“I thought about [the lineup] for quite some time and wanted to stick with the guys on the recording for obvious reasons,” Calhoun related over the telephone. “Also, [the musicians] understood my vision and the guys know me personally outside the music.”

Given that, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane was a natural addition. Calhoun wanted him to be a part of the original recording, but it didn’t work out scheduling-wise. “Having Ravi up there is a sonic value and spiritual vibration,” Calhoun said. “There’s another kind of meaning to having Ravi there as well,” as he sees working with Coltrane’s son, (who’s now carved out his own unique voice on the instrument mastered by his famous father) as being the natural closing of the circle.

Similarly, Calhoun had sought out trumpeter Randy Brecker for his earlier Life in this World and Native Lands releases, but clashing schedules scuttled the efforts. Brecker’s commitment to the set was so great that he passed up a tribute to his brother to be at the show.

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Gerald Cannon (left) and Russell Malone

Finally, adding a guitarist to the rotation was a natural move for Calhoun, hence the presence of Russell Malone. “I just like the instrument and freedom of the [guitar as an] instrument,” he revealed. “Elvin played guitar and played with [guitarists] John Paul Bourelly and Jim Hall.” Calhoun plays the 12 string acoustic guitar on “Sarmastah,” one of his own compositions that appears on the release, though wasn’t part of the Blue Note sets.

Not surprisingly, the same reverence and obsessive attention to detail also went into the choice of songs to be played.

The setlist was identical both dates: “EJ Blues,” followed by “Harmonique,” then “Doll of the Bride,” and an electrified version of “A Love Supreme” to close the set. The choice of music wasn’t an easy one, Calhoun confessed. While he wanted to showcase music from the CD (indeed, the first three songs are on the release), not everything from the release could make the cut for the live performance: a necessary concession to the reality of time limits when dealing with club sets, especially when dealing with longer pieces that allow artists to fully stretch out and explore the music, which was the case.

The result, however, was a holistic approach to Jones, going beyond mere replication of his music and performances, but a real attempt to present as full an account of his essence as possible. The choices make sense in that context. “EJ Blues” is a Jones composition; “Harmonique” and, of course, “A Love Supreme” hail from John Coltrane; “Doll of the Bride” is adapted from a traditional Japanese folk song and was a staple of Jones’s own setlists while he helmed the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine.

The rotating guests also served to give the music a distinctly different feel each night as the rest of the ensemble worked around the unique instrumental sound, colors, and approach of each one. Guests, Calhoun said, “take you a little bit out of the norm.”

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Antoine Roney

In “EJ Blues,” for instance, Coltrane and Roney traded sax solos on Tuesday night, with the former opting for soprano saxophone. On Thursday, guitarist Russell Malone’s approach allowed Roney more space to shine while adding subtle colors to the main melody.

“Harmonique” highlighted the different approaches the different guests brought. While the general structure of the song remained the same, subtle changes were pronounced between the nights. Cannon’s bass solo led off each time, though Tuesday’s rendition saw Coltrane and Roney collaborating and smoothing out the edges of the angular melody. On Thursday, Malone subtly added color while Roney more purposefully hit the slightly atonal notes in the intro.

A seemingly simple question to Calhoun about his arrangement of “Doll of the Bride”–which began with an extended drum and percussion solo each time–led to a patient, unexpectedly detailed explanation that can only be highlighted here.

The key characters in the story, however, are the late Senegalese master percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose (who appears on the album as a guest on the song) and and Moussa D’Gyue, who owned a shop in Harlem that Calhoun frequented as a teenager. “He was like my uncle,” Calhoun says of D’Gyue, who shared many lessons on Africa, recommended books, and generally fed his intellectual curiousity.

After hours, D’Gyue and a group of West African men would gather in the back around a communal plate of food for a wide-ranging discussion of politics, culture, and whatever else they decided to engage. Eventually they invited him into the fold. “It was my first time witnessing that type of interaction,” Calhoun says.

D’Gyue became a crucial contact much later in Calhoun’s career when he took his mentor along for a series of shows he had booked in Senegal. Calhoun had been trying to get introduced to Rose for years without success and it turned out that D’Gyue knew the master percussionist and was able to arrange a meeting.

Calhoun: The world is my library

All of this leads back to the goal of Calhoun’s “Doll of the Bride” intro, as he sought “to create this almost drive by view of African rhythms:” a broad outline of what one might see, were they fortunate enough to have gone on Calhoun’s journey. Calhoun summed up the inspiration for the song’s arrangement much more succinctly in his on-stage intros, simply saying, “the world is my library.”

Calhoun began both nights on the Senegalese bongo drum, eventually moving to the drum kit while Cannon kept time with a heartbeat-like bass rhythm. Cannon, who’s also an accomplished visual artist, compared working Calhoun’s rhythm section to “doing a collaborative painting.”

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Calhoun

Calhoun wanted to “start out with a more traditional approach,” hence the use of his hands. As the solo built, Calhoun eventually enlisted nearly every form of input possible, working the sticks, mallets, brushes, and even his bare hands on different drum surfaces in an attempt to replicate what he’d listened to and learned: a deceptively difficult task. “The Senegalese rhythms are quite difficult to play on the drum kit,” Calhoun explained to me later.

But it all came back to Jones even before the solo ended. “Elvin’s drumming has a bit of Congolese and West African style,” he pointed out, hence Calhoun’s meshing of different approaches and specific rhythmic patterns.

On Thursday night, McKinney’s melodic solo on “Doll of the Bride” slowed the song’s intensity before building to a fierce percussive assault of his own on the piano, which gave way to Malone’s solo on the guitar. Calhoun said that Malone’s “tone is a bit darker than the pop tone and works great with the melodies” they were playing.

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Carlos McKinney

As with the other songs, each musician was given plenty of space to solo and collaboratively build the piece. Malone’s shift from improvisation back to the song’s melody signaled Roney to return to the stage for his turn in the spotlight and Cannon’s solo built off his delicately plucking out the melody on the strings as the rest of the bandstand and audience quieted to listen to one of the more contemplative and intimate moments in a night often filled with the type of explosive fire Jones himself is usually associated with. Cannon told me that one thing he’s learned from extensive work with Elvin Jones and now McCoy Tyner “is how important [his] role is as a bass player in order to be flexible and solid at the same time.”

Time was running short on both nights, which left space for only a very abbreviated rendition of “A Love Supreme” as a finale, which Calhoun playfully (and accurately) described onstage as “an uptown, electronic, Bronx version.”

The Senegalese bongo was again Calhoun’s chosen tool to start the song, which seamlessly morphed into Cannon’s delivery of the famous bass line, which invited Roney and McKinney into the mixture and the piece ended with a shimmery piano flourish.

And that was it.

The end of Thursday’s set had a slightly bittersweet feel as it was the final night and there was only one more set to go before the end of the short run.

Gerald Cannon: I haven’t played these tunes since Elvin died

“It was a little emotional for me,” Cannon confided. “I haven’t played these tunes since Elvin died.”

The intimacy and familiarity with the material developed over several sets on successive nights seemed to really bring the ensemble together. Cannon mentioned several times how much fun it was, pointing out that the comfort level had reached the point where he felt as if he could really explore, adding that “Will’s a great bandleader.” That’s high praise from someone with Cannon’s experience.

The next steps of this project are unclear since it’s just one of many projects all of the musicians juggle. Cannon has several scattered spring dates at the Blue Note with McCoy Tyner along with other gigs. Coltrane has his own work as a leader, including a week in February at the Jazz Standard. Brecker, Roney, and McKinney have commitments as well.

Calhoun heads out for another global tour to support the release of Living Colour’s new Synesthesia release and will somehow squeeze in time for work on film scores, his visual art collaboration, and (one of my favorite projects) a live recording date with guitarist Melvin Gibbs and bassist Vernon Reid for the Zig Zag power trio that performed at the 2017 Winter Jazz Fest and has had a few other dates over the past two years.

Calhoun’s committed to continuing work on the Elvin Jones project and more dates, but admits that “it’s been a little challenging,” pointing out that “there’s not a lot of money involved,” a constant refrain and reality of working in jazz now.

Calhoun: I want to honor the music and play it in an arena where it’s respected

Not surprisingly, it’s more than just the logistics of finances. ”I want to honor the music and play it in an arena where it’s respected,” Calhoun said. “Being an artist, you have a few important decisions to make” and one is artistic integrity and honoring the work. Fans will just have to keep their eyes on Calhoun’s tour schedule for more dates. Calhoun says that there’s one guaranteed stop, though.

“Of course, I have to play in Detroit because that’s where the Jones brothers are from.”
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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