One of the greatest pioneers of free drumming in company with Sonny Murray and Milford Graves. Ed Blackwell's main body of work remains within the group context Ornette Coleman's Quartet and Don Cherry's units. Born in New Orleans, his drum concept fitted perfectly the needs of the new collective music-indeed, traditional New Orleans march rhythms combined with an African and Afro-Cuban influence in his work. A master craftsman, his preoccupation with shifting metres and sonics made him the ideal partner for Ornette, although it was Blackwell's student, Billy Higgins, who cut the first albums with the alto player.
The nature of Ornette's music, the rapid shifts of tempo, the mobile textures, the rock swing, placed immense responsibilities on the drummer. It was a highly specialized function, and Blackwell, unlike Higgins a looser, less asymmetrical player, doesn't seem to have worked much outside the free school. The leader's wish that rhythm should as naturally as patterns of breathing set enormous problems for this group, particularly on the level of avoiding collision. Blackwell's style is simpler, less cluttered than most of the drummers'; a tight snare sound dominates, propelling the rolling tattoo figures and often echoing the alto phrases. It is concentrated palying that deftly avoids the equally innovative use of rhythm by bassists like Charlie Haden, Scott La Faro or Jimmy Garrison.
Blackwell's solo feature on T & T (Ornette!) shows the close links between rhythm and melody in the new music, as well as the drummer's African learnings. Comparison's between Blackwell and Higgins can be drawn from their paired solos (Free Jazz and Twins) with the former's heart of darkness drum rolls followed by Higgins' flaring cymbal work.
Again, the drummer's work with Ornette's trumpeter, Don Cherry, is pivotal. The music constantly changes direction and requires a rare blend of self-effacement and initiative (Complete Communion, Symphony For Improvisors) and Where Is Brooklyn . Cherry's composition for a large group (Relatively Suite) features Blackwell on March Of The Hobbits . The interaction between trumpeter and drummer is most clearly shown on the two albums made for the deleted French Label BYG (Mu, Parts One & Two) a duo that never sounds remotely restricted in textural range.
Ill-health has dogged Blackwell's career (in fact, he's on a kidney machine three times a week) and recent years have seen few albums.