Drumming Up a Different Sound

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Picture this. Drummer Leon Parker walks into a gig carrying a cymbal under one arm and a snare under the other.

Nothing else. No tom-toms, no high-hat cymbal, none of the complicated stack of paraphernalia that seems to be an absolute necessity for the contemporary drummer.

"Where's the rest of your drums, man?" says one musician, while others eye Parker skeptically as he sets up his minimal array of percussion.

"This is it," he replies and proceeds to demonstrate--to the astonishment of the gathered players--his ability to keep time, lay down a groove and take solos on a single cymbal.

It's the kind of scene that has been repeated often in one form or another over the last few years, as the much-praised 29-year-old musician--determined to rewrite the book on the essentials of jazz drumming--has become a highly visible presence in the New York jazz world. On his recent recording, "Above and Below" (Epicure), he abandons all equipment on one track and uses his body as a drum.

"I'm just standing up stamping my foot and pounding my chest and legs," says Parker, an articulate young man whose occasional bursts of humor do not obscure a focused, thoughtful resolve to do things his way.

It's no surprise, therefore, that Parker sums up his musical philosophy in three words: "Less is more."

It's also no surprise that he has not always been greeted with shouts of encouragement. Other players have been, in his description, "pessimistic," "doubting" and "dismissive." Some have been clearly threatened by a young artist with the poise and determination to follow the sound of his muse.

"By the time I got down to playing just the cymbal," he says, "people thought I was crazy."

On Tuesday night, Parker brings his innovative interpretation of drumming into town for a rare Los Angeles appearance, working with the Jacky Terrasson trio at the Troubadour. Expect creative fireworks. Terrasson, a French American pianist who was the 1993 winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition, is another recent arrival in a burgeoning new generation of talented jazz Wunderkinds . His own eponymously titled solo debut recording--with Parker and bassist Ugonna Okegwo--will be released later this month.

"Jacky and I liberate each other," Parker says. "I'm sure there are some players who respect what I do, but wouldn't want to work with me because we'd constantly collide creatively. But Jacky and I are perfect for each other. We allow each other to play whatever we hear without having to worry about breaking the rules. Because there aren't any rules between us."

Described as "jazz's own minimalist" by Peter Watrous of the New York Times, Parker came to his uniquely pristine rhythmic convictions gradually.

"There was a point about 12 years ago," says Parker, "when I realized that there were two approaches that I could take to playing the drum set. One was to go with the current trend, which was to add on more pieces and master more patterns. The other direction was to try to think of how to get many sounds out of one instrument, which forces you to be more musical.

"I had a vision in mind of having it be a transportable instrument, but I didn't know exactly what that instrument would be. So, through the process of experimentation, little by little I took away parts of the drum set. First the tom-toms. Then I experimented with various combinations, drums and snare, hand drums, and so forth. By around 1987 or 1988, I was playing maybe two or three pieces. And then I got down to just playing a cymbal--a ride cymbal."

Curiously, it was older musicians who seemed, initially at least, to be more receptive to Parker's ideas.

"It's like younger guys are so caught up in techniques," he says, "and in being on top of the latest trend that they don't really have an understanding of what I'm trying to do. But older musicians, who basically defined their own concepts and created certain kinds of things, understand what I'm going for and have a greater appreciation of it."

Based on the results alone, what Parker is doing doesn't actually sound all that radical. The means may be different--reductionist, for sure--but the end product is first-rate jazz rhythm playing with an airy, open quality. Even when he only uses a cymbal, Parker still manages to generate a remarkably gripping assortment of sounds, from slow, shimmering explosions to hard-driving funk rhythms. He is equally versatile on hand drums, investing them with a stylistic diversity that reaches far beyond their more familiar roles as ethnic or cultural expressions.

"To be perfectly honest," he explains, "I think that what I'm doing is more traditional than what most drummers are doing. Because before there was a drum set, as far as African Americans are concerned, there were hand drums. Look at the New Orleans bands, with a bass drummer and a snare drummer and a cymbal player. And look at other kinds of music--in India and Africa and Latin America--where you've got four or five drummers playing together, hitting one rhythm. But in jazz you've got one guy doing everything."

Parker had ample opportunity to deal with traditional jazz drums before finding his rhythmic voice. A native of the New York City suburb of White Plains, he comes from "a very musical, very artistic family" and was hand-drumming on Quaker oatmeal boxes from age 3. Offered a scholarship to study religion and philosophy at Fordham University, he turned instead to music.

A t 18, he recalls, "I just got on a train one day and went into the city. I had every kind of gig imaginable. I played in dance bands and gospel choirs, I played in blues bands, and I played hand drums for dance classes."

In his early days in New York City, he also worked with such idiosyncratic artists as keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Harvey Swartz, guitarist Mike Stern and singer Sheila Jordan, and he performed on solo cymbal with pianist Kenny Barron. More recently, he has been heard with Joshua Redman and Redman's father, veteran saxophonist Dewey Redman.

But it took a trip to Europe at the end of the '80s for Parker to fully undergo his rhythmic epiphany, to finally comprehend, on his own terms, what it was he was searching for. Traveling with his wife, Lisa, a flutist, toting only a cymbal and a hand drum, he stayed abroad for nearly a year. Most of the time was spent in Portugal and Spain, playing music in the streets.

"Being in a foreign place made me much freer to be what I wanted to be," he explains.

"When you play in New York, you're always aware of what the current trends are, the different styles of music and all that stuff. But in Europe I was free of all that stuff, and I could explore all my own ideas. It was almost like a neutral situation in which there were no expectations."

Parker also began to come to grips with a personal philosophy that mixes Native American spirituality ("My father was part Native American") and Taoism. (Parker planned to study philosophy in college before devoting himself full time to music.)

He describes a Taoist concept in which one becomes "more useful by becoming useless."

"The way that applies directly to me, right now," he says, "is that I've just put out a record. Well, before I put out the record, nobody expected anything of me, and I was free to do whatever I wanted to do, to go in any direction. When you do nothing, you're actually free to do everything--you can go, here, there, anywhere.

"But now that I've put out this record," he continues, "I've got 50 people expecting me to put out another record just as good as that one. And when I go out to perform, it's got to be just as good as the record was. So it's like the more you do, the more you're expected to do, and the less you do, the less you're expected to do, which gives you more freedom."

Having placed himself in a position in which uselessness does not appear to be much of an immediate option, Parker is planning a second album for release in the fall, followed by a tour with his own quartet. With a growing reputation and rapidly increasing visibility, his "less is more" belief will undoubtedly receive its greatest test in the marketplace, in an area that may be considerably more hazardous than the slings and arrows of his early years.

But Parker has few doubts about his capacity to remain centered on his vision.

"There was a time," he recalls, "before I made a commitment to experimenting with a drum set, when I had a regular kit and was trying to play everything right. But I wasn't getting accepted anyhow. So I said, 'Well, if I'm not going to be accepted, I might as well be myself.'

"And now that I'm being true to myself, it's like I can't stop. So I guess I just have to keep doing it this way, follow what I hear, and see where it leads me."*

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