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  • Writer's pictureJAM

Joe Farnsworth

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

With jazz venues essentially shutdown, there is a palatable cloud of uncertainty over the world of the arts and entertainment.

As for new releases on albums, downloads and CD, there has been a steady stream of music coming from the best in the business.

Production has slowed, but not stopped.

With a pipeline full of recordings produced earlier this year and last, the music continues to flow. We will see how things change once we begin to receive new projects created after the spring.

Drummer Joe Farnsworth is usually busy. He is a regular on recordings produced by Smoke Sessions Records, and the venue Smoke, an upper westside restaurant in New York City. He is normally on a dozen or more new recordings each year. He normally performs live most every night.

This time, it is Joe out front. Now we get to hear Joe play what Joe wants to play. The Joe Farnsworth recording, Time To Swing is a deep and rich ride. It was recorded December 17, 2019 with name musicians backing him up. The in-demand drummer is joined by Wynton Marsalis, Kenny Barron and Peter Washington, and swing they do.

You have assembled a powerful line up of musicians. You pay deep respect to drummer, Jimmy Cobb. In a strange new world, what are your thoughts on releasing an album during the pandemic?

Well, obviously we had no clue that the pandemic was coming. I can't actually remember when we did the recording, to tell you the truth. Maybe, November 2019? I didn't have any idea what was gonna happen, but I did have an idea of what I wanted to do.

So, this album is my tribute. It just came out at a weird time. But, here we are.

The project is timeless. It's really about the good shepherd and the good shepherds in my life. The jazz life. I wanted to pay homage to the people that helped me. Harold Mabern, George Coleman, Barry Harris, Cedar Walton and McCoy Tyner. These are musicians to be revered. And, there are younger musicians to recognize, too. Take Kenny Barron. And, I sometimes think that people take Wynton Marsalis for granted. To me, that’s like taking Art Blakey for granted!

Oh, he's great. But, I mean, he's really great, you know?

Good jazz is timeless. The sound, the way it's presented. How about the construction of the album? You've been around the world of jazz almost as long as the other musicians.

Were you able to learn from them; both as a musician, and a human?

It was amazing! I learned, both as a musician, and as a human. It seems as if I've seen Kenny Barron play a million times. But, this is the first time that I’ve actually played with him.

My brother went to school at Rutgers, under Kenny’s tutelage. I would see him out playing and mention my brother. But, this is the first time to really be next to him. I learned from him. I learned just how very calm he is. How his brain is totally open to the world around him and to the music. He's not locked into a certain thing. He could play anything.

He did the record, you know. He’s one of those old school guys, arrived before everybody else. We’d just play one take on each tune.

“Wynton Marsalis comes in - I love what he does.” Said Joe, “He said he was going to be there at two o'clock. Recording from 2 to 4 and he comes in at 1:50. He walks in, says hi to everyone and takes out his trumpet. Boom, we’re recording at 2. Everything’s a first take.”

It's done. He did his work. He played perfectly. No wasting time. I love that about him. There's no warm up. No sound check. I mean his sound is already there. You have to adapt to him. So, I like that he cuts out a lot of nonsense. I love that about him.

You guys in that studio - such torchbearers for the history of this medium; this art form, what guys carry into that room, so many stories, so much weight.

Do musicians bring that to the younger musicians coming up?

Saxophonist George Coleman shoots from the hip. When you play with George Coleman, it's not like, hey, what's the set list? What are we gonna play? There's nothing like that. You just wouldn't ask him!

It's exciting, because you don't know what's going to happen - that's what he brings to the table.

If you have a gig with Gary Bartz - like, he has played with everybody. Now, why would I tell him, “hey, this is what we're gonna run down. The ABCs! I'd like to see what he brings to the table. Use his experience.

The same thing with Kenny Barron. Now, he's sitting there warming up on Star Crossed Lovers, by Billy Strayhorn. I wouldn’t have thought of that! When you play with a genius like that, that's what they bring you.

Let them do what they do. Give them the Palace! Give them the power to paint whatever they want. Then, you just try to support it.

That's what I love. I learned that from drummer, Billy Higgins. Let these great people do what they want, you know?

How healthy is jazz?

I asked the great Cecil Payne for a video called Can Jazz Ever Die and his answer was, "You can't kill a piano." There is always music that's going to come from that piano. Back in 1987, when Eric Alexander and I met, we were studying.

Trying to get with Harold Mabern. We would say, “One of these days there’s going to be a time, when these guys won't be here.”

Guys like George Coleman, Jamil Nasser and Cedar Walton - we always used to talk about that, so that we could enjoy it, every time we were with them. These guys are gone and it's devastating to us, but they passed on such deep roots to us.

I hate to even say it but guys like Wynton and I have to step up and assume that mantle. We have such reverence for them, jazz is so strong, there’s so much culture and feeling.

You are masters of improv at in this time in your life, for being a human is improv. To digest what's happening, and then make it into art is almost made for you. You are thrown into the unknown on stage.

Can you come out with something beautiful every time?

Right. I was talking to my good friend Spike Wilner, pianist and owner of the nightclubs, Smalls and Mezzrow. For the past 30, 40 years, since we came to New York, we have taken from New York. We've taken seeing McCoy at the Vanguard. Taken from Art Blakey at Sweet Basil's.

It was just take, take, take.

New York City offered everything, now the city's kind of hurting, with the the older people not around, and the clubs shut down. Now, it's like real time for us. Not a time to become despondent and full of despair.

We need to come in with great confidence, and start giving back to the city of New York, you know? Just think about how much those guys gave to New York City. They moved to New York City. They stayed here. Barry Harris. George Coleman. You know, Joe Chambers. They lived in New York City. Art Taylor. I mean, they made this their home and it made it a greater place for us to learn.

Now that the city is suffering, we have to give back, that’s for sure.

How does a kid from South Hadley, Massachusetts born in the late sixties with four brothers become who you are today?

It's fairly simple. My father's a music teacher, he's still alive and well. I grew up in the room with my brother, David, who was a drummer and he still plays fairly well. He doesn't play, but when he does, he likes to play like Grady Tate. He's a very smooth time keeper.

So, I stayed in his room and he had a beautiful set of drums. When he went to school, before I was even in school he'd say, “don’t touch my drums.” And then, I watched him walk down the street, and when he couldn't see me, I'd jump on the drums!

Then that just led me to listening to Count Basie, Sonny Payne and Buddy Rich. Ever since then, I was off. In the other room was my brother, James and he loved Ray Charles. He was listening to Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane, too. So that was that room.

In the other room was my brother John, who played trombone then. He was deep into JJ Johnson and Clark Terry. Each room was like a different nightclub. If it wasn’t 52nd Street, it would be 23rd Street, 23 Hadley Street.

I didn't grow up on 52nd Street, but the top floor of my house was like three different nightclubs. So, I just went to each club, each night to hear a different kind of music.

Just playing time on the cymbal, it was like a party. To me it felt so good. And then I just kept listening, listening, listening. Then it really clicked when I got to New York.

When I first got to William Patterson University. I was taking lessons with Arthur Taylor. One of the first things he said to me was, “I love playing on my cymbal, because it's like a party to me.” I said, “Hold it, that's what I've been thinking my whole life.”

He expressed it and I was sold ever since.

You’re talking about the allure of New York. You've been on so many stages. With that in mind, do you ever think about the magic moments, during this absence from the stage.

Is there something that makes you smile, that makes you can't wait to get back on stage?

There are definitely two moments that have just popped into my head.

One was the Fourth of July in Central Park with McCoy Tyner. I'd been playing with him. Then I stopped playing with him for like five years, and then I came back. It was my first concert, when I came back. It was McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter's group.

This was about six years ago, and it was pouring rain. Then McCoy started playing the piano, the skies opened up and the sun came out! It was like God was there. I just couldn't believe it. I was on the drums in Central Park with McCoy Tyner!

Then I think about the last time I played with McCoy at the Blue Note. This goes back to the idea of giving, instead of taking. He was smiling, because he was so happy to be there. He had a little struggle with his playing, but just to see him get on the piano. We talked about how we were so happy to be here.

Everyone was there to see him. But he made a point to say, “WE are so blessed to be here.” He said, “it's so nice to be able to sit here at this piano and smile and play with these guys.”

I couldn't believe, The Great McCoy Tyner was saying this. Because we're giving something instead of just riding his coat tails. We were giving him some pleasure. I never would’ve thought that before. You know, I missed that.

I was also thinking about Cedar Walton. When he used to play a solo. You know, his head is down and he has perfect posture. After he finishes his solo, we get to the last four measures and he hits this big chord at the very end. Then looks up at you with that big smile!

I miss that sort of thing. The camaraderie, you know.

You've been at this for a long time, over 100 albums, all over the world.

What do you like the best about being a musician?

Definitely, the camaraderie. The feeling of jazz. I love playing with people. I love playing with great people like Harold Mabern. What I miss the most about Harold, was that he brought me back, to like, Memphis in 1948!

He brought me back to a different time. I miss being around him and guys like that. I miss being around McCoy Tyner, Junior Cook and Cecil Payne. Just being around Cecil Payne. He's talking about Lester Young and playing with Count Basie. His father brought him to the his first gig, in like 1942, or something.

I miss the history of being around these people. It's really the camaraderie and the fellowship. Swing is what connects us. You can swing by yourself, but how you swing with other people, it's not ego. You have to be selfless. You have to play to support them and I love that. I love playing to support George Coleman.

When you return to the stage. When the fans return, when COVID-19 is all said and done, what do you hope we will all realize about this absence from live music?

Don't take it for granted. Treat it as a gift. With McCoy Tyner and Cedar Walton, it was never about them, always about us being the people on the stage and the people in the crowd. One's no-more important than the other. It's the we of everything and being connected.

After this time, all of this jazz mileage, everyone has a perception of you. Your family, your friends, your fans, but it’s you that’s living this life.

Who do you think you are?

Ooh. Well, tell you the truth. In his book, Kenny Clarke was asked, “what was his toughest gig”, and he said, “finding my role in life.”

That was a heck of an answer. It hit me deeply, because it's the same thing for me.

First and foremost, I am a father of three boys. They're going to online school because there's the pandemic. Most of my heart and attention is directed towards them. I hope they can get back to normal life someday.

So that's a lot of it. The family has really shot up. I mean, it's always on top, but since everything has stopped, it's really become that much more important to focus on them. To slow down.

I'm not going away for a gig. I'm there for them every night. So, I would say being a father of those three boys is most important. I really am trying to be someone that God would be proud of and trying to glorify Him with my life.

You know, I try to do the next right thing. It's difficult to be a leader because your out in the spotlight. I think I have to try to do that, because I think most of the greats did that, too. I love being a sideman, but I think sometimes a guy has just gotta step up, you know? So those are really the main things.

Joe Farnsworth’s ‘Time To Swing’ with be reviewed in the November JAM.

—Joe Domino

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