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Drum Hum

Article from Making Music, June 1987

Geoff Nicholls traces the style and influence of two drummers who've recently copped it — Buddy Rich and Carlton Barrett

Geoff Nicholls, mate? He's on holiday in Turkey, re-enacting the Gallipoli landings on a drum kit. So where did this obituary for Buddy Rich and Carlton Barrett come from then, off the back of a postcard? Well, yes, actually...

IN THE past couple of months two hugely influential drummers have died. Buddy Rich we know all about; the greatest star drummer in the history of jazz — on stage from 1918 to 1987. Will anyone ever match a career like that? The other was Carlton Barrett, the drummer with Bob Marley & The Wailers, who was killed in a shooting incident. Which prompts me to make a rather distant comparison with Al Jackson, the great Stax in-house drummer, who was also tragically shot. Just as Jackson stylishly defined soul drumming in the Sixties, Barrett's was the definitive interpretation of reggae in the Seventies.

Buddy Rich was of course the flamboyant big band soloist, the self-proclaimed greatest drummer in the world. In some respects, he probably was. Certainly his technique was extraordinary to the end of his life, despite heart problems that would have seen off an ordinary mortal a decade or more ago. And it was his showmanship and cruel wit, as well as his fantastic ability, that made him as much a favourite with rock musicians as with the big band fans of the Forties and Fifties, even though he rarely missed an opportunity to criticise rock musicians. The fact that he himself played some of the most dismal pop/rock drums ever heard simply confirmed his prejudice and hence his lack of feel for rock rhythms.

When it came to big band swing and drive, however, he was the boss. His great talent was to make almost any arrangement urgent and exciting, to make a brilliant arrangement like 'Love For Sale' devastating. And you don't achieve that simply by overplaying. I believe behind the flash he was deeply musical. However, he was one of those rare musicians who became the victim of their own huge talent. He was so devastating, he often dwarfed those around him and — was this his own fault? — was always expected to show off. Consequently the music at times came second to the show.

It would have been nice if in his later years he could have been heard in more musically challenging settings, either with players of similar stature, or with young musicians with truly original or irreverent ideas. His big band rarely fulfilled this, even though it became a great institution. Other drummers of almost equal legend — his near contemporary Art Blakey, and the relative stripling Errol Jones — have continued to guide marvellously fresh jazz groups (mostly), of relevance today. With Rich this was rarely so, perhaps because he came up in the big band era playing for Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and others, and was therefore a 'popular' musician himself, and thus largely outside the major developments of jazz as 'serious art'.

But this is too big a subject for a small column. In the end what's important is his fantastic big band ability, a legacy which it's hoped others will continue to draw from. Because many critics have been blinded by the flash, his musicianship has often been under-rated. So, for instance one of my favourite tracks is 'New Blues', played with infinite subtlety and restraint and with a dynamic roll into the end coda which takes your breath away. And people say his solos are unmusical. Well, any drummer who consistently comes up with interesting and different solos night after night is 1) exceptionally rare, and 2) relying on more than just technical ability.

There are dozens of solos on record — live and studio — which testify to his breadth of imagination. The solos on, say, 'From The Sticks', and 'Channel One suite', both perfectly controlled and tailored to the piece, are just two which come to mind to illustrate this. He was undoubtedly a genius — flawed, as they say — and I'm really grateful to have seen him play.

"Carlton Barrett defined reggae drumming all over the world."

Unfortunately I never saw Carlton Barrett play. There couldn't have been two more different drummers than Barrett and Rich: this is probably the only place where they've appeared side-by-side! But Barrett's influence is much broader than his public fame. By virtue of his presence on all the great Marley recordings he defined reggae drumming all over the world. Only Sly Dunbar has had as much influence for his continued efforts to develop reggae along with funk and rock.

Barrett and his brother Aston on bass were the classic reggae rhythm section. The unique reggae 'one-drop' style, heard for example on 'No Woman, No Cry', 'I Shot The Sherriff' and many others, fascinated and still confronts drummers everywhere because of its 'upside down' feel. The bass drum 'drops' halfway through the bar instead of marking the first beat of the bar as in almost all other styles. Even when Barrett used the more tenable four-to-the bar 'steppers' bass drum ('Exodus', 'Jamming'), the style and sound were still unmistakably Jamaican.

Barrett employed a characteristically high and resonant snare drum tuning. This gave him a penetrating rim side-stick click and a very sharp rim-shot sound. This sound has contributed in no small way to the confusion in rock circles between reggae snare drum and timbale. Timbales are regularly used in reggae, by percussionists and often by the kit drummer, many of whom have, for instance, a single timbale mounted where the floor tom would normally be. But the kit drummer also has a proper snare drum, played in the conventional manner, or with a rim click.

When Stewart Copeland (him again!) merged reggae with rock it's significant that he became recognisable through the use of a similarly sharp snare tuning, which I've no doubt was in part influenced by Barrett — consciously or unconsciously. And I'm sure Copeland won't object to me suggesting that his incisive and characteristic use of the hi-hat is also partly a reflection of his love of Barrett's playing. The stumbling bi-hat figures heard on many Wailers tracks eg 'Heathen' are a Barrett trademark and for me the most brilliant idea he developed. The way they give a sinuous twist to the loping reggae half-time feel is pure joy.

Reggae is one of those musics, like American blues, which is deceptively simple, yet which quite obviously has great depth. It seems easy until you try to carry it off authentically. The brilliance of the Wailers and Bob Marley didn't just happen; it came about via a lot of hard work and a total commitment. At a time in the mid to late Seventies when the only alternative was the frustrations of punk, the Wailers came up with the most original and positive music around. Carlton Barrett's unique rhythm was a major factor in that sound.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jun 1987

Feature by Geoff Nicholls

Previous article in this issue:

> The Dumb Chums

Next article in this issue:

> Assault On Pepper

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