The drummers' drummer works his magic act

Masters of Groove, Regina Carter | Brecon Jazz Festival
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Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is the world's greatest drummer. He must be, because he says so. Anyway, who else can claim to have played on the "Theme to Shaft ", James Brown's "Sex Machine", and "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong? If the latter track seems suspiciously soft on funk, which is Purdie's strong suit, you have to remember that he did occasional piece-work for Miles Davis and Steely Dan, too. But perhaps more importantly, at least as far as his self-bestowed title goes, Purdie was a member of the famous Atlantic Records rhythm section in the 1960s and 1970s, playing on most of the crucial Aretha Franklin albums of the period, as well as hundreds of other sessions for the label. He therefore contributed to some of the best music of the 20th century, while also finding time to invent the whooshing hi-hat sound that helped to define disco (as heard on "The Hustle" by Van McCoy).

Bernard "Pretty" Purdie is the world's greatest drummer. He must be, because he says so. Anyway, who else can claim to have played on the "Theme to Shaft ", James Brown's "Sex Machine", and "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong? If the latter track seems suspiciously soft on funk, which is Purdie's strong suit, you have to remember that he did occasional piece-work for Miles Davis and Steely Dan, too. But perhaps more importantly, at least as far as his self-bestowed title goes, Purdie was a member of the famous Atlantic Records rhythm section in the 1960s and 1970s, playing on most of the crucial Aretha Franklin albums of the period, as well as hundreds of other sessions for the label. He therefore contributed to some of the best music of the 20th century, while also finding time to invent the whooshing hi-hat sound that helped to define disco (as heard on "The Hustle" by Van McCoy).

And even if Purdie isn't the greatest drummer in the world, he has to be be the most ubiquitous. If you add the tracks on which his drum-breaks have been used as samples to those he worked on in real-time, the list of credits runs into the thousands. With a CV like this, it was no surprise that the audience for Purdie's performance with the Masters of Groove trio at last week's Brecon Jazz Festival, included an awful lot of drummers. You could tell they were drummers not only by their scholarly murmurs of appreciation, frequent elbow-nudging and excited pointing at obscure bits of kit, but by the way their feet tended to depress imaginary pedals as they watched.

Happily, Purdie - who's now 61 - did the rather melancholy drummer who lurks within us all proud, presiding over his endearingly minimal drum-kit with the hauteur of a true monarch. A small, suitably chunky, man with the kind of thickened arms and legs that one imagines only 40 years at the drum-face can produce, he sat on his stool in a resolute posture, using the apparent minimum of energy to strike out sidelong, Zen-master, blows to the skins while his face betrayed the absolute minimum of emotion.

The arms, however, weren't the half of it. Purdie's invisible lower limbs produced a controlled frenzy of power from the bass drum, while also appearing to make the hi-hat (those two cymbals that clash together when their pedal is kicked), into an orchestra all on its own. Damping down the hi-hat's click and clack with an infinitely varied series of little flourishes from his drum-sticks, Purdie didn't just make the homely instrument sing; it was funk-opera and nothing less. Each brief, four-bar solo, led to a rising crescendo of cheers which Purdie would acknowledge as his due with the barest of nods, as if he knew he was great already but was just about prepared to be reminded of it.

The band of veteran Hammond organist Reuben Wilson and guitarist Grant Green Jr (the late Grant Green Sr was a legendary soul-jazz guitar-man), created a superstructure of easy, no-frills, funk for Purdie to both underpin and decorate, and by the time they got to the old jazz-funk staple "Mr Magic" - the soundtrack to a thousand Essex soul-boy Ford Escort turtle-waxings back in the 1980s - the atmosphere became almost delirious. At the end of the band's allotted time-span, with the crowd baying for more, Purdie at last got up from behind his kit and came to the front of the stage. "You made me work too hard!", he said. "I don't like to work hard, I have to save my energy to keep on looking pretty. The only way I'm going to play some more is if you all buy my CD. Are you gonna buy it?" Of course, we all said yes, but when the time came, only the drummers did.

Earlier on Sunday afternoon, the jazz violinist Regina Carter created a rather more decorous effect. A classically trained player who came to jazz relatively late, Carter is perhaps less notable as a soloist than for the skill with which she directs her excellent quintet. The music covers the various bases of contemporary jazz quite expertly everything is delivered with style and taste. So why was it so flat?

Partly, perhaps, because I had seen her do exactly the same set at the Glasgow Jazz Festival in July, but also because almost nothing other than the solos by the band's pianist, drummer and percussionist (the superb Mayra Casales), carried much sense of risk. Carter herself played feelingly, especially in ensemble passages and on brief solo lines, but something about her heavy attack with the bow, coupled with the amplification she uses, conspired to make her extended solos sound harsh and ultimately fatiguing to listen to. When she gave credit to the jazz violinists of the past who had inspired her, you couldn't help thinking what a beautifully light touch Stéphane Grappelli used to have, and shamefully, how much we took it for granted. That said, the slightly dozy teatime setting of the Theatr Brycheiniog wasn't the most energising of environments, and Carter didn't have "Pretty" Purdie's audience of devotees to egg her on. Hopefully, she'll cut loose a little more at Ronnie Scott's in October.

Regina Carter: Ronnie Scott's, W1 (020 7439 0747), 16 to 21 October

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