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Drummer Tom Rainey

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His grayish blue eyes fixed on some point just beyond his drum set, Tom Rainey switches between brushes, mallets, sticks, and his bare hands to pull the full textural and sonic capabilities from his four-piece kit. His is a look of concentration, focused on the music. At times it seems as if his arms play independently, reacting to the music without deliberation.

Over more than 20 years, Rainey has quietly become a prolific musician, playing on about 75 recordings and gigging constantly. Though he doesn’t lead any bands, if you’ve been to a few jazz performances during the last several years, chances are you’ve seen him. And if you haven’t, or aren’t familiar with the name, then this February offers a perfect opportunity to hear Rainey in action.

As usual, he will be performing around the city with longtime collaborators like bassists Mark Helias and Drew Gress and saxophonist Tim Berne, in addition to nascent musical relationships with guitarist Brad Shepik, cellist Okkyung Lee, and a new collective improvising trio with saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Angelica Sanchez. The breadth of this list suggests the diversity of Rainey’s output—and it is only a sampling. His unassuming, yet remarkably technical, style is a sought-after commodity.

“I really do fancy myself a drummer, as opposed to somebody who calls himself a percussionist,” says Rainey. “I play the drum set, that’s enough.” Although this attitude may seem a throwback to the days when drummers were seen only as supporting players, there is nothing anachronistic in Rainey’s playing. It is informed not only by jazz, but also by rock, funk, and classical music, giving Rainey deep rhythmic concepts. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Cali., Rainey says that drums were always around because his dad was an amateur player. There are pictures of Rainey as a toddler with toy drums and he doesn’t remember a time without having drumsticks. Throughout school, he says, he took every opportunity to play—stage band, concert band, and even marching band (some of which is evident in the buzz rolls he plays now).

Around junior high, Rainey received his first drum set and became more serious about playing and studying. Also around that time, Rainey says, “I just decided to like jazz and I don’t even really know why. Mainly, I think, because it was just something different.” He soon devoured anything with the word “jazz” in the title—Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Jazz Crusaders—which led to the music of Miles, Coltrane, and Ornette.

When he was 16, Rainey played his first professional gigs at dances and army bases with a Top 40 band, whose repertoire included Steely Dan, Chicago, and Santana—pretty hip, in comparison to today’s hits. He did time at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and performed in San Francisco for a while before settling in New York City in 1979.

He entered the scene on a gig at the old Sweet Basil with pianist Mike Nock, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and bassist Ratzo Harris, whom Rainey knew from California. The two played together in several groups, including pianist Kenny Werner’s trio, which stayed together for about 15 years, and a band with trumpeter Herb Robertson (one of Rainey’s favorite musicians), guitarist Bill Frisell, and Berne, who were neighbors.

“At that time, that was very startling for me,” Rainey says of Berne’s music, which was more open, without form, than anything he had played. Although the group was relatively short-lived, Berne and Rainey’s association continued, and still does. In the last few years, Rainey has been Berne’s drummer of choice. Their empathy was vivid on last year’s live recording The Sublime And... (Thirsty Ear), a sprawling double set recorded at the end of a European tour with Berne’s Science Friction band, which also includes keyboardist Craig Taborn and guitarist Marc Ducret.

Berne and Rainey also finished a second recording with Ducret, expected to be out later this year. In these various bass-less groups, he can get away from a rhythm section approach. Berne says, “I think he’s probably one of the most underrated musicians of all time...and that’s why I like him, because he doesn’t attract attention to what he’s doing—he plays the music.”

Playing Berne’s music affords Rainey the opportunity to express his various influences; whether playing rock grooves, turning rhythms inside out, or coloring quiet passages with subtle brushwork, the scope of Berne’s compositions requires constant creativity. And it suits Rainey’s impulse to find different sounds and new ways to approach music.

This relentless creative energy also made an impression on saxophonist Malaby. They first met in 1992, and since Malaby moved to New York permanently, the two have been playing together in projects led by French hornist Tom Varner and in Helias’ Open Loose, for example. But this association has reached new heights in the last two years, as evident on two recent releases—Sanchez’ Mirror Me (OmniTone) and Malaby’s Apparitions (Songlines).

“Tom has transcended the role of the drums to playing music, because of its melodic content,” Malaby says in a near-reverent tone. He also credits Rainey for opening him up to broader concepts of music, conceptually and rhythmically. And he tests these ideas on Apparitions with his double-drum band, where Michael Sarin joins Rainey. Sometimes the two play bombastically, trading salvos across the drums, while other times they play more airy grace notes, using brushes and mallets to temper their attack. The results are impressive.

Additional ground is covered in the new improvising trio of Malaby, Sanchez, and Rainey. Here, Sanchez plays more Wurlitzer than piano, and instead of song-oriented material, the musicians react in the moment with careful listening and decisiveness. This month, the group will celebrate the release of their debut Alive in Brooklyn (Independent) at Barbés, where it was recorded last fall. “He’s just an incredible improviser,” says Malaby. “It feels like playing with Tom ‘the person’, not Tom ‘the drummer.’”

Rainey finds this level of personal interaction essential to the music. Different musical relationships inspire different aspects of his playing, just as you might enjoy different activities with different friends. “Fortunately, everybody that I’m playing with lately, they’re all my closest friends,” he says, jokingly adding, “It’s just one big love-fest.”

Despite the numerous projects he is involved with, Rainey considers them “bands”, not merely sideman gigs. He performs in situations that allow him to be himself and to which he feels he can contribute.

A particularly fertile and durable association has been with bassist Drew Gress. Rainey notes that at one point it seemed as though every band he was in, so was Gress—as part of pianist Fred Hersch’s trio (which lasted about eight years), pianist Simon Nabatov’s group, saxophonist Andy Laster’s Hydra (another longtime association), Berne’s Paraphrase, and Malaby’s group. Gress also called on Rainey for his band Spin and Drift, which plays often this month and is preparing material for an upcoming recording.

Gress refers to Rainey as a “true Zen improviser” with the ability to provide whatever the music he’s playing needs. And he does this while maintaining his own personality. “Listening is the most important aspect of playing creatively, and of our playing together,” Gress says. “When you’re playing with Tom, you have the feeling that you’re being heard in a big way.”

With such praise, it is no wonder that Rainey is in high demand. Although it varies, he says he spends about three months a year touring. He no longer has to scramble for gigs, but would like to be able to perform more often with some of the bands. But if this month is any indication, it will be another busy year.

Though he hasn’t ruled it out, Rainey has no firm plans to lead his own group. “I’m actually creatively satisfied, because I get to really do whatever I want—luckily, I play with my friends who trust me,” he says. “Right now that’s fine for me.”

Photo Credit

Peter Gannushkin
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