Jeff Hamilton, with over three decades under his belt as one of jazz’s most composed and precise drummers, returns to the trio setting with Red Sparkle. Here, the Indiana native takes a look back and a leap forward with a set of tributes and originals.
The trio includes bassist Christoph Luty and pianist Tamir Hendelman, completing a group that Hamilton’s been working with for a decade or more. The experience shows, but it’s the camaraderie that really makes these tunes fly.
Red Sparkle is, as you might expect, a very rhythmic recording. There are lots of cymbal splashes and coats of fresh paint layered over old favourites, with Hamilton guiding all the while with an almost cheeky sense of what really swings. The music is deep enough, but it’s not a yawning take on tradition or a course on the old favourites. It’s decidedly modern and hip as hell, a celebration of time and first drum sets and, yep, dreaded “pop” tunes.
The record opens with a tribute to Snooky Young. It’s a compilation of some of the phrases used by the lead anchor to the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra’s trumpet section, but it’s also a lively and sparkly analysis of all that’s right about timeless jazz. It swings with exactitude, never submitting to stiff channels but always maintaining that subtle balance between knowing and knowing.
Whether he’s been playing with Diana Krall or co-leading the aforementioned Orchestra with his best friend or working it out in trio settings, Hamilton’s gift has always shone through. Even so, the drummer isn’t an attention-getter and he avoids overextension for extra embellishments. The drumming never seems frantic or excessively flashy, even when he breaks out the more embroidered fills, and that helps keep this record moored in the basics of trio swing.
“Too Marvelous for Words,” a standard from Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting, takes this idea to its logical conclusion. Hamilton’s drum work is lively and exciting, but he never goes to lengths to steal the spotlight from his bandmates. Hendelman’s piano draws out rich tones and lots of heat, but it’s all prepared in the service of passing some of that gusto down to the next man.
Jazz, when it’s done right, is everything that can go right about music that, at least sometimes, should go nowhere but wrong. Walking the line between improvisation and structure can make for some terrible conversations, but, in the hands of seasoned players like Hamilton’s trio, that Red Sparkle really takes hold of something deep down and never lets go.