Thoughts of Chico Hamilton: Hollywood Swinging

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I go for the originals, people who invent and create a sound or create an emotion. 'Cause all we're dealing in is human emotion. That's all music is. —Chico Hamilton
He’s into his sixth decade of performing and recording, reaching way back to when he kept time for Lester Young and for Count Basie. But with his latest release, Thoughts of..., drummer Chico Hamilton demonstrates that he is not quite ready to drift into the mute pages of jazz history books just yet.

The 81-year old Hamilton has seen and done pretty much everything a musician can do. He played in a high school band near Los Angeles with such greats as Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, served in WWII, then returned to California, where he wound up furnishing the rhythmic linchpin for the famous Chet Baker / Gerry Mulligan “piano-less” quartets and quintets. After Mulligan got busted for drugs and the band broke up, Hamilton remained a pillar of West Coast jazz by forming his own influential, uniquely-instrumented quintet with Buddy Collete on reeds, Carson Smith on bass, Fred Katz on cello, and a young Jim Hall on guitar (again, sans piano). Like Art Blakey, Hamilton’s subsequent, frequent bands were schools that nurtured many significant modern players, including Hall, Charles Lloyd, Eric Dolphy, and Larry Coryell.

Consider Hamilton’s band Euphoria, which supports him on Thoughts of... and his previous release, Foreststorn : Paul Ramsey (bass), Cary DeNigris (guitar), whose playing also graces recent output from drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, Erik Lawrence (alto and soprano saxophones), and Evan Schwan (tenor saxophone), although veteran players, are all still only around HALF his age, yet these Euphoria albums are driven by Hamilton’s colorful splashes and swinging, energetic pulses.

John Popper, harmonica player and frontman for Blues Traveler, and Spin Doctors guitarist Eric Schenkman, both former students of Hamilton’s at the New School of Music in New York City, honor their teacher on Foreststorn by respectively rocking out on the blues “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” and “Guitar Willie.” Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, a longtime Hamilton admirer who once fancied himself as “Chico Watts,” guests on “Here Comes Charlie Now,” while former band member Arthur Blythe returns his saxophone to the Hamilton fold on “11 Bars for Arthur.”

Chico’s pretty hip with the younger crowd, too: “For Mods Only,” a track from Hamilton’s 1968 album The Dealer, was not only included on The Thievery Corporation’s trippy Sounds from the Verve Hi-Fi compilation, but, according to the Corporation’s Eric Hilton, “In fact, we were going to name the compilation ‘For Mods Only.’ Maybe next time.” Speaking of “mods,” Thoughts of... ends with Hamilton’s house-rocking romp through “Bull-Rush,” composed by Paul Weller, leader of mod revivalists the Jam from the days when punk rockers roamed the British earth.

However, Thoughts of... does allow Hamilton some reflection on his six-decade career through tributes to – his own “thoughts of” – three of the most influential horn players in modern jazz: “Thoughts of Trane” for John Coltrane, “Thoughts of Pres” for Lester Young, and a cover of “Freddie Freeloader” for Miles Davis. Joe Beck, Larry Coryell, and Rodney Jones, all alumni of earlier Hamilton bands, play guitar guest spots on the soulful, joyously blue “Mother Tucker” (Beck), “Could Be” (Jones) and “Rusty Dusty Blues (Mama Mama Blues)” (a surgically incisive Coryell).

But Thoughts of... is not entirely a look back: "Je Ka Jo" is DeNigris' arrangement of the tune written by modern remix master Joaquin “Joe” Claussell, who has also helped mastermind an entire set of extended Hamilton remixes and dubs, Groove Master Vol. 1: Soulfeast Presents the Chico Hamilton Remix Project, as the first 2003 release of the new Soulfeast label.

Late one subfreezing January afternoon, tucked in the pocket of his New York apartment overlooking the UN, Hamilton reflected on his past, present, and future with AAJ.

AllAboutJazz: What do you miss the most from the jazz scene in Los Angeles during the 1950s?

Chico Hamilton: (Laughs) That’s a good question. I really don’t miss anything! First of all, I’ve been blessed. From the very get-go, when I first started making a living playing when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, making 75 cents a night – like, three quarters, with the hat, you know – I’ve always been musically in dynamite company. My formative years, I was playing shows when I was fifteen, sixteen years old, I could play the hell out of a show for dancers and singers and all of that jazz.

AAJ: Is there a unique relationship between drumming and dancing?

CH: Very much so. When the drummers used to use brushes, most drummers, what we tried to do, we tried to imitate tap dancers. Play all the licks that tap dancers would lay down.

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