McCleny Hunter Jr.:
by Jeff Potter
McClenty Hunter’s current tenures with guitarist Dave Stryker’s band (five years) and tenor sax star Kenny Garrett’s quintet (three years) are putting the drummer in the spotlight he’s long deserved. Whether driving straight-ahead jazz, serving up a bluesy shuffle, or navigating a complex, multilayered excursion, the swinging Hunter delivers urgent propulsion defined by a deep-centered pocket born from his church roots. From downbeat to final bar, his much-sought-after, soulful feel shines through.
But initially, that prized virtue was news to Hunter. “I always intrinsically had the feel,” he explains. “But I didn’t realize I had it until I got to Juilliard and everyone said, ‘Oh, man! You’ve got such a great feel!’ I always just thought it was a natural thing—not something that I worked on, but something I just picked up from gospel music.”
Hunter was born in Detroit and grew up in Columbia, Maryland, where he began drumming at his local church at age twelve. The church’s music director, composer/conductor Darin Atwater, took note of the talented youngster and became his mentor. Later, when Atwater formed the celebrated Soulful Symphony, Hunter frequently manned the kit.
The first jazz concert the fledgling drummer attended turned out to be an auspicious event. “I was about fifteen,” Hunter recalls. “It was at Blues Alley in D.C.—seeing Kenny Garrett! So it’s been full circle.”
Following studies at Howard University, Hunter earned his master’s degree in 2007 at Juilliard, where teacher Carl Allen expanded his jazz horizons. The Big Apple jazz scene swiftly came knocking, and Hunter joined pianist Eric Reed’s trio while still a student. Years later, the trio’s Grammy-nominated 2011 album, The Dancing Monk, would further bolster Hunter’s career status.
The vibrant drummer has also worked with jazz notables including Lou Donaldson, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, Buster Williams, Les McCann, Wycliffe Gordon, Peter Bernstein, Eric Alexander, Javon Jackson, Aaron Goldberg, and Jim Snidero. In addition, he’s performed with the gospel artists Donnie McClurkin, Jeff Majors, and Richard Smallwood, as well as the Motown artist Donnie.
Despite his busy touring schedule with Stryker and Garrett, plus ongoing hits with Reed and Jackson, the thirty-three-year-old drummer still manages to maintain his other passion, serving as music director at the noted KIPP Academy charter grade school in the Bronx. He’s conducted the school’s large student orchestra with numerous star guests, including Roger Waters, John Mayer, John Legend, and Mary J. Blige.
Whereas Hunter’s first disc with Garrett, 2013’s Grammy-nominated Pushing the World Away, showcases his fearless polyrhythmic explorations, his latest recording with Stryker, last year’s Messin’ With Mister T, highlights another facet. A tribute to the late tenor giant Stanley Turrentine, the hit disc is a crowning showcase for Hunter’s irresistible sense of swing, tucked into a deep, bluesy pocket. Grounded by an organ-trio rhythm section, each track features a guest appearance by one of ten top tenor saxophonists. Hunter is smack in the sweet spot on every cut.
“I’m really now starting to fully realize how much jazz, gospel, and basically all black music is intertwined,” McClenty says. “In the beginning my connection with gospel was with the spirit of the music—the music, the feel, it’s all about selflessness. And that connects with jazz.”
MD: Your drumming arrived at jazz via gospel.
McClenty: Once I figured out the sense of the jazz groove, that’s what I related to the most: “Okay, the backbeat’s not on the snare drum. Now it’s on the hi-hat.” But you’re still pushing the band in a different way. That was one of the things that helped me understand the pure connection in the feel. Once I understood that groove, everything took off. It took me a while to understand how to push the band from that ride cymbal.
MD: The organ trio is an ideal format for expressing that, as heard on Messin’ With Mister T.
McClenty: It’s the perfect connection. In addition to Dave, we’ve got an amazing musician on organ, Jared Gold, and he played in the church too. So we get together and talk about old gospel tunes.
MD: Kenny Garrett’s band is a different animal. How do you change it up, drum-wise or mentally?
McClenty: I try not to consciously change my approach too much. That’s one of the things I picked up from Kenny: Swing is swing. But don’t get me wrong—Kenny doesn’t like it to sound dated. He wants you to put in a modern twist.
Dave and Kenny never really tell me what to play. I’m fortunate that they trust my instinct. My thing is more about the understanding of a particular style. Obviously, if I’m playing in a piano trio, I’ll use a different cymbal or setup than I’d use with Kenny. But there’s still going to be the relative intensity. The question is how you’re pushing the beat.
MD: How is that applied differently with the two groups?
McClenty: Playing with the organ trio, the ride cymbal and hi-hat are very important—which is the same combination Kenny wants. But because of the timbre of the organ, you need the hi-hat to really cut through. And the ride cymbal beat has to be very wide because of the bass pulse that the organist is playing with his foot. The sound quality that’s coming out of his instrument is totally different from what comes out of an acoustic bass. So I have to make sure my ride is wide enough that it will cover that quarter note—not as tight or small—which is something you need to provide anyway to allow the band to have a wider sense of time. It’s more laid back playing with the organ.
Kenny likes things a little more on top of the beat, which I have to be really conscious of—making sure that the hi-hat is on the upper half of the quarter note. With the organ, I’m more thinking of the middle or backside of the quarter note.
MD: With Garrett you sometimes establish an intense drive that’s almost a balance between swung and straight 8th notes. It’s also heard in some power soloing.
McClenty: Yeah, I think that’s my gospel influence. I never wanted to shy away from that. Also I’m always working on getting that true snare drum approach—the language of Philly Joe, Max Roach—and applying it to a gospel background.
MD: Even when the music and drumming get very complex with Garrett, you still maintain that centered feel and forward motion.
McClenty: That’s something bassist Corcoran Holt and I try to navigate: not pushing the beat to the point where it starts rushing. There are times I’d listen back and say, “Whoa! What just happened there?” The intensity gets so high—we’re riding on his coattails and he’s taking us to Mars. So it’s about learning to play with that same forward motion but making sure the tempo stays.
MD: For Stryker’s disc you played behind ten guest tenor-sax soloists spanning from elder statesman Jimmy Heath to younger stars such as Chris Potter. It was a dream tenor lab. Did you discover different ways to approach cuts, depending on the soloist?
McClenty: Yeah, that’s where studying with Carl Allen really helped me. Because, to be honest, when I got to Juilliard, I wasn’t necessarily engulfed in jazz history. Carl would say, “You’ve got to check out Big Sid!” and I’d say, “Who?”
So I took in the history. It came in handy on the record, playing with Jimmy Heath, Houston Person…. For instance, Person was definitely more of a blues player, so I thought, I’ve got to make sure I’m not playing all this syncopation. It’s more about groove and making it feel good.
Also, everybody had a different sense of phrasing. I had to make sure I wasn’t just marking the form but really listening to where the soloists were climaxing or trying to push the melody over the harmony. It was a really big listening session for me, because I was feeding off of what was given to me and making sure that what I gave back to them was pushing the music along.
MD: You’re entering your ninth year teaching at the KIPP Academy.
McClenty: I’d always wanted to teach, but I didn’t know I’d be teaching this early in my career. But it’s something that I’ve really fallen in love with. At KIPP, the beauty is that every kid must take music, which is unheard of.
MD: Do the kids really understand and appreciate the level of the artist who’s teaching them?
McClenty: Well, they do and they don’t. One year Eric Reed texted me to let me know our album was number one on the jazz charts. I stopped class and said, “Hey, kids, I’m playing on the number-one record in the country!” And I heard some kid whisper to his friend, “Yeah, on a jazz record.” [laughs]
Tools of the Trade
Hunter plays Yamaha Absolute Maple Custom drums. His Sabian cymbals include a 16″ HHX Legacy, a 19″ HHX Omni, a 20″ O-Zone ride, and a 22″ prototype. His hi-hats are ’60s-era 15″ A Zildjians. He plays Vic Firth AJ2 and 8DN model sticks.