The Melodic Joe LaBarbera

In conversation with a casual listener who said he wanted to know more about jazz, I mentioned that the creation of melody in improvisation is not limited to what are generally considered melody instruments. I said that some drummers play melodic, even lyrical, solos.
“What do you mean?” he said, clearly puzzled. I tried, rather clumsily, I’m afraid, to explain that through combinations of phrasing, dynamics and tone control, a drummer who is so inclined (not all are) can create trains of musical thought as cogent as those of a horn player. I mentioned a few names, beginning with Jo Jones. They meant nothing to the man. I didn’t think he was buying my proposition. I promised to look for an example and alert him.
For my acquaintance, and for anyone else interested, here’s a case in point. JoeJoeLabarbera1.jpg LaBarbera is one of the contemporary masters of melodic drumming. In the 1979 video clip below, he is featured with Bill Evans’s last trio. Marc Johnson is the bassist. LaBarbera solos with wire brushes and with sticks, and exchanges phrases with Johnson. Concentration on not only LaBarbera’s rhythm but also, to borrow Lester Young’s term, his story-telling, may help our friend grasp the concept.
One further thought before you click on the play button: in this year before Bill Evans died, he more and more often returned to the muscularity that characterized his playing in the late 1950s and early ’60s. In this version of a tune that he loved, that strength is apparent.

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  1. says

    Joe LaBrilliant, the perfect exemplar for your point. By the time he played with Evans, sadly so late in the game, he must have been driving Trio #6 or so. Those muscular, up-tempo days were quite a contrast to Bill’s limpid, languishing-in-grief period after Scott La Faro’s death. (By coincidence I posted a brief bit about Trio #2 just last week–still up for a view at:
    …and, thanks, Doug, for putting up with this shameless plug; I do like to embrace serendipitous confluences when they occur.)
    I commend to all Joe’s work with the late Bud Shank as well.

  2. says

    It’s always a treat listening to Joe……almost as much fun as playing with him!! He has such a great sense of line, space, variety, and on top of all that he has a big fat groove that always makes everyone he plays with sound as good as possible. Yeah Joe!!

  3. says

    Can’t improve on Phil Dwyer’s remarks, other than say even to just a listener such as I, (not like the terrific players like Mr. Dwyer) Joe is always wonderful on every level… Must run in the family: brothers Pat and John are great musicians too.

  4. Mark Stryker says

    Nice clip of Joe LaBarbera. Of course, when you talk about drummers playing melody, Max Roach was the king. Was it Max who also started the idea of playing solos while the bass player continued to walk, a technique that really lets you hear how melodic his phrasing was — plus, I think he tuned his drums to intervals that reinforced the melodic aspect of his playing. I don’t have time to look it up at this moment, but YouTube should have plenty of clips of Max playing some of his solo compositions. Look for “For Big Sid,” a 32-bar AABA tune that’s easy to follow.
    (The Rifftides staff found “For Big Sid.” Go here: –DR)