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Unbroken Rhythm: Tani Tabbal


Tani Tabbal at his Woodstock home on November 4. - FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
  • Tani Tabbal at his Woodstock home on November 4.

Seated on his living room couch, Tani Tabbal peels back his trademark black beret to reveal a scar several inches long on the left side of his head. "This is where they went in to take it out," says the drummer, who in 2001 had a benign tumor removed from his brain. "I'd been having these wild migraine headaches ever since I was a kid that would go on for, like, three days. And then one day I was playing for a West African dance class, and I had a huge seizure." After being rushed to Kingston Hospital, Tabbal was transferred to Westchester Medical Center for a 19-hour surgery, for which he was sedated but conscious throughout. Unsurprisingly, the career musician was worried about whether he'd able to play again after the operation. "The first thing I did [following the procedure] was move my feet," he recalls. "Then I started pounding on my chest, and I was able to do that too. That's when I knew everything was going to be okay." Since then, the percussionist hasn't—forgive the delicious pun—missed a beat.

Tabbal is one of the modern masters of his instrument and has worked with some of the leading names in jazz, mainly those in the avant-garde arena. Raised in Chicago's culturally diverse Hyde Park community, he was attracted to music via the tastes of his mother, a Motorola employee, and father, a teacher. "My dad was into Miles and Monk, and my mom loved Sarah Vaughn," he says. "I was always bangin' on stuff, so when I was in second grade they bought me a drum set. I loved [bop drummer] Roy Haynes and would play along with his records. I discovered that I had a great musical memory, especially for solos. Even now, I can still remember solos I haven't heard for decades." At age 14 he joined the band of noted singer, songwriter, writer, actor, and activist Oscar Brown, Jr., whose bassist son was one of Tabbal's classmates. He also played in rock and funk groups in high school, but became increasingly drawn to the emerging sounds of free jazz. For the latter genre, Tabbal was in the right place at the right time. By the late 1960s, the Windy City was blowing by New York as a center of free jazz, thanks to the activities of the musicians involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the parent organization of the groundbreaking Art Ensemble of Chicago. Tabbal grew steadily immersed in the AACM scene and performed with trumpeter Phil Cohran before taking off into another realm, one that was endlessly exploratory: In the mid-1970s, while he was still a teenager, he found himself playing alongside Cohran in the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra.

"Playing with Sun Ra was amazing," says Tabbal about the famously eccentric bandleader who claimed to be from Saturn. "Half the band would be professional musicians and the other half would be people who could barely play. But he loved that! He'd say, 'The universe has the best and the worst, so the music should have both of those things in it, too.' And he always kept you guessing. We'd be doing some far-out, crazy thing and then he'd make us go into some old Fletcher Henderson tune. I remember at one gig he had me lay out for part of a tune. He said, 'Tani, you need to play an unknown drum solo.' I wasn't sure what that meant, but I thought, 'Hmm. Okay.' Another time, I played something without totally realizing what I was doing and then I went back and tried to figure it out and play it that way again. He told me, 'When you didn't know what you were doing, it was great. But now that you think you know what you're doing, it's most displeasing.'" [Laughs.]

Tabbal was with the Arkestra for almost two years and by the late ’70s had left Chicago for Detroit, where he played with local luminaries like pianist Geri Allen, guitarist A. Spencer Barefield, and Griot Galaxy, a fiercely experimental band led by the late saxophonist and poet Faruq Z. Bey. While in Michigan he also reconnected with AACM cofounder and Art Ensemble of Chicago member Roscoe Mitchell, joining the saxophonist’s pivotal Sound Ensemble and working with him in other groups since 1978 (the most recent entry in Tabbal’s on/off collaboration with the sax man is 2010’s Far Side; several more releases are forthcoming). Come the close of the 1980s, however, and the intensity of life in the Motor City was beginning to take its toll on Tabbal. New York was next.

"I'd met [New York saxophonist and band leader] David Murray when he played in Detroit," Tabbal says. "About 1990, there were some problems happening with the drummer in his band, so he gave me a call. I was figuring it was about my time to get out of Detroit and use my New York connections anyway." And use them he did. Once there, besides playing in both the David Murray Octet and the David Murray Big Band, Tabbal hooked up with James Carter, waxing five albums with the highly rated, stylistically diverse saxophonist. But even though he'd found himself a welcoming and productive home on the Gotham scene with Murray, Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, and others, after only a few years there he decided he was done with the concrete jungle.

"Besides Chicago, Detroit, and New York, I'd lived in Philadelphia and Oakland—I was tired of cities," Tabbal groans. "In 1993 I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a house to rent in Woodstock, so I came up to check it out. I saw the place and I thought, 'Wow, I can get all this for what I'm paying for some little place in New York?' I loved it up here and I knew there were lots of other musicians around, so I moved up." Many of those other musicians were ones he would soon be making amazing music with, among them saxophonists Dewey Redman and Joe Giardullo, bassists John Lindberg and John Menegon, pianist Marilyn Crispell, and vibraphonist Karl Berger, the cofounder of Woodstock's renowned Creative Music Studio organization, who bumped into Tabbal in a local shop.

"I knew all about Karl and CMS, but we'd never actually met," Tabbal says. "So I introduced myself, but he already knew who I was and told me he'd heard about me living there. Then he just looked at me and said, 'Rehearsal is next week.' And that was it. [Laughs.]" The former Chicagoan proved a perfect fit for many of the projects Berger leads, especially those that have explored the music associated with influential trumpeter Don Cherry. "Tani's style of playing is a lot like the style of [Cherry collaborator and Ornette Coleman drummer] Ed Blackwell," says Berger. "He's very crisp, but at the same he swings. And he doesn't play too many beats. His style is between completely free playing and a more traditional style, which is wonderful and very rare."

Tabbal, who has children (and now grandchildren) from a prior relationship, met his life partner, the graphic designer Susanna Ronner, in the late 1990s and credits her as having been invaluable throughout his recovery from the 2001 operation. Ronner's sharp, abstract designs grace the packaging of the four albums he's released as a leader since the treatment: 2007's solo-percussion Before Time After, 2014's Wizards, 2015's Mixed Motion, and the newest, this year's Triptych, which features his trio with venerated bassist Michael Bisio and rising alto saxophonist Adam Siegel.

"I have to keep playing, because I still feel it, you know?" says Tabbal, whose resume also includes the percussion ensemble Pieces of Time and such icons as Milt Jackson, Jackie McLean, Evan Parker, Henry Grimes, and Anthony Braxton. "Each day, I'll have new thoughts and ideas. The music always changes the way it's going.

Triptych is out now on Tabbalia Sound Records. Tanitabbal.com.

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