In jazz, drummers and bass players comprise more than simply the pulse of the band – they’re the spirit, the life blood, the spiritual connection to all that has passed and all that is possible. When we consider the work of such iconic rhythm section giants as Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, Jymie Merritt and Art Blakey, or Ron Carter and Tony Williams, we hear not only the history of a people, but the hopes and dreams of a generation, and what the future holds for generations to come. Past = prelude.
When long time rhythm section partners Carl Allen (drums) and Rodney Whitaker (bass) recorded their 2007 Mack Avenue debut, Get Ready, they wanted their past to inform their present. Culling themes from classic R&B, soul jazz, pop and straight ahead styles, Allen and Whitaker created music that found a wide audience who praised the duo for “taking them back home.” With Work To Do, this estimable Detroit/Milwaukee born and bred rhythm connection – a true rhythm convention – knew they had to let the good times continue to roll.
“As a drums and bass led group,” Rodney Whitaker explains, “we think less about improvisation and we respond more to the audience. If they are not tapping their toes we are not doing our job. When bass players and drummers lead bands they think more in terms of tempos and grooves and time and feel. And in keeping with that we want make sure that everybody is having a good time.”
Again joining past with present, with respect paid to masters of the soul jazz, R&B and mainstream jazz idioms, Allen and Whitaker surround themselves with a stellar cast of musicians on Work To Do. Covering such standards as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Lennon & McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” “With You I’m Born Again” (popularized by Billy Preston and Syreeta), and The Isley Brothers penned title track, “Work To Do,” Allen and Whitaker also composed new songs to compliment their all-encompassing, all-embracing approach.
“Often times in jazz, people are afraid to like what they like,” Whitaker says. “People like funky stuff but they might be ashamed to admit it. Their jazz friends might look down on them for liking music with a groove or a gospel flavor or smooth jazz or avant garde. But the great musicians played all kinds of grooves. For us it was important to rearticulate that idea and not do only straight ahead but mix it all together because that is the scene we grew up in, where you played everything from ‘Mister Magic’ to ‘Satin Doll.’ It was all just jazz.”
Joined by a superb cast of musicians arranged in configurations from duo to nonet, Work To Do features George Colligan, piano; Rodney Jones, acoustic and electric guitars; Dorsey “Rob” Robinson, B3 organ; Brandon Lee, trumpet; Kirk Whalum, tenor and soprano saxophone; Vincent Chandler, trombone; and Vincent Herring, alto and soprano saxophone.
Allen and Whitaker change up The Isley’s classic “Work To Do” with a breezy, upbeat swing feel, its indefatigable flow sweetened by a soaring Kirk Whalum solo. Whitaker follows suit with some deep toned majesty of his own.
“We were going to play this with the original folk feel that The Isley Brothers gave it,” Whitaker recalls. “But I said to Carl, ‘Why don’t we swing it?’ We tried it with Vincent Herring soloing, but Vincent thought this would be right up Kirk’s alley. And Kirk ate it up. He was on fire.”
The entire nine piece group contributes to Donnie McClurkin’s plaintively funky “Speak To My Heart,” followed by “For Garrison (Both),” which is named for both the great bassist and Whitaker’s son, Garrison James Whitaker. “It’s an impression, really,” Whitaker explains. “Out of my love and affection for Jimmy Garrison and the fact that I named my son after him.”
Traversing swing and Latin, “For Garrison (Both)” features solos from George Colligan, Vincent Herring and Vincent Chandler, with Allen supplying consistently superb direction from the drummer’s throne. Next up, Carl’s thoughtful “Giving Thanks” is thematically joined to a later album track, “Grahamstown,” both of which were inspired by a recent trip to South Africa.
“A week before we began recording,” Allen says, “I was in Grahamstown, South Africa at a jazz festival. I had been writing for the record, and I wanted to write something to thank the people there. Those cluster chords in the beginning of ‘Grahamstown’ reflect these kids I saw in the street. They were singing and skipping and playing. They sang as if they were a choir. The last part of the melody is them coming together, reflecting their back and forth dialogue.”
“What’s Going On” is super funky and popping, its consummate Allen/Whitaker treatment expressed in Rodney Jones’ beautiful chordal work (stating the theme), followed by warm solos from Whalum and Lee, and the entire nonet relaying a soul message drawing from the past but glowing in the present. As with Get Ready, Allen and Whitaker bring their entire jazz/gospel/R&B performance history to bear in “What’s Going On,” with the excellent supporting cast equally excited to resurrect the Marvin Gaye classic for today’s troubled times.
Performed in sequences of 5/4 and 4/4 as arranged by Diego Rivera, The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” takes on an entirely new slant on Work To Do. Again, Allen’s sprightly drumming, including a highly descriptive time warping solo, makes the entire performance pop!
“I heard Joshua Redman’s version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ on his Timeless Tales For Changing Times album, and it’s also in five,” Whitaker says. “He used the hook as an interlude, but Diego kept the 5/4 flavor and we kept the hook in 4/4. That part is the blues – ‘All the lonely people.’ Paul McCartney is such a lover of the blues, and you can hear it in that song’s lyric and the feeling. Originally the solo form was one time for each soloist, then we decided to use the 4/4 as the interlude, so the soloists would play over the 5/4.”
“With You I’m Born Again,” another allusion to the leaders’ R&B past, is followed by the exuberant “Grahamstown,” which kicks off with Allen and Whitaker rolling and tumbling ala Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison circa A Love Supreme. Allen’s playful melody darts and jumps, giving everyone a ride for their money. A little known Johnny Mandel song, “A Time For Love,” follows.
“I first heard that performed by Abbey Lincoln on her 1991 album, You Gotta Pay The Band. I really wanted ‘A Time For Love’ to be airy and kind of floaty, that is what it is – just guitar and bass.”
Almost back home, Work To Do plays it breezy and blowing on Carl Allen’s “Relativity,” the kind of Saturday afternoon, good feeling romp that is practically the culmination of the Allen/Whitaker esthetic.
“We grew up in the Baptist church, and that has always been a part of what we do as much as anything else,” Whitaker says. “On Get Ready we played the music we grew up with, Work To Do is a continuation of that vibe.”
“Rodney and I bring the idea that music still has to feel good,” Allen concurs. “I don’t care what it is, if you can’t tap your toes to it, I would rather be watching the basketball game.”
With their exceedingly busy schedules as educators, producers and sidemen, Carl Allen and Rodney Whitaker epitomize the album’s title, Work To Do. Their shared history and deep respect – and their abiding understanding of what constitutes jazz – keeps their partnership and their friendship thriving.
“We’re really close friends,” Allen says. “We’re always on the same page. It’s that way on the bandstand and off. We balance each other. We’re like two old men. When we go on the road, we get to the hotel, light up the cigars and start telling lies.”