Cindy Blackman plays for Bird


By Rick Mark

Blackman holds alto saxophone legend Charlie “Yardbird” Parker in high esteem

What do Charlie Parker and Lenny Kravitz have in common? Start with percussionist Cindy Blackman, who has been Kravitz’s longtime drummer, and as a jazz player, will be appearing at the 13th Annual Charlie Parker Festival in Tompkins Square Park.

While well known for rockin’ out, her current quartet has just released “Music for the New Millennium” on her Sacred Sounds Label.

“It’s rooted in tradition, but it’s not traditional music. It’s explorative, very creative, very expressive, and we really try to expand any ideas we have that everything is played over the forms, but we like to stretch it, and really see the colors and make the music grow and move. We experiment — but it’s never free. Everything is written out. I have charts for all the songs. We expand on what’s there, and stretch harmonics and note choices.”

From her beginnings as a New York street performer, Blackman performed before audiences in the U.S. and throughout the world, with her own group as well as providing the percussive backbone for retro funk rocker Lenny Kravitz. She has also appeared on Saturday Night Live, The David Letterman Show, The Tonight Show, and the MTV Video Awards.

The Charlie Parker festival is the raison d’être for the weekend event, and accordingly, Blackman holds alto saxophone legend Charlie “Yardbird” Parker in high esteem. “We wouldn’t be able to play what we’re playing if Bird hadn’t been on the scene.

She said that Bird’s harmony “allows us to get what we have today. And in terms of his virtuosity, he is always the standard in my eyes, for a level of how to proficiently play your instrument and improvise at the same time. A lot of people say classical musicians are on a higher level because of their proficiency level. To me, he was on the highest level of proficiency, and creating as he was doing it.”

Blackman described Parker’s rhythmic sense as “incredible.” “When you’re thinking of anything melodic that we’re transferring to drums and playing in a percussive way, not only does it have to swing and feel good, but it’s got to be in a certain rhythm,” she said. “Those are some of the kind of ideals that we’re talking about.”

“His soloing was a textbook study,” she added. “He could take 32 bars and say more than most people in 132 bars.”

She said she doesn’t plan to play Bird tunes at the fest, but her music today does reflect all of her influences. “Whether or not we play a Charlie Parker song is not the question — it’s the things we’re going for,” said Blackman. “It’s the level of proficiency that we strive for, the level of creativity we strive for, and it’s the dedication to the music that we have.”

Blackman is known to the greater musical world as the drummer for Lenny Kravitz. “For me, it’s a head space,” she said. “The goal of the music is totally different. I don’t think about them in the same way. My job with Lenny is a different thing. My job is to play a beat for hours, and make it feel good, and add some exciting fills and exciting colors, when it fits tastefully. My job in my band or in a creative situation is a totally different thing. We may start with a groove that feels great, I may play that for hours too, but I’m going to explore and expand and change that, play around with the rhythm and interject with the soloists. I think of them as two different concepts because they are.”

Blackman said that playing with Kravitz and playing jazz are separate, but they do enhance each other. “I can appreciate the simplicity of playing one beat for a long time, and focusing on making that feel so good you don’t care to hear anything else. By the same token, I still hear things while I’m playing that groove, so when I get to a situation that’s more creative, I get to interject things that I’m hearing.”

A Brooklyn resident, Blackman said that New York audiences have seen so much great music that “you can’t sham, you have to be good, you have to go for it. That’s why I live in New York. Not only is it tough, but all the greatest people have come through New York.”

She points to Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and others as musical influences. “It’s always such an amazing place, with every level of musical accomplishment, you can see complete beginners and you can see innovators.”

While not studying formally, she “asked a lot of pesky questions, and got a lot of advice and tips” from drumming greats like Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Billy Hart, Al Foster and others.

“I’m really looking forward to the concert and playing with the New York energy like that,” said Blackman. “The outdoors nature of the festival brings more of a party mood.”