One of the advantages of the lockdown period has been the opportunity to catch up with various box sets bought with great optimism, but often sadly neglected after the initial enthusiasm. I haven’t yet managed to get back to the Miles Davis Quintet’s Live At The Plugged Nickel set, but I have really enjoyed catching up with Seaman’s Mission, the 4-Cd set of Phil Seaman’s work as the drummer in a range of ensembles from quartets through to big bands. Phil Seaman has always been a bit of a mystery to me; I am pretty certain that I heard him play on a number of occasions back in the 1960s when I first went down to London, but I hadn’t till this period really studied his playing in any depth.
In the 1950s and the 1960s Phil Seaman had the reputation of being the finest drummer in Europe, one who had the ability to provide a really driving rhythm for a big band and a very supportive swing for a small bop group. He even got the call to play in the West End production of West Side Story, seemingly at the request of the composer Leonard Bernstein himself. Seaman also had a reputation as a character, a wit and a consumer of massive quantities of drugs and alcohol. The latter aspect of his character led to a reputation for unreliability and I suspect he was playing less by the time I was in London in the mid-1960s. He died in 1972.
On the four Cds in the Seaman’s Mission Box Set we hear Seaman in big bands, the Jack Parnell Orchestra, Kenny Graham and his Afro-Cubists, the Ronnie Scott Orchestra and the Victor Feldman Big Band, and with various small groups, the Jimmy Deuchar Ensemble, the Dizzy Reece Quartet and Quintet, The Joe Harriott Quartet and Quintet, the Victor Feldman Quartet and Quintet, The Victor Feldman/Jimmy Deuchar Quintet. The Jazz Couriers, the Tubby Hayes Quartet.
The first thing that struck me listening to all this music which was mostly from the 1950s is how well that generation of players had absorbed the bop idiom. We all know how good Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Stan Tracey were as they, with the exception of Hayes, continued to play for many years after the 50s. But it is good to realise how excellent other less well known players were in the bop idiom: trumpeters Jimmy Deuchar and Dizzy Reece, alto saxophonist Derek Humble, pianist and vibraphonist Victor Feldman (who went on to make his career in USA), pianist Tommy Pollard, bass player Kenny Napper. One player who really stands out is alto saxophonist Joe Harriott who comes across as a really exciting bop player in the tracks of his quartet and then as a brilliant innovator in the two examples in this collection of his free form playing.
All this of this music was fresh and exciting, but was ultimately following the example of the Americans; the development of a unique British voice as part of the European scene was to come later.
It is clear from this collection that Phil Seaman was both a great bop drummer and a great big band drummer. It is fascinating to hear him driving the various big bands tracks in the collection, and to hear how he will take short solos somewhat in the style of the swing drummers of 1940s big bands. With the small groups he will often have an important role in the playing of the tune punctuating the lines of the horns, but once the solos start he sees his role as being supportive of the soloist rather than as an equal participant. On many of these small group tracks he will engage in the four or eight bar trading with the horns that is so characteristic of the bop style, and he will take short drum solos. Even in the much more experimental music of Joe Harriott’s free form tracks – Abstract and Formation are included in the collection – Seaman sees his role as providing a straightforward pulse.
It seems that Seaman did not embrace the larger role for the drummer that came with American drummers such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Paul Motian. But there are some interesting instances where Seaman plays a more dominant role; for example on Free, a track from Stan Tracey’s trio album Little Klunk where Tracey plays vibes. Here Seaman is very much an equal partner with Tracey and plays lines that seem reminiscent of African rhythms. Then on The Escape and the Chase, a track made by the Dizzy Reece Quartet for the soundtrack for the film Nowhere To Go Seaman starts the track off by improvising interesting lines on cowbells. On the five tracks by Kenny Graham and the Afro Cubists Seaman plays a very interesting role combining his style with the percussion of two Afro-Caribbean players, especially on the evocative Haitian Ritual and the two short tracks led by the percussion, One Four and Five Four.
So my conclusion is that Phil Seaman was a key figure in the early days of British modern jazz and was outstanding in the role of a bebop drummer. It is interesting that for many listeners this is the role that the drummer should play in the ensemble, that is, providing the rhythmic support for the front line instruments and to take the occasional solo. But the role of the drummer has changed in more contemporary jazz and the role is much more one of equal partnership with the rest of the band.