Missing Elvin Jones

I’ve been to a lot — a lot — of amazing shows in my life, but Elvin Jones might just been tops.

I saw him in fall 2002 — maybe fall 2003? — double-billed with McCoy Tyner at the Masonic Auditorium. Being a naive musician, I had originally purchased tickets to see the pianist Tyner, but, of course, was thrilled to get to see two of Coltrane’s classic quartet lead their own ensembles.

Tyner and his big band came on first, and honestly, were a little boring. There was intermission.

The smaller ensemble rolls onto stage like they’re walking onto Black’s, loose-limbed, straight-backed, free. They sit, stand, warm up, not anticipatory, just being. They wait, but they’re not waiting.

And then —

Out walks this ancient man, white robes billowing, barefoot, with all the vigor of pre-shorn Samson. At the time, he was 74 or 75; he would die in May 2004. He was amazing amazing amazing. And, just when I thought his show couldn’t get any better, his encore was “Afro Blue,” which might just be my favorite Coltrane track of all time. It was so purely AWESOME that I was wiggling around in and out of my seat, shit-faced-grinning, grooving along, leaning over the rail, practically falling off the balcony, despite attending the show in a quartet that included my awkward crush of six years.

Jones was deliberate. He was of-the-moment, but no stroke ever felt undeserving, or even unexpected. Maybe partly because he had honed his craft for seven decades, he was so comfortable within his art that he was free to do everything he wanted, and confident enough to know that whatever he did was exactly what that very instant actually needed. Instead of picking and choosing strands of the universe to bring to you, he simultaneously would discover a force that existed while pulling you into its context, and, through his sheer joy, catalyze our wonder of life.

A standard drum kit really doesn’t have many tools: snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum, cymbals, high hat. Two sticks, sometimes brushes, rarely another utensil. Essentially, these instruments will create maybe four different sounds, tops, but all of a very similar quality, so if you want to oversimplify (which I do), I can say that Jones, more so than instrumentalists with many note/chord possibilities, had two options: sound, and silence. Honestly, if you think about “playing the rests,” you conceive of silence as a part of sound (if “sound” is something you “play,” or something you choose to effect), so really, Jones had just the one tool, with its component point and counterpoint.

Jones was a drummer, and I mean this in the least pejorative sense. He was a sculptor — not that kind with clay and crap, but when one who sits with a slab, and hacks, and sands, and drills, and chips, and nicks, and sometimes knocks off too much, and just adapts his art to the missing material.

Assembling, dissembling, re-assembling; constructing and deconstructing, and unconstructing; and always — not creating beauty, harmony, or positivity, but revealing truth. His rhythms never felt derivative, even if he repeated the same beat for 24 measures. Through his art, inspired by his enthusiasm, we can come closer to appreciating infinity than we can in any math class, or even when stuck between two mirrors.

Listening to Jones play, even today, is akin to having a new love. Your mind is clearer, the world is brighter, and you’re cognizant of such truth and vivacity that it leaves you breathless. Sadly, we’ll never be able to see him in person again, but he had such a successful career that you can find thousands of his recordings. Seek, and ye shall find.

While you’re doing that, I’m going to keep searching for my next fix. While the biggest high may be out of reach, the possibility of a repeat performance will keep driving me into less-memorable arms. It’s nice to know that they’ll usually satisfy, and may someday lead me to an even better lover.

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