DON LITTLETON CELEBRATES “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” DURING BLACK MUSIC MONTH
By Dee Dee McNeil
Don Littleton is a Los Angeles based drummer and composer with deep roots in Watts and Compton. I had an opportunity to chat with Don Littleton (during Black Music Month) about his life and music. He was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, but he’s lived in the Los Angeles community for forty-plus years. His father was a military man, so the family moved around. They wound up in Mesa and Phoenix, Arizona and then to Watts in 1959and later to Compton, California in the early sixties. His dad was originally from Shreveport, Louisiana and he played a mean harmonica.
“My dad freaked me out one day. We were sitting on the front porch and he had this harmonica he suddenly pulled out. I never knew my dad could play harmonica like that. He actually blew my mind, because I had never seen him play that instrument. He’s from Shreveport, Louisiana and that’s what they did down there. I guess he learned it as a little kid,” Don Littleton recalled.
Although no one in Don’s family was seeking a musical career, there was always a piano in all the family homes. Everybody played a little piano; especially his aunts and his grandmother. They were all music lovers. It was his mother who got Don interested in percussion. She went to Mexico one day and brought him back a little set of bongos from Tijuana.
“Those bongos were a little cheap, but I’d wet them down and put them over the stove to heat the skins and tune them. My big brother Carl Jr. was so proud of me. He and the family encouraged me to play. I used to entertain the family. There I was, in my pajama’s, playing my little bongo’s, In the family living room, underneath our chandelier. That was my first stage,” Don remembered fondly.
“I would play along to records. That’s kind of how I learned how to play. Then, in June one year while I was in high school, I got my first trap drum set. The first song I learned to play was ‘Song for My Father.’ After high school, I moved back to Arizona and Charles Lewis was my first mentor. I got more into the trap drums in Arizona. I might have been eighteen or nineteen years old. I played in his R&B and Top 40 band. I played a little jazz. I could always swing. We played tunes by Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, that kind of repertoire. It was from about 1970 to 1973.
“My dad said I needed to take advantage of my opportunity to attend college on his GI bill. So, I enrolled in school. I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and attended Southern University, majoring in music. One of my mentors down there was Alvin Batiste. I was a member of a hot band in Louisiana. We opened for a number of popular, name artists. First, we were called ‘Hot Ice’ and later, me and some of the guys from that band started a new band called ‘Convertible World.’ One time, I was recruited by the great Cannonball Adderley to play in his quartet and we did a gig with the Louisiana Symphony. Three years later, I came back to Los Angeles, maybe around 1978.”
Don’s career blossomed and grew like wild, California sage. Once back in California, He began to record extensively on some pretty powerful recordings. His first release was “The Littleton Brothers.”
“I co-led the first record that was recorded here in L.A. with Bobby Watson, the alto player, who played with Blakey. That was the first record and that was the Littleton Brother’s record with my younger brother; (Jeff Littleton – bassist). It was the Littleton Brothers featuring Bobby Watson. It was actually Bobby’s gig and we recorded it ‘live’ at MOCA downtown. We released it in 2009.”
NOTE: MOCA stands for the Museum of Contemporary Art, an art space in downtown Los Angeles that often hosts ‘live’ jazz concerts.
Before the Littleton Brothers release, Don Littleton found himself in a diversity of musical settings. In 1992 he recorded an iconic album with Karl Denson titled, “Blackened Red Snapper.” Karl Denson, a California native, is known for his Acid Funk and straight-ahead jazz saxophone, flute and vocals. When Denson released his “Blackened Red Snapper” album he was 36-years-old and, like Don Littleton, his career was growing. Denson was once a member of the Lenny Kravitz band and currently leads his own groups including, the Karl Denson Tiny Universe band (KDTU) and his own trio. You can clearly hear what a force Don Littleton is as he propels this Denson music, both powerfully and straight ahead.
“We rehearsed man. We rehearsed a lot. Karl Denson had a hot band. John Patitucci played on that record. Munyungo Jackson played percussion. My brother, Jeff Littleton, played bass on most of the album, and Ron Stout played trumpet. Deron Johnson, who wound up playing with Stanley Clark, was also on the scene,” Don Littleton recalled the session.
In 1993, Littleton switched gears and recorded with a Rap group, The Fellowship Innercity Griots. The solid trap drums of Don Littleton hold this music tightly in place and support their hip hop, rap vocals.
More opportunities followed. In 1994 he was part of a ‘live’ recording featuring Solomon Burke and the Souls Alive Orchestra. They were performing at the House of Blues in Louisiana.
“Yeah, that was a live-performance-record at the House of Blues in New Orleans,” Don told me. “That was a four-night gig and we did the Jazz Heritage Festival. That’s one of the biggest in the nation. Unfortunately, that festival won’t happen this year. He had a big band. I think I had to audition for the gig. I actually played percussion and trap drums.”
1998 he recorded on the Derf Reklaw album, “From the Nile.”
“Derf Reklaw’s record, ‘From the Nile’ was mostly World Music. He had some Reggae on there. A lot of odd meter stuff. Derf likes to write stuff in eleven and nine, not your typical 4/4 meter,” Don explained.
in 2001, he recorded with a member of the Freestyle Fellowship group. The album was titled, “Mikah 9.”
“Oh, Mikah 9 (pronounced My-kah) he was one of the members of that hip hop group Freestyle Fellowship. There were 4 or 5 of them. The band was actually the Underground Railroad band headed by Darryl Moore. Darryl is a very fine Los Angeles based engineer.
“Back in the day, I listened to Jimmy Cobb, Arthur Taylor, Billy Cobham and Max Roach. When I was working with Randy Crawford, we played Fat Tuesday’s club in New York. This tall guy dressed in a long black coat walks in. It was Max Roach. I looked up and there was one of my heroes. He came down to see Hank Crawford and Phyllis Hyman. They all lived in the same building nearby. He sat down right next to my drums. James Polk was there that night. We were playing a shuffle and Max Roach started patting his foot. That’s when I knew I had him. Later in life, I ran into Max Roach and I asked him if he remembered me from when I was playing with Hank Crawford in New York. He said yeah. You were swinging hard!
“Roy Haynes is another one I love. When Tony Williams passed away, Roy Haynes was right there to step into his place.
“Aside from jazz, I grew up listening to Motown, Brazilian jazz and island music. I like Cuban and Puerto Rican music a lot and I love Mongo Santa Maria. A lot of people come up to me and say I sound like Mongo. You can hear it on my current Tunapuna song on my recent album release. Tunapuna is a small little town in Trinidad. I hummed that line in my head for a long time before it finally became a song. It has a Calypso feel. On this latest project, I allowed the guys to bring their own music to the table. Some are my compositions and some belong to my band members. We created something as one unit.”
Before I finished the interview, I asked Don Littleton to elaborate on the CD title. That’s when I discovered he’s an animal activist.
“I put on the back of the record that we support elephant conservation and that elephants should not be killed or destroyed for their ivory tusks. I just don’t like the idea of them killing elephants. It’s all about elephant conservation. ‘Elephants Nda Park’ with the park being their home, and not necessarily being in a zoo, but being free; in the Serengeti. The whole Serengeti should be their park.”
If you are searching for some fresh, innovative, hard-swinging jazz and World-flavored music, this newly released album by Don Littleton is bound to please.
DON LITTLETON – “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” – A CD REVIEW
SWMG (Southwest Music Group)
Don Littleton, trap drums/percussion/composer; Pablo Calogero, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/ bass clarinet/composer; John B. Williams & Michael Alvidrez, bass; Hideaki Tokunaga, guitar/tres/sarod; Jane Getz, electric piano; Andrew Acosta, udo drum/percussion; Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, steel drums/vibes/electronic MalletKAT.
A tune called “Modal Citizen” opens with a flurry of sticks and drum licks that sets the straight-ahead groove and tempo. The word ‘Modal’ is a musical term based on modes other than the major and minor mode most commonly used in music. Since this is a project celebrating rhythm and drums, that makes perfect sense. When Pablo Calogero enters on his tenor saxophone, accompanied by John B. Williams on bass, they add a melody to Littleton’s inspired drum licks. This tune is propelled by the drummer and features just the trio of bass, horn and trap drums. It’s quite exciting and spontaneous, showcasing the talents of each participating musician in a spotlight of multi-colors. I’ve witnessed Littleton during his on-stage appearances and he is always full of spark and fire. You clearly hear this on their original composition.
The opening tune on this CD is titled, “A Call for All Elephantz” and was penned by Pablo Calogero. It engages the listener with an amazing and compelling use of instruments like the ‘sarod’ (played by Hideaki Tokunaga), with a sort of sitar sound and with Pablo manning his soprano saxophone, reminding me of Coltrane’s improvisational free style. Littleton is pushing the ensemble powerfully on drums. The percussive additions take us into a jungle of sounds and emotions. Gabriel Nobles adds his steel drum/marimba sounds on an electronic malletKAT. We are now in the realm of World Music. In other places, you will enjoy the tasty addition of the ‘tres’ instrument during some of Littleton’s percussive production. The tres instrument is a Spanish Cuban instrument, a three-course chordophone. It resembles a guitar in appearance and usually has six strings and is often played in Afro-Cuban music.
Pablo Calogero picks up his bass clarinet and I hear shades of Bennie Maupin and touches of Yusef Lateef on the Jimmy McHugh’s composition, “Let’s Get Lost.” For this arrangement, bassist John B. Williams joins Littleton and Calogero. Don Littleton and Pablo collaborate on some of the tunes as songwriters. For example, “Sleeping Elephants,” where they reduce the energy and tempo to a lullaby pace. The melody is catchy and pulls the listener’s attention into the whirlpool of percussive drums, bass and tenor saxophone. The Thelonious Monk composition, “Bye-Ya,” is arranged in a similar way, without piano or guitar, but only showcasing the saxophone, the bass and Littleton’s busy and perfectly timed drums. This is a mystical album of mastery and creative expression. It’s full of unexpected surprises. The song, “Tunapuna,” reminds me of South African music and a dish I used to fix for my small children with Tuna fish and noodles. It’s a happy-go-lucky Caribbean crusted composition by Littleton, where he sings the melody using “La La La” as his lyric. I can picture scores of children dancing and frolicking to this joyful tune.
Here is an intoxicating project, released during the Coronavirus Pandemic, and currently available on CD Baby. It’s absolutely wonderful music; fresh, rhythmic, melodic and features the uninhibited drum mastery of Don Littleton. His project is embellished by the brilliance of Pablo Calogero on woodwinds and two stellar bass players; John B. Williams and Michael Alvidrez. When they do add piano to an arrangement, the music is amplified by the tasty licks of Jane Getz. Both ‘Slam’ Noble and Andrew Acosta bring exciting rhythm with their percussive coloration. This artistic work by Don Littleton is way overdue and deserves to be heard on every radio station worldwide. It’s one of the best things I’ve listened to all Spring.