When drummer Tony Allen passed away in April 2020, he left behind a musical legacy both pronounced and subtle.
As the longtime main drummer for Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat ensemble, including a truly searing album where he played stick-to-stick with UK (ex-Cream) drummer Ginger Baker, Allen introduced a jazz-funk style of playing that pointed back to Africa while also directing contemporary drumming well into the future. The Nigerian-born drummer and composer is an invisible influence, most evident in the quirky rhythms of the Talking Heads as well as Brian Eno, who described Allen as “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived.”
Seemingly driven by a malleable muse, Allen could also swing jazz with the best of them and worked with fellow titan, saxman Archie Shepp. In his later years, artists as far afield as Gorillaz, Blur and Air all called upon Allen to deliver his easy-to-sample beats that only he could truly replicate in real time, onstage and in the studio.
A collaboration with L.A. composer-arranger Adrian Younge, the posthumous release Tony Allen JID018 (Jazz Is Dead) was originally recorded in the summer of 2018. Younge is a vocal acolyte of Allen and the session is an interesting meeting between guru and devotee. Younge is but one of many players influenced by the Allen drum samples that are ever-present in the ongoing rhythmic vernacular of hip hop.
The track “Don’t Believe the Dancers” hardly reveals any surprise facets of Allen’s playing: it’s more of a reinforcement of his legacy. Bulletproof drum beats and propulsive ostinato bass runs the groove in tandem with marimba, solo flute and a horn section that stabs in and out of the music. The total effect is one of Allen playing along with a mirror of his influence on 20th-century music; in this case through a three-minute, static vamp that is a good place to jump into the late drummer’s vast musical force.