Billy Drummond Trio
(PizzaExpress Jazz Club. 11 November 2023 – first house. Live review by Charles Rees)
American drummer, composer and educator Billy Drummond made his London debut as a leader at PizzaExpress Soho last night as part of the 2023 EFG London Jazz Festival. A veteran of the New York scene mentored by the likes of Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and Joe Henderson, Drummond is one of the most prolific sidemen of the last forty years, having appeared on over 350 records. Though his discography as a leader is not as extensive, he released several of his own records in the early ’90s.
After an almost three-decade hiatus as a leader, Drummond again took to the studio in 2022 with a newly formed quartet called Freedom of Ideas, comprised of Micah Thomas (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Dayna Stephens (saxophones). The resulting album, Valse Sinistre, formed the basis of the last night’s concert at PizzaExpress, though Drummond instead opted for a trio without sax and with John Hébert on bass instead of Douglas.
Their set featured a mix of material from Valse Sinistre, such as the Frank Kimbrough composition “Clara’s Room”, as well as lesser performed standards like Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One”, which seemed to find a middle ground between straight-ahead swing and some more free elements. The inclusion of Keith Jarrett’s composition “Southern Smiles” (originally recorded on the pianist’s 1976 release Shades) was especially satisfying. It is a seldom performed piece of music – though it ought to be played more – that features a supremely lyrical melody and wonderfully infectious vamp which Drummond used as an opportunity to solo around.
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The trio setting enabled Micah Thomas to stretch out a good deal more than he otherwise would have been able to with a frontline instrument, a reality he seemed to thrive on. The pianist has made waves across the world of jazz in recent years as part of saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins’ quartet and he also has a strong rapport with Drummond, who was his teacher at the Julliard School. His most compelling overall performance came on “Sounds Around the House”, a deep and pretty ballad by Alec Wilder which Drummond previously recorded with Peter Washington. Hébert on bass also had some wonderful moments of interplay with the piano on this number.
A set of music like this gets one thinking… For better or for worse, the typical international artist that passes through London (usually as part of a tour) will often focus on projects which put the emphasis on their own often quite complex and intense original music. But in the New York setting, these artists would typically play a set more akin to this – one that chooses to highlight some of the more interesting standards and compositions from their peers and heroes, alongside some of the new material. Drummond and his all-star trio brought to PizzaExpress a glimpse of the latter kind of set, and in doing so inadvertently ended up satisfying what can often be a gap in the festival’s programming.