Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alvin Fielder Calling...

The author, left, with Alvin Fielder
Every so often, I get a phone call from the drummer and percussionist Alvin Fielder, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi. His work with the Roscoe Mitchell group in the mid-1960s was documented on the Delmark LP Sound, as well as a forthcoming disc of pre-Sound recordings on the Nessa Records imprint. Over the past decade-plus, he’s been part of the Southern Extremes group with pianist-saxophonist Joel Futterman (Virginia Beach) and saxophonist Kidd Jordan (New Orleans), which is sometimes expanded to include New York bassist William Parker and Bay Area reedman Ike Levin. I interviewed Alvin in 2005 for All About Jazz, and we have kept in sporadic touch, especially over the past couple of years since his recovery from a health scare.

Every conversation is like a drum lesson, going back to the originators of jazz drumming as we know it today – not in the sense that he’s necessarily showing me certain patterns (although that does come up, which as a non-musician I do my best to understand), but because he is a historian and archivist of information about the drums in modern jazz. These talks have enlightened me to the origins of sounds and approaches, and understanding where Alvin’s forebears – people like Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones – got some of their ideas from, and how the kit has evolved from not just a technical standpoint, but from a biographical and experiential one.

Alvin is a treasure trove of knowledge and a fascinating human being, but he’s far from flashy about it – and that’s just like his playing. He is a subtle musician, and how he approaches the kit is economically detailed. He’s got an effortless swing and spaciousness to his playing, and yet it’s packaged in such a way that it’s easy to miss some of the beauty in his phrases. Maybe that’s part of being a musician of a certain caliber – a fluidity and warmth that eases the collective ship along while ensuring that motion, action and thought remain at a high level.

Here’s a video that I recently discovered through Alvin’s student (and a fine musician in his own right), Dallas-based drummer Stefan Gonzalez (you'll have to go to the Youtube site to watch it). It features a 1976 performance of the Improvisational Arts Quintet of Fielder, Kidd Jordan, bassist London Branch, trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. and saxophonist Alvin Thomas. The group produced one LP for the Prescription label, No Compromise!, released in 1983 with a slightly different lineup and reissued on CD by Danjor. It’s a small tribute to a fantastic musician whose significance in my life – as well as that of the music – I’m still working to understand. Here’s to many more years of music and conversation.

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