Phil Haynes: An accomplished drummer invites us into his world

Photograph by René Pierre Allain

By Fritz Byers

Jazz Spectrum Blog photograph René Pierre Allain

The drummer Phil Haynes has long had a comfortable spot on Jazz Spectrum playlists. If memory serves, I first featured him in 2000, when Phil Haynes Free Country, Phil’s free-spirited eclectic quartet, released its eponymous debut. With the cellist (and occasional vocalist) Hank Roberts, the guitarist Jim Yanda, and the bassist Drew Gress, Phil explored a repertoire consisting almost entirely of traditional folk tunes (“Old Joe Clark” and “Shenandoah”) and Stephen Foster chestnuts (e.g., “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”). The concept may seem a bit coy, but the execution was striking, and the result was fine, intriguing music. More than the particular songs, Phil’s energy, percussion chops, and artistic commitment stuck with me, so I’ve been a fan ever since.

At the time, I hadn’t heard his recordings with the outside-in tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin (most notably, Forms, from 1991); his 1995 date with the marvelous bassist Mark Dresser; or the pair of recordings he made with the multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann. Ellery, Mark, and Gebhard have been releasing innovative and enthralling recordings for more than thirty years, and Phil was with each of them near the start. That matters, at least to me.

Over the years, Jazz Spectrum listeners occasionally heard Phil’s work, both as a leader and as a sideman trusted by a range of exacting bandleaders. Then, in 2013, Phil released a stunning project: Sanctuary, 27 pieces for solo percussion (and “found instruments”). Nothing but drums? I wasn’t really even skeptical at the thought, since by then I’d heard enough of his drumming to be drawn in. But partway through the first listening, I realized this is rich, nuanced music, an expression of an authentic, original, and refined sonic vision, with its own tendrils of melody, and, yes, some rich harmonies. 

In 2020, Phil and his Free Country quartet released 60/69 My Favorite Things. The recording presents characteristically unique takes, at once faithful and creative, on pop and rock tunes from the sixties. Normally these homages fail to engage, but this recording stuck with me, and I played tunes from it several times that year. 
Not incidentally, Phil is a gifted writer. His liner notes are an art form unto themselves. All of them are worth your time, but if you have a free minute, check out what he does with words and poetry forms in his free-verse wanderings that nicely illuminate the ideas that undergird the 60/69 project. You can find it here.

Jazz Spectrum Blog photograph René Pierre Allain

So: I was thrilled to learn that Phil has published a book -- Chasing the Masters: First Takes of a Modern Drumming Artist. I’ll crib the back cover and call it a “kaleidoscopic improv of a memoir.” 

Sort of like when I first encountered Sanctuary, Phil’s great solo-percussion project, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve been through it twice now, and I’m still not sure how to describe it. Maybe this way: It’s like having the chance to hang out for extended times with a brilliant conversationalist, whose mind is an engaging blend of insight, curiosity, humility, and humor. The book weaves together personal history, telling anecdotes, clever asides, hundreds of thought-provoking quotes, musical passions, favorite recordings, and, well, the occasional conversational dead-end. Which I guess is when you take a deep breath and think how lucky you are to have this time with Phil.

It’s coming on holiday season, and you could do worse than save a seat at your table for Phil Haynes.

Jazz Spectrum