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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Joe's Time

I had the pleasure of seeing, hearing and meeting drummer Joe Farnsworth at the Ocho Rios Jazz festival in 2005, where he performed in a customary role as drummer for a combo led by his friend and old schoolmate, saxophonist Eric Alexander. In addition to his talent nad skill on the kit, he impressed with his quick-fire, self-deprecating and even sardonic wit. Following areexcerpts from an interview about his new album as a leader, Its Prime Time, featuring Curtis Fuller, Benny Golson, Harold Mabern, Ron Carter and, of course, Alexander

Which drummer influenced your playing? Who are your favorite drummers?
The biggest influence on my playing came from two teachers I studied with. One was Alan Dawson from Boston. He taught me around ’84/’85. These were formal lessons. We followed a strict regimen working on 1-2 rudiments per week. The second teacher was Art Taylor, whom I studied under in New York from ’91 to ’92. They taught me how to create the different sounds. They showed me certain drumming styles and shared with me a lot of stories. As far as favorite drummers are concerned, they include Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, and Art Blakey. Billy Higgins had the biggest influence on me because I saw him perform many times.

Tell us about your experiences recording “It’s Prime Time”:
We were playing at Smalls when producer Yasohachi “88” Ito came to see me perform. I thought he was looking at doing an album by One for All, but he wanted to do a record with me as the leader. It was a great chance for me to give back, so I called Curtis Fuller, who is a great friend & mentor. I used to listen to Curtis, Jackie McLean and Billy Higgins play together all the time. Curtis playing “Old Folks” was definitely a highlight. I found out that Benny Golson was playing at Sweet Basil/Rhythm, so I asked him to play on my album. It turns out that he was going to be in New York for two days and he was available on the day of the session. Playing with Ron Carter and Benny Golson was very nerve racking for me, especially on “Five Spot After Dark,” which Benny wrote. Ron Carter helped me out a lot. I was really intimidated playing with Ron, but he was extremely supportive during the session.

Was there anything unique about the specific performances of each song selected for the album? Is there a favorite track of yours on the album?Definitely “Old Folks” featuring Curtis.
“Five Spot After Dark” was special as well. Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller have played for years and years together. They played strong but much quieter. Harold Mabern is amazing. He is constantly whistling tunes in his head. That’s how he came up with “Sweet Poppa.” There were no rehearsals. Some of us never played together before. The whole album was recorded in 5 hours. It was really exciting to see us - Eric, Jim and I - playing with Ron Carter on a tune Ron wrote (“The Third Plane”). We were trying to be like Ron and we were in the same room with him playing together! It was great seeing the older guys integrating with younger guys, e.g. Curtis with Eric. The cross-generational mix we had was quite an experience.

What are the key things you try to do or express in your drumming?
The main thing for me is keeping time with the ride cymbal. A great example of this is Kenny Clarke playing on Miles Davis’ Walkin’. George Coleman and Harold Mabern call this “EMIT.” “EMIT” is time spelled backwards. I actually try not to have too much drums when I play. There are a lot of people who play drums but not many people can really swing. You can really tell who the drummer is by listening to the ride cymbal. When I’m walking into The Village Vanguard, I can listen to the cymbal beat and know who’s playing.

What do you do to unwind or relax besides music?
I jog every day. It clears the mind and is a great way to see the area on the road. It is something I can do alone to keep in shape. To play drums, it is important to stay in shape and to have a clear mind because you need to think very quickly.

Finally, do you have any advice to jazz musicians who are starting their careers?
Whatever instrument you are playing, you should study the history of the instrument from the very beginning. Many drummers think jazz drumming started with Elvin Jones and Jeff Watts. You have to find out where theses people learned from and go upstream from there. You can’t put student before the teacher. You have to start at the origin. Listen to Roy Haynes with Lester Young and Bud Powell. Listen to Art Taylor comp with his left hand like Bud Powell. You also have to listen to different tunes and arrangements by Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Monk.

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