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Drummer Stokes the Fire : A professional musician since age 16, Roy McCurdy strives for intensity when he plays.

December 16, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

BURBANK — Sitting up spine-straight at his drums, lean, muscular Roy McCurdy cuts quite a figure and makes a joyful sound. His sticks create a sizzling snap-crackle that has inspired musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson for more than 30 years.

Saxophonist Charles Owens, who lately has worked with the drummer, had this high praise: "McCurdy is never going to rush, he's never going to slow down. He doesn't waste any motion and yet he's exciting and progressive. His time is so exact, it's like looking at a diamond."

McCurdy, a 58-year-old who looks 40, says that behind his playing is a desire to play with intensity. "I'm a fiery drummer," he says. "A lot of people say that's loud, but I'm just trying to be intense."

Describing "fire" is not easy for McCurdy. "I do it all naturally, I don't think about it. You have to listen to it to hear it," begins the Rochester, N.Y., native who lives in Altadena with his wife, Pat, to whom he's been married since 1971. "Maybe it's something that makes you come up off of your seat, or makes whoever's soloing want to do more, or gives them something to play off. It's about the way I feel, my touch, and my touch happens to give you that thing called 'fire.' "

McCurdy makes an infrequent L.A. appearance as a leader Wednesday when he fronts a trio at Chadney's with pianist John Beasley and bassist John B. Williams. These days, McCurdy is usually heard in the trio, with pianist Llew Mathews and bassist Bruce Lett, that accompanies singer Wilson. He's worked with the singer since 1982.

Backing up a singer and a horn man like Rollins require, surprisingly, similar types of playing, McCurdy says.

"With Sonny, my role was to push him, and I push Nancy too," he says. "I just have to be a little more sensitive with her, not playing too hard so that I don't cover her up. But I keep the intensity going . . . swinging things, but kept it more subtle."

McCurdy has been fortunate to play with jazz's finest. With Rollins, he performed in the early '60s, appearing on such albums as Rollins' "Alternatives" on RCA. Then, in 1965, he began a 10-year stint with Adderley that ended when the great saxophonist died in 1975. With Adderley, McCurdy made such memorable albums as "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!" (Capitol, 1966).

McCurdy talks about what the music is like at its best.

"If everybody is playing together, if it's happening right, then it would get to such a level that you would feel like you were floating, almost out of your body so that you could look down and watch yourself play. It's a beautiful peak to get to."

Starting on drums at age 9, McCurdy was a professional by the time he was 16. After attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and serving in the Air Force, McCurdy became a full-time musician, and his first major job was with Art Farmer and Benny Golson's Jazztet. Trumpeter Farmer wired the drummer in Rochester in 1961, telling him to meet the band in New York City. That engagement took McCurdy into a select circle of jazz players.

"We were playing at Birdland--the famed jazz club at 52nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan--and opposite was drum great Art Blakey," the drummer recalls. "Art had just finished a set and we went on, and I noticed another drum master, Philly Joe Jones, in the crowd. I was nervous for the first couple of tunes, but then I relaxed and really enjoyed myself. Later, Philly and Elvin Jones came in and gave me encouragement. It was like being brought to another level of playing. I knew I wasn't in the league of Elvin and Philly yet, but I was in. A door had been opened for me."

Playing with Rollins a year later was another career boost. "Sonny was one of my heroes," he says. "He would play tunes that would last an hour or longer," he says. "It was incredible, and my time feeling and playing in general became very strong."

Interestingly, McCurdy has not always been the 160-pound model of fitness he is today. "I used to be thin as a rail, weighing no more than 120," he says. Then, while he was with Adderley, he started weight training. "I got bigger and bigger, at one point up to 180 pounds. I've kept the lifting up over the years. Now, no matter what time I get off work, I'm at the gym by 8:30 a.m. Drums are a physical instrument and you should be strong. Plus the road takes a lot out of you, so it helps to be healthy."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Where and When

Who: Roy McCurdy's trio.

Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday.

Price: No cover, one-drink minimum per set.

Call: (818) 843-5333.

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