That’s how most jazz listeners characterize him.
But Tate has alternated between drumming and singing throughout a career that spans almost half a century. Tate was the drummer on many of the famous Creed Taylor recordings, plus those of Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz and Kenny Burrell. In addition, he was the first-call drummer to back up famous recording artists like Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Diana Ross and Tony Bennett.
With the release of From the Heart: Songs Sung Live at the Blue Note, Tate will be known also as Grady Tate: Singer. In fact, Tate says that he rarely plays drums any more, despite the impressive breadth of his discography as a drummer. Tate appears to sing out of the pure enjoyment of the opportunity to stand at the front of the stage, instead of sitting at the back of it, and connecting with his audience with messages from his heart.
From the Heart was recorded in February, 2001 at the Blue Note, and now Half Note Records, a label that releases to the world recordings of some of the extraordinary performances that occur there, has made available the live album of Tate’s engaging performance. As Tate redefines himself as a singer, he leaves the drumming to Dennis Mackrel, who provides the responsive percussiveness that Tate supplied behind so many sings in the past. In fact, the entire band the Tate leads is highly interactive with Tate while providing him with solid support. Pianist Bill Charlap in particular combines respectful harmonic expansion with an ease that belies the difficulty of sparely and successfully spotlighting the singer while providing sufficient fill-ins and elaborative modulations.
As for Tate, he was ready for his audience with a list of songs that reflected his beliefs in emotionally charged themes, as he explains in a few of the introductions. Before he sings "Where Do We Start," he reminds the audience that "we are so unkind to one another quite often. Sometimes the damage is irreparable. If we can’t repair it, we have to cut it loose." Many of the other songs support the heartfelt nature of his delivery, such as "It Might As Well Be Spring." With a rich baritone, Tate crafts the songs with unaffected feeling that conveys the core of the songs’ meanings. Tate’s duo with Charlap on "Lush Life" is particularly effective not only in communicating utter loneliness from a failed relationship, but also in demonstrating the range of Tate’s voice as he effortlessly negotiates the song’s broad intervals.
Beyond Tate’s success as a balladeer on From the Heart, he is equally effective on the upbeat numbers. "Little Black Samba," which he played on Grover Washington, Jr.’s Come Morning, is performed with energetic force as Tate leans into the notes over the Latin rhythm, before he scats with tongue-twisting imagination. He does the same thing on "Everybody Loves My Body," transforming the traditional syncopation of the song into an unrestrained, crowd-pleasing vehicle. Tate uses Miles Davis’ "All Blues" as a starting point for the integration of additional blues pieces into a single performance, including "Every Day I Have the Blues," much in the same way that Ernie Andrews used "All Blues" to cover the blues styles of Al Hibbler or Big Joe Turner on Gene Harris & The Philip Morris All-Stars.
Tate is joined by trumpeter Glen Drews and reed player Bill Easly, who contribute rousing solos on numbers like "I’ve Got the World on a String" and "Everybody Loves My Baby," among others. Spurred by Tate’s infectious sense of joy, which is unmistakably evident throughout From the Heart, the entire group shares in the spirit of the evening one that makes for a memorable performance that those in attendance talk about long after it has concluded.
And Grade Tate, after intermittent recordings as a vocalist throughout several decades, has established himself through the CD release not only as a drummer with a natural feel for rhythm, but also as a singer with a natural feeling from the heart.