Bernard Purdie at the Cadence Jazz Festival

David Haney, Andre St. James, Bernard PurdieI went to the last night of Cadence Fest on Tuesday. Cadence, a well-respected jazz magazine, has been reborn thanks to the efforts of jazz pianist David Haney (left), who put on the festival as an extension of his magazine work. (Willamette Week did a nice write-up about him before the festival.)

I managed to catch a set by the Rich Halley Group, which was neat. Halley, a saxophonist, played with a trombonist, bassist, and drummer. I’m not usually a big fan of really free jazz, but I found it was a lot more approachable when I could see the musicians cue off of each other.

But the real reason I was there had to do with the headliner: David Haney was playing with bassist Andre St. James, and a drummer named Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. As a drummer, I’ve been a fan for a long time — I’ve been listening to tracks he’s recorded for most of my life (I’ll bet you have, too. Check out a list of his top 100 tracks.) But I’ve never seen him live.

The trio was great. Haney actually took the stage wearing a winter coat, a sport coat, and a scarf, like a commuter on the bus. But Haney plays piano unlike almost anyone I’ve ever seen — his right foot taps, his legs kick out, and he lurches around on the bench. If there’s such a thing as a physical piano player, he is one. All that motion warmed him up, and he took off the jacket, then peeled off the sport coat during a song. One song later, the scarf joined the jacket and the coat on the floor next to the piano. It was like the dance of the seven veils.

As good as Haney and St. James are, I was mostly focused on Purdie. For the most part he was just comping, and didn’t even solo. But even compared to the drummer that preceded him, Purdie was smoother, his time was perfect, and his dynamics (variation in volume) were just effortless. He was so technically adept that when he was playing a fill, his hands would just bring his idea to life.

Purdie is now 73, so I’m feeling lucky that he came out one night to help out his friend’s jazz festival. I can only hope he decides to do it more often.

Saturday in Austin, Texas: Frosty and the Amazing One-Handed Drum Solo

Last Saturday I was in Austin, and my friend and I went to Antone’s to see a few bands. One of them was Mike Flanigin, who was groovin’ on a Hammond B-3 organ. Since I play the drums, so I sidled up close to watch Mike’s drummer, a veteran session musician named Barry “Frosty” Smith.

Frosty can play, which might explain why his discography is two pages long and includes names like Delbert McClinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Frosty also plays with his eyes closed.

Barry "Frosty" Smith playing the drums

Barry “Frosty” Smith playing the drums. My cell phone takes such bad photos, they look like they’re printed on cheap t-shirts.

So, Mike and their rhythm guitarist (I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t catch his name) do their thing, and their thing is goodly. While they power through their set, I was content to watch Frosty put on his drumming master-class from about 10 feet away.

My sometimes drum teacher Justin Matz suggests going to see drummers who are a bit better than you, because you’ll see how they fit things together. Justin’s advice didn’t really apply, because Frosty is a bit better than a bit better than me. He was doing some pretty slick things on his kit, such as playing a polyrhythm by alternating between the surface and the bell of his ride cymbal, and keeping time with both feet. But that was part of the fun.

Then came the last song of the night. Mike or the guitarist (I forget which) played the first few bars of the intro, and then Frosty was going to join in. Only just as he was about to get going, Frosty dropped a stick.

This happens when you play the drums. Unlike Animal in “The Muppets,” to be any sort of drummer you can’t clamp your sticks in a death-grip and swing your arms like windmills. To play with speed and finesse you need to hold the sticks lightly, so that they bounce off drum heads and cymbals. When you hold them lightly and your hands are moving quickly, sometimes you drop ‘em. Sometimes you drop more than one, as one of Justin’s cute young students demonstrates:

Anyhow, since drummers drop drum sticks from time to time, they have a little stick bag that they typically attach to their floor tom. Frosty, his eyes open for a change, quickly pulled out a stick, and away he went…

… Until the end of the song. When he somehow he dropped another stick.

And this is where it got really interesting. Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note — it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”

So how did Frosty cope? For some reason either didn’t have a backup stick, or couldn’t reach it because it was in the middle of the song. At this point, as the song was reaching its crescendo, Frosty’s eyes were open really wide.

He was managing to keep the beat with the stick in his left hand, but he was clearly having to rethink how he did everything. Then he switched  his one stick to his right hand to play crash, ride and hi-hat, played the snare with his left hand … and finished the drum solo.

And Mike Flanigin, his band leader, never even noticed.