Clarence Penn

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1Clarence Penn Long Bio—2013:
No drummer in the jazz business works more frequently than Clarence Penn. The reasons are hardly a secret.
​First and foremost, there’s Penn’s versatility and professionalism. There’s his ability to assimilate and interpret creatively a global array of styles and idioms—swinging, odd-metered and rubato hardcore jazz; Flamenco,... more

1Clarence Penn Long Bio—2013:
No drummer in the jazz business works more frequently than Clarence Penn. The reasons are hardly a secret.
​First and foremost, there’s Penn’s versatility and professionalism. There’s his ability to assimilate and interpret creatively a global array of styles and idioms—swinging, odd-metered and rubato hardcore jazz; Flamenco, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, and other Pan-American beats; an exhaustive lexicon of orchestral percussion vocabulary. Consider, too, his sensitivity, his uncanny knack, as a bandmate once put it, for “pushing and filling-in and giving you the right kick at the right time to push you to a higher level of playing.” Appreciate his nuanced touch and command of dynamics. Finally, there’s his core imperative:  “To play music that’s warm and organic, not for the musicians, but for people and for myself.”
​A first-caller since he arrived in New York in 1991, Penn has placed his singular blend of technique, intellect, and musicianship at the service of a staggering array of jazz’ best and brightest, representing a 360-degree spectrum of jazz expression. A short list includes Ellis and Wynton Marsalis, Betty Carter, Stanley Clarke, Hank Jones, Makoto Ozone, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Dave Douglas, Maria Schneider, Chris Potter, Richard Galliano, Richard Bona, Luciana Souza, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Charlie Haden, Dianne Reeves, Gerald Clayton, Gretchen Parlato, and the super-group Fourplay. He’s performed on a hundred or so studio albums, including the Grammy-winning recordings 34th and Lex by Randy Brecker and Concert In The Garden by Maria Schneider. He’s composed music for films and commercials, and produced tracks for numerous singers in the pop and alternative genres, as well as jazz divas like Claudia Acuna. He’s made his mark as an educator, too, having taught at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music from 2004 to 2012, as well as the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the Saint Louis College of Music in Rome, Italy, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Intensive Jazz Institute.
​In past years, Penn’s own bandleading projects have taken a backseat to the extraordinary course of his career. More recently, though, he’s devoted significant energy to presenting his sonic vision. A recent recorded example of his massive drumset skills and considerable range as a composer and real-time orchestrator is 2012's Dali In Cobble Hill, his third leader date for Criss Cross Records, following Penn’s Landing, which earned a “Ten Best of 1997” accolade from the New York Times, and Play-Penn. Penn recorded the latter CD in 2001, a week after an engagement with Dave Douglas at the Village Vanguard that launched a still ongoing relationship.
​Retrospecting in 2013, Douglas recalls the “discipline, creative imagination and dedication to each moment in the music” that he observed the first time he saw Penn with Betty Carter’s trio two decades ago. “To this day, these qualities make him deeply present in any musical situation,” Douglas states. “Clarence is the kind of musician who leaves his judgments of music and musicians aside to provide the best support and complement. He really cares that everyone on stage sound as good as they can. That explains why the results are so great with the extraordinary musicians he brings into his projects. Fireworks!”
​Said fireworks abound on the above-mentioned recordings, and on the self-produced 2004 date Saomaye, which Penn titled for a word that means “being in the center of the vibe.” Joined by Claudia Acuña and Luciana Souza, Penn refracts his exhaustive knowledge of the musical dialects of the African diaspora, “operating off the feelings and emotions” of the idioms in play to create effervescent hybrid grooves that illuminate the repertoire. He incorporates intoxicating rhythms in a quartet project that showcases his imaginative arrangements of the tunes of Thelonious Monk, and a “world music” studio project of songs and instrumentals that melds background voices—including his own—with a world-class ensemble.
​“I’m open to all my influences, and I bring many different styles to my work as a composer, or drummer, or bandleader—or musician,” Penn says. He compares his process to his approach to cooking. “I incorporate all these ingredients tastefully, and when you eat it,  it’s like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but it’s good.’ I listen to and write a lot of different music, and bringing all these experiences and sounds and feelings and colors to the table is what being a jazz musician is all about to me.”
​ Sao Paolo native Souza elaborates on how this intention plays out when, for example, Penn addresses Brazilian beats in her ensemble. “Clarence has listened to a ton of stuff, and knows technically what he needs to do, but he does it his own way,” she says. “That’s the sign of a great musical drummer, who doesn’t just stay traditional, but makes the music free and colorful. He plays supportively in terms of form, which he understands profoundly, holding the shape of the music as well as the time and the beats and the groove. On top of that, he’s a joyous guy. I’m looking at the audience, and all of a sudden I turn back because he’s done something fantastic, and he’s smiling. He’s a deep soul in that way—he understands that music is play.”
​“Clarence listens like a producer,” Souza adds. “He has clarity and vision. He hears everything—the bass, the high voices, the middle. He understands harmony. He understands lyrics. He has the will to solve problems and figure them out. I’d play with him every day if I could. I think he’s a natural leader.”
​Penn concurs that producing singers has enhanced his playing. “It makes me pay attention to detail, to the words, to the shape of everything, and to apply that on the drumset in a live situation,” he says. He also draws deeply on lessons assimilated from his various employers in articulating his capacious vision. “Hopefully, if I take a gig, I can get musical information from the person,” he says. “I take whatever I learn, put it in my arsenal, and never forget it. It can come out on any bandstand, at any time. I think that keeps me sounding fresh.”
​As an example, Penn states that Douglas’ “leanings towards the avant-garde” and predisposition to “deconstruct tunes” captured his attention. “Until playing with Dave,” Penn says, “I hadn’t had the experience of breaking down tunes—using a particular section to improvise on, or having things be completely free until somebody cues the next section.” He credits the late tenor saxophone titan Michael Brecker, a frequent employer at the cusp of the ‘00s, for his keen attention to pacing. “I’d think he was in top gear, but then he’d take it up another two notches,” Penn states. “That’s something I try to get when playing live.”
​Penn’s decade-plus with the Grammy-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra has imparted an enduring appreciation for the art of thematic development. “It isn’t about coming in and playing the hell out of the drums,” Penn says. “You never let up. Maria gives you a shape in the beginning, then writes fun solo sections with events that connect to the outro or final head.”
​Schneider is particularly drawn to Penn’s uncanny ability to direct and animate the flow. “Clarence is a charismatic player, with great dynamic range and drama and musicality,” she says. “He’s an intricate and heady drummer who thinks compositionally, but uses his gut and instincts towards the end result of making something exciting, that feels alive, and is full of energy and passion. He doesn’t have a limited conception of what the drummer is. Of course, he drives the band and pushes the time, but he also knows how to stop and allow things to happen—to be a colorist.”
​Penn traces his command of drumkit nuance to his formative years at Detroit’s Northwestern High School, when he studied with the principal percussionist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra towards the goal of being an orchestral timpanist or a studio musician. “The people I studied with were big on caressing a drum as opposed to just slapping it,” he says. “That shaped my approach to playing jazz, or playing drumset, period.”

​Jazz entered the picture during tenth grade, when Wynton Marsalis came to his school to do a clinic while he was performing an engagement with the Detroit Symphony. “I was impressed because I'd seen him on TV, he was playing jazz and classical, and it was this new phenomenon,” Penn says. “I modeled myself after him; I wanted to do that.”
​Still thinking of his professional aspirations, Penn spent his final year of high school at Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, where a teacher hired him to play a jazz gig with a faculty band.  “He paid me my first hundred dollars and I couldn't believe it!” Penn laughs. Jazz became even more appealing after Penn matriculated into the University of Miami’s well-regarded music program, where he felt increasingly straitjacketed by a percussion curriculum oriented towards a career in popular music.
​“I wanted my own voice,” Penn declares.  “In classical, you have to play the same part that was written hundreds of years ago.  You can't deviate. And I wanted to be a little different than the average studio drummer, not to have to play like one guy or another.  I realized that through playing jazz I can be myself and interpret the music how I want. That really piqued my interest.”
​Towards the end of freshman year, when Penn was planning to return to Detroit for the summer, he spoke with Wynton Marsalis, who suggested he transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University to study with his father, Ellis Marsalis, who, fatefully, would perform in the Motor City soon after Penn’s return.
​“Wynton asked Ellis to put me on the guest list, and we spoke,” Penn recalls. “I auditioned at VCU two weeks later, and they gave me a scholarship. Ellis treated me like a son. After I was there a few months, he took me on the road.  I wanted to meet people and hang out, but Ellis made me analyze Bach chorales and Chopin piano pieces.  He gave me extra homework.  He stayed on me, which now I'm thankful for.  He made sure that I had a solid foundation for going to New York.  I didn't intend to graduate; I wanted to stay at VCU long enough to get my stuff together and then move to New York.  But Ellis encouraged me to graduate, and I'm glad I did.”
​A highlight of those years was a tour in Japan with the Ellis Marsalis Trio, with Wynton guesting. Not long thereafter, in 1991, Lewis Nash recommended to Betty Carter that she hire him, and Penn, that gig in hand, moved to New York City.
​He brought ample skill sets to the task. At the suggestion of Jeff “Tain” Watts, whom he’d met several years before at a Wynton Marsalis performance in Detroit, Penn had transcribed Max Roach’s clear, rudimental solos as an entry point into the vocabulary of jazz drumming. Asked about further consequential signposts on his influence path, he mentions Frankie Dunlop, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones.
​“Frankie Dunlop taught me to use space,” Penn remarks of the iconoclastic trapsetter who imparted a vivid dance to the early '60s Thelonious Monk Quartet.  “Drummers like to fill up every bit of space; on solos they feel they have to play everything in their vocabulary. He played a solo as if he was comping behind a soloist, but the form was so clear; for example, his ideas between the snare and bass drum were so elegant and simple.
​“Philly Joe had great control over every imaginable rudiment, and he played effortlessly. What I like so much about Elvin is that from early on he wasn't scared to be himself, and I've tried to add that attitude to what I do.”
​After a two-year stint with Betty Carter during which he refined his concept and “learned to be myself,” Penn decided it was time “to spread my wings, go out into this jazz world and see what was there.”

​Twenty years later, Penn, whether leading or freelancing, continues to adhere to a piece of good advice that he received from Ellis Marsalis when he was 20. “Ellis told me that whenever I ran out of things to practice, I should look at art and try to transform into music what it feels like to look at the sunset, or the feeling of rain, or the feeling of sadness,” Penn says. “It was beyond me then, but later it hit me that it was time to play what’s inside me, and not recreate something I heard my favorite players do.
​“When people hear my name, I want them just to think of music, not ‘he’s a jazz artist’ or ‘he’s an avant-garde artist’ or ‘he’s Maria Schneider’s drummer.’ I just want them to think, ‘I don’t know what band he’s playing with tonight or what he’ll be doing, but it’s going to be good, it’s going to be musical.’”


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