Who You Gonna Call?
Groove Guardian at work
I recently got to listen to a WWOZ special, written and produced by David Kunian in 2003/2004, on the late New Orleans drumming avatar, James Black (thanks to Paper Bag Brown of MUDGRIP fer dat). It’s a well researched and produced hour-long feature, with various movers and shakers on the local music scene commenting and providing background on this phenomenal man, who regarded himself as the Guardian of the Groove (‘OZ has co-opted that as a description of themselves and their supporters, as well they should). Even though I had discovered a lot about him over the years, I enjoyed hearing fellow musicians talk personally about the drummer and composer – and I certainly learned some things I hadn’t known before about James Black.
That set me off on some more research and today’s examination of two tracks I had heard so many times, not realizing that Black was playing on them. One of the best web sites on him I’ve found is at Drummerworld, with photos, a nice bio, some great audio of his jazz and funk playing, a remembrance by Idris Muhammad, and three discographies. If you study-up there, you’ll have a lot of the information in the ‘OZ tribute, and, I hope, a greater appreciation for this musician’s musician.
"There's A Break In The Road" (Allen Toussaint)
Betty Harris, 1969 (audio sourced form Charly LP, In the Saddle, 1980)
Common knowledge, such as it is, about players Allen Toussaint used for his Sansu Productions recording sessions has it that he and his partner, Marshall Sehorn, hired Art Neville’s combo, the Neville Sounds, in 1968 to be their core studio band. For the next few years, the group laid down Toussaint-arranged backing tracks for numerous vocalists he was producing, and, of course, went on to become recording artists in their own right as the Meters.
From the mid-1960s to 1970, Lee Dorsey and Betty Harris were the vocal artists Toussaint focused on the most. On the strength his own carefree voice and his producer’s strong arranging and songwriting skills, Dorsey had some substantial national hits and a lot of great recordings; but, despite Toussaint’s high-quality work with Harris’ compelling vocal gifts on nearly a dozen singles, including a memorable duo with Dorsey, the soulful Floridian’s only significant chart success was “Nearer To You’, which got into the top 20 nationally.
As Larry Grogan points out in his fine piece on Harris at his Funky 16 Corners webzine, her last few singles for Toussaint were done when the Meters were in the house. But, as it turns out, on 1969’s “There’s A Break In The Road”, there was an alternate groove taken. The track is from Harris’ final Toussaint-produced single, leased by Sansu to SSS International. Larry rightly remarks that the drumming on the side is “powerful and funky enough to rival even the mighty James Black.” And it really does recall Black’s work on Eddie Bo’s “Hook And Sling” from the same year, which makes perfect sense when one discovers, as I did recently, that Zig Modeliste was not playing on “Break”; James Black was!
Harris and the backup singers have a broken-field day on this tune, moving well into Tina Turner and the Ikettes territory atop Black's rambunctious, go-for-it funk work. As much as the intense syncopation and breaking of beats seem on the verge of going out of control at times, he holds the groove, pushing and pulling, driving it onward and upward. Such is it’s allure. Starting off with deceptive simplicity, Black soon begins a relentless pounding and chopping drum rampage throughout one of Toussaint’s rawest, edgiest arrangements ever. Not only is there a break in this road, there are more off-and on-ramps, over-and under-passes than the LA freeway system. Guitarist Leo Nocentelli and bassist George Porter, Jr. rip on some high-speed riffing throughout, with guitar feedback and trills laced in for a “soul diva meets funk psychedelia” feel. And who better to trip and trick it out than Black, the man who wrote a song around that same time called “Psychedelphia”. I don’t know why Toussaint found Modeliste's magic lacking for this tune – but, to me, there is no doubt that Black was the right man for the job.
"Riverboat" (Allen Toussaint)
Lee Dorsey, from Yes We Can, Polydor, 1970
From what I’ve gathered, when no one else could conjure the groove Toussaint wanted for a song, he would summon James Black (who dubbed himself ‘Drummer Impossible’ in those situations). Notoriously difficult and demanding to work with at times, Black had the ultimate chops for virtually any situation from the most demanding modern jazz, to soul, funk, and many stops in between. Thus, not only other drummers, but virtually all the musicians who played with him or knew him held him in high regard.
On the ‘OZ special, Toussaint’ talks about using Black on the Yes We Can sessions for Lee Dorsey:
I used to write the drum parts out. Well, “Riverboat” had an up and down kind of syncopation on the drums; and I must say the drummers [must have gone through a few!!] was having problems. I called James Black in; and he sat there. . .and looked at the page and he played it as if he had written it, and he said, “Is this what you want, bro?” He played it like it was written with a little more hips to it and “would you like any fills anywhere”, you know? It was like that with him – and what a pleasure. He’s a good standard-bearer for things that could happen that didn’t go to the conventional backbeat of drums.
More hips to it. How I like that phrase! Wow. I had always though it was Zig Modeliste on all those tracks; but there was an exception. Listening to “Riverboat” with new ears, after hearing Toussaint say this, it now seems obvious that the drumming on it is far different in approach to anything else on the album. Toussaint seems to have been going for more of what a tympani player might do, maybe, with a funk pattern. I don’t know what Black does in technical terms here, I am no percussionist – hey, drummers, feel free to chime in – but it is so right. It has that “loose is tight” feel which is extremely hard to pull off playing from a written score. Using a lot of toms here, he plays with a deft touch, rather than the heavy hitting he lent to the Betty Harris number.
On this artful arrangement, less is certainly more. It’s another master class in Toussaint’s effective use of simple parts to create a greater whole. The backing offsets Dorsey’s voice perfectly and creates a palpable mood, almost as if you can see and hear a showboat off in the distance on the river. That said, as simple as it may sound, what the drummer does is a complex mix of elements that, obviously, perfectly expressed what Toussaint wrote and wanted us to hear. In this case, the arranger/composer couldn’t get it from the other drummers he had at his disposal; and he had some great ones besides Zigaboo, including Smokey Johnson. But it’s good to know that, for the toughest jobs, Toussaint would call in James Black, the impossible groove buster.