Jazz drummer John Riley reports that famed traps-man Joe Morello passed away this morning at the age of 82.
Morello is easily one of the most heard jazz drummers of all time. He played in pianist Dave Brubeck's quartet from 1955 through 1968, bringing his subtle swing and impeccable touch to American college campuses and developing countries alike. Brubeck and Morello pioneered the use of asymmetrical time signatures in jazz, especially on Brubeck's best-selling 1959 album, "Time Out." The opening track, "Blue Rondo a la Turk," skips along with awkward yet infectious 2+2+2+3 pattern. Morello then gives a masterclass on how simple five-four time can be with his solo on the now universally-known "Take Five." After his time in the Brubeck group, Morello focused his energies on drum education. He was a technique guru and published his challenging warm-ups and exercises in a series of books called "Master Studies." He is a legend among hard core drummers of all styles and stripes for his flawless technique and willingness to pass on the tools of the trade to future generations.
When I was learning drum set in middle school, Joe was an important teacher and inspiration. Ok, I never actually had a lesson with him (even though he lived in New Jersey), but I listened to "Time Out" a lot and did my fair share of work from "Master Studies." At that time, my principle drum deity was Buddy Rich and so needless to say I was all about playing loud and fast. I had some recordings of Art Blakey and Max Roach, but their style seemed weak in comparison to the unyielding power of Buddy's single strokes behind a big band. Joe could easily keep up with Buddy in a pure speed contest which is likely what drew me to him. However, Joe had a much different touch and feel around the kit. Every tap was carefully placed and shaped. The listener wasn't beat over the head with how great his technique was.
His "Take 5" solo was particularly perplexing to me in that he used space. He literally stopped playing at certain points, then would repeat an idea, develop it more, move on to another. This kind of drum solo was from a conceptual standpoint totally different from Buddy's. It was a thread meant to lead the listener along rather than a tidal wave meant to impress the listener into submission. Joe's playing made me being to listen to drummers differently and appreciate touch and space. I don't think I would have had any interest in Paul Motian's playing with the Bill Evans trio (a massive touchstone for me now) if it wasn't for my time spent with Joe Morello on "Time Out."
I was a bona fide drum nerd by the time I was in eighth grade, at the occasional annoyance to my older brother - I couldn't stop talking about it when he drove me home from school. But I guess the annoyance ended up being a good thing when my brother's high school chemistry teacher mentioned that her husband played jazz drums after seeing my brother lead the school jazz band at an assembly. She said that her husband studied with this guy that lived in the area, but who had a pretty big career at some point. My brother mentioned that I was getting really into jazz drumming and they agreed it would be a cute idea to get me an autograph of this erstwhile famous drummer.
On Christmas morning that year, I opened a rather innocuous envelope from my brother and freaked out when I found a personalized, autographed photo of Joe Morello inside. It immediately went up on my dresser, and has sat there through my hours of practicing since then. I never ended up meeting Joe, but I did talk to my brother's chemistry teacher's husband about him. He said that Joe was enthused upon hearing of a young, aspiring jazz drummer and was happy to give a token of inspiration.
Even as his magnum opus "Take 5" becomes a well-worn musical artifact, emblematic of a time yet divorced from its makers, Joe Morello will linger as a legend among drummers he will never meet. His enthusiasm for for sharing music and knowledge still flows from his records, books, and even a little autograph.