The freckles, pixie-like stature, girlish laugh and afro reaching for the heavens – these features don’t bring to mind a fierce rock ‘n’ roll drummer. And that’s a good thing, because Cindy Blackman, best known for holding down the rhythm section for Lenny Kravitz’s band during his mid-‘90s/early ‘00s hit parade, isn’t your typical rock ‘n’ roller. She plays the part well simply because when it comes to the drums, she can play anything. But her heart is miles away in the world of jazz, a genre in her mind so closely tied to musical freedom, she simply refers to it as ‘creative music.’
“In a creative situation, what’s expected of you is that you make the music grow and move and change in different ways. You interact with the soloist. And to me that’s a higher level to strive for.”
That highest level has led Blackman to pay homage to late friend and mentor, Tony Williams, on her latest album, Another Lifetime. Instead of straight jazz, however, this album is more jazz rock than some of her previous solo projects with Vernon Reid, Mike Stern and Joe Lovano appearing as guests among the 4-band rotation she used to record.
“That sets [Another Lifetime] apart because Tony was, in my opinion, the most innovative drummer and one of the very most, utmost, innovative musicians who’s ever graced this planet, who’s ever walked on this earth.”
Williams, who, while still a teenager began playing with the Miles Davis Quintet (in a lineup that included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter), is considered by many a master drummer, yet has not received a proper tribute since his death from a heart attack in 1997. In a nod to Williams’ fusion band after leaving Miles Davis, Lifetime, Blackman intends to correct this omission from contemporary music history with Another Lifetime.
“[Williams] is among [the greats] because of his accomplishments on the instrument, because of the stature of his innovation, because of the gift he was born with, because of his drive to not rely and rest upon his gift…Not only in the drumming world and realm, but he also pushed himself to study composition. He studied German,” Blackman notes. “This is hopefully something that will – because it’s stated as a dedication to him – hopefully this will directly cause others to really check him out and listen to what he was doing.”
Despite the look of glowing admiration that dances across her face when speaking of luminaries like Williams, Roy Haynes and Billy Joe Jones, one can’t help but remember that this is the chick looking too cool for school in her black shades from the “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and “Fly Away” and basically every Kravitz video in which she appeared, so you wait for Blackman to start name-dropping a list of rock music influences. Wait you shall, because those names never come. Even during her far-flung adventures around the world during her stint with Kravitz’s band, Blackman was never too far from a jazz gig.
“I always wanted to keep my involvement and my headspace in the music that I really loved the most, so I always did that. I never stayed away completely. I take my music with me and always listen, so it’s always in my heart and in my head anyway.”
But Blackman doesn’t look on her rock ‘n’ roll days with any regret as if they kept her from doing what she loved. What she loves is playing the drums, so whether she’s backing George Benson, a rock star or taking the reins as leader of her own outfit, Blackman is up for the challenge.
“I have discipline, so once I understand what the gig requires then I can just give it that…If you look at a Charlie Parker solo over 16 bars and you take 16 bars of any rock tune, there’s gonna be a complete difference in the level of virtuosity that’s expressed and that is not demeaning to rock, it’s just the truth. If you look at a lemon and you look at a watermelon, the lemon will never be a watermelon. It’s not demeaning on the lemon. The lemon is what it is, but it’s never gonna be a watermelon.”
So true. As a petite powerhouse, Blackman not only had to adjust to rock’s musical style, but to its physical demands.
“I had to get used to the amount of electricity that was coming at me…At first, it was making me feel really heavy and really tired and so I had to get used to that and over time, I built up an immunity to feeling dragged down by it.”
Ultimately, striving to innovate in an industry dominated by formulas is the constant obstacle to overcome.
“Creative music at its best allows so many different influences to come in so there’s a lot of different stuff happening…When you listen to a lot of pop stuff, you notice that there’s a tempo that has become a template for all the hit songs. There are even chord changes that are hit chord changes…But that stuff does not lead an individual to individual thinking. It leads you to thinking in a box and leads you to thinking like everybody else. [Singing mockingly] ‘Oh I wanna go party/slap my man/I wanna go’ whatever.”
Though she’s a fan of dance music, the artist in her won’t allow her to give the power of pop too much credit. The demarcation between dancing around and pushing the envelope is clear.
“When you have some creative music going on…even if you think about that for a second, you’re interpreting, so you know what? That’s going to change. And that’s the fear that people who run the music business have because when you do that, it’s hard to categorize. And when it’s hard to categorize, it’s hard to control. When it’s hard to control, it’s hard to make money.”
She speaks seriously about her craft as if personally burned by the industry’s inability to remove the lid from its self-created box. But as Blackman moves forward as bandleader and composer of her own work, she’s constantly endeavoring to reach her “highest Cindy,” her virtuosic self.
“That’s something that I really have to strive for because Charlie Parker existed, John Coltrane existed, Tony Williams existed and those existences mean something to me. The levels that they achieved mean something to me… It’s about reaching a goal and trying to push yourself beyond any limit that your silly mind can conjure up.”
- Candace Lunn
For more Cindy Blackman, make sure to buy her album ANOTHER LIFETIME today!
For more music from Cindy, check out some unreleased tracks on her myspace page.
Also watch this great little clip from Cindy’s VW commericial, below: