The beating heart of the band, part two

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Shawn Sensiba
Thursday, July 26, 2012

This is the second of a three-part series between Andy Beaumont, Shawn Sensiba and Dave von Falkenstein on their favorite drummers and what makes them great.

Click here to read part one.

Click here to read part three.

The drummer is the heartbeat of a band. I love melody and harmony, but it is the rhythmic structure that drives music forward. It might seem more important in some kinds of music than others, but it is essential to almost all music. Even solo piano and guitar pieces have to incorporate the rhythmic work that a drum does.

My favorite drummers break into two groups. One groupís members often seem invisible. You hear their contribution on every bar but they keep a low profile, content to let the other members of the band do the high profile work. The other groupís members are showmen. They create a visual and sonic spectacle. I enjoy both types.

Here is my list:

Jack DeJohnette was a sideman to Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins, among many others, and he is my standard. Jack knows a groove but never overwhelms the often-gossamer nature of some of his music. Brilliant, restrained, subtle.

Steve Gadd is a musicianís musician. Heís a studio guy who, it seems, has played with everybody. He is, as Chick Corea once said, the perfect drummer.

Stewart Copeland put the power in the power pop of The Police. High energy and high attitude permeate his work, which manages to be precise, powerful and funny all at the same time.

Tony Williams was among the best drummers in jazz before his untimely death in 1997. Where DeJohnette is about subtlety and shading, Williams was powerful and loud. He expanded and refined the role of the drummer in the ever-shifting sands of 1960s and 1970s jazz. His work with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and many others is still a light for many to emulate.

Elvin Jones was another great post-bop drummer who is best known for his work with John Coltrane. He was one of the most powerful and influential drummers of the era. He died in 2004.

Keith Moon was one of the three rings in the circus that was The Who. A legendary wild man who died at the age of 32, he was eccentric, to say the least, but he was also prodigiously talented. The legacy of The Who would not be the same without him. The band was not the same after his death.

Billy Cobham is another favorite from the jazz-fusion era. He was the drummer in the late, great Mahavishnu Orchestra. Massively powerful and yet precise, Cobham is a wonder. His talent raised the group to a sublime level.

Ringo Starr might have been considered the other Beatle, but his contribution to that band was creative and critical to its successes. He might not have been the technical equal of some other drummers, but he elevated the importance of that position in the band with his humor and quirky creativity.

Levon Helm, like all good drummers, made the musicians around him sound better. Helm helped make The Band one of the pre-eminent groups of its day. I donít know that his playing was technically superb, but he was the foundation, with his drumming and his voice and his presence. He died earlier this year and is certainly missed.

Ginger Baker is one of rockís most adventurous drummers, known for his long solos. He also is flamboyant and restlessly creative. He was at the heart of the band Cream as well as Blind Faith. Later, he contributed to the work of Public Image Ltd. and Fela Kuti, among many others. He is one of the greats.

Maurice White was the drummer and principal songwriter of Earth Wind & Fire. When you are the centerpiece in a rhythmic juggernaut, you have no option other than to be good. The groupís fans treasure his efforts on drums and kalimba.

Click here to read part one.

Click here to read part three.

Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.

Last updated: 10:06 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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