Passin' Thru with Chico

Chico Hamilton and Euphoria at Drom, May 19, 2012

November 26, 2013

Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton performed his second of three springtime appearances at Drom. The East Village club on Avenue A is a revamped basement space home to various world and jazz acts. I'd read reviews of earlier gigs that Hamilton, at 90, only played part of the evening’s set and could leave and provide some unexpected amusement.

For the first two pieces, he played only his snare, quietly but perfectly in time. It became evident that this wouldn't be a typical live-show experience but one of appreciating a man in his twilight navigating a kit while leaving his listeners in suspense of whether or not it would stay together. With his genuinely frank and funny narration between songs, Hamilton was part spectacle, part drummer, and undeniable living legend. A running joke (as repeated at subsequent shows) had him forgetting the names of his bandmates. The audience held on to every word while watching the expressions of his players waiting patiently for what might come next.

Chico Hamilton at Drom, May 19, 2012

It was music in motion. Hamilton would ask his band leader and saxophonist, Evan Schwam, which tune was up next. The title wasn't always enough. Schwam would snap his fingers and give Hamilton enough feel to come in on time and get into the pocket. He didn't disappoint. That source of expression and musical impulse remains regardless of age.

A highlight of the night featured a vocal performance by Jose James, one of Hamilton's former students at The New School. The piece was a dirge-like mantra repeated and accentuated by Hamilton's dramatic tom work building and allowing space for the line.
In addition to Mr. Schwam, his Euphoria group at Drom included Paul Ramsey on bass; Nick Demopoulos on guitar; Mayu Saeki on flute and Jeremy Carlstedt on percussion. The ensemble featured tunes from their recently work entitled, Revelation.

Hamilton’s approach is not only lyrical but gracious. He seems content to play the simplest rhythmic line. This is evident even on his records from decades ago like Gongs East. Hamilton is an ensemble musician. He relishes the standards. He'll play a piece however small or grand the participation requires.

Typically, a music aficionado follows the arc of a favorite musician from their prime, then faithfully hangs in for the later years. My very first time seeing Hamilton play at 90 was both a blessing an a regret that the time came so late. Working backwards, I came up to speed with the film Sweet Smell of Success starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Hamilton's Quintet is featured in two scenes. It was Times Square, 1957, a lively era of the New York jazz age. Next, I listened to several of his album appearances including Spellbinder, a 1966 recording by the Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó perfected by Hamilton's cool groove combined with Latin percussion and Ron Carter on bass.

Chico Hamilton and Euphoria at Drom, December 9, 2012

Hamilton continued his residence at Drom with a few more appearances over the next year. He recorded once more with Euphoria in the studio. After a no-show at a scheduled November gig, the native Angeleno passed away on November 25, 2013, age 92, in Manhattan.

Mr. Hamilton received numerous awards in the latter part of his career. The New School conferred him with a Doctor of Fine Arts in 2007. That same year, he earned a Living Legend Jazz Award as part of The Kennedy Center Jazz in Our Time Festival.