Accompanied by his father, a boy approaches the drum kit, stops and stares, transfixed by the array of shapes and gleaming surfaces. Without a moment's hesitation, Greg Bufford, the man sitting on the drummer's throne, makes eye contact, smiles, and proffers an impromptu demonstration of articulate, swinging brush strokes. The sounds satisfy the boy's curiosity and capture the attention of a ring of people near the tiny, makeshift bandstand, who are patiently waiting for the band to hit.
Tuesday nights at SuzyQue's BBQ and Bar in West Orange, NJ, are chock full of moments like this one. In a noisy warren where the divide between performers and audience is virtually nonexistent, Bufford is the linchpin for a confluence of jazz, entertainment, and revelry. He's building a loyal audience, one fan at a time, by juggling a variety of skills that are not unlike his sophisticated, polyrhythmic approach to drumming. Bufford leads a core band, graciously encourages singers, instrumentalists (and, in one instance, a tap dancer) to sit in, greets audience members by name in between selections, calls for requests, and makes announcements ranging from birthdays to cars left in the parking lot with the lights on.
A gregarious man who is apparently ready for anything, Bufford reacts to all manner of stimuli in ways that feel effortless and devoid of self-importance. Under Bufford's direction, extra-musical aspects seamlessly work their way into the performance. At the conclusion of one set, he plays precise time with one stick on the ride cymbal, and genially introduces the band with the mic in the other hand. On another occasion he asks a man to get the attention of a woman sitting on the next bar stool, in order to dedicate "I'll Remember April" to her. It's not a stretch to imagine that if a fire alarm went off, Bufford would lead the crowd outside to safety, without missing a beat.
In addition to long sets of fine music, positive vibes, and the camaraderie of an audience having a great time, there's another compelling reason to return to SuzyQue's week after week: The opportunity to listen and watch Bufford play the drums in close quarters, where you can catch every stroke and inflection. By any standard, he's an exceptional musician with a personal sound, conception, and feeling for jazz. Not unlike his spontaneous handling of the extra-musical aspects of the SuzyQue's gigs, there are two overlapping sides of Bufford's musical personality, which he projects simultaneously. On the one hand, he provides a firm rhythmic foundation and generously supports every musician on the bandstand. On the other, Bufford draws on a deep reservoir of rhythmssome boldly executed, others that barely register in the listener's consciousness and executes them in mesmerizing ways.
During sets comprised of jazz standards and Great American Songbook favorites, called on the spot by pianist Dave Braham and bassist Hassan (JJ Wiggins) Shakur
, the music doesn't make radical, disjunctive twists and turns. Regardless of the tempo or type of material, there's always a welcoming, feel good quality to the music. Straight-ahead swing, Latin rhythms, and funk grooves move forward in a steady, focused, and uncluttered manner. Working hand in glove with Shakur's line, Bufford never leaves any doubt of where the beat lies. In a matter of seconds, they can make the pulse sound fuller without messing with the tempo or changing the dynamic level. One night when Shakur was absent, the band's momentum didn't suffer; Bufford swung with grace and conviction in alliance with Braham's walking left hand.
In laying down a firm foundation on straight-ahead jazz selections, Bufford artfully employs one of the conventional tools of the trade, the ride cymbal. His time on the ride is firm and supple, declarative and relaxed. As it drives the music forward, the cymbal often converses with Braham's piano and Shakur's bass; leaving Bufford's other three limbs to make all kinds of spontaneous comments. The timekeeping function of the ride is often supplemented by Bufford's bass drum, which he frequently strikes on each beat of a measure, in a manner that is more felt than heard.