A different drummer - Downbeat - Vol.34, N° 20 - October 5, 1967
A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
State Of Mind
By Mike Zwerin
ROBERT AND I are lost in Frejus, driving around in circles. We are looking for the Autoroute to Juan-Les-Pins and the Antibes Jazz Festival. Finally, we ask a cop standing in front of a gendarmerie. He points the way politely.
"That's the building they took us to— looks like it at least," Robert says.
"Who took you?"
"The cops. They picked us up, man."
"For being in the south of France. We were sitting in a cafe in Cogolin having coffee. Two cops pulled up and said to come with them. We told them we had an important date in a half-hour to see' about a gig. They didn't care, though. We had our passports, and they let us go after two hours.
"Long hair can be a hangup. I cut mine a couple of times—couldn't decide which way I wanted to go. Finally, I let it grow long after I saw the Stones for the first time. I like that look. But you get put in a bag. We are known as a psychedelic group so everybody looks at us like we are some kind of side show. People say, 'Boy, it must be wild to play on acid.' Man, I do my thing myself. I don't need acid to play the drums."
As we chug along in my little old French car, Robert starts singing Donna Lee, and Bird's solo on it. "Man, for a 21-year-old rock-and-roll drummer, you sure know a lot about jazz," I shout over the unmuffled motor.
Robert is hugging his crumpled shirt and shaking his blond hair rhythmically as he talks.
"I spent a lot of time listening to jazz," he says. "That's all I did when I wasn't in school. I even wrote some criticism once."
"Really? About what?"
"Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor. But it was mostly teenage fan stuff. I was pretty star-struck. Still am, I guess. It's a drag, too, because—well, I know that most of the guys I like don't dig what I'm doing. Categories are a drag. But I guess I'm just a rock-and-roll drummer. Funny. . . ."
He talks about Robert Graves, the poet and novelist, and the two summers he spent in his house on Majorca. I think about the Soft Machine, the pop group from London with which Robert Wyatt is drummer and lead singer. They are pretty freaky-looking on stage, wearing their weird hats, long hair, shades, and their funky, bizarre garb. It is odd that young people who look that way are familiar with Donna Lee, Robert Graves, or Cecil Taylor. But things are not always as they appear.
The Soft Machine has been playing around St. Tropez a lot since I've been here, and I've heard them a lot. There is no doubt that the music they play is jazz. Of course, there are vocals, but when Ray Charles or Jack Teagarden sing, it is still jazz, isn't it?
In between the vocals, the Scft Machine improvises, and they swing. It's not simple-minded either. They do it all on electronic instruments, though, and this throws many people off. The sound is as new, as strange—and as fresh—to jazz as bebop seemed at first. And as the older cats laughed at the hoppers in the '40s, the establishment of jazz laughs at the music of the flower children in the '60s.
The Soft Machine's members have a cloudy sound. They use vocal sound effects close in on microphones. Robert sings with plenty of soul, in tune, swinging, reminiscent of Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding. Mike Ratledge on organ is a very exciting cat. He is obviously influenced by Cecil Taylor as he flies around the keyboard, often atonally, over the hard rock beat.
And rock is stretching out. The time moves from slow to fast and back again. They have a number in 7/4, subdivided 1,2,3,—1—1,2,3. Robert swings hard in a style I've never heard before, a combination of Ringo Starr and Elvin Jones.
The tunes are very long, perhaps too long. They sometimes lose the dancers and even the listeners. But the Soft Machine is exploring in lonely territory, not accepted by its heroes and yet not commercial enough to make heavy bread. If it should eventually have a hit, it may be because it has sold out, whatever that means. The temptations of the market place can be overwhelming. Right now, though, you really have to listen to the Soft Machine to understand it. And it is music really worth listening to, truly avant-garde. All you have to do is throw away all your prejudices.
In Juan-Les-Pins, Robert and I take a walk before the concert. Robert talks about drummers. Elvin is his favorite but "Jimmy Cobb is very underrated. When everybody was driving that two-and-four high-hat thing into the ground, Jimmy was doing something entirely different. Tching, tching, tching, tching, on the ride cymbal, way on top of the beat. Man, that's a groovy way to keep the time. And when he plays in another meter, like six, he just keeps doing it instead of subdividing into two threes, like so many other drummers."
Later, we have dinner with Paul Desmond. I wonder, at the beginning, how these two generations of jazz musicians will relate to each other. It is immediately clear that Robert has great respect for Paul and is rather flattered to be with him.
Like so many of his peers, he is extremely mature and knowledgeable for his age. He talks and listens in the proper places. He talks about the musicians he likes—Mingus, Monk, Trane, Ornette. He knows details about the life and music of Steve Lacy and even about more obscure players such as Clarence Shaw.
As the evening progresses I can see that Paul is becoming more interested in Robert, less concerned with his long hair or image.
The next night, the Soft Machine is working. They are covered with moving, multicolored polka dots. Lights are flashing. Dancers, bodies are jumping, twirling, shaking. The place is alive and swinging with the Soft Machine in gear, and there is no category.