If you ask legendary D.C. post-punk drummer Brendan Canty to name the greatest band of all time, the answer will not be the seminal early hardcore bands like Black Flag or D.C.’s own Bad Brains. Nor is it a titanic, stadium-rock band like Led Zeppelin or Queen. It’s Miles Davis’ so-called Second Great Quintet, featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. “That’s the greatest band that’s ever lived,” Canty said enthusiastically as we talked over tea at his home in Ward 3 on a rainy day earlier this month.
Canty is a musician, filmmaker and composer, best known as the drummer in the pioneering punk band Rites of Spring and, of course, the vastly influential post-punk group Fugazi. He’s sat behind the kit for everything from the Late Night with Seth Myers band to the recently revived MC5.
Over the last half-decade, Canty has been playing again with Fugazi’s bassist, Joe Lally, in the genre-defying instrumental trio Messthetics. The group features guitarist Anthony Pirog, a musician with boundless imagination and a background in jazz. The group, which was inactive during the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been slowly getting out on stage again and will do so in a major way this Sunday, when it plays Blues Alley for the first time.
Tying it back to Miles, Canty grew up in a jazz-appreciating home and started attending concerts at Blues Alley almost 40 years ago. While the average jazz fan or harDCore punk devotee may be thrown off by that these days, Canty would be the first to point out that the era was rife with such crosstown pollination. “I thought there was a lot of crossover in the ’80s between the jazz and the rock scene,” he said. “You had Bill Warrell at d.c. space, bringing in people like Sun Ra and Lester Bowie and Steve Lacy.” And he pointed out that experimental-jazz artists like Lacy and Marc Ribot would play rock clubs at the time.
I came to Canty with questions about his history with the D.C. jazz scene. What followed was also a discussion of some of jazz’s greatest masters of the kit, as well as some new insights on the Messthetics’ aesthetic ahead of the band’s Blues Alley debut. (This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
CapitalBop: I wanted to ask, even before we get to Blues Alley, how did you come to jazz music? What were your first exposures?
Brendan Canty: I grew up in a house where my father was very reverential towards jazz. He had seen everybody in the world: Ella singing in Duke Ellington’s band, Miles at the Plugged Nickel. He was like, “Oh yeah, I saw that and saw that and saw that.” He would try to teach me about things: break out records and, as he was wiping them down with his hankie, tell me the story of when he saw them and where. So, I came to it naturally just because of my dad, mostly. He played piano and bought me my first drum set and really liked the idea of playing music in his house, which we did constantly! [Laughs] But I did learn early on that if you’re going to play drums, you’re gonna end up playing jazz or at least exploring that realm.
CB: Why was that a foregone conclusion?
BC: I had just heard it from people, and you could tell: It is a different animal, playing jazz drums. It’s still a skill that I need to tackle. From an early age, I was always infatuated with records and the magic of people who could make great records. There was a lot of energy around the Blue Note re-releases back in the ’80s because they had started repressing everything. I was working at Olsson’s Books and Records down in Georgetown and they had all those Blue Note re-releases and I got all of them that I possibly could, and I just got more and more into the historical, Dexter Gordon-era-type of things.
That included Miles in the early Workin’ and Steamin’-type vibe, but then I finally grasped onto the second quintet: Herbie, Ron, Miles, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams. When I started getting hip to those records — Miles Smiles, Nefertiti and E.S.P. — I loved the way that band communicated on record. They’re beautiful and I still think that’s the greatest band that’s ever lived. When you hear those European-tour records, I cannot believe on what a high level they are communicating! Back then, even though I couldn’t verbalize what I loved about them, there’s an intangible aspect to the whole thing and a lot of mystery to how they were pulling it off. I knew at the root of it there was Tony Williams, at a very young age achieving sheer brilliance. I gravitated toward that.
I loved a lot of drummers, like Elvin Jones and Billy Hart — love Billy Hart. And I knew how quickly people die. I was 17 or 18 years old and super into this kind of music and I thought, “I gotta see all these motherfuckers before they pass way.” So, I would go down to Blues Alley, basically by myself all the time, and try to see everybody I possibly could. But that was all around too: Like Max Roach and Louie Bellson would come in and play the jazz educators’ convention, and Max was touring around with his Double Quartet with his daughter on violin. I was really just trying to keep my ears to the ground and try to see everything I possibly could and listen to stuff that was happening at the same time.
CB: If I could reel back a moment, what was it about Tony Williams then that made such an impact on you, if it is possible to articulate it now? Both to you as a listener but also in a kind of physiological sense as a drummer?
BC: On those quintet records he is impossibly skilled and dynamic. Eventually he became almost weirdly more like a rock drummer as he started playing that big, yellow Gretsch kit. But on those records what I hear is somebody who is given a ton of freedom in that band — I think everybody was — and what I hear in his playing is a lot of ideas. I think he’s got a million different ideas. He’s incredibly fluid and his exchanges between his right hand and his hi-hat are just insane. It mostly comes down to his right hand but I also think that he’s obviously listening to everyone so purposefully and playing so purposefully and reacting. It’s really hard to describe what you love about somebody’s playing, I can only picture what it is. He doesn’t ever seem to slow people down or mess things up and it doesn’t also feel like he’s necessarily just keeping time, ever. My idea of him is that he’s trying to create some new territory always with his drums. That’s all I ever really look for: people trying to cut through the ice and make a new path to something fresh.
CB: As you’re listening to Tony Williams and Elvin Jones and all these folks, you’re also listening to Bad Brains and Minor Threat and all these punk bands of the time. When you were playing with Rites of Spring, you were playing these slashing, aggressive drum patterns. Are Tony and Elvin informing your playing or is it separate?
BC: If it informs me, I just was not skilled enough to use it at that time. It takes a lot of time. For me it took years of playing. I do think there’s a lot of Bad Brains in Tony Williams and Tony Williams in the Bad Brains. I know that Earl [Hudson, drummer of Bad Brains] was a jazz drummer, a fusion drummer. And you don’t get that good just by playing, like, Foghat. And, having spent a lot of time trying to emulate Earl, I know what he was doing is really hard. He was bringing that stuff into it!
CB: To keep us in the punk space, Fugazi was noted for doing instrumental albums. Does that come from a rock perspective solely or were you – or other members – also bringing in jazz ideas about form and structure?
BC: Back then, I think there were a lot of bands like African Head Charge, all the On-U Sound stuff, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Mutabaruka, there was a lot of powerful dub records coming out and spin-off dub records and, always in the background, the Public Image Ltd. Metal Box or Second Edition, there was a lot of information on that. Flipper, who were entirely textural, and the Fall, who were playing with textures a lot: There was a lot of energy around, using albums as a place to record more landscapes than songs. I think there was always the impulse to have that, because while you’re in the studio you want to experiment with that stuff and when you’re writing you want to experiment with that stuff. It’s just part of what you’re doing that you want to honor. Bands like the Buzzcocks always had an instrumental on their record. Bands like Wire were super-textural and I was listening to them constantly.
Did you ever listen to the Happy Go Licky Stuff?
CB: I don’t think so
BC: It’s the same band as Rites of Spring, but after One Last Wish, which was three of the guys. It didn’t last. In One Last Wish, they were great lyrics and cool songs, but the songs felt a little too formulaic at the time. A little constrained. When that band fell apart, Mike Fellows got back in the band that became Happy Go Licky and we played almost all — they’re not improvised, but they’re loosely structured songs.
CB: And so is jazz.
BC: Right, because nothing is actually “improvised,” right? We could get deep into what “actually” is improvisation: like are you actually out there, truly divorcing yourself? Or are you leaning into a bunch of stuff you’ve learned over the last 30 years? They’re valid questions, but just the fact that it is a question allows you a lot of freedom and I appreciate the dialogue for that regard.
CB: How much do you see Messthetics as a “jazz” trio, for all the weight that entails?
BC: Twenty percent. Haha!
CB: Are there common reference points for you all in that 20 percent?
BC: We’re always looking for ways to incorporate it, more improvised music. We’re way more interested in expanding that side of things now. Anthony’s the greatest guitar player I’ve ever played with, he’s amazing! He’s got this sense of harmony that is just outrageous, his musicality is off the charts and he’s really great to collaborate with. What we’re trying to do now is get back up on the horse after COVID. But as with everything, COVID has allowed for a lot of magical thinking, has led in all areas of life towards Utopian thinking and at least a little more imaginative thinking about the way we want to live our lives. The same thing happened with the band. We basically lost the band for a couple of years. Joe didn’t come out of his house and Anthony was out in Big Sur doing his thing. I didn’t think we were going to get back together. Now that we are playing again, it’s not nearly as full-time as it was and we’re playing weirder gigs. What I appreciate right now is that nobody is afraid to play and we want to play different things and push ourselves in different ways.
CB: You mentioned doing Ornette Coleman stuff when we talked recently, and you’ve been covering “Black Satin” from On The Corner. Is that a product of growth of the band or part of the new “try it” ethos?
BC: I think there’s just a fine line of: You don’t want to just take a jazz song and make it “rock.” Who we should be talking about is Sonny Sharrock; on our first record, we cover “Once Upon a Time” [Canty plays the original version on his phone.] That’s Elvin Jones just going wild! We straightened it out: I’m playing in fours and they’re playing in sevens. This stuff ends up sounding kind of dub-y to me.
CB: Is there a significance for you in getting to play Blues Alley for the first time?
BC: Yeah! Who knows how it will go, but I appreciate that they’re pretty loose with their programming these days. I like the idea of that room servicing more people for sure. I love the room. I have a lot of affection for it, it’s incredibly intimate — and the artichoke dip is pretty good!