For whatever reason, drummer Chico Hamilton isn't taken seriously enough today by jazz listeners. Nor is he celebrated nearly as often as he should be. My guess is that much has to do with his West Coast jazz lineage and that jazz heads don't view him in the same league as hardbop drivers or fusion bangers. Or perhaps it's because controversy was never his style and he didn't fit the classic image of the jazz drummer. Or maybe his role in Sweet Smell of Success made him too cool and above it all. I'll tell you this: Hamilton is one fabulous, tasteful skinsmith, which is fully evident on his new CD Revelation (Joyous Shout)
Chico turned 90 on September 21, but like Roy Haynes (86), I'm not sure Chico the musician ever really aged beyond 40. To give you a sense of his determination and drive, there are 22 tracks on this CD, and he exhibits virtually every rhythmic trick up his sleeve. There are tracks with brushes, tracks with sticks, a strip-time blues, samba, bossa nova, songs with poly-rhythmic figures—you name it, it's here.
Throughout, Chico is backed by Euphoria, his long-time touring band featuring Nick Demopoulos on guitar, Paul Ramsey on bass, Evan Schwam on flute, tenor and soprano saxes, Mayu Saeki on flutes, and Jeremy Carlstedt on percussion. The group, with its airy muscle and World feel, is perfectly suited to Chico's feathery, firm touch. Even a funky original like P&E exhibits drumming grace and a feline softness.
Even Stompin' at the Savoy is treated to an unorthodox approach. It opens with an unexpected pony-ride clip-clop conga beat before the song slides into a velvety, Honeydripper march-time beat. Track after track make the point that Chico isn't about brute force but instead prefers to get your foot moving through seductive persuasion.
Sample Ten Minutes to Twelve or Don't Go Away, two more Chico originals. Here, too, you get a feel for Chico's rustling restlessness. It's the way trees sound at night when you hear a wind slide through the branches with a near-constant but lilting force. Or dig Every Time I Smile, a ballad on which Chico sings. My favorite is Dilemma, which offers another strutting, shuffle beat topped by flutes, projecting film-noir intrigue.
Remember, Chico was an original member of Gerry Mulligan's pianoless quartet, the one that played the Haig in Los Angeles in '52 and changed jazz. Then Chico led some of the most exciting West Coast chamber-jazz groups of the 50s with Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy and Jim Hall. This was followed by decades of evolving styles that remained fixed in jazz but integrated new hip dance and fusion styles emerging both in the U.S. and abroad.
If you love listening to the drums rather than being buried by them, Chico at age 90 will give you an earful.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Chico Hamilton's Revelation at iTunes and here.
JazzWax note: For my multipart interview with Chico Hamilton, go here.
JazzWax clip: How far back does Chico Hamilton go? Far enough that he was the drummer on this Lester Young recording from August 1946...