What’s to say about Elvin Jones? While I have spent relatively little time listening to his brothers’ work (pianist Hank, trumpeter and composer Thad), his explosive, thunderous drumming has been the foundation of many of my favorite jazz albums, beginning of course with his tenure backing (and some would say battling) John Coltrane. On the first of these two albums, 1963’s Illumination!, Coltrane’s entire rhythm section—pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and Jones—is present, supporting a three-horn front line of Sonny Simmons on alto sax and English horn, Prince Lasha on flute and clarinet, and Charles Davis on baritone sax. The disc was originally co-credited to Jones and Garrison, just as 1968’s Heavy Sounds was co-led by Jones and bassist Richard Davis. This seems as logical a choice as any, since the drummer doesn’t act like he’s really leading the session; he’s the only member of the sextet not to contribute a tune (Davis writes two), so how much of a boss could he really be, right?


Illumination! sits in a weird spot, chronologically and artistically. Recorded in 1963, it comes at a time when free jazz was still establishing itself—only a few players, like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, were making serious attempts to break the chains of swing and the blues. Albert Ayler was around, but had yet to truly make his presence known. So to hear a piece like “Aborigines Dance in Scotland,” with a nursery-rhyme, cadence-counting melody that sounds highly Aylerian (but which is mostly used as a cue for an avalanche-like drum solo), is unexpected. Other tunes, like “Nuttin’ Out Jones” and “Gettin’ On Way,” are more rooted in hard bop, but still have a hard-charging vitality and a looseness to their swing that seems to prefigure what artists on ESP-Disk would be doing in 1964 and 1965. Tyner frequently sits out of this music; Garrison and Jones are having a much more guttural and forceful discussion than they had on Coltrane’s studio albums of 1963 or even 1964. The elegant melancholy of a session like Crescent is utterly absent here, replaced by jackhammer force and elephantine swing. The presence of baritone sax just gives it that much more gravitas. This is a record deserving of much more attention than it’s gotten, outside the jazz hardcore.

Dear John C., recorded two years later, is a very different album. Jones keeps the soloing to a minimum on this set of nine standards and hard bop tunes (one track, “That Five-Four Bag,” has been omitted from the original release to fit both albums onto a single CD), turning the disc into a showcase for alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano. The rest of the backing group consists of Richard Davis on bass and either Jones’ brother Hank, or Sir Roland Hanna, on piano. Davis is a less aggressive, more melodic player than Jimmy Garrison; though he’s capable of tearing at the strings with great force, he always seems to restrain himself, and he inspires a similar degree of self-control in Jones and everyone else. Mariano’s solos are bluesy and boppish, seeming to come from an earlier era. It could be easy, in fact, to read this album as Jones consciously retreating into a sound his primary boss, Coltrane, was fast abandoning in favor of screaming, convulsive free jazz. Indeed, it wouldn’t be long before the two men would part company, and the drummer would continue playing a hard-swinging, blues-rooted style of hard bop until the end of his life.

Dear John C. may not be as viscerally exciting as Illuminations!, but there’s a lot of music well worth hearing on it, especially a lovely version of “Feelin’ Good.” So disregard what I said when discussing Illumination!, because this twofer is an excellent way to understand the breadth of Elvin Jones’ skills as a bandleader, building a group around a sound and a concept rather than supporting a single charismatic figure. Everyone on each of these albums is of equal importance to the achievement of the collective goal, but it was Jones who put them together, so the credit is well deserved.

Phil Freeman

Stream these two albums on Spotify:

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