Drummer Joe Dyson first performed with his forefather-in-rhythm Johnathan Blake while recording Dr. Lonnie Smith’s newest album Evolution, to be released by Blue Note Records early next year. “From the first downbeat,” Dyson recalls, “it was just love and music in the air.”
Putting two drummers on the same stage can many times be a recipe for battling and bombast, but Dyson notes that playing with Blake was a harmonious experience. “It was a beautiful exchange of musical ideas, and there was never any competing for the spotlight.”
The quickly-developing rapport between Dyson and Blake has been further on display during The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series these past few weeks. Moving through a wide range of band lineups and repertoire, Blake has put the young and talented Mr. Dyson through his musical paces, leading to exciting rhythmic interplay and bold risk-taking. JazzSpeaks caught up with Dyson this week to discuss his approach to playing in a two-drummer group and what gives the New Orleans drumming tradition its particular flavor.
The Jazz Gallery: Playing with another drummer is something you don’t do every day in a jazz context, so have you found playing in this group to be a challenge?
Joe Dyson: I don’t necessarily see it as a challenge, and I think that has to do a bit with my upbringing. I grew up in New Orleans and I grew up playing traditional music, playing in brass bands, and marching bands. They require at least two drummers, so there’s always a counterpoint of rhythm and a counterpoint of ideas, everything happening simultaneously. So playing with Johnathan actually works really well. He’s such a musical player—we’re always listening to each other’s ideas and complementing what’s going on.
Most times when you’re sitting in the drum chair, you’re the main orchestrator, and so a lot people see that when you have two drummers, you’re competing for the space of orchestrator. But when you’re really listening, it’s easier to have a real conversation and communicate the same idea together.
TJG: A lot of drummers talk about that when playing with another drummer, each person takes on a different role. Like when Lenny White was playing on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, he said that Jack DeJohnette would usually lay down the background groove and Lenny would play more texturally. How do you and Johnathan communicate about these roles?
JD: It happens subconsciously. There’s always going to be someone who’s the rhythmic foundation and there’s going to be someone who adds color and texture on top, which helps lift the contours of the rhythm. For us, it really happens in a subconscious way on stage. Sometimes I’ll be the basic foundation, and then sometimes Johnathan will take that over. That will happen through solos or through eye contact or just someone starting a new idea. It’s not necessarily delegated from the get-go, it’s just an exchange throughout.
TJG: Does Johnathan lead the way in terms of this musical exchange on stage, or is there more of a give-and-take?
JD: I definitely feel that it’s a collaborative effort, but also that he’s the bandleader, that he’s able to direct everything as it goes. But I think he’s a really great bandleader in how he leaves an open canvass for everyone to contribute on. He’s really open to let everyone contribute and leave their mark, and I think that’s a beautiful way to lead a group.
TJG: Does that open-ended band-leading approach carry over to the choice of repertoire as well?
JD: Well at the last show, we had a lot of original tunes—some from Johnathan, some from his father [the great jazz violinist John Blake, Jr.], and one from saxophonist John Ellis. This week we’re doing some different music as well, including some original compositions from saxophonist Dayna Stephens.
TJG: That’s a lot of new music to learn in a short time!
JD: Yeah! It’s been good practice for me to approach all this music with fresh ears and really be open to all these new ideas. Some of the tunes that Johnathan has been bringing in haven’t been recorded, so it’s really wide open.
I just had a conversation with Rio [The Jazz Gallery’s artistic director], and she really encouraged me to not be afraid and go for it on the bandstand, and not worry about falling on my face. It’s more important to explore new territory and reach for something beyond what you’ve done before. That was great to hear, because especially as a young artist, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of perfection. In so much music now, everything is on a grid and everything has to be perfect in performance—I have to recreate this other thing, make it sound the exact same as it is on record. Rio and Johnathan have given me an open platform to create and explore as much as I can, and not have any inhibitions about what I’m doing.
TJG: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that you’re from New Orleans and your upbringing has had a big influence on how you play today. What then makes a New Orleans drummer a New Orleans drummer?
JD: The core element of being a New Orleanian is to live with love in your heart. As music is a means of expressing one’s self, that element of love really comes out in the music of New Orleans. It’s really all about communicating that feeling to the audience. I feel that’s what gives the music its driving feeling, its groove element.
TJG: But how does that love come out in the music? Does it inform the particular lilt or swing of the music?
JD: Well there’s certainly some underlying similarity between different New Orleans drummers, but I also can walk down the street and hear the difference between Shannon Powell and Herlin Riley. I feel that as long as they’re being true to themselves, even though they may be playing different things, they’re both authentic New Orleans drummers. There’s definitely a canon of music and a canon of rhythms that come out of New Orleans, dating all the way back to Congo Square and the rhythms brought over by African slaves, but what’s more important to me at least is the expressive manner of the music.
TJG: So you feel the tradition of New Orleans is readily adaptable—it’s not as much about the rhythms themselves as your perspective on the feeling of any rhythm you come across.
JD: Absolutely. It has more to do with the energy and the spirit behind what’s being played.
There’s this great saxophonist Charles Lloyd. I was on tour in Paris with Donald Harrison, and we had the great pleasure of speaking with Charles right before he was going on stage. He made this reference of music being as water. Like water, music can take the shape of whatever container it’s placed in, but it’s still the same contents. I feel that really spoke to the stylistic approach of a New Orleans artist. It’s not about the specific rhythms or the specific music, it’s more about the energy and spirit, and it can be moved through any medium that you can place it in.
TJG: Johnathan hails from Philadelphia, but based on the connection you guys have, it seems that he could be an honorary New Orleanian.
TJG: Johnathan is like a big brother to me. It’s been really great to be next to him and perform, and learn from him on and off the stage. He’s a great artist and a great spirit and I’m glad to be a part of this series.
The Jazz Gallery’s Mentorship Series continues with drummers Johnathan Blake and Joe Dyson, this Wednesday and Thursday, December 9th and 10th, 2015. On Wednesday, the drummers perform at The Jazz Gallery, along with saxophonists Dayna Stephens and John Ellis, and bassist Ben Street. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members). On Thursday, the drummers perform at SEEDS in Brooklyn, along with John Ellis and Ben Street. Purchase tickets here.