Krupa’s Last Recorded Performance a Gem

Krupa

GENE KRUPA LIVE AT THE NEW SCHOOL / SAMPSON-WEBB: Don’t Be That Way. SHAVERS: Undecided. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. KRUPA: Drumboogie. ARLEN-KOEHLER: As Long as I Live. GREEN-HEYMAN-SOUR: Body and Soul. TIZOL-ELLINGTON: Caravan. PRIMA: Sing, Sing, Sing / Eddie Shu, t-sax/harmonica; John Bunch, pn; Nabil Totah, bs; Gene Krupa, bs / Chiaroscuro 207, or available for free streaming on YouTube (live: New York, April 17, 1973)

Gene Krupa was sort of an anomaly among jazz drummers. He didn’t have the greatest technique by a long shot: not only Baby Dodds, but also Vic Berton, Chick Webb (his personal idol), rival Buddy Rich and later drum idol Max Roach could all do things Krupa found impossible. But Gene had one thing going for him that many lesser-known drummers did not have, and that was a sense of drama. Benny Goodman often said that he never played the same after Krupa left his band in early 1938 because, despite all the wonderful things that Lionel Hampton, Dave Tough, Big Sid Catlett or Harry Jaeger (a really fine and underrated drummer) could do, it was Krupa’s beat that inspired him the most.

Krupa always said that he thought his drum solos through the way a horn player did, that he tried to tell a story and be coherent. In several of his solos with Goodman, however, he tended to overplay, most often when he played with the trio or quartet. With his own band, however, Krupa surprisingly streamlined and modernized his style. This fit in perfectly with the more sophisticated scores his orchestra played, including those by Gerry Mulligan in the post-war years. I actually did manage to see Gene in person once—with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson, the original trio, and later in the set with George Duvivier on bass and (I think) Terry Gibbs on vibes. He played beautifully.

That was in 1967. During the next few years, Krupa went through a plethora of health problems including leukemia, emphysema, heart disease, and severe back pain. Despite this, he still managed to give performances as great as any he had played in the past. This April 1973 jam session, recorded only six months before Krupa’s death, wasn’t released until 26 years later, and many critics dismiss it as merely “historical” in importance because of its timing.

But this isn’t entirely fair. The unusual quality of this performance is directly related to the rhythmic pulse of tenor saxophonisr Eddie Shu, a name I was barely familiar with, and in addition the tight rhythmic propulsion of pianist Bunch and bassist Totah. They function as a unit, playing a sort of serrated jazz even within the context of the old standards that made up this concert, and because of this we hear Krupa playing things on the drums that he never attempted before. His pulse is both more fluid and more serrated in quality, and he follows his musicians with unerring timing and a great sense of humor. Of course, the final performance on here—Sing, Sing, Sing—is primarily a nostalgia piece for those members of Krupa’s audience who wanted to hear him pound out that tom-tom beat one last time, and it doesn’t work as well as the Goodman original because you need the cushion of a big band to absorb all that pounding. Just having a tenor saxophone to play all the riffs and breaks and solos doesn’t quite cut it. But in everything else on here, you get a chance to hear Krupa in a new context, and it’s fascinating to hear him adapt to his slightly more modern compatriots.

I found this album to be fulfilling and interesting, and I think you will, too, if you’re open minded about it.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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