Posts Tagged ‘Tony Williams’

Gretsch Greatest Hits…and Hitters

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Alvino Bennett: The Road Warrior

by Fred W. Gretsch

If you’re looking for a drummer who can do it all—and, in fact, who has quite literally done it all—you need look no further than Alvino Bennett. A veteran of stage and studio, Alvino has made a career out of providing whatever a given artist needs from a drummer. And he’s done it with his own brand of style, taste, and musical skill.

To say that Alvino got an early start is an understatement. He was only ten years old when he joined the William Penn Elementary School drum and bugle corps in his home town of Chicago. Only a few years later he was playing for various local bands, and by the age of fourteen he was traveling the country on the club circuit. When he was seventeen he was spotted in a club by blues legend KoKo Taylor, who tapped him to lend his talents to her act. This led to calls from other blues and R&B luminaries including Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Cash McCall, and Mighty Joe Young.

But blues and R&B were just a part of Alvino’s skill set. In 1974 he was called to tour with the great pop songstress Minnie Ripperton. This, in turn, led to a whole new variety of projects, including recording with The Sylvers and several other Motown artists.

Then came 1978 and membership in the million-selling R&B band L.T.D. Alvino’s five-year stint in this group boosted his reputation to first-call status, and he quickly became the go-to drummer for such stars as Cheryl Lynn, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, Bryan Ferry, Robin Trower, Sheena Easton, Little Richard, Slash’s Blues Ball, Patrice Rushen, Little Richard, Soul II Soul, Chic, Bo Diddley, and many more.

In 1996, at the summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Alvino became part of history. He was playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack (on Tony Williams’ Gretsch drumkit, no less!) when a bomb exploded nearby.

“We had played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park,” Alvino recalls. “I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big amplifiers had gone out. But it was the bomb that went off.” (You can read the full description of this event on Gretsch.com. The blog is: The Gretsch Drumkit That Made Olympic History.)

So how do you follow being part of a historic event? You go on tour with a historic artist. Since 2002 Alvino has been anchoring the touring band for 1960s icon Dave Mason. Best known for his soulful voice and unique guitar playing, Mason is a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame alum as a member of the legendary 1960s band Traffic. His song “Feelin’ Alright” is a rock and roll anthem, and his other hits include “We Just Disagree” and “Only You Know And I Know.” He has enjoyed a lengthy solo career and continues to play to sold-out audiences—with the able support of Alvino Bennett. According to Mason, “Alvino is a treasured member of the band.”

Alvino with Fred Gretsch.

Alvino has been with Dave Mason for a long time…but he’s been part of the Gretsch family of artists even longer. As he puts it, “To be part of the Gretsch family is great. They’ve always been there for me. I played Gretsch drums as a kid and a young adult. Gerry Brown introduced me to Fred and Dinah Gretsch a year or two before they re-acquired the company, and then I re-introduced myself to them a few years later. We established a relationship in 1986, and it’s been wonderful. And I don’t say this just because I’m with them, but I love the drums.”

Audio And Video Clips

Enjoy a full-length interview with Alvino conducted in 2016 by noted drum writer/radio personality Robyn Flans.

In addition to playing for others, Alvino is a recording artist in his own right. You can listen to five separate clips from his recent solo album Journey.

Alvino doesn’t get much screen time, but his groove is undeniable in this clip with blues/rock artist Lance Lopez from October of 2016.

Solid pocket playing from Alvino is the order of the day, with Dave Mason and others at the Bluesapalooza Festival in 2010.

Alvino’s funk/rock chops are front and center on “Prisoner Of Love,” a track from guitarist Robin Trower’s live tour album This Is Now, ’74-’98.

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The Gretsch Drumkit That Made Olympic History

Monday, August 8th, 2016

By Fred Gretsch

As the world focuses on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, I’d like to share a story that took place the last time that the Summer Olympics were located in the Americas. North America, in fact, exactly twenty years ago.

It was 1996, and the games were being held in Atlanta, Georgia. As always, the athletes of the world had assembled to compete in dozens of events. Also as always, thousands of people had come to view those competitions. And in the evenings, after the competitions had concluded, those thousands of people were enjoying concerts in Centennial Olympic Park, which served as the “town square” for the Olympics.

On the evening of July 27 there was a midnight concert scheduled, featuring Jack Mack & The Heart Attack. This high-energy R&B band was anchored by long-time Gretsch drummer Alvino Bennett. Prior to coming down to Atlanta for the show, Alvino called the Gretsch office to say that the band wasn’t carrying a drumkit for their tour, and to ask if Gretsch might be able to loan him one for the Atlanta show. My wife Dinah and I had a great relationship with Alvino, and as it happened it was Dinah that he spoke with when he called.

Dinah was eager to help Alvino, and she also realized that having a Gretsch kit seen and heard at the Olympics would be a pretty historic situation. So she decided to loan Alvino an already historic set of drums: the iconic yellow kit played by drumming legend Tony Williams during the latter part of his career. When Alvino called, that kit was proudly on display in the Gretsch museum at the company’s headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.

Tony Williams' iconic yellow Gretsch drums are on display at Gretsch Company headquarters in Pooler, Georgia.

As most drummers know, Tony Williams was arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.

Fred Gretsch and Alvino Bennett in 2012.

“I was so honored,” says Alvino today. “The Gretsches didn’t have to loan me that particular kit; they could have given me any drumkit. But they gave me Tony Williams’ drums—that yellow drumkit that was so identified with Tony himself.”

So there was Alvino Bennett, playing with Jack Mack & The Heart Attack at the 1996 Summer Olympics, sitting behind a historic drumkit that had been previously owned and used by an even more historic drummer. But the history doesn’t stop there.

Many people might remember the significance of the date—July 27, 1996—but for those who don’t, Alvino picks up the story, saying:  “We were on stage, and I was playing Tony’s drumkit, which was a big thrill for me. We’d only played two or three songs when we realized that something had happened out in the park. I was sitting directly under the Jumbotron that showed everything that was going on. It was moving. We saw the audience running in all directions. We thought one of the big power amplifiers for the sound system had gone out. We were sitting there wondering what was happening when all these authorities came up to us yelling, ‘Get off the stage. A bomb has gone off!’”

Hearing those terrible words would likely send anyone running to seek safety. But Alvino Bennett isn’t just anyone. He’s a drummer. He continues the story, saying, “There I was, thinking, ‘This is the kit that Tony Williams played; they’re his drums. And I’m responsible for them.’ So I started trying to take the drums down and get them someplace safe. Then a security person walked up and said, ‘Get your ass off stage.’ I told him, ‘I’ve gotta get my drums off first. These are really historic drums.’ I was trying to explain the situation to him. And finally he said, ‘Listen partner . . . These drums, or your life? You think about it for a few seconds.’”

Alvino laughs, and then says, “I actually did think about it. I thought, ‘If anything happens to these drums I’m going to feel really bad. All of us in the musical world love Tony Williams, and I’ve got his drums!’ But the security guy insisted, so I had to go. In fact, we had to leave everything on stage, because the investigators had to do their sweep of the whole Centennial Park area. We went back to the hotel, and it was surrounded by TV trucks, as well as ATF, FBI, and other agencies. We gave interviews that were broadcast from the Atlanta stations all over the country. And all the time I was still thinking, ‘God I hope those drums are gonna be okay.’”

Fortunately the drums were okay, and after all the investigations were concluded they were returned to Gretsch headquarters. They’re still displayed there today, representing a combination of musical, sports, and political history unrivaled by any other drumkit ever made.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Mark Guiliana: A Jazzer For Today

By Fred Gretsch

I want to start this article about Gretsch drum artist Mark Guiliana with a quote from a review of his 2013 recording, A Form of Truth, taken from Relix magazine: “There are musicians that the general public recognizes for their greatness, and then there are the musicians that other musicians stand in awe of. Drummer Mark Guiliana falls squarely into the second category.”

What places Mark at the forefront of today’s jazz drummers is the fact that he combines a genuine respect and reverence for the artistry of historic icons like Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach with a totally fresh and contemporary approach all his own. Blending impressive technical skills on acoustic drums with electronic sounds and processing, Mark can—and does—cover all musical contingencies.

In addition to playing in his own quartet, in his band Beat Music, and in an electronic duo dubbed Mehliana (with keyboardist Brad Mehldau), Mark is a first-call drummer for artists as varied as Avishai Cohen, MeShell N’degeocello, Matisyahu, Gretchen Parlato, and the group Now Vs. Now. In 2014 Mark had the opportunity to play on the late David Bowie’s final album: Blackstar (released on January 8 of this year).

Noted for his ever-changing musical personas, Bowie’s last turn took him into acoustic jazz—albeit with a dark and moody tone—and he wanted a rhythm section that could support his concept. So he called on Mark, with the able assistance of bassist Tim Lefebvre.

Reviews of the album have repeatedly mentioned the contributions made by Mark and Tim, as with this one from Billboard magazine: “Blackstar is unmistakably a band record, showcasing a talented group of musicians who are comfortable navigating the songs’ harmonically twisty byways. Special credit goes to bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who lock into Bowie’s grooves, tilting the music in the direction of spooky funk.”

The Wall Street Journal added: “Mr. Guiliana’s staccato drumming pieces the band’s moody wash of sound under Mr. Bowie’s voice as he sings an ominous tale. With Blackstar the delicious conceit of David Bowie conspiring with modern jazz artists is fulfilled beautifully.”

In 2015 Mark “returned to his roots,” recording an acoustic-jazz album called Family First with his quartet. Commenting on that album, Rhythm magazine said: “Mark is undoubtedly one of the most exciting new jazzers out there, and after his more electronic-style recordings of previous years, in 2015 he embraced the classic quartet format for some truly brilliant small-group jazz playing.” The magazine went on to name Mark as one of the top jazz drummers of the year.

In addition to his performing skills, Mark is a dedicated educator, eager to share his distinctive musical concepts with other drummers. He conducts frequent workshops in the New York City area, as well as clinics in various locations around the country. He can also be contacted for private lessons through his Web site, MarkGuiliana.com.

On July 30 of 2014 I had a unique opportunity to take a step back into Gretsch Company history. I walked the streets of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, visiting several sites that mark the evolution of the Gretsch company from its inception in 1883 through 1969, some seven decades later.  I had the pleasure of being joined by more than twenty drummers who are fans of Gretsch drums and their history. I’m happy to say that Mark Guiliana was among that group. Following the tour, Mark had these kind words to say:

“I guess by most accounts I’m a jazz drummer, so my heroes are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey—a long list of guys who made their names on Gretsch drums. It was cool to tie the research that I’ve done on those drummers to the history that Fred Gretsch was providing—oftentimes from his own first-person experience. I specifically remember Fred talking about one of the first buildings we saw—on South Fifth Street. He pointed to a window on the second floor and said that it was where they did some of the drum wraps back in the early 1960s. It was nice to imagine how, as he described, great drummers would come in all the time—some to get new drums, some to just bounce ideas off each other. That was really cool.”

I’ll conclude this piece in the same manner as I began it: with a quote, this time from Modern Drummer magazine’s November 2014 cover story on Mark. In it, they refer to him as “the guy to watch if you want to know where the great art of drumming is right now—and where it could be headed.”

YouTube Clips

Here is Mark performing during his clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, held this past November in San Antonio, Texas.

In this clip Mark walks us through some tips and tricks for emulating drum samples with an acoustic kit and few toys.

Here is Mark with Beat Music, at New York City’s Zinc Bar in 2014.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Cindy Blackman-Santana: A Woman For All Seasons

by Fred Gretsch

A gifted writer named Nicole Williams Sitaraman said of Cindy Blackman-Santana: “Hearing Cindy play the drums is like a rapturous percussive tornado of sound. You just get swept away.”

That’s about the most succinct—and accurate—description of Cindy’s talent and versatility that I’ve ever heard. From the highest level of jazz improvisation to the most down-and-dirty rock ‘n’ roll grooves, Cindy plays it all—and does so with a unique cross-pollination of styles. That is to say, her jazz playing rocks, and her rock playing swings. It’s a musical marriage made in heaven.

And speaking of marriage, Cindy added the “Santana” to her professional name when she married legendary Carlos Santana in 2010—following an on-stage proposal by Carlos at the conclusion of Cindy’s drum solo during a Santana Band concert in Tinley Park, Illinois. (Cindy had been sitting in with the band when Dennis Chambers took a leave of absence.)

However, long before Cindy connected with Carlos Santana, she had established herself as one of the most successful drummers around. In particular she gained recognition and respect among the drumming community as the long-time touring drummer for rocker Lenny Kravitz.

But Cindy actually started out as a jazz drummer. She grew up in a musical household where jazz was the main fare, and she had the benefit of parents who encouraged her interest in drums rather than being daunted by it. She attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied with Alan Dawson—the legendary teacher of jazz icon Tony Williams.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Cindy often cites Tony Williams as one of her greatest influences. From listening to him she learned how to be innovative and to allow the drums to speak with impact. After she moved to New York as a young woman she learned from the top jazz drummers who performed there, including Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones. In particular, Art Blakey became a significant figure in Cindy’s life. “He was like a father to me,” she once said. “I learned a lot just watching him, and I asked him a lot of questions about the drums and music. He answered all of them. He was fantastic.”

Regrettably but predictably, Cindy initially encountered resistance as a black woman playing drums on the jazz scene. She had to deal with racial and gender bias, as well as prejudice against her musical opinions. But she had a simple response: “I learned to completely ignore all that.”

Ignoring negative opinions led Cindy to very positive musical experiences, including work with a list of stellar jazz artists like Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Don Pullen, Hugh Masakela, Pharaoh Sanders, Sam Rivers, Cassandra Wilson, Angela Bofill, Bill Laswell, and many more. In 1987 the first of her own compositions appeared on trumpeter Wallace Roney’s Verses album. This led to her debut recording as a bandleader: 1988’s Arcane, which featured a lineup of jazz luminaries including Roney, Kenny Garrett, Joe Henderson, Buster Williams, Clarence Seay, and Larry Willis.

Cindy pursued her jazz leanings until 1993, when she connected with Lenny Kravitz. She was in New York; he was in Los Angeles, so she played drums for him as he listened on the phone. At Lenny’s insistence she flew out to LA the next day. She stayed for two weeks and appeared on the video for Kravitz’s mega-hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way.” She became his touring drummer virtually from then on, apart from 2004.

Having previously only played jazz shows in clubs and small festivals, Cindy was unprepared for the experience of playing at the stadium level. Her first gig with Kravitz was at an outdoor festival for 70,000 people. “It was in the summer,” she recalls, “so most people had just t-shirts or tanks on. I just saw skin and hands all doing this wave thing. I wasn’t used to seeing that many people. I was disoriented, and my equilibrium was teetering. I had to stop looking and start focusing.”

Explaining the difference between playing rock and playing jazz, Cindy says, “My job with Lenny is to play a beat for hours, make it feel good, and tastefully add some exciting fills and colors. My job in my own band or any creative jazz situation is totally different. We may start with a groove that feels great, and I may play that for hours, too. But I’m going to explore and expand and change it—play around with the rhythm and interact with the soloists.”

Even while anchoring Lenny Kravitz’s shows Cindy has also maintained her role as a jazz composer and bandleader. Her albums have included Telepathy (1994), The Oracle (1996), In The Now (1998), Works On Canvas (1999), Someday (2001), Music For The New Millennium (2004), and Another Lifetime (2010). She also has an instructional drum video called Multiplicity to her credit.

Photo: Dino Perucci

In addition to being a fabulous drummer, Cindy Blackman-Santana is an intelligent, articulate, and gracious person. I’m proud that Cindy is a great Gretsch drum artist. I’m also proud to say that my wife Dinah and I consider her a personal friend.

More information about Cindy Blackman-Santana is available on her website. You can also find a selection of audio clips from her various albums there. In the meantime, you might also enjoy the following video clips.

Here’s a great drum solo from Cindy’s appearance at the 2009 Montreal Drum Fest, demonstrating her versatile rock and jazz abilities:

Another solo, from the 2009 Tam Tam Drum Fest.

Here’s Cindy soloing and also playing with her own band at the Leverkusener Jazztage, in 2013.

Cindy gives her own account of growing up on the drums.  This clip includes a killer brush solo.

Finally, Cindy and husband Carlos Santana performed the national anthem this past June 7 before Game 2 of the NBA finals. The performance was aired live on ABC.

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Gretsch Greatest Hits . . . and Hitters

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Tony Williams: The Innovator

by Fred W. Gretsch

Music is, and always has been, an ever-evolving medium. Styles are developed, made popular, changed, and re-developed as something new again. And just as it takes a drummer to propel a band, it often takes a drummer to propel these stylistic changes.

I’m proud to say that many of the drummers who have provided this propulsion over the past decades have done so on Gretsch drums. And while each of those drummers has had his or her own distinctive playing style and sound, the “Great Gretsch Sound” of their drums has been the starting point.

From time to time I’m going to take the opportunity to share with you just a few performances by some of those great Gretsch drummers. I hope they’ll encourage you to do your own exploration to see and hear what made these incredible artists so important to the history of music.

Tony Williams - The Early Days

There’s simply no better drummer to start this series with than the great Tony Williams. While not the earliest “Great Gretsch Drummer” (and we’ll get to those earlier drummers in the future), Tony is arguably the single most influential drummer of the 20th century. Initially identified as a “jazz” drummer—mainly because he arrived on the scene as a member of Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet—Tony quickly demonstrated that he was not to be pigeonholed within any style. His playing encompassed elements of jazz, rock, R&B, and Latin music. He combined these with formidable technique and unbridled passion to create dynamic performances that electrified audiences around the world—and sent millions of drummers racing to their practice rooms. Many of today’s greatest drum figures cite Tony Williams as their most important influence.

Tony and his Big Gretsch Kit

So check out the following YouTube clips as a starting point for your own exploration into the talent, passion, and undeniable uniqueness that defined Tony Williams:

1.  This is a performance by the Miles Davis Quintet at the Stadthalle in Karlsruhe, Germany, in November of 1967. Tony was only twenty-one years old at this time, but he had already become recognized as the drummer to watch on the jazz scene.  WATCH.

2.  By 1979 Tony was leading his own groups. At this performance in France Tony gets funky –and incredibly dynamic—on a tune called “Wild Life.”  WATCH.

3.  From the same concert, here’s Tony’s drum solo from “There Comes The Time.”  WATCH.

4.  For an idea of how Tony drove a band, there’s no better example than this recording made live in New York in 1989 by Tony’s Quartet. This clip is Part 1.  WATCH.

5.  And here’s Part 2. What it must have been like to be in the audience for this show!  WATCH.

6.  Here’s another incredible drum solo from Tony, performed at the International Jazz Festival in Berghausen, Austria, in 1989.  WATCH.

Enjoy!

Tony's Famous Yellow Gretsch

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