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Will Calhoun: Celebrating Elvin Jones

Dan Bilawsky By

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Properly paying tribute to a figure like the late Elvin Jones is about more than aping a style of drumming and referencing songs; it's about acknowledging a specific life force, how it fueled the music, and how it lives on in those who Jones influenced on the bandstand, in the studio, and through his recorded work. Drummer Will Calhoun hits the mark in all of those ways on Celebrating Elvin Jones.

For Calhoun, Jones was both a link between musical worlds and the force to pull down the partitions that supposedly separate them. Everything from jazz to Latin music and African ideals to rock spoke to the younger drummer through the elder's limbs, cymbals, and skins. Jones' was an oft-aggressive sound that incorporated and touched on myriad ideas while simultaneously speaking to the oneness of man and drums. It was as unique as it was universal, difficult to imitate and impossible to duplicate, and completely perfect in the way(s) it fired the musicians around him. That influence is certainly audible in what Calhoun has brought to the table in the past, in jazz, world music, and with Living Colour, and it manifests itself completely in this work. Calhoun assembled a group of Jones alums, admirers, and kindred spirits to properly convey respect for the late drummer while also putting their own stamp(s) on music associated with him.

The album opens with attitude on "EJ Blues," a Jones-penned signature that serves as a hard-edged blowing tune. Each member of the core band—Calhoun, bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Antoine Roney, pianist Carlos McKinney, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold—steps into the spotlight and shines. There's great chemistry at play between Calhoun and McBride on the follow-up—Wilbur Little's "Whew," a piece that hearkens back to Jones' Poly-Currents (Blue Note, 1969)—and Roney and McKinney each go one step beyond in their solo exploits. Then the obligatory John Coltrane reference arrives with "Harmonique," a tweaked blues that Jones included on Brother John (Palo Alto, 1984). While dynamic contrast is present in each of those three pieces, all possess the unflagging spirit befitting a tribute to such a tireless drummer-leader.

If Calhoun had continued to work in the direction laid out in those opening salvos, the album would've worked just fine. It just would've remained somewhat one-dimensional in direction and language. In branching out, as he first does by wielding 12-string acoustic guitar (on top of drums) and creating mood decompression through his own "Sarmastah," he takes great risk. He does so twice more at program's end—first by appending a recording of the late Senegalese drum master Doudou N'Diaye Rose (with a crew of drummers) to the beginning of "Doll Of The Bride," a traditional Japanese folk song that bridges the Afro-Latin-Asiatic divide(s) with intensity; then by visiting "Destiny," a fusion bender that finds guest keyboardist Jan Hammer reprising his role from Elvin Jones Is "On The Mountain" (PM Records, 1975). The inclusion of these divergent sounds/ideas is an artful gambit that will likely please some and bother others. But there's no doubt that those elements help to create a better-rounded album.

In Celebrating Elvin Jones, Will Calhoun has painted a full picture of what made Jones so special. He brilliantly captures the artistic ethos of the album's namesake while advancing his own identity.

Track Listing: EJ Blues; Whew; Harmonique; Sarmastah; Mahjong; Shinjitsu; Doll Of The Bridge; Destiny.

Personnel: Will Calhoun: drums, 12-string acoustic guitar (4); Christian McBride: bass; Antoine Roney: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Carlos McKinney: piano; Keyon Harrold: trumpet; Jan Hammer: keyboards (8); Doudou N'Diaye Rose and five others: drums (7).

Title: Celebrating Elvin Jones | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Motema Music

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