Article Review

Bobby Wiens debut album shines on Cellar label

Jazz review of Bobby Wiens’ debut album, Talking Drums, released on Cellar Live Records on November 6, 2020.

Rhythm Changes premieres the Bobby Wiens debut album Talking Drums

Here’s a Rhythm Changes Premiere for a jazz album! It’s Bobby Wiens’ debut album Talking Drums by Bobby Wiens, a Canadian drummer who now lives in the Denver, Colorado area.

I’m hot on the heels of covering another jazz release, Project Sock Retrieval, and that was a lot of fun. So, I can’t wait to dive deep into this album.

Get it via Cellar Live Records, because it’s awesome, through this button:

Talking Drums is Wiens’ first album as a bandleader. He recorded it mere months ago at the University of Northern Colorado on July 24, 2020 with the following musicians joining him:

  • Austin Cebulske (tenor saxophone)
  • Jack Roben (guitar)
  • Spencer Zweifel (piano)
  • David Baker (bass)


Wiens was born and raised in Alberta, but I knew him in Vancouver from approximately 2014-2015 when he finished his undergraduate education in music. After that, he started to live and work in the United States.

This album was supposed to be a Master’s recital by Wiens. The recital would have had roughly the same track list as this album, but without the three original tunes: “Speaks Volumes” (Zweifel), “A La Georgie” (Cebulske), and “Bill” (Wiens).

In that case, they would have added some more material from the post-bop canon, like Cedar Walton’s “Martha’s Prize”.

At first, the band only intended to perform something so Bobby could graduate with his Master’s degree. However, Wiens made space for the original compositions and made the most out of the opportunity once the session shifted.

The band ended up recording 11 tracks in total that day for Bobby Wiens’ debut album!

(They kept eight for this album.)

Zweifel was at William Paterson University in New Jersey when the recital was scheduled originally, so his appearance on this album is a blessing from the circumstances.

Mixing happened within a week, and Cellar Live Records signed up to distribute it. Wiens writes in his liner notes about “a deep feeling of joyful swing that simply MUST be danced to […] evocative of the spirit of jazz”, and that perfectly matches the ethos of Cellar. So, the two partners are very well-aligned!

Wiens notes that in particular, “So Sorry, Please” and “Little Rascal on a Rock” were tunes he play on gigs. He spoke of often performing as a guitar trio with Roben and Baker.

So, let’s dive into the fun, insightful interview Wiens generously gave to me!

This interview has been edited for brevity:

Setting the scene

WILLIAM CHERNOFF: Tell me about composing your tune called “Bill”.

BOBBY WIENS: “It’s named after a combination of two of my favourite composers: Bill Evans and Bill Stewart! When I compose I have a melody in my ear, or a specific rhythmic motif, and then I develop it from there. But, I don’t think too much about the drums initially. I’m thinking more about coming up with a coherent melody and interesting harmony.”

WC: What does the UNC recording studio look like?

BW: “It’s a gorgeous studio. Pretty big rooms, because they’re equipped to record an orchestra if need be. The session day was soon after the building re-opened in summer, and it was very hot. The heat contributed to the emotional energy.”

WC: You wrote in your liner notes that you had “really no expectations as to what these recordings would become”. I’m wondering if you have in mind a counterfactual to it, and what you think about, “Are expectations good?”

BW: “We all brought an intensity to the session. It’s good to have a plan and expectations. All I meant in my liner notes was that we just wanted to have fun! It was pretty new, playing together again after being self-isolated for so long. It was a really refreshing experience, and I wanted to let that be the vibe: not any perfectionist expectations.”

“Jazz records were blowing sessions, from the 50s and 60s especially. They were recorded in that way. So as part of the tradition, I figured it would be okay, and it turned out fine!”

Some homework

WC: I messaged David Baker, your bass player, and he said about you, “He has always challenged me to learn and listen to deeper records than I knew at the time.” What are some records you turned him on to?

BW: “Probably Mel Lewis, because of what Mel did outside of the Thad Jones orchestra. He’s one of my favourite musicians ever, and one of my biggest influences on the drums.”

Editor’s note

Let’s take a moment here to respect the albums name-dropped in this interview. I didn’t get them all on the record, it was fast-moving!

Here’s five albums just by Mel Lewis or Elvin Jones that Wiens named, and let me know if you check them out:

  • The Lost Art – Mel Lewis Sextet
  • The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Quartet
  • Puttin’ It Together – Elvin Jones
  • Live at the Lighthouse – Elvin Jones
  • Live at the Village Vanguard – Elvin Jones

Okay, and we’re back to the interview!

On records

WC: And what did they turn you on to?

BW:“Jack likes Grant Green, Jim Hall, and especially Peter Bernstein. Then, he has some more off-the-beaten-bath influences like Pasquale Grosso, a guitarist who plays the music of Bud Powell. So that’s probably why we played [Bud Powell’s tune] ‘So Sorry, Please’.”

WC: Tell me about working with Cellar Live Records.

BW: “Once I decided to release these recordings, I gravitated to Cellar. I reached out in August and shared rough mixes, asking if [label owner Cory Weeds] had interest. He replied immediately and said he’d listened to it in its entirety, and expressed interest. I was expecting a no because we were a bunch of young college students. But it was really easy to work with him, and we got it out so fast.”

WC: “The Beehive” was recorded by Harold Mabern, John Webber, and Joe Farnsworth, and I heard that rhythm section play live in Vancouver a few years ago. What does their influence mean to you?

“So, I had a 3-month residency to study drums with John Riley in New York, from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. When I think of Joe Farnsworth, I think of how’ he’s carrying on that super-swinging—Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor, Roy Haynes—pure swing tradition. And there’s that band in New York called One For All…

“So when I played ‘The Beehive’, I wanted to have a burner on the record.”

WC: I often associate you with the tune by Cedar Walton “Bolivia”, and your opening track sounds like that.

“Our engineer said the same thing. Billy Higgins has always been one of my favourite drummers. Greg said, ‘This has an Eastern Rebellion kind of feeling to it.’ It’s that mix of New Orleans and swing. ‘A La Georgie’ has that feeling as well. It moves my soul!”

My favourite answer

WC: Referencing your liner notes again, what does it mean for musicians to “go beyond doing their job”?

“The job is playing the right notes and good time, playing in tune and matching the vibe. Beyond that, everyone has a deep love for the music. When it’s primarily improvised, having really big ears and listening to the nuanced things that everyone else is doing. Compassion and empathy for the people you’re playing with is definitely a big part of the band.

“I’ve always struggled with this thought of whether this is the time to put out a record. It’s my first one as a leader. I’m always happy to be a sideman, but there’s an insecurity where I’m thinking this has to be big.

“I put that aside because this is a chance to document what I’m into, the people I’m playing with.”

More about the bandmates and their playing

If the job is musicianship, the art is interaction. As for the surrounding ensemble on Bobby Wiens’ debut album, I can hear how Roben vibes like Grant Green, with his ear always locked-in to the melody, finding tuneful additions.

Cebulske’s smart articulation and rhythmic grounding on the tenor reminds me of George Coleman in the best possible way. You can hear Cebulske, like Coleman, oozing rhythm all the way down through his feet and uniting with the rhythm section.

Zweifel is endlessly supportive of his bandmates, even on his own tune “Speaks Volumes”, and that speaks volumes about how he’s such a pro! I like when he gets down and dirty with some improvisation influenced by McCoy Tyner, where you can’t separate the left hand from the right without losing the magic.

Baker grooves unmistakably hard on the bass, sounding poised like he’s ready for anything. He is equally deferential, jumping into the spotlight mostly on the guitar trio tracks. But his sound makes me miss the Tangent Cafe and your equivalent of the community jazz hang, where you can sit so close that you hear mostly the acoustic instrument and not the amp.

The Bobby Wiens debut album takeaway

Wiens’ convivial first album makes you believe in the jazz tradition’s life force. His skill on the drums is undeniable, as is his quiet confidence as an ambassador for jazz.

By Will Chernoff

William Ross Chernoff—known as Will to friends and colleagues—is a jazz musician, podcaster, YouTuber, and writer. He records and performs under his own name, William Chernoff.