Drummer Cindy Blackman Ready For Arenas Or Clubs

She leads her own jazz groups when she's not backing up rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Like a PC hard drive partitioned to run Windows and Linux operating systems, drummer Cindy Blackman lives a dual life.

On some nights, she might be playing large theaters or outdoor sheds as a member of certified rock star Lenny Kravitz's group. On other nights, she can be found leading her quartet, with bassist George Mitchell, pianist Carlton Holmes and tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen, at various jazz clubs and the occasional festival.

"It's a pleasure, actually, to go from one [musical setting] to the other, because each of them offers such a different kind of feel and such a different reward," Blackman, 39, said from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "And I like having both of those rewards available to me."

With Kravitz's band, Blackman is known for putting a powerful beat behind the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist's big sound. Leading her own quartet, she's known for promoting group interaction and carrying forth a solid sense of swing.

"I have a great time playing with Lenny. The music is really, really based so strongly on the feel and the groove. It's got to be solid, and it's got to feel good," she said. "Playing with him is so nice because he's got such a strong feel. And he's such a great entertainer and a great artist."

One would assume that there must be an adjustment to go from playing for screaming fans in cavernous settings to performing before attentive audiences in more intimate venues.

"Yes, but a good part of it is mental, in terms of the way that you approach the instrument and the way you approach the music," Blackman said. "All the things that you're doing, all the subtleties that you're playing, are able to come out when you're playing at such softer volumes."

Distinguished Tradition

A highlight of Blackman's jazz drumming is her exquisite cymbal work. Subtle, assured, even hypnotic, it carries through all of her playing. Discussing her drum technique sparked a list of her influences, starting with her mentor, Art Blakey.

"The way he played it was forceful and strong and driving. It's this super drive," she said. "Max [Roach] and Philly Joe [Jones] were lean. Elvin [Jones], he has a wide, really big beat.

"And Tony [Williams] was just lean, and was the most advanced ride-cymbal player that I've ever heard. He had a beautiful touch and beautiful cymbals that he chose, and was just really innovative in the way he would turn the beat around and play different notes against the melody or whatever was happening.

"So playing the ride cymbal is really a study in itself, its own entity. I try to make sure that's really as happening as I can get it."

As for her jazz group, it consists of like-minded players who were drawn to their bandleader's musical concept.

"Playing in Cindy's band is an exercise in group improvisation — much more than usual," pianist Holmes said. "And I heard that concept right away. That's quite a challenge, actually, to be more sensitive in that way and respond. Every time we get together, there seems to be more of a sense of synchronicity, as we learn to understand each other's phrases and what not."

Blackman's quartet released an album, Works on Canvas, last year on High Note; it contains the tune "The Three Van Goghs." Their second effort is set to hit shelves in December. The quartet will perform Wednesday at the Eddie Moore Jazz Festival in Oakland, Calif., then play on Sept. 15 at the African American Cultural Center in Charlotte, N.C., and on Sept. 16 Savannah, Ga.

Born To Drum

A native of Yellow Springs, Ohio, Blackman manifested her percussive instincts early in her life. She said she was always banging on whatever she could get her hands on, trying to create different rhythms and tones.

"I got my first toy drum kit when I was 8," she said. "And when I would hear music — even back then — the instrument that always stood out to me was the drum."

Following in the path of her mother and grandmother, who were classically trained musicians, she studied classical percussion at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and at Boston's Berklee College of Music. When she arrived on the New York jazz scene, she soon found herself playing with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonists Jackie McLean and Sam Rivers and pianist Don Pullen.

In addition to playing in Kravitz's band and her own quartet, she leads the Cindy Blackman Group, which features Holmes, guitarist David Gilmore and bassist Victor Bailey. She has also played in the bands of alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and pianist D.D. Jackson.