Mondays With Morgan: Joe Farnsworth (new album ‘In What Direction Are You Headed?’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves in — his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with drummer Joe Farnsworth, an NYC fixture who’s played with scores of all-time greats, including Benny Golson, Horace Silver, Harold Mabern, George Coleman, Barry Harris, Curtis Fuller… the list goes on. 

Farnsworth’s new album, In What Direction Are You Headed (Smoke Sessions), is out now, and he has New York-area gigs on the books — find a purchase link and tour dates at the bottom of this article.

Joe Farnsworth. Photo by Matt Baker

Joe Farnsworth wants you to know Harold Mabern’s name. 

And George Coleman’s and Cedar Walton’s, too, by the way. The veteran drummer’s vociferous about all three. But in conversation, Farnsworth mentions Mabern, the masterful pianist active from the ‘50s until his 2019 passing, as much as those other two jazz elders put together.

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


“I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in a higher power,” the celebrated, swinging, suited-up drummer tells LondonJazz News over Zoom. A colorful handkerchief spills from his front pocket; a framed Virgin Mary hangs behind him. “And I know Harold Mabern was talking to me.”

Farnsworth is referring to a eureka moment at New York’s Village Vanguard, where he was performing with Kurt Rosenwinkel — the guitarist who spawned a thousand imitators — for the first time. 

At the storied Greenwich Village club, jazz journalist Russ Musto had a question: why didn’t Farnsworth play Mabern’s tune “In What Direction Are You Headed?” The composition — and composer — appear on the brilliant, doomed trumpeter Lee Morgan’s last dispatch, The Final Session. Right then, “In What Direction Are You Headed?” acted as a skeleton key.

In all his 30 years with Mabern, Farnsworth had never played that tune. It landed in his lap at the right time: he was planning an album with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, pianist Julius Rodriguez, and bassist Robert Hurst, and needed a centerpiece — a nucleus. Right then, the spirit moved him.

In What Direction Are You Headed?, Farnsworth’s third album for Smoke Sessions Records, arrived May 19 — and the title alone speaks volumes. The album is a monument to Farnsworth’s new partnership with Rosenwinkel; they also played together on alto saxophonist Jim Snidero’s last album, 2022’s fantastic Far Far Away

It also represents Farnsworth removing his “blinders” — his word. Now more than ever, Farnsworth has embraced a younger generation of musicians; Wilkins and Rodriguez are both in their mid-20s. “The concept is trying to go with Kurt and open up a little bit,” Farnsworth adds.. “You’re going to need people who can open it up even further.”

Read on for a sprawling interview with Farnsworth about the genesis of In What Direction Are You Headed?, the state of his drum thinking, championing undersung jazz giants, and much more.

LondonJazz News: What was the central idea you wanted to impart with In What Direction Are You Headed?, and why was that Harold Mabern composition a skeleton key for you?

Joe Farnsworth: I was kind of honed in on certain things, and I based my whole life on them. Cedar Walton, those Blue Note records. I went to school at William Paterson, and in 1986, Harold Mabern was there. He was like the original guy — guru, mentor, player. We all looked up to him. 

So, when I got to school and started going to New York City every night to see the masters play, I quickly realized I wanted to go to the school of Cedar Walton and George Coleman. Harold was with George, and Cedar Walton’s trio. Both groups had Billy Higgins, so that helped. I started following Billy Higgins around. That’s the way it was for 30 years. 

COVID happened, and everything was shut down. I was like, The music’s moving forward; there are lots of new players doing great new things. 

One of the things I saw myself doing was bridging the gap between my generation and the younger generation — especially at gigs at Smalls and Mezzrow. I played a lot of those gigs, and hired guys I didn’t know, just to see what they were up to and play with them. It’s the same thing Art Blakey did. 

And then, I got a call from Kurt Rosenwinkel to play the Vanguard. I’d never played with him before. I’d never heard his music…

LJN: Probably the most influential jazz guitarist alive!

JF: [Laughs] I had blinders on! You could call it I’m focusing on certain things, but you could also say blinders. I was focusing on certain things, and I didn’t stray from them.

It was a perfect storm. COVID shut down everything, and these guys I focus on aren’t here anymore. Then, you become a leader yourself, so that’s a different switch. 

Then, I got the call from Kurt, and he blew my mind. It was like a revelation. I’d heard other guitar players, and now I know where they got it from. Holy cow: not only is this guy taking it to the fifth dimension, but he’s spurred this whole wave of music!

I always wondered, Where did this come from? You’ve got Wes Montgomery, you’ve got Grant Green, and Scofield, and that stuff. And when I learned, it was like seeing the holy grail. 

It was complex, but it sounded like it was easy. Harold Mabern used to say that about Lee Morgan: it sounds like it’s easy to play, but there’s a lot of tricky stuff in there. That’s the genius of some of these Lee Morgan tunes, and it’s the same way with Kurt. 

He’s just flowing through that effortlessly. It’s so soulful. That opened up my world for me. I took off the blinders to endless possibilities.

LJN: Generally speaking, how would you characterize the dynamic between the old and new guards of this music?

JF: Guys like Barry Harris, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath — they embrace the youngsters, and the youngsters embrace them.

There’s a big trust there. They know they’re getting the right information. There’s no BS. There’s no ego there. They weren’t like “I’m older and you’re younger,” and blah blah blah. They bridge that gap easily, because people did that for them. That’s why they’re so great — that people can go to them.

When I was a kid, I would hang out with Roy Haynes at the bar for six or seven hours after each gig. He was accessible like that. Barry Harris was like that. George is like that. Wayne Shorter — it was just endless, those guys. 

Without a lot of those guys here, the guys in their 50s and 60s who learned from them now have to take that role. Kenny Garrett, Marc Cary, Abraham Burton, Robert Glasper — he’s not that much older, but people look up to him. 

Those guys are doing a great job, too. And there’s a whole bunch of youngsters who are doing so many different things. You’ve got to change the way you look at things; it’s not all about You’ve got to go one way, and that’s the way you’re going to do it.

Julius Rodriguez — one day, you see him playing a Flying V guitar, and the next day, he’s doing this. The next day, he’s doing a massive drum solo on a rock stage. The next day, he’s playing some Bud Powell tunes. So, there’s no way you can pinpoint him, man!

I told him, “I can’t believe how good you sound on drums.” And he said, “I want to be great on everything.” It wasn’t really like that before, and now it’s kind of like that. Like, Luther Allison plays great drums too. Nicholas Payton does that too; he plays great bass and drums. People see that, and they want to be like that. It’s not so one-dimensional.

I was at the [Chicago] airport yesterday with Marc Cary. He was showing me this video of him and Roy [Hargrove], Christian McBride and Greg Hutchinson when they were 19. They’d exploded on the scene, and I was there to see it.

Some of the older generation had [qualms]. This was in the ‘90s; I’m sure the same thing was going on in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. It happens every generation. Sometimes, I think it gets overblown, because there’s just too many good people in this music. 

When you get down inside it, in the trenches, I think we all work together pretty well.

LJN: With that rapprochement between the old and new guards in mind, please describe the concept of the band on In What Direction Are You Headed?.

JF: Kurt was who I was going to base my music concept over. He was the feature; we were going to flow through his spirit. So, I was like, What’s the best way we could fill that out? Who could be right next to him, going on that journey?

I’d played a couple of times with Immanuel Wilkins, and the way he plays is the same thing: you can hear the roots of Charlie Parker and Trane, and the sound he has — sound’s a huge thing. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt: when Ammons played one note, that sound could destroy anything people play, because that sound was overwhelming. 

Art Blakey’s sound — Miles Davis’ sound. Immanuel Wilkins is in that same category. He’s a youngster, but he’s got a tremendous sound and harmonic concept. 

I knew he’d be a perfect complement to Kurt. He’s open to everything. He’s hearing everything. He’s his own leader. He has a strong personality. He has a strong concept of what he wants to do. And it just so happens that they’re both from Philadelphia.

I learned from Benny Golson how he put groups together; I was with him for, like, eight years, and I saw that — and how George Coleman put people together. I like putting people together and seeing how it’s going to come out. Usually, it comes out pretty good; this one came out very good. 

The concept is trying to go with Kurt and open up a little bit; you’re going to need people who can open it up even further. Immanuel was the only person I wanted for it.

Album cover

LJN: Can you get into the rhythm section a little bit?

JF: Julius is a young guy I knew when he was up at Caramoor [Center for Music and the Arts in Westchester County, New York] with Curtis Fuller. He was, like, 14 years old! 

This is maybe about 10 years ago, but even 10 years ago, it was like, “So, what are you?” Back in the day, you were a piano player, or a drummer, or a bass player. It was kind of funny. He can play guitar; he can play bass; he can play drums; he can play piano; he can play them all great. That’s what he is, man. 

I started playing with him maybe about five years ago. He’s one of the faces of the new generation that want to do it all — that play all kinds of music. He can play a Beatles tune; he can play a Bud Powell tune. He can play a hip-hop tune. He can play tunes by people I don’t even know. 

I was so focused on a certain way: Tootie Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Art Taylor. That was the way. There was no mixing around back then. There were a few people that could do it, like Idris Muhammad, but today’s different. And that’s great. I think it makes people better players.

I was a huge fan of Robert Hurst, with Branford Marsalis — all of those guys. I saw him play when I was first getting to New York. I would see him touring with Diana Krall. 

I always wanted to play with him, so I figured, with this new thing going, I thought it’d be the perfect time to add that edginess. It’s someone I’d never played with, but I knew was coming from the same language, or the same roots as everybody. I knew he could do anything he wanted to do.

Out of the whole day, he surprised me the most. I knew he was great, but I didn’t know he was that great — with a sound with echoes of Ray Brown and Paul Chambers, but doing everything

He just came in there, no nonsense, no stress, got the music with no rehearsal, played better than I’ve heard a bass player play, and left. His attitude was great. Two big thumbs up for Robert Hurst.

LJN: How would you characterize the alto-guitar connection here, on any level — harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, timbrally?

JF Kurt and Immanuel play real spiritual, and I felt that with both people. Kurt’s sound, and [Immanuel’s] sound — it’s no different than Miles and Charlie Parker, or Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins; Harold used to love Lee Morgan and Benny Golson. People that played together in the front line, and their sounds are together. 

I knew that even though they’d never played together, it was going to work perfectly. And you can hear it, man.

LJN: I guess I was framing the question in an instrument-specific sense, but I think that’s a totally valid answer — they meet on a spiritual plane where it doesn’t matter what the instruments are.

JF: I like an edge in the sound. I love the edge Jackie McLean gets. Curtis Fuller has an edge, too. Freddie Hubbard has an edge. I love that thing that just…

LJN: Needles you.

JF: Yes, yes, yes. With Kurt’s beautiful sound and that edge Immanuel’s got, I thought it would be the best complement. A fullness. It came out to be true.

LJN: What are we dealing with regarding the material on In What Direction Are You Headed? How did these tunes gravitationally attract each other?

JF: Everything stems from that week at the Vanguard. But before I go in there, there are stories from my life that I want to document, and people I’ve been around, and things that I’ve heard that I’ve wanted to base — let’s say, a record, or a novel on, if I was writing a book.

One was Cedar Walton playing “Lament,” and then, I heard him play “Beautiful Friendship” at [defunct Greenwich Village jazz club] Bradley’s. I said [to myself], Man, I’d love one day to make a record with him, doing that stuff. And we eventually did, with me and him on the cover, and that’s [1998’s] Beautiful Friendship.

One day, Benny Golson played “I Remember Clifford,” and I was like: I’d love to get a documentation of that — of me and him together. And I did.

When I finally made my first Smoke record [2020’s Time to Swing, with Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Barron and Peter Washington] — I’ve known Wynton Marsalis since we made a [2005] record called [Live at the] House of Tribes. It was like instant brothers.

I knew one day I wanted to make a record with him — even though that was a record — and I waited many, many years. I was patient. Like McCoy Tyner said, “Patience and endurance attains all things,” and I believe it with my heart.

Wynton hired me to do a movie called Motherless Brooklyn. We were hanging out for a week together, and at the end of the week, I asked him, “Would you make a record with me?” All I wanted to do was just play “Darn That Dream” — the way he played a ballad — and then everything would flow from there. That’s exactly what we did, and it was beautiful.

LJN: How did you connect that to Kurt Rosenwinkel and co.?

With this one, when I heard Kurt play “Terra Nova,” a bossa, I was like, That is so beautiful. It just bridged me into another universe. I’d love to make a story out of that. 

It’s a tune where you can sing along to it. It’s one of the most amazing feelings I’ve had on the bandstand, and I wanted more of it, because I’m a greedy dude, man. That was the tune I wanted to base things off of.

I love Kurt’s tune “Filters” that we play. I spent a month trying to memorize that for the Vanguard, so that was in my blood; I wanted to do that. Then, I asked Immanuel to bring in a tune [reflecting] a certain thing, which he did [via “Composition 4”]. 

Then, I asked Julius to bring in a song. I gave little guidelines, but Julius brought in four tunes; they were all good. We did a rehearsal; we had Kurt’s tunes, Immanuel’s tunes and Julius’s tunes. That doesn’t mean they all go together; they’re like eight different paragraphs. That doesn’t make a novel; they’ve got to fit together. But what they brought in worked perfect together.

You know, it was a little humbling, because it’s my record date, but these guys are bringing in the music. I had to bring something in that said something for me.

I run every day, and things come to me when I’m running. I was going to come up with a tune that was a little dedication to Harold Mabern. Lee Morgan’s The Gigolo is one of my favorite albums of all time; I wanted to do a tune based on Harold’s comping on the first chorus of “Speedball.”

But I kept going back to this other song, which we played at the Vanguard, called “In What Direction Are You Headed?”. In my 30 years playing with [Harold], he’d never played that tune. 

When we were at the Vanguard that week, this guy Russ Musto said, “Hey, man, why don’t you play that tune that was on Lee Morgan’s The Last Session record?” It was one of Lee’s last dates, and “In What Direction Are You Headed?” was on there. We started playing it, and I was like, Wow, that’s a great tune!

I was thinking about that, and it made total sense. I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in a higher power, and I know Harold Mabern was talking to me. I know he was pushing me through Covid, and I know he was pushing me to open up to new styles of music. He was pushing me to be true to myself — to let the music inside me come out.

So, I was like, That’s perfect. That’s going to be the anchor of this record.

LJN: So what happened from there?

JF: I called up Michael Mabern, his son. That whole week, he was listening to that song, hoping someone would record it again, because that’s a song he grew up on. I just knew right then that no matter what was going to happen, it was going to be great, because I had that power behind me.

LJN: What’s the current state of your drum thinking, and how does that manifest on In What Direction Are You Headed?

JF: One thing I learned through Covid was amazing — I got to speak with people more, like Al Foster and Billy Hart. I was able to reflect on some things people told me, but maybe I didn’t really listen to. Now, I see why they told me.

One, definitely, was from Larry Willis [who passed away in 2019]. The last thing he said to me was “Dare to be great.” The other one was in a drum battle I did with Kenny Washington. Al Foster was sitting next to me, and he said “Be true to yourself.” 

I thought about that a lot during Covid; I wondered what “myself” really is. I could tell you about Max [Roach] and Philly Joe and Art Taylor, because I was constantly going through them. I was thinking about them, and then I saw how Brad [Mehldau] played and Kurt played. They showed me that’s the direction I wanted to head in — to be more true to myself, to just play myself.

I spent 30 years trying to play the perfect Max Roach solo. And after 30 years, I realized I can’t do it. So, I’m just going to have to play the best Joe Farnsworth solo I can do. That’s where I’m at.

LJN: I’ve seen you live in a variety of contexts, and you’re never bashing; you’re on the bandstand in a buttoned-up suit, but you don’t break a sweat. Tell me how you play from a musculature standpoint.

JF: It’s all in the wrists, man. Shoulders and wrists. 

I spent 10 years with Jimmy Lovelace; we lived together on 5th Street and Second Avenue. He was one of the best drummers you’d ever see in your life. Very underground, from Kansas City. You can check him out in a YouTube video with Wes Montgomery and Harold (*).

Anyway, we practiced together — did two drums together. He was the smoothest dude on the drums. Like this [Makes a smooth, synchronized motion with both hands]. When we did two drums, we’d be playing the same tune at the same tempo — sometimes, the same licks — but my hands seemed to be going twice as fast as his.

He was so smooth that I was like, I’ve got to get that. Max Roach was like that, and Billy Higgins was like that. They didn’t move their bodies. It was all coming from their shoulders and heart, through to the hands. I slow down, relax, let it flow, and make sure my hands are strong.

LJN: To wind it down a little bit, you’ve very active on social media and leverage it in a constructive manner. Tell me how that tool fits in your arsenal.

JF Well, I can’t wind down when you bring me to the apex of my life! 

A couple stories, man. I’m at the Vanguard many years ago. I was talking to someone from DownBeat, and I said, “You should do an article on my teacher, Alan Dawson, who taught everybody.” John Robinson, Jr. — look him up; he’s the most recorded drummer in the world. Harvey Mason. Jeff Watts. Clifford Jarvis. Terri Lyne Carrington. All these generations and different mixes of music.

They basically said, “No one would care about that.” That stunned me: How could I care about something so much, and then I’m hearing that no one would care about it?

I’m sitting with George Coleman, and we’re watching the Miles Davis documentary [2019’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool]. It just happened to come on. And this documentary went from Coltrane straight to Sam Rivers. 

What happened to the two years with George Coleman? What happened to ‘Four’ & More? What happened to My Funny Valentine? What happened to Seven Steps to Heaven? Not a mention!

And then I’m with Cedar Walton. Billy Higgins died, and there was a whole thing about him. It went from Monk to Ornette Coleman to Pat Metheny. It’s like, Whoa, where’s the 50 years with Cedar Walton? He just threw the thing up in the air.

I knew then: if my idols, my Mount Rushmore of staples of life, weren’t getting that, that was a great lesson for me: I’m not gonna get anything. Nor do I want anything if they weren’t!

I was at the Vanguard when Covid came in, with [guitarist Peter] Bernstein. I was trying to get a little gig somewhere — not even a big gig. They said, “You’re not on social media. I can’t hire you.” I’m like, Damn, OK. I’m all into solutions. What’s the solution? If I want to get a gig there, well, let’s get on social media!

Joe Farnsworth. Photo by Matt Baker

So, I got on Facebook. Everything at that time was like, “New York sucks, music sucks, this guy sucks, this old guy sucks, this young guy sucks,” blah, blah, blah. “Back in the day, music was better.” 

I couldn’t believe it! New York City sucks? Where Bird, Max Roach, Duke Ellington lived? How could that be? There’s all these great people still living, and youngsters who are great musicians. How could the music be dying?

I sat there: OK, If I’m going to be on social media, what am I going to do? There’s so much negativity! So, I was staring at a picture of Billy Higgins smiling, and I said, I’ll just talk about Billy Higgins. 

It’s not like [stern voice] “Hey, younger guys. You’ve got to listen to Billy Higgins.” It was just what I saw Billy Higgins do. It’s not an opinion. It’s just: This is what I saw, and I’m not making it up, and this is what he told me. Whether you like me or not, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want anything from it. It’s just what I saw.

It was so fun to do, and then everything shut down: Ah, Harold Mabern’s birthday is coming up, even though he passed away! I’m going to go to all the places Harold liked — the old Birdland, find out where that is, and talk about Count Basie, and go to Slug’s, where Lee Morgan got shot and Harold was there. And call people who knew Harold and talk about Harold, because the press never did. The people did, but the press never did.

That took me, like, three weeks: Wow, that was so fun! Let’s talk about Max Roach! I had so much fun doing it, and people from around the world were writing me: “Thank you so much, thank you so much.” I was led to believe that people didn’t care about these guys!

And then I did one on Alan Dawson, and man, it was one the biggest videos I did. People didn’t really know about him, or they loved him; [either way,] they loved hearing about him. 

When Barry Harris made a video for me before he died, it said, “No matter the cost, be your own boss.” It was letting go of this negativity about those guys and how they were treated. Now, I could do it on my little platform myself. I don’t need anyone else to talk about these guys who meant so much to the world. I could do it, and the great thing is, people do care.

So, when I play around the world, it might not be 100 people. But five or 10 people might come up and say, “Thank you for that Jimmy Lovelace video,” or “Thank you for that George Coleman video.”

I made these #TimeToSwing videos with people all through the U.S., from New York all the way to California and Hawaii. And then I made one about Latin America, about Canada, about Russia, with all these great musicians. I go through the whole world and show people playing, and their love for music.

On social media, there’s a lot of negative stuff, and that seems to get more traction. To me, it’s a real grace from God to be able to be part of this family. I love talking about my heroes.

LJN: I can’t believe George Coleman was left out of the Miles documentary. Reminds me of how the revolutionaries and innovators seem to get all the ink, while many of the names you mentioned — who simply had a personal language deeply rooted in tradition — became marginalized.

JF: While you were talking, I was looking at a photo of me at my lesson with Arthur Taylor. I was thinking about the things he said to me. To mind my own business. Take care of the drums, and the drums will take care of you. If you put all your energy into playing great music, that music will take care of you.

When you say things like that, t/hat’s been going on for… let’s only speak of my lifetime. That’s been going on since the ‘70s. I’m sure it happened way before that, too. I was around the Junior Cooks. I was around the Harold Maberns. I was around the Cedar Waltons. You’d think they were way up there, and they weren’t.

That’s the narrative they’re pushing out there. It has nothin’ to do with me, man, and instead of taking it personally, I’m going to do it myself. I’m not going to worry about it, because I already saw it. Those stories I told you are ingrained in me. Whatever happens now, I’m oblivious to it.

I went through a lot with Harold — like, How is this guy not doing masterclasses at every school? No one had time for him. He should be teaching history classes at Harvard! This dude grew up in the ‘40s, in the South! The musical journey, and what socially he went through. When we were on the road, I sat there talking to him; he brought me back to segregated Memphis. You’re like, Holy cow. 

They didn’t get the credit musically. It was a little desponding to me, but Harold was strong. He didn’t care at all. He never even got the [NEA] Jazz Master [Award]. That’s a guy who’s been teaching for 40 years! 

I had to let that go, because it was irritating me a bit. It all came together: I’m just going to take care of it myself in the way that God allows me.

LINKS: In What Direction Are You Headed? on Bandcamp

Joe Farnsworth live dates

LJN 2015 interview with Harold Mabern

(*) Harold Mabern performing with Wes Montgomery (YouTube)

Leave a Reply