Let the beats speak \\ The rhythm-makers propelling new sounds in jazz and beyond

With live performance essential to the subsistence of almost all modern musicians, it’s unsurprising that beats have become a prominent feature of contemporary jazz. Be it an unorthodox club space or open air festival stage, few musical elements are as adaptable and penetrating as a beat. Produced acoustically or electronically, rigidly sequenced or stank face-funky, beats have the power to move us physically and emotionally. Innovators would be ill-considered to ignore today’s rhythm-makers.

Consequently, many musicians with formal jazz or classical training are listening to their instincts and eclectic influences. They’re co-opting the ‘one drop’ rhythms of reggae, the Jungle breaks and House 808s. They’re splicing, fusing and reinterpreting the sounds they love with consummate technique and artistic flair. In doing so, they’re also fostering a movement within which no sound or style dominates—few limits are imposed and few pre-conceived idea takes precedent. Whether bandleaders, side musicians or executive producers, their approaches from behind the kit, drum machine and mixer are propelling new sounds within and beyond contemporary jazz.

An artist who exemplifies this trend among modern rhythm-makers is Louis Cole of multi-genre outfit KNOWER. Graduating from the Jazz Studies program at USC Thornton in 2009, his formal training belied his broader influences, which included Nintendo video game music, drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep. Emerging from the program as a musician of technical excellence, he followed his creative desires away from the safety net of his educational guidance. He developed the ability to play at tempo the breaks that had been sped up to form the fortified sound of UK Jungle. Such inventiveness opened the door to a world of musical possibilities, which he and vocalist Genevieve Artadi now explore with music that has been described as “crazy-cool heavy electro jazz funk progressive pops” by Japanese rapper and journalist Kazuaki Watanabe.

Read our feature interview with award-winning drummer Moses Boyd

British drummer Richard Spaven also drew various influences into his jazz foundations. He spent his formative years playing in jazz bands but his appreciation of dance music encouraged him to diversify his playing. Now an in-demand session musician, trio leader and prominent figure in London’s music scene, he’s played live with Goldie’s Timeless Ensemble, Jameszoo and The Metropole Orkest. As he told Stamp the Wax, “I respect the mechanical way that machines play beats…if you adopt that as a drummer and add to that as well as a human, that’s when it gets really interesting for me”. His approach to the fusion of electric and acoustic, mechanical and organic, is one shared by some of the world’d most talented beat-makers.
Another key figure is Jersey’s Mark Guiliana, whose ability to manipulate acoustic drums to achieve sounds resembling electronics, came in useful on the project of a lifetime. He, along with Donny McCaslin’s band, were invited to work with David Bowie on the LP Blackstar, a project which would become the pop innovator’s last. Presented with demos featuring complex drum programming, Guiliana used his technical skill and manipulation to arrive at a fresh and contemporary drum sound, complementary to the band, composition and original demo programming. With his jazz quartet and Dave Douglas collaboration, Guiliana has demonstrated how both acoustic and electronic elements are important to his expression. More significantly though, he has shown the drums to be a leading element in both; an anchor in the aesthetic of Douglas’ Dark Territory and a basis for many of his jazz quartet arrangements to blossom from.

Other drummers, especially those shaping London’s effervescent scene, focus more on assimilating and implementing principals of African drumming than altering the kits. Take Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective and Yussef Dayes of United Vibrations as two prime examples. Both look to Afrobeat from West Africa as well as the wider African diaspora to imbue their playing with timeless energy. They appreciate modernity and recognise how musical developments in their city have been inextricably tied to club culture. This too feeds into their playing and artistic direction. They’ve drawn influence from drummers like Tony Allen and Billy Cobham as equally as they’ve pulled from London’s sonic tapestry of broken beat and garage. With their bands of brothers—Ezra Collective and United Vibrations—they exemplify how busy beats that are taut and brimming with feeling, can bring freshness to an ensemble sound rooted in older musical styles.

Drummers aren’t the only rhythm-makers influencing developments in contemporary music however. Take Dutch producer Binkbeats, an artist thrust into the electronic music limelight with his Beats Unraveled series for Boiler Room. Trained as a classical percussionist at the Hague’s Royal Conservatoire, his ingenuity and resourcefulness saw him using unmusical objects to simulate the sounds he heard in digital productions. Oil cans, typewriters, toy kalimbas—nothing was off limits for the producer, who now focusses on solo material and is representative of a whole host of avant-garde creatives manipulating sound to create jazz-hop and techno beats. Kinshasa’s KOKOKO! create instruments by recycling items found around their city. Their sound is an infatuating, infectious and hyper-rhythmic one, demonstrating that great music can come from creative ambition and relentless drive in spite of challenging economic circumstances.

To this list of rhythm-makers add ‘Beat Scientist’ Makaya McCraven, Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave, Daisy Palmer, Lizy Exell of Nerija, Moses Boyd, Jake Long, Maxwell Owin and Manu Delago; it becomes clear just how central beats and beat makers are to jazz-influenced music.

In years to come, we may look back and remember a crop of truly inventive artists who put rhythms at the fore and revolutionised grassroots music.

Tweet @EZHmag

EZH | Joshua French