In July 2021, Eric C. Hughes, then the PAS Drum Set Committee chair, challenged the members of the committee to compile a Top-10 Spotify Playlist, focusing on drum set, based on any theme of our choosing. As I thought about the challenge, I decided to choose my favorite drum set performances where the groove and/or pocket is what attracts me to the performance.
What is “playing in the pocket”? Well, if I could give a perfect description in prose, there would be no need for music. However, since Mark Powers, the current DSC chair, tasked us with adding descriptions to our lists and the individual tracks, I’ll do my best to describe these tracks in words. For me, “playing in the pocket” simply means the entire ensemble is moving through time with a unified intent, playing with passion, and maintaining exactly correct note placement throughout the performance.
When the drummer and ensemble are “in the pocket,” you know it. Conversely when they're not, you know that, too. It is similar to answering the question, “What makes a sunrise on the beach in Maui so beautiful?” The only real way to answer that is to actually go to Maui and see the sunrise in person. Like the sunrise, the only way to really experience some great pocket playing is to listen to tracks like the ones listed below.
Our original task was limited to ten, so I dutifully followed instructions. I probably could have listed well over a hundred, but these were the tracks that came to me most quickly and are on serious rotation on my phone. These were all chosen for objective and subjective reasons, so I hope that a few act as a jumping-off point for you to start exploring “playing in the pocket,” allowing you to create your own, deeply personal list.
I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure that ancient Roman educator Quintilian had these ten drummer’s performances in mind when he said, “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Enjoy!
“Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
Drummer: Sonny Payne; Album: It Might as Well Be Swing
This performance and arrangement are pure gold, and Sonny Payne navigates the band and Frank through so many emotions with ease. The groove is never sacrificed for dynamics, hits, or nuance. From start to finish this is a real toe-tapper. The thing that impresses me most is how much Sonny is not doing. The ride cymbal doesn't come in until halfway through the recording, and he sneaks it in right before the shout chorus. After the first shout chorus, check out how little he is doing under the flute solo. It’s incredible!
“Crickets Sing for Ana Maria” by Walter Wanderley
Drummers: Dom Um Romao, Paulinho; Album: Talkin’ Verve
I’m not sure who Ana Maria was, but those crickets sure must have known something! The groove on this track is relentless! The tune is groove defined. If you aren’t tapping your foot during this one, please see a doctor. Each time I play this track I never want it to end.
“The Cat” by Jimmy Smith
Drummer: Grady Tate; Album: The Cat
Similar to “Crickets Sing…” Grady Tate is just a generator of groove on this tune. He’s steering the ship, and all the cats swing with him.
“When the Levee Breaks” by Buckwheat Zydeco
Drummer: Kevin Menard; Album: Lay Your Burden Down
How much space can one place between notes and still groove? Look no further, because Kevin Menard has the answer on this greasy, NOLA-infused version of “When the Levee Breaks.”
“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” by Tony Bennett
Drummer: Clayton Cameron; Album: Tony Bennett MTV Unplugged
Every drummer out there can name the song or performance that was a personal musical epiphany. This one is mine. I watched the premiere performance of this track on VH1’s Unplugged in 1994 and witnessed firsthand how powerful brushes can be in the right hands. Clayton Cameron proves here why he is The Brush Master.
“She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates
Drummer: Bernard Purdie; Album: Abandoned Lunchoenette
This is a definitive drum set part for ballad playing. How much do I like this track? I transcribed the entire drum set part and make each of my drum set students learn this iconic groove. Bernard Purdie’s performance on this track is an entirely singular interpretation of ballad playing, which only he can bring to a performance. If you’d like my transcription of Mr. Purdie’s groove for you and your students, please reach out!
“The Stage” by Avenged Sevenfold
Drummer: Brooks Wackermann; Album: The Stage
My son introduced me to this band. I’d never heard of them prior to driving my son and his friend to a concert at Penn State University. Wow! These guys are the real deal. For a newer band on this list, relatively speaking, they’re old souls. They really play; no tricks or gimmicks. This track is a great example of playing some very dense parts, yet nothing is in the way or extraneous. Every tone that Brooks gets out of the kit is necessary and adds to the overall groove. There is also some serious double bass drumming on the track.
“Honesty” by Billy Joel
Drummer: Liberty Devitto; Album: 52nd Street
Anything performed and recorded by “The Song Writer’s Drummer,” Liberty DeVitto, is definitely worth studying by any and all drum set players. The remarkable feature of this recording is the space that Liberty leaves and the placement of his fortissimo crashes that never get in the vocalist’s way. It is a real lesson in orchestrating a perfect drum set part, and text painting. He demonstrates a minimalist approach to groove that, if altered in any way, would diminish the entire ensemble’s performance.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Stan Kenton
Drummer: Jerry Mckenzie; Album: A Merry Christmas!
If I created a dictionary for drummers and they needed to look up the definition of “swing,” this recording would be at the top of the list! The track is only 1:46 long, but it grooves in the pocket all the way! I heard that, not long after this recording, Jerry McKennzie went into law enforcement in Chicago. Maybe he was the original squad leader of the jazz police?
“Use Me” by Bill Withers
Drummer: James Gadson; Album: Still Bill
James Gadson, what can you say? I think metronomes have asked him for advice! Every beat is placed perfectly. The timbre is consistent all across the drum set. James Gadson is to groove and texture as Michelangelo was to painting ceilings.
Sean J. Kennedy is the drummer for The Doc Severinsen Tribute Band, featuring Jay Webb, The Gardyn Jazz Orchestra, and has been principal percussionist with the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale since 2004. He is a multi-faceted musician who is equally accomplished on the stage, in the recording studio, and in the classroom. He has performed at such venues as Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall with world renowned acts like Il Volo, Roger Daltry and The Who, Evanescence, Lindsey Stirling, The Philly POPS! Orchestra, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Jacksonville Symphony, The Strauss Symphony of America, The Allentown Band, The Allentown Symphony Orchestra, and The Lancaster Symphony Orchestra. Kennedy is a member of the PAS Drum Set Committee, is the author of numerous drum set, percussion, and improv books, and in 2018 presented a TEDx Talk about the history of the drum set, titled: Happy Accidents: Drumming Up Serendipity. For more information, visit seanjkennedy.com.