A Fireside Chat with Kevin Norton
Kevin Norton is one of the most original percussionists my side of the Atlantic. Having documented the music of Anthony Braxton on his Barking Hoop label, Norton, after a handful of convincing releases on the CIMP and Clean Feed labels, continues to advance creatively with Oceans of Earth, a new trio release with like-minded Tomas Ulrich and Joëlle Léandre. An impressively detailed recording, Oceans of Earth furthers the previous The Dream Catcher. Kevin Norton, folks, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let’s start from the beginning.
KEVIN NORTON: It moved me. It felt good. The reason why I played drums was because I related to the rhythm of the music first. There was a kid in my neighborhood, who played a drum set and I might have been fooling around with the sticks and pad at first, but when I went over and fooled around with the drum set, his mom had smashed the door leading to the basement, knocked the door jam off. I thought that playing the drums was pretty powerful stuff (laughing).
FJ: The perception among the masses is that a drummer is not an artist, but filler.
KN: It is kind of a big issue. You know, but it is worth saying again that people like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and Roy Haynes, but Max Roach in particular, are very melodic drummers. Max Roach is also an amazing composer. He has written pieces that go from solo drum set to pieces for orchestra and pieces for chorus. No matter what he’s playing, the basis of it seems to come from his voice that he has on the drum set. When I started playing the drums, it was the rhythm that attracted me, but at my grandmother’s house, she had a piano and I always used to go over there and fool around on the piano. So it was around college when I started to get into the mallet instruments. For me, a lot of the projects that I do, either as a sideman or as a leader, I have to use the vibes and the drums from almost an orchestral standpoint. I need to hear all the instruments. I need to hear pitch. I need to hear percussion. I need to be in the background. I need to be in the foreground. Percussion instruments, for me, are very expressive and very dynamic.
FJ: There has been a significant shift that should be noted among your generation and those that follow that drummers are no longer merely content with playing the drums, but rather are becoming versed in ethnic percussion instruments and have become students of these cultures.
KN: It is good. My background besides jazz and besides knowing Milt Hinton, I was in a conservatory and so I studied contemporary classical music and I studied Morton Feldman. That is a big part of my vocabulary and I think the guys who play tabla drums or listen to Balkan music, that also rather than us playing the blues or 32-bar standards all the time, the richness of the orchestration can be carried forward and we can also try and compose in new forms and breaking away from the more established forms. For me, it doesn’t distract me from what the conservatives might say is the essence of jazz. It serves to enrich it.
FJ: Han Bennink playing knee or Paul Lytton playing Dixie cups is within the context of their improvisations. However, there seems to be a disturbing trend among drummers familiar with Euro Improv, aping originality and diminishing it to gimmickry.
KN: It is interesting. What you are saying, somebody aping Han Bennink playing on his knee, for one thing, that is really contrived and not really well-thought out. Han Bennink developed his whole thing over years and years and that is why it seems seamless. It is all part of his honest language. For instance, I don’t think I played as well in my twenties as I do now and my idea of using mallet instruments in the context of my whole drum set, I don’t think I did it as well then as I do now. I know if it is going to blend with the other instruments and if it is going to compositionally make sense. It takes years and years to develop that. Guys younger than me are studying other music and playing other instruments. If they hang in there for years and years, that is when it will be interesting, down the line. I think some of it now is exoticism or effect.
FJ: Your thoughts on a mentor/collaborator, arguably the most prolific composer of the modern era, Anthony Braxton.