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Decades of drumming

Elvin Jones, once named the world's greatest drummer by Time magazine, probably still deserves the title, particularly in the category of jazz, elder-statesman division.

Jones, a humble, serious man, seems flattered by critical kudos going back to his work in Detroit with an older brother, late trumpeter Thad, and such notables as saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Miles Davis. But the attention doesn't distract him from the music.

"This is what I love to do," he says by telephone from his office in New York City. "I enjoy playing. I love to play the drums. This music, to me, is ideal if you want a chance to expand, to implement ideas that you've had and come up with new ideas. Jazz is the perfect vehicle for that. For whoever is serious enough about their music, it's perfect for them. It's an attitude. It's mental, more than anything else, because there's certainly not a lot of money involved."

There's little doubt that Jones, 74, headed to Tampa Theatre on Sunday with a group including saxophonist Pat LaBarbera and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, helped revolutionize the playing of the trap kit. He made his mark on music in a big way during his stint with saxophonist John Coltrane's classic quartet, a group that also featured pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

That band, regarded as one of the most important ensembles in jazz history, stayed together for four years ending in 1965, recording A Love Supreme, Live at Birdland and other landmark albums. Jones, with his powerful, propulsive, perpetually inventive drumming, acted as a foil for the "sheets of sound" produced by Coltrane.

Leonard Feather, the late jazz critic, referred to Jones' work as "a circle of sound, a continuum in which no beat of the bar was necessarily indicated by any specific accent, yet the overall feeling became a dynamic and rhythmically important part of the whole group."

Jones, again, isn't particularly inclined to take credit where it's due.

"It just evolved, in a way," he says. "I didn't always play like that. It took such a long time for me to be able to do that, and to have enough control over my instrument to dynamically match what the rest of the group was doing."

Jones, younger brother of Thad and pianist Hank Jones, began banging on the drums at 2, and by the time he was a teenager he was practicing eight to 10 hours a day. Later, while serving in the Army Air Corps, he listened to the big bands of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington and tuned in to the playing of drummers Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Sid Catlett.

Indeed, Roach and Roy Haynes are the drummers that some critics today say are Jones' equal among jazz drummers.

Jones was fascinated by Catlett's introduction to Dizzy Gillespie's Salt Peanuts. Says Jones: "Sid Catlett did it with brushes, an eight-bar introduction. I thought there was absolutely nothing in the world that could sound that good. He became one of my major heroes."

Jones, who also played in bands led by bassist Charles Mingus, pianist Bud Powell, trombonist J.J. Johnson and, famously, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, in turn became an icon to thousands of younger drummers, largely as a result of the body of work he recorded with the late Coltrane.

"It was very spiritual, and emotional, and intellectual," he says of his stint with Coltrane. "It was all of those things. He was such a spiritual man. I guess if he had lived in India, they'd call him a guru. We all gravitated to that.

"And the rapport was there. When you've got that, you really don't need to have an awful lot (else). That sort of covers everything. That completes all the ingredients that are necessary to have a close-knit group. When the rapport was as strong as it was with us, it's exceptional. It's like a blessing from God."

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