Passin’ Thru With Chico

When my Italian friends, Martino and Guido Pietropoli came to New York for a downtown stay I knew I had to find a good jazz show. Martino and I had previously seen the Mingus Tribute Band at The Jazz Standard in 2011. Two years earlier, we had the good fortune of hearing the Paul Motian Octet at the Village Vanguard–one of his last runs at the legendary venue. Chico Hamilton was never on my radar despite hearing his name mentioned many times on the jazz radio station WBGO.

We didn’t know what to expect at Drom where Chico Hamilton was on his second of three springtime appearances at the East Village club. Drom is a revamped basement space home to various world and jazz acts. I’d read beforehand that Hamilton, at 90, needed help getting to the stage and only played part of the set. We settled in at a table close to the elevated stage unsure what to expect.

For the first two pieces, he played only his snare quietly but perfectly in time. It soon became evident that this would not 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 it would stay together. With his genuinely frank and funny narration between songs, Hamilton was part spectacle, part drummer, and undeniable living legend. He could barely recall his bandmates names upon introduction. (This was apparently a joke and repeated at subsequent shows). We hung on to every word while watching the expressions of his players waiting patiently for what might come next.

It was music in motion. Hamilton would ask his band leader and saxophonist, Evan Schwam, what tune was up next. The title wasn’t always enough. Schwam would snap his fingers and give Hamilton the feel and that was all he needed 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 was a vocal performance with Jose James, one of Hamilton’s former students at The New School. The piece was a dirge-like mantra with song’s title repeated and accentuated by Hamilton’s dramatic tom work building and allowing space for the line.

Hamilton displays an effort that’s 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. Chico 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. I’m seeing Chico Hamilton at 90 for the very first time. Worked backwards, I came up to speed with the film Sweet Smell of Success with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Chico’s Quintet is featured in two scenes. It was Times Square in 1957, a ripe era of the New York jazz scene. Next, I delved into Spellbinder, a 1966 recording by the Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó with Hamilton cool-groove drums, and Ron Carter on bass.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.

Chico 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, he passed away on November 25, 2013, age 92.

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.