‘Native Lands’ by Will Calhoun (Half-Pint Reviews #6)
Living Colour’s drummer is also a progressive force in jazz
“We were a tiny speck,” Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover told The Ringer about the band’s early days touring with The Rolling Stones. I can confirm that, because I watched the band from the nosebleed seats in 1989. Fans of the band’s early albums may associate it solely with the loud rock on display that day, but its members have been active in other genres as well. One example is drummer Will Calhoun’s 2005 jazz album Native Lands.
Calhoun wasn’t new to jazz. By the time Native Lands came out, he had released a trio of solo albums, including one live at Blue Note, and recorded as a sideman with bassist Santi Debriano and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In the liner notes for Native Lands, poet Quincy Troupe compares Calhoun to John Coltrane for his exploration of sound and spirituality, and Calhoun himself thanks drum legend Elvin Jones, who had recently passed away.
Native Lands has breadth. “Afro Blue” opens with a modest drum solo before drifting among the more mellifluous styles of jazz past. This is in stark contrast to “Pyramids,” whose repetitive bass, rock guitar and gruff sax join into one harsh edge of a song. The rest of the album ranges between these poles, the casual and experimental, but even the latter tends toward chill. As with a lot of jazz, you could get lost analyzing the album’s complexity or just put it on for ambience.
Much of the album’s unique sound comes from traditional instrumentation. That includes Calhoun on Indonesian flute, Native American double bell flute, pandeiro and Nigerian udu drum. An accompanying DVD presents Calhoun’s experiences traveling the world to explore sounds and includes footage from studio time with Brazilian musician Naná Vasconcelos, who plays glass udu drum, bells, hand drums and indigenous percussion on the album’s title track. These acoustic instruments give the album an organic feeling.
Electronics are also a big part of Calhoun’s vocabulary. In the February 2011 issue of Modern Drummer, he describes his philosophy:
“Drummers should have the same access to sounds as guitar players and keyboard players. We should be able to bastardize our drum sounds.”
In line with that, he rigs up whammies, delays and distortion pedals, utilizes electronic percussion (everything from multi-pads and effects boxes to Korg Wavedrum and Synesthesia Mandala), and recommends that drummers immerse themselves in sound engineering. The point is maximum creative range.
That approach is on full display in the only cover tune on Native Lands, the Wayne Shorter composition “Nefertiti.” The track first appeared on Miles Davis’s 1968 album Nefertiti, his last entirely acoustic studio album. What most listeners are likely to take away after a first listen to the Davis recording is that curious descending melodic line with all those accidentals on trumpet, but drummer Tony Williams eventually digs in for some post-bop deliration.
Calhoun’s version opens heavy on percussion. Whatever fusion of electronic and acoustic went into the creation process, it sounds electronic, unnatural and sterile, sampled and looped, before growing into something lived-in, warm and natural by the time the trumpet enters. That trumpet is by Wallace Roney, once Davis’s student. As the album’s sole trumpeter, his presence runs throughout Native Lands.
Roney is one of many distinguished musicians on Native Lands. Others from the jazz world include saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Antoine Roney, pianist Orrin Evans, guitarists Stanley Jordan and Kevin Eubanks, and bassists Marcus Miller, John Benitez and Buster Williams. Rapper Mos Def makes an appearance on “East” via some quiet piano while Calhoun works his trap. It’s a stripped-down moment on an album often full in sound and packed in lineup.
To many of the older fans there for the Stones that day in ’89, Living Colour was just noise, but many in my generation heard something more. Some of that more came from the band members’ fluency in jazz, and Native Lands is a testament to those influences as well as an extension into new possibilities of sound.
Half-Pint Reviews is a series of short reviews covering releases that strike me as little-known, underappreciated or forgotten. The last installment was about the Finnish hard-rock group White Flame and may be read in The Riff here.