Although seldom recognized in jazz history texts, Stan Levey was in the thick of the bebop revolution of the 1940s, working and recording with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as well as gigging with Thelonious Monk in a group led by Coleman Hawkins. On the recently reissuedThis Time The Drum’s On Me
, one of three recordings Levey made as a leader for Bethlehem in the mid-fifties, he displays sticking and footwork equal to Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, the two primary architects of modern jazz drumming. What’s interesting about his playing, however, is not the similarities to them, but the differences. Levey’s unobtrusive support of the soloists is in the form of steady, flowing time on a thin sounding ride cymbal, or meticulous brushwork, rather than stylishly “dropping bombs” on the snare and bass drums. Only during brief breaks and one extended solo does Levey cut loose in a way that is reminiscent of his better known contemporaries (particularly Roach)—that is, playing with enough power to move mountains yet remaining in perfect control of each stroke and making his points in a highly organized manner.
“Diggin’ For Diz,” the disc’s medium tempo opener gives us a taste of each of the band’s splendid soloists. Over the foundation of Levey’s drums and LeRoy Vinnegar’s firm walking bass, trumpeter Conte Candoli sounds utterly in his element, developing ideas in a relaxed, almost casual way but with a tautness that prevents them from becoming sluggish. Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon improvises in a sparse, nearly diffident fashion, weighing each idea cautiously and letting the rhythm section do the work of keeping things mobile. The fine points of Frank Rosolino’s deceptively complex turn on trombone, such as subtle shifts in dynamics and the placing of long, thick tones in unexpected places are deeply satisfying. Temporarily breaking up the string of solos is a series of four-bar breaks by Levey, each one distinct, with vigorous swing and utmost conviction serving as common threads. Initially sounding timid by comparison, Lou Levy’s piano solo quickly takes off while he spins out sturdy lines which contain engaging quirks, like sustaining a single note as a means of building a bridge from one phrase to the next.
Except for Levy’s introduction and a few of readings of the head, “Stanley The Steamer” consists entirely of an inspired performance by Dexter Gordon. With Levy laying out for the first two choruses Gordon sounds decidedly cool, as if he’s holding something in reserve then, beginning with four bars of double time passages right before the pianist enters, he bears down and becomes more expansive. Without ever losing his studied composure, the tenor saxophonist accumulates a number of small, meaningful gestures, slowly and deliberately transforming the solo into an emotionally stirring experience.
Levey’s lone extended flight is part of the title track, an extremely fast version of a composition by Oscar Pettiford, another one of the drummer’s employers during the formative years of bebop. After everyone (with the exception of Vinnegar) takes a brief turn, Levey jumps in and for the next few minutes holds nothing back. Utilizing brilliant technique that never crosses the line into self-indulgence, he melds seemingly disparate sequences—truncated single stroke rolls around the entire set; a shuffle rhythm played between the ride cymbal, snare, and hi-hat, with pithy bass drum punctuation; and a song-like theme on two toms; to name a few—into a coherent statement while consistently shifting the tempo and changing dynamics.