Concerts with the Most Best Musicians

Drums

The question I’m asking herein is which music concerts have the most “best” musicians overall? I’m especially interested in current or upcoming concerts, but there have been some epic historical shows as well.

The question isn’t about what concerts are most popular, entertaining, cohesive, or any other such thing. There are lots of fantastic concerts that feature exactly zero “best” musicians. The question also isn’t about where to go see one, or even two, of the best-at-their-instrument musicians play. Rather, I want to know what groupings of more-than-two world-class musicians perform together. And the more the better.

Obviously “best” is highly subjective. I lean towards musicality, technical competence, and innovation over popularity or showmanship. One approach might be to look at lists of top musicians on any particular instrument. However, several such lists have been offered by popular sources (eg. Rolling Stones, LA Weekly, etc.) that too-heavily weight popularity and/or showmanship. Although I’ll defer to some level of popular wisdom, I think it makes more sense to look at Top-# lists and other important awards that at least have some emphasis on musicianship. Many instrument-specific magazines have lists and/or awards from which to cull names, and there are other internet-based sources available.

Because “best” is so subjective, it doesn’t make sense to aim for the single absolute best at a particular instrument. There really is no such thing. How many people are “best” might depend on the instrument. Although fanatics might point to more than a dozen or two best accordionists or ukuleleists, surely the number of pianists or guitarists would be much larger. Any less than a top-100 list of pianists or guitarists would surely leave off many of the best pianists or guitarists in the world. If a reasonable argument can be made for a particular person, I’m happy to entertain it, but it should be more than just one person’s opinion and have some substance to it such as awards, endorsements of experts, etc.

In identifying high-musicianship groups, I would like to focus on groups that have no dead weight, and a high percentage of the best musicians. The makeup should include multiple musicians that are very highly regarded for their musicianship and nobody that, even if not routinely best-list / award-winning, has difficulty keeping up.

One resource that is oddly useful for coming up with best lists in some categories is ranker.com. I took a look through several instrument-specific lists, and though I might argue with some of the rankings, inclusions, and omissions, broadly speaking those lists seemed consistently better than pop/rock-centric lists like Rolling Stone’s. To give a feel for how useless Rolling Stone’s lists are, their best-drummers list omits not just one or two, but ten Mondern Drummer hall-of-famers (Louie Bellson, Joe Morello, Carl Palmer, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Larrie Londin, Roy Haynes, Dave Weckl, Mike Portnoy, and Jim Chapin), most of whom ought to be in any best-drummer list worth its salt. Ranker includes Palmer, Roach, Weckl, and Pornoy, at least partly redeeming themselves.

Rather than resorting to a single source to support a “best” claim, I’ll look for musicians on multiple best and award lists from multiple sources, including musician-centric ones. If the name shows up repeatedly, the person must be a ‘best’. Including other awards (Grammys, chart-topping recordings, etc.) might help support such a best designation, though on their own, those might not be the best indicators (not-best-in-the-world musicians win Grammys with some regularity).

I presume groups with a high percentage of bests would lend itself to smaller groups as opposed to full orchestras and other sorts of big bands. For example, though I might disagree with the rankings, one example looks like this:

As a band, Rush is brilliant. But this raises another obstacle to using best lists. Are these three highly regarded only because they’re in Rush? Maybe. It might make sense to discount musicians who rank highly but only apparently for their work in one popular band. But even with a little discount for their band’s popularity, I don’t think it’s fair to say that these three musicians are not among the best. If Rush is performing, you’re getting three of the best and nothing else. That barely qualifies due to the small size of the band (three is more than two), but it certainly qualifies. Alas, Rush retired.

The larger the group, the harder it is to keep the best-in-the-world quotient up. Once a dozen or more musicians are involved, it’s exceptionally rare to assemble a high percentage of world-class talent. For an exception to that rule, look at Dizzy’s United Nation Orchestra which recorded an amazing live album together:

  • Dizzy Gillespie – Ranker.com #4 all time best trumpeters, also numerous awards including Grammys, Kennedy Center Honors, etc.
  • Arturo Sandoval – Ranker.com #3 all time best trumpeters, numerous Grammys, Latin Grammys, etc.
  • Claudio Roditi – Ranker.com #55 all time best trumpeters, two Grammy nominations
  • Slide Hampton – Ranker.com #15 all time best trombonists, NEA Jazz Masters, two Grammys
  • Steve Turre – Ranker.com #24 all time best trombonists, 5-time Down Beat best trombonist
  • Paquito D’Rivera – Ranker.com #27 all time best saxophonist, several Grammys, Guggenheim Fellowship
  • James Moody – Ranker.com #33 all time best saxophonist, Grammy Hall Of Fame
  • Mario Rivera – Ranker.com #88 all time best saxophonist
  • John Lee – Not on Ranker or other major lists, but a prolific bassist, leader, and producer
  • Ed Cherry – Not on Ranker or other major lists
  • Danilo Perez – Ranker.com #73 best jazz pianist (there are several such lists), grammy winner
  • Flora Purim – 4-time Down Beat best female jazz vocalist, Grammy nominee
  • Ignacio Berroa – Not on Ranker.com, Grammy nominee
  • Airto Moreira – 8+time Down Beat best percussionist, 7-time Modern Drummer best latin percussionist
  • Giovanni Hidalgo – 5-time Modern Drummer best (hand) percussionist, no easy-to-find lists of best congueros, but frequently cited as among the best ever. Grammy winner

Out of 14 musicians in that band, none are slouches and most of them are among the best in the world at their specialty. Lee, Cherry, and Berroa (who is also fantastic and whom I have met) are less obviously best-in-the-world, but are all highly competent at their craft. There’s no dead weight at all in this band. But this band is unique in maintaining a majority of clearly best-in-the-world musicians at such a large size. Rush might have brought three best musicians to the stage, but Dizzy brought more than ten, all playing together. I only wish I could have seen them live! And, by the way, the live recording won a Grammy for all of them.

To be fair, there are popular bands that probably meet my criteria, too. An argument could be made for some early/classic rock bands (The Beatles, The Who, etc.), some metal groups (Metallica anyone?), and even an 80s band or two (maybe The Police?). But if you dig into the details, how often did these groups get together in ways that resulted in more than a couple (or especially a handful) of the best-in-the-world musicians?

This brings us back to the original question. Which concerts feature the most best musicians? Intuitively this could be bands filled with talent, but also one-off gigs. My thesis here is that opportunities to see such groupings are rare, especially as the number grows, but they happen on occasion.

I’ll give you my nomination for this year’s winner. Two bands which fit the rule are going to be touring together and reportedly maybe playing some together. Both bands are noteworthy on their own, but putting them together will be truly epic.

Here’s the Chick Corea Elektric Band lineup:

And Bela Fleck and the Flecktones lineup:

  • Bela Fleck – Ranker.com #2 banjoist of all time (Earl Scruggs is #1 on that list), 16-time Grammy winner
  • Victor Wooten – Bass Player Magazine #14 all time best bassist and 3x bass player of the year, Rolling Stone readers poll #10
  • Roy Wooten – Not on lists, but clearly the best drumitarist in the world (Hah!). Extra credit for fluently playing in odd time signatures (few drummers do this well).
  • Howard Levy – On some non-blues best harmonica player lists, influential for developing chromatic technique on diatonic harmonicas, also an exceptional pianist, even if not on any lists for that talent.

If we discount the impact of Eric Marienthal, Frank Gambale, Roy Wooten, and Howard Levy (non-blues harmonica lists are hard to come by), we are still left with five of the nine musicians above being among the best in the world. None are dead weight. But I think that understates the talent in both groups.

I think it’s fair to give Marienthal, Gambale, and Levy extra credit. Marienthal tops charts with his solo work, and is in consistently high demand. Gambale and Levy are both significant innovators on their instrument, earning them praise from those who are highly revered (Jerry Garcia called Frank Gambale his “personal favorite”). And they all put their innovations to use in highly musical ways. Even Roy Wooten, who I don’t think would top anyone’s top drummers list, is clearly a cut above many drummers who are on such lists, at least when it comes to odd time signatures. They are technical masters and highly competent musicians even if not easily found in best or award lists. Further, Levy is not only a world-class harmonica player, he’s an exceptionally talented pianist. Though Chick Corea is far more awarded and recognized, he won’t be making Levy look like an amateur because that’s impossible. Levy is just too good.

The joint Elektric Band / Flecktones tour ought to be among the best opportunities of the year for seeing many of the best musicians in the world playing together. Either band on its own is a rare combination of the best musicians in the world. Put the two bands together, and I suspect there will be no larger, higher-concentration grouping of best musicians in the world all year.

That said, I’m open to hearing other opinions. What other concerts feature a large and highly-concentrated group of the best musicians in the world playing together? Where else will audiences be able to appreciate a half-dozen or more of the world’s best all at once?

Comment here or on Facebook and let the world know where to hear the most best musicians!

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Note: Ranker.com lists change dynamically with votes. The rankings above are as of Friday, April 14th, 2017.

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