Show #250: Remembering Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ndugu Chancler

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This week we remember two talented artists who passed away too soon. The Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson died unexpectedly at age 48 in Berlin on February 9th. We also pay tribute to the first-call session and jazz drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, who passed away on February 3rd at age 65.

Jóhannsson was perhaps most recently and best known for his score to the 2014 Stephen Hawking bio pic, The Theory of Everything, which won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score. However, I want to play an earlier work by Jóhannsson that has always intrigued me, one that features a user’s manual for an archaic IBM printer with a 60-piece string orchestra. The album IBM 1401 A User’s Manual was inspired by Jóhannsson’s father, who was once a maintenance engineer for IBM in Reykjavík. You have to wait a few minutes before the strings come in, but I love the utter dryness of the narrator’s voice.

We also hear Jóhannsson’s music on Fordlandia, referring to the doomed rubber plantation in the Brazilian rainforest modeled on the mid-Western city of Henry Ford’s devising, complete with little houses with white-picket fences. No drugs or alcohol for the workers were allowed there.

Jóhann Jóhannsson first recorded for the independent 4AD record label, the same folks who gave us the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. With his 4AD albums, he reached a new and younger audience, though later he recorded for larger labels like Deutsche Grammophon, as on the track we hear from his last solo album Orphée. His career was successful enough that he was chosen to score Blade Runner 2049, but he left the project, which was later taken up by veteran Hans Zimmer. At the time of his death, he was about to begin writing the musical score for the Disney film Christopher Robin.

Jóhannsson blended electronic elements seamlessly with classical music. His film scores are visually and sonically evocative, and for me his earlier work is equally and maybe even more stunning. It’s tragic that he died at the height of his career, and there is still no information on the cause of his premature demise.

After we hear Jóhannsson’s work, we turn to the versatile drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler. Chancler was born in 1952 in Shreveport, Louisiana but moved to Los Angeles with his parents at the age of three. He was best known as “Ndugu,” a name that means “Earth Brother” in Swahili. Ndugu got the call from producer Quincy Jones to do drum duties on Michael Jackson’s titanic album Thriller. (Fellow drummer Questlove raves about his work on “Billie Jean.”)

Ndugu worked with everybody, from Jackson to Santana to Herbie Hancock, Gerald Wilson, Hugh Masekela, Hubert Laws, Airto & Flora Purim, George Duke, Willie Bobo, Tina Turner, Miles Davis, and countless others. He was mostly self-taught, but learned from older drummers as well. Even though Ndugu is not a household name except to other musicians, anybody who listens to pop or jazz has undoubtedly heard his superb drumming. Unlike Billy Higgins, who worked on countless Blue Note jazz albums, Ndugu was a prodigious and versatile drummer equally at home in jazz, pop, and even hip-hop, so it was no surprise that producers like Quincy Jones always called him first.

Ndugu also taught drumming at both Stanford University and at USC’s Thornton School of Music, helping young drummers find their musical voices and encouraging their budding talents.

For many years we’ve seen fine drummers lose their gigs to drum machines. Live drummers, on the other hand, play like beats of the human heart—speeding up, slowing down—organically according to the needs of the music, not mindlessly and robotically. Ndugu was one of the best and all the musicians knew it. May he also rest in peace.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 2/16/18

  1. Jóhann Jóhannsson / “Part 2/ IBM 1403 Printer” / IBM 1401 A User’s Manual/ 4AD
  2. Jóhann Jóhannsson / “The Great God Pan is Dead” / Fordlândia / 4AD
  3. Jóhann Jóhannsson / “Fragment  1” / Orphée / Deutsche Grammophone
  4. Michael Jackson / “Thriller” / Thriller / Epic
  5. Weather Report / “Badia (ft. Ndugu Chancler)” / Tale Spinnin’ / Columbia
Banner image of Jóhann Jóhannsson © Jónatan Grétarsson/DG, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophone.

(Jóhann Jóhannsson carousel photo c/o: Bill Zelman)