Grady Tate with Oliver Nelson

Grady Tate with Oliver Nelson

“A veritable inferno of creative energy.”- Kenny Berger on drummer Grady Tate, Liner notes to “Oliver Nelson, the Argo, Verve & Impulse Big Band Sessions” (Mosaic).

I first was introduced to Grady Tate’s big band drumming a few years ago when I bought the Oliver Nelson big band box set from Mosaic records.

I had only heard him play in small band settings previously, and I was blown away by what a fantastic big band drummer he is. He swings hard, possesses superb time, and has a great sound.

I love his playing on these Oliver Nelson Big Band sessions, and I got a lot out of listening to them. He has a spark & crispness in his playing, he swings and is a great “tailor” – he stitches together the various parts of the arrangement beautifully. Bearing in mind, as these are recording sessions I presume there was little or no rehearsal prior to getting the chart down on tape, so the creative energy he brought to these recordings was very much in the moment.

Time playing.

A great example of Tate’s musicianship can be found on Nelson’s arrangement of “St Louis Blues”.

It has a sparse four bar introduction, one chorus of the melody with light instrumental backing, another chorus where the backing is fuller in texture and then the trumpet solo begins. Grady plays ride cymbal for the intro, adds a rim click for the first chorus and then plays a slightly busier groove for the second chorus. (click on image to see full transcription).

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As the texture of the music thickens by the growing number of musicians playing the accompaniment, Grady adds notes to his pattern, but his changes are so subtle and very tasteful. (Lovely use of a gentle hihat “splash” on the downbeats in the second chorus.) Oliver Nelson wrote a fantastic, simple yet effective arrangement, but having a drummer like Grady Tate is essential in making it work. Grady has fast ears! He is completely “in” the music, and every move he makes has purpose.

Also, listen out for bass player Ron Carter during the trumpet solo. What great playing! He builds his accompaniment from the ground up, adding notes and rhythms, playing over the bar line, all of which builds both tension & interest. Grady is with him all the way, isn’t phased by Carter’s stretching out. This is a great example of a bassist & drummer listening to each other & locking in. The release as they wind down at the end of the trumpet solo is like the baby bears’ porridge; just right!


Grady Tate is a tasty soloist! Check out the 16 bar solo on “Three plus One”.

It’s a lovely solo statement, which borrows rhythmic ideas from the melody of Nelson’s composition. Grady takes his inspiration from the melody – instead of reeling off a bunch of pre-worked “licks”. The interplay between unison hands and bass drum is great. Spirited, hip drumming of the highest order.

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Ensemble Phrasing.

Listen to the head of “Lined with a Groove” from the album “Ultimate Ray Brown”

Now that’s tailoring! (Especially the bass drum catch on the “&” of 2, bar 10 of the head, very tidy). Talk about making it all fit together – perfect phrasing and sound choices (he has the hard earned ability to use the right part of the kit at the right time.)

Hear also how he plays with Ray Brown. Ray plays right on top of the beat, & Grady holds it down, it just swings real hard.

What strikes me the most about Grady’s playing is that it is happening in “real-time”. The music is put in front of him, he plays it, magic happens. Now, that’s something.

What I found as I listened to the tunes that Grady plays on in this collection was how adaptable his drumming is, he could lay down a solid groove but also loosen up his playing when needed. The head of “Milestones” which Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery recorded with an arrangement by Oliver Nelson is a good example of this, solid time on the ride cymbal with a rim click on 4 in a the A section, then he plays a more floating feel in the B section, implying ¾ against the “2 feel” in the band.

For me, Grady is right up there with the very best of big band drummers – he never plays anything other than exactly what’s required, and always with great time, feel and swing. What will consistently bowl me over is how creative he can be without ever taking from the music. It’s not about the drums, it’s always about the music.

P.S. – Be sure to check out Grady’s singing too, I’m particularly fond of his appearance on Piano Jazz with Marion McPartland. To be able to drum and sing like he does, that’s some serious talent!

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