A Handful of Hamilton Ashley Kahn reviews three essential musical offerings from jazz drummer Chico Hamilton.
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A Handful of Hamilton

Like other band-leading drummers in the jazz tradition — Art Blakey, Max Roach, Chick Webb — it's difficult to know whether Foreststorn "Chico" Hamilton deserves most praise for the groups he has assembled, the compositions he has written, or simply his drumming. All facets of his musical personality reflect a dedication that has endured for more than seven decades, during which he has been an active participant in as many shifts in musical style and fashion. From swing and jump blues to bebop, Latin, funk and free, "Chics" is fluent in and has explored them all.

In 1958 at the Newport Jazz Festival, "Chics" was caught by movie cameras as he and his quintet of the moment performed the Eastern-tinged "Blue Sands," with Hamilton working out a rolling, mallet solo that built from whisper soft to thunderous climax. It's a featured moment in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day, and captures the focused precision, dynamic range and exotic flavor that are elements in his wide musical palette.

Three other moments worth checking from Hamilton's extended journey follow, each available and recommended highly.

'The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings'

The Original Chico Hamilton Quintet: Complete Studio Recordings

'Morning After'

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Cool and classical. Yes, this is an import but it's just been released and there's no better release that captures the group that grew from the West Coast "cool" jazz scene, helped coin the term "chamber jazz" and featured Hamilton along with guitarist Jim Hall, saxophonist/flutist Buddy Collette, cellist Fred Katz and bassist Carson Smith. It's a musical formula that Hamilton returned to repeatedly: a rhythm section without a piano but always a guitar, and any of a variety of horns ("I've never used keyboards but always guitar," he explains. "The reason for that is the guitar has sustaining power, which gives me a chance to dance.") Check out "The Sage," "The Morning After," "Chrissie" and the live performance of "I Want to Be Happy."


'Man From Two Worlds'

Man from Two Worlds

'Forest Flower'

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Moody, modal and modern. This is one of two CDs that are currently available collecting Hamilton's mid-'60s recordings for the famed Impulse label. This title features the music of the remarkable quintet band that included legendary sax man Charles Lloyd (channeling John Coltrane at his most spiritual), Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, future funk trombonist George Bohanon and bassist Al Stinson. If only for the original version of Lloyd's "Forest Flower," this one's a keeper. Also: the title track, "Passin' Thru" and "Lonesome Child."




'Mr. Hamilton'

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'Yeh Yeh' (For Carlos Santana)

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Fun, fun, fun. Of the four new CDs that Hamilton's been working on for the past three years, all to be released during his 85th year, this is the most consistent, varied and enjoyable. There's some strong new material ("Mr. Hamilton" and "Cary's Footsteps"), some familiar forms like a slow blues ("What's Your Story, Morning Glory?") and an R&B romp ("Yeh Yeh," dedicated to Carlos Santana.) There are also a few surprises, like Bill Henderson singing "Ain't She Sweet," Arthur Lee (yes, the guy from the group Love who recently passed) singing on that slow blues number, and a collaboration between Hamilton and an electronica group called Mudd ("Kerry's Caravan"). If they figure out how to bottle whatever it is that keeps a drummer in the pocket like Hamilton is at 85, I'm ordering a case to go.


Ashley Kahn is author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.