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Working the Rhythm Section: Tom Lawton, Lee Smith, and Dan Monaghan

Victor L. Schermer By

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As Duke Ellington's standard goes, "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing." The rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, with guitar and percussion sometimes added) is the core of the typical jazz ensemble. They set the frame for the leader, singer, and soloists and contribute their own solos as well. Even though they work primarily in the background, they can make or break the performance of the horn players or singer.

In order to call greater attention to the rhythmic component of the jazz ensemble, All About Jazz assembled three top Philadelphia musicians in a conference room at the University of the Arts and asked them to discuss their views on rhythm and rhythm sections as well as their experience accompanying other musicians. Tom Lawton, piano, Lee Smith, bass, and Dan Monaghan, drums (top left to right in above photo, with vocalist Mary Ellen Desmond and saxophonist Larry McKenna), are among the most highly regarded players on the jazz scene today. They front their own groups and work independently as well, but they also frequently work together as a rhythm section for singers and horn players. It is fascinating to hear their candid and sometimes surprising views on what it takes to make the music swing. Foot-tapping aficionados might think it's easy to do, but it's more complicated than fans might think.

All About Jazz: To start out, I'd like to ask each of you to tell us who you would consider to be the greatest rhythm section of all time. [The musicians were asked to write it down first, so that their responses would be independent of one another.] Why don't you start off, Lee?

Lee Smith: Off the top of my head, I'd say Tony Williams, drums; Herbie Hancock, piano; and Ron Carter, bass.

AAJ: That was the rhythm section for Miles Davis at one point.

Dan Monaghan: I picked the same guys.

Tom Lawton: So did I!

AAJ: Amazingly, you all independently chose the same rhythm section! Do you think that would be a consensus among many players?

LS: Yes, but it could also depend on the generation of musicians. Musicians who came up at a different time than us, either younger or older, might disagree.

TL: I added two other rhythm sections: McCoy Tyner, piano; Elvin Jones, drums; Jimmy Garrison, bass. They were with John Coltrane, of course. And bassist Paul Chambers with either Red Garland or Wynton Kelly, piano; Philly Joe Jones, drums. They were all with Miles at different times.

AAJ: Aside from the fact that they may have been your heroes during that time, what in your mind makes them so special?

DM: For me, Williams-Hancock-Carter: They were so swingin'! For me, that's the most important thing about a rhythm section.

TL: The term "swing" has a large area of meaning. Like Williams, Hancock, and Carter would sometimes swing in a "normal" sense, as with a burning or walking tune. On other occasions, however, they would be breaking up the time, but you could always hear the basic swing behind it, even if it were unstated. And they were exceptional at playing impressionistic tunes softly and in a subtle way, as when Miles did one of those brooding ballads.

AAJ: Like "My Funny Valentine" in that famous Carnegie Hall concert.

TL: In other words, no matter how "out there" or oblique it got, you felt the heritage of swing behind it.

In the Trenches: Working on a Gig

AAJ: OK. Let's talk about what it's like for you guys when you work together as a rhythm section. Let's say you're accompanying a singer like Mary Ellen Desmond or an instrumentalist like saxophonist Larry McKenna—which you often do—or maybe it's a new musician or a new tune. How do you go about setting up a performance? What's your strategy?

LS: Well, occasionally, a leader will convey to the rhythm section what he wants and expects. He might have a chart with the chord changes, or he may convey to you that he's giving you a certain amount of freedom to interpret the changes. He might say, "Don't necessarily stay glued to the changes; if you hear other changes or chord progressions that you feel may work, feel free to use them." Other guys are very stringent, and they'll say, "This is exactly what I want you to play." In which case, it's not as much of a challenge; you just read the music and go from there.

AAJ: That sounds very rigid to me. Don't you feel your spontaneity is interfered with when they give you orders like that?"

LS: Not necessarily. For me as a bassist, and I would say the same for the whole rhythm section, we're there to make them comfortable. Whether it's a horn player or a singer, you have to adjust to their needs. For instance, with some singers, like Betty Carter, we could be very aggressive when accompanying someone like her. Whereas, for other singers, I feel I need to play underneath them, let them shine, and just play a secondary role. But, until you actually do the gig, you don't really know how it's going to sound or come out. And, in addition, everybody is going to hear what you play differently anyway.

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