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Wednesday, April 9,2014

The hammer and the brush

Drummer Jeff Hamilton knows how to play well with others

by Lawrence Cosentino
They call him “The Hammer,” but veteran jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton is more versatile than that. And nicer.

The artist in residence for next week´s annual Jazz Spectacular at MSU is more of a Leatherman multi-tool, teaching, performing and touring the state with jazz students all of this week. The residency will culminate in a concert Saturday featuring Hamilton and MSU’s monster Jazz Orchestra I, with arrangements fresh from one of jazz´s premier big bands, the Los Angeles-based Hamilton/Clayton Jazz Orchestra. Jazz Studies chief Rodney Whitaker will conduct.

Hamilton, 59, likes to call himself a musician who plays drums, not a drummer. Otherwise, he could never have held his own with jazz legends like vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, bassist Ray Brown or pianist Oscar Peterson.

He has plenty of stories to share with students, and most of them come with a lesson. At 24, he found himself on stage with Woody Herman’s big band. Just before the band hit, Hamilton said Herman turned to him and said, “This is your band, kid.”

“But I don´t want a band,” Hamilton pleaded.

“Tough,” Herman said. “You set them up the way you want to. You orchestrate from the drums.”

With great power, or a killing kit, comes great responsibility. Hamilton hammers away at the message whenever he can, especially when students start showing off.

“There are drummers who learn how to play on a slab of rubber and a pair of drumsticks and they don´t think about sound,” he said. “We´re overplaying and executing all our drum instructions instead of listening to the other musicians and playing music with them.”

Far from overplaying, Hamilton often begins a tune with hushed, delicate brushwork that builds up a feeling of expectation, almost like a religious invocation.

Lansing drummer Jeff Shoup, who just got his master’s in jazz at MSU, is eager to delve into the more delicate drawers of Hamilton´s toolkit.

“Playing with the brushes is something of a lost art to most drummers today, and he is a modern brush master,” Shoup said. He called Hamilton a “drummer´s drummer” with a “personal sound and style.”

“When you hear The Hammer play, you know it´s him, instantly,” Shoup said.

At 10, Hamilton spun Peterson LPs over and over and decided some day he would play with him. It was the same with Herman and Count Basie. He got to play with all of them.

Growing up in the LP years, he needed nimble fingers to memorize and master a lick or a solo he wanted to emulate.

“I’d try to get the needle in the groove in the same spot every time,” he said.

A lifetime of musical highs have surpassed Hamilton’s young dreams. Playing the Hollywood Bowl in 1990, his first gig with Ray Brown and Peterson, was a pinnacle.

“They were awarded the keys to the city of Los Angeles, and here I am, at the Hollywood Bowl, on stage with two of the people I´d always wanted to play with,” he said.

(Brown gave Hamilton the nickname “Hammertone,” which was later shortened to Hammer.)

Another high was Hamilton´s first gig at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1976 with pianist Monty Alexander and bassist John Clayton, later Hamilton´s lifelong musical partner. The gig was recorded without the trio’s knowledge, resulting in a killer record, “Montreaux Alexander.”

“It was sort of an out-of-body experience, I was so excited,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton is a living link to many jazz legends, but he’s also breaking new ground with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and that makes him doubly interesting to students.

“Tying the present to the past in this way, he sets an example for up-and-coming musicians of all instruments, not just drummers,” Shoup said.

Whitaker grew up listening to Hamilton play with one of his heroes on the double bass, Ray Brown.

“Rodney was in a group of young lions coming up,” Hamilton said. He still calls Whitaker “young Rodney,” a courtesy Whitaker said he appreciates more every year. Whitaker and Hamilton first played together when singer Diana Krall hired them both for a gig at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase.

“He´s a great educator and a great person,” Whitaker said. “His teaching style is kind of tough love.”

Hamilton is the third and final guest artist to take up a residency at MSU this academic year. Saxophonist Antonio Hart visited in October and trumpeter Jon Faddis came in December. The guest artist program was seeded by a $1 million grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union.

Whitaker doesn´t make it a breeze for the guests. Each guest artist holds master classes at MSU and travels the state via bus with the student big band, harking back to the barnstorming days of Duke Ellington.

The week of shared experience builds unique bonds. Whitaker was amazed that Faddis took the whole MSU big band out to dinner after his master class.

“He dropped some money,” Whitaker said. “To see the relationships develop between the guest artists and the students has been really great."

Hamilton and the group were scheduled to hit Cheboygan High School Tuesday, Detroit´s Martin Luther King Jr. High School Thursday before heading back to MSU for a master class Friday and big band concert Saturday, with Hamilton on drums and Whitaker conducting.

The classes, and the week-ending concert, will give the students a chance to play arrangements from the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, under the guidance of Hamilton himself. The orchestra´s sophisticated, swinging music pays homage to big bands of the past while striking out in new directions.

“We´ve been rehearsing a few weeks, and now we´ve got the master coming in, who will put all the pieces in place," Whitaker said.

For Hamilton, it´s all payback for the lessons he got when he was starting out.

“Ray Brown instilled that in me,” Hamilton said. “They took the time to share all this with me and they expect me to do it in return.”

MSU Jazz Spectacular

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 10 Jazz Octets I, II, III, IV Cook Recital Hall, Music Building $10/$8 seniors/students FREE

7:30 p.m. Friday, April 11 Swing dance and concert with Jazz Orchestra I, II, III MSU Union Ballroom $10/$8 seniors/students FREE

8 a.m.–6 p.m. Saturday, April 12 Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition MSU Union, main lounge FREE

8 p.m. Saturday, April 12 Jazz Orchestra I (Be-Bop Spartans, conducted by Rodney Whitaker) and Jeff Hamilton, drums. Preceded by the Outstanding High School Jazz Band of the Day Fairchild Theatre, MSU Auditorium $25/$20 seniors/$15 students (517) 353-5340, music.msu.edu

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