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Sticking Melody

Jazz great Clarence Johnston stirs in tone and pitch to make his drums sing.

June 19, 1997|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The great jazz drummer Elvin Jones once told me how much he loathed being asked by a listener to make some "noise"--meaning a drum solo. Jones considered the drums a musical instrument, and I know from hearing Clarence Johnston that he feels the same way.

"I don't think drums, I think melodies," said the veteran traps man during an interview. "I tune my drums at different pitches, like the snare is C, and the bass drum is B flat, to get a melodic sound."

That focus on melody and tone is just one aspect of the remarkable artistry of Johnston, 63, a superb mainstream drummer who has performed with such greats as James Moody, Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane. While playing recently at the Cat & Fiddle Pub and Restaurant in Hollywood, where he plays each Sunday, Johnston sat with straight back on his cushion-topped barrel stool as he punched out clean, crisp statements on his drums and cymbals. The effort was, by turns, precise, organized, animated, inventive and decidedly listenable.

Johnston, who plays with his quartet tonight at Chadney's in Burbank, relishes his spot in a rhythm section. "You're in control. You're the bandleader," he said. "After the leader counts the tempo off, the drummer becomes the bandleader." He leaned forward, giving a grin, lowered his voice and said, "That's when my fun begins."

In the middle of a jazz solo, Johnston keeps his ears wide open. "I always listen to what the bass and piano are doing," he said. "I feed off of them, we feed off one another. And with the soloist, I generally see what directions he's going in, what he wants from me."

Appearing with Johnston at Chadney's will be pianist Art Hillery, bassist Darnell Lambert and saxophonist Wilbur Brown, with whom the drummer has played at the Cat & Fiddle for 11 years.

A Boston native, Johnston studied at various schools in that city before moving to New York in 1957. His career took off. He played 4 1/2 years with Moody, recording his classic, "Last Train From Overbrook," played about the same period with singer Joe Williams and worked here and there with other notables. Moving to Los Angeles in 1971--he now resides in Studio City--the drummer appeared with trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and then traveled with acclaimed saxophonist Stitt.

"Working with Sonny was like working with so many pros: beautiful," he said. "He never bothered me. All you had to do was play the gig."

Clarence Johnston's quartet plays tonight, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank. No cover, one-drink minimum. (818) 843-5333.

Hearty Wailers: Two dynamo improvisers follow Johnston's aggregation into Chadney's--tenor saxophonist Don Menza, who works Friday with drummer Andrea Marcelli's trio, and trumpeter Sal Marquez, who appears Saturday. Both play from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Warm Sound: Trumpeter Stacy Rowles is known for her appealing, dulcet tone. She also has a solid repertoire. She performs tonight (7:30-11:30) through Saturday (8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.) with Danny Pucillo's trio at Monty's Steakhouse (5371 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills; no cover, no minimum; (818) 716-9736.

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