Recognized as one of the first instructional video producers, drummer Pat Petrillo set a standard for educational media with his landmark 1987 recording “Snare Drum Rudiments”. Since then he has developed a remarkable career as a performer and educator. Pat and I sat down last week at the APAP convention in New York City to discuss his history, influences, and upcoming performances.
Ben Scholz: So, Snare Drum Rudiments....
Pat Petrillo: Woah, that was a lifetime ago.
BPS: One of the first drum videos.
PP: It was one of the first instructional videos ever. I had just graduated from
Morehead State University, and decided to move back to New Jersey to study at Drummers’ Collective. After a year or so, I started teaching at the school as well as I working for DCI. I was in “The Bridgemen” and had performed a few snare drum solos with them. Rob Wallace asked me, “You know your rudiments, right?” and I said, “yeah, I know rudiments.” Then he asked me if I would be interested in making a video. That was 1987. A lot of people learned their rudiments from that video. One of the best-selling Warner Brothers’ instructional videos, ever.
BPS: I always admired your precision, especially the way you incorporated the rudiments in your drumset playing. Kind of in a deliberate way. What inspired you to make a video that focuses on such a fundamental concept?
PP: In terms of what to do with the rudiments? That subject could probably spawn an entire. conversation of its own. I started playing drums when I was 4 or 5. At first, I started by playing along to Beatles’ records. Always drumset and not from a rudimental standpoint, from a groove standpoint. Later, I discovered James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and so on.
At age 12 and 13, I became involved in local drum corps. That’s when I began learning the rudiments. While I may have incorporated aspects of drum corps into my playing, I never made a conscious decision to say “ok now I’m going to apply the rudiments to the drumset”. It sort of accompanied my groove playing. My vocabulary got better. I began listening to drummers like Steve Gadd, after getting into Ringo, John Starks, and Clyde Stubblefield. Gadd was my biggest influence. Gadd opened me up to a whole new thing after I heard him apply that rudimental sticking to his playing. I said, “I hear what that is, now I have the facility to do it”. It wasn’t a conscious thing, like “now I’m going to apply my paradiddle beat”, I don’t really think you should do that.
BPS: Don’t force it, just make it happen.
PP: Yeah. You work on the diddles, work on the drags, all that stuff to help your facilities. If you want to add them in musically, you can. I’m not a lit guy who says “ok now I’m gonna do a double paradiddle, or this beat using this rudiment”. That seems a little bit forced.
BPS: You have a pretty extensive catalog of instructional media. What types of teaching are you doing right now?
PP: My main site is Drumstudiolive.com. I had been teaching at Drummers’ Collective and said to myself, “well I’m teaching these people here and that’s great, but I’m still confined by four walls”. When people left the school, they still wanted to study with me. I made a conscious effort to leave teaching in a real school setting like the Collective, and branch out on my own. I decided to do Drum Studio Live in order to get my ideas out to more people.
You know, Snare Drum Rudiments was a long time ago. 1987. There are lots of new people out there now and I knew I was always going to play and teach. So, Snare Drum Rudiments was the first step. Later on, I did a DVD and a book called “Hands, Grooves and Fills,” on Hudson Music. That one did very well, and it still sells today. I have another product called, “Learn to Read Rhythms Better.” It’s an instructional DVD that teaches people how to read rhythms--from whole notes straight through to syncopation, triplets, dotted rhythms, everything up to odd time signatures. It’s a 2 DVD set with PDF print-outs. All the exercises are formatted video clips and you can watch them over and over again. The videos have arrows that follow the rhythms and you can hear the beat on the snare drum. Each video was recorded at 2 different tempos. After you finish these, you can move on to the next exercises. Essentially, they’re play along reading lessons.
BPS: And this model has been successful?
PP: VERY successful. The book was released by Alfred, and you can get it on Amazon. If you don’t know how to read rhythmic figures, this book will teach you. Guaranteed.
BPS: I’ll bet Ed Soph (University of North Texas percussion professor) would like to check that out.
PP: Well, Ed can already read his tail off (laughs). I never could read when I was a kid. I always played by ear, I played along to records. I put the records on, played the music, and learned the lyrics. Even when I got in drumcorps, I still couldn’t read. They never taught us the way they do these days - writing everything out. It was all rote memorization. Like the old times, back in the 1800s. They would transfer the information from one drummer to the next. That’s how they learned.
They would teach you (drums a beat on the table), ok—go! And then you’d imitate. And that’s how you learned, by putting patterns together. I couldn’t read, even when I got to college. I could read 8ths, quarters and some sixteenths. I don’t know how I got into college. I guess I got into Morehead because I could play. My teacher was Frank Otis. He said to me, “We don’t expect you to know everything when you come in. We’ll teach you how to read.”
I’ve always had this thing for reading. As my reading got better, I always thought to myself “there are a lot of great reading books: Syncopation, The New Breed, but there isn’t a single book that puts everything together. There isn’t one book that teaches you systematically how to go from one thing to the next. That’s why I started writing my own curriculum while I was at Drummers’ Collective. All in all, the whole project took about 5 years to complete. I’ve always been more of a visual learner. “Show me what it is, what’s it look like, what it sounds like, play it for me.” I don’t necessarily need to know the math of the music.
Currently, my teaching focuses on my media; Snare Drum Rudiments, Hands, Grooves and Fills, Learn To Read Rhythms, Drumstudiolive.com, as well as clinics for Ludwig, Zildjian, Evans, and Promark. I just did a clinic at the Pasic show 2 years ago, and clinics in the UK and Europe. Europe has a lot of great pop oriented schools.
BS: Like Musicians’ Institute?
PP: Exactly. I’m also doing more broadcasts. I’m going to be doing a live lesson for Drumeo (Drum Education Online) before I go to NAMM. Each week I’ll do a lesson from my home studio. I’ll be combining my drumset knowledge with things I’ve learned from other people. I always give credit where credit is due. If I show a lick or something that I’ve learned from Steve Gadd, or Peter Erskine or Ricky Lawson, or any of the guys that I ever studied with, I’ll say, “Hey, this is a concept that I learned from so and so, and now here’s a variation.”
A lot of guys today just blast out licks and say “hey man, dig me.” I want to tell them, “well somebody did that about 5 years ago when you were about 12...” They don’t dig deep down into the origins of where their ideas come from. When I was younger, I always sought out the roots of these ideas. Really tried to learn the foundation, not just the physicality.
BS: Well that’s how it should be done, shouldn’t it?
PP: Should be. Learning the music’s history. That’s where I’m at.
BS: Earlier this week, I was researching you in order to put this together. I had known you’ve done theater work right here in the city, on Broadway. However, I didn’t know HOW much you had done. I’m doing a little bit of the same work in Chicago, a little bit, all non-equity. Did you begin with non-equity shows?
PP: No. I was fortunate. Remember, I was a student at Drummers’ Collective right out of college. When I got out of college, one of my teachers was Hank Jaramillo. Hank was a great Broadway drummer as well as a session drummer. In one lesson, he had me work on a piece from “A Chorus Line.” He was one of the sub drummers for “A Chorus Line,” and said “would you like to sub?” That was a crossroads moment for me.
I had done some theater work in college, and I could read by that time (laughs). It was one of those moments where if you say “yes”, you know you’ll have to work your tail off and learn the book. If you say no, chances are word will get around, and they’ll say “he’s not interested” or “he doesn’t want to put the work into this”. Knowing that, I said “yeah, man, I’ll do it.” I was honored that he asked me. I was right out of college and playing “A Chorus Line” two nights a week. That was my first show I ever did after I came back to New York. It was pretty huge. Other than college plays, I had never done non-equity tours. However, I believe that non-equity is a good way to get into the scene. You can do what they call “bus and truck” tours—non equity stuff. Off Broadway, you know? I’ve haven’t had my own show yet. That’s the elusive golden ticket. Everyone wants their own show. Some people come in, sub one show and, boom! They’ve got their own gig. I done Grease, I’ve done Footloose, I did a national tour of Dreamgirls. Recently I did Newsies, as a sub for my buddy Paul Davis, one of my former students. It was an honor for him to ask me to play that show. He did a great job with that show. Whatever comes up, comes up, in terms of the Broadway thing. That’s a networking thing.
BS: What types of challenges do you face when you’re subbing in these shows?
BS: In the pit?
PP: Yeah, it’s not even the music. It’s a political thing. Interacting with the other musicians, as well as the networking vibe. Depending on the book, the process can be very musically challenging. And preparation: you have to put in a lot of hours to learn the show. You go in, you watch the conductor, then go home and practice. Listen to the CD, read the rehearsal notes etc. You put in hours and hours of work on a show to learn the music. I don’t feel comfortable until I’ve played a show at least four or five times. Time is money and during this time I’m thinking to myself “hopefully this guy’s going to call me back and ask me to sub again” so that I know I’ve made the effort worthwhile
BS: Not just one show.
PP: You’ve got to be ready to do it. Meeting the people, doing what the regular drummer does, nothing else. You are not bringing your personality to the show. You need to be right on the baton, be right with the conductor, be ready to interact with the bass player. It’s always a tap dance when you meet a musician for the first time. You need to show respect towards the people who are already there. You are in their house, so you need to do what you’re supposed to do musically and not try to snake someone’s gig.
The other point of contention can be rejection. I’ve auditioned for stuff that I didn’t get. At some level, it’s not even about the drumming. It’s more about the interplay. The dynamic between musicians. Do you know this person, and who do they hang out with? Not just in Broadway stuff, but in general, the scene. It’s huge.
BS: For sure. How has your drumline experience influenced your drumset playing?
PP: Wow. People have asked me that question before. I think it has to do with timing. You’re in an ensemble, and then you’ve got a marching rhythm section. The group I was in was called “The Bridgemen”. Back in the 80’s, we were into groove oriented stuff, as well as latin music (Nanigo 6/8 grooves) and swing. Dennis deLuccio was one of our writers. His stuff was very open, very loose, and had a big fat sound. However, the ensemble material was what really helped me develop my drumline chops. Not only did I learn how to listen to the guy next to me and blend, but I learned how to listen to the whole thing. Bass drums over here, tenors over there, everything needs to blend. The whole timing, listening, and coordination combination is essential. At that point, you're expected to have the rudiments down cold.
I’m not a big “rudimental drumset guy”. It's never really affected my drumset playing that much. From a technical point, from a musical standpoint, the timing and the groove have been much more important to me.
BS: So what kind of advice would you give to drumline drummers who are trying to develop their drumset chops, and vice versa?
PP: Well that’s a sticky subject for me. Drumline today is not the way it was when I was growing up. There are so many great musicians doing incredible rudimental things on the solo marching snare. People like Ralph Nader and Jeff Queen really inspire me.
But, when you do the marching thing, when you take that uniform off, I feel that on some level you need to take that technique off and hang it up as well. Get on a drumset and just PLAY! In my opinion, they're two very different things. I’m not saying that rudimental guys are bad drumset players. I’m saying that the in terms of stick heights and technique, the approach isn’t really applicable. It might help you develop control, but you shouldn't try translate that specific style to your drumset playing. If you’re a drumline drummer and you want to get better at drumset then you need to get some CDs and listen to Earth, Wind and Fire, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Chick Corea, Weather Report, Jeff Beck, all those people. Check out the newer stuff as well, but remember that the newer stuff is just older stuff regurgitated.
Listen to pop music! I know, people are gonna say, “He just said listen to pop music!”, and write me off. I’ve played with Gloria Gaynor, Patti LaBelle, Debbie Gibson, Constantine Maroulis, C and C Music factory, and Martha Watts. I like groove music. You can’t play with these people and not know how to play a groove. For comparison, if your jazz is not happening, you’re not just going to walk in and bluff your way through a gig with McCoy Tyner. You can’t just say to yourself, “oh this is easy, this is 2/4”. If you don’t play with conviction, you’re not doing the song or the songwriter justice. How many bad disco drummers have you seen at weddings.
BS: Oh yeah, plenty.
PP: Plenty that are way too fast, plenty that are out of time. The problem is that some people just really don’t care about pop music. I tell people in my clinics “you can’t come in with a condescending attitude towards any specific genre of music. “I’m a jazz musician, so I can’t play pop.” Well in this market place, you’ve got to play everything. Ask Dennis Chambers if he can play everything. Ask Steve Smith if he can play everything, ask Keith Carlock if he can play everything. You can’t see yourself as existing above a given musical genre. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of people take this attitude. They say, “I’m gonna play jazz,” or “I’m gonna play fusion.” It’s really called “work” for a reason. It’s not necessarily about art. The job is called “playing a gig”. It’s no time for you to be painting a Picasso on a wedding cake. Do what you’re supposed to do.
I have two pop-oriented bands that I’m working with right now. “Groove Allegiance” recorded a CD that’ll be out this year, and consists of Gary Grainger on Bass, Chieli Minucci on guitar, and my buddy Chris Fisher on keyboards. More or less a funk, fusion groove group. Very cool stuff. I also have an R&B big band called “The New York Big Rhythm Band”. Currently, I’m rehearsing this band here in New York and we’re going to start playing this year around town. Great arrangements of some classic Earth Wind and Fire music that’ve never been published before. I have a great arranger who did arrangements of “Jupiter”,“Magic Mind” and all this great classic Earth Wind and Fire stuff. We’re also doing some Gordon Goodwin charts as well.
So, to answer your question. I’m playing, doing the live lesson thing, and writing. Here at APAP, I’m playing with Al Chez, the great trumpet player from the Letterman band. We’re doing this showcase thing here and we’re doing another gig tomorrow.
So, we’re playing and teaching and hopefully inspiring. I’m always learning as well. I see great musicians out there and I try to learn from them. I’m not too old of a dog to learn a new trick, but I am getting up there. Over the past 10-15 years, I feel that the internet has really blossomed into the place for video lesson resources. So—Drumstudiolive.com. Check it out!
Forward by Virginia Rowland
It’s around 3 o’clock in early January, that melancholy time of year where the day perpetually feels like 7 pm. We’re standing on West 53rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue around the corner from the entrance to The Ed Sullivan Theater. A light haze of snow is falling around the huddled masses waiting in line. Five or six paparazzo are standing behind a gate, cameras in hand. We knock on the door marked Backstage Entrance and are greeted by a perky twenty-something-year old intern dressed in black cords and a Letterman jacket. “So, who are you with?” she asks with a smile. Flustered, Ben barely audibly mumbles “Anton.” She flashes another eager smile and replies, “Ok, I’ll take you up to his dressing room.” We begin to follow her as she says into her headset, “Let Ethan Hawke know they’re here for the interview.”
For one moment, I’m tempted to take advantage of her plucky misperception. Why not indulge a ‘90s fantasy of my own? However, Ben shatters my teenage dream and abruptly interjects, “No, we’re here to see Anton Fig.”
For nearly 30 years, Anton Fig has been TV’s go-to drummer/percussionist. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Fig relocated to Boston to study both jazz and classical music at New England Conservatory. After graduating and moving to New York, he found work as a freelance musician backing up artists such as Ace Frehley, Link Wray, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Mick Jagger, and Cyndi Lauper. In 1986, Fig joined with Paul Schaffer to form “The World’s Most Dangerous Band” for NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman”. In 1992, Letterman moved to CBS and the band became known as “The CBS Orchestra”.
Not content to limit himself to his day gig, Fig has been an integral part of the Greenwich Village creative music scene for decades. Joe Bonamassa, Booker T., Wayne Krantz, Mike Stern, and Oz Noy all regularly call upon Fig’s talents to help them realize their musical goals. We sat down with Anton in the Ed Sullivan Theater green room after taping one of the final episodes of “The Late Show” to discuss his upbringing, creative process, gear, and a memorable performance with Miles Davis.
Ben Scholz: Watching you above the band stand, as opposed to the times I’ve see you perform on TV and in clubs, I was really knocked out by the ghost notes, your linear figures, and your overall subtlety. Do you work out of the Garibaldi book frequently?
No, not really. Lately now, with Youtube and all that stuff, I’ve spent a lot of time looking up all these videos that focus on techniques. I tend to type in subjects and see where that leads me. On the show I sometimes just try stuff I’ve been practicing. I figure I have a 65 per cent chance of pulling it off (laughs). We get a chance to play a lot and we play pretty improvisationally. I mean, we stay in the style of the song, but we get a chance to really play during the commercial breaks.
BPS: That really moved me—to see how much you guys jam. That does not come across on the broadcast.
AF: Yeah, we get to play a lot.
BPS: After leaving South Africa, why did you chose to attend NEC as opposed to just moving to New York?
AF: Well, I was pretty young. Coming from South Africa, the world wasn’t as small as it is now with the internet and flight travel. I mean, there were flights here and there but apartheid was in place and the country was really cut off. For example, David Oyelowo was on the show yesterday. He plays Martin Luther King in the movie “Selma”. He said “I’m English, and you come to America and think, ‘well I speak English’, but it’s a completely different country.” I’m from South Africa and my first year here was insane. I’d watch TV and I wouldn’t get any jokes. Jokes tend to reference something before them, so I would watch a sitcom and not understand anything because I had no reference to American culture.
But, I haven’t answered your question - the reason I came here. I had a friend who went to NEC. I told my folks I wanted to come over and play and they said “ok, if you go to America you have to get a degree”. So, I went to school at NEC because I knew someone who attended. I got a degree and then I moved to New York.
BPS: I’m a huge fan of the work you’ve done with Oz Noy. Your playing on “Oz live” really inspired me, in part, to bring him out to Chicago last year to do some recording. Do you have plans to do any more recording or performing with him?
AF: Well that’s up to him. I’m on a song or two of every record he’s done, and we used to play at The Bitter End every Monday for years, though he changes up his rhythm section all the time. We do have a gig out near Poughkeepsie in February and something else in Toronto in May for a weekend, but that’s all so far. It tends to go through cycles. We also did a bunch of double drum gigs with Keith Carlock and myself, and that was....a learning experience. (laughs)
BPS: Yeah, pretty intense. Keith graduated a few years before me at North Texas and he came back a couple of times. Great player
AF: Oh yeah, he’s something else. You went to North Texas?
BPS: Yeah, I graduated in 2005. So, when Paul’s been absent, you’ve been called upon to lead the band. Can you lend some insight into that process? Some of the challenges you face?
AF: Well, you know there’s a whole lot of show going on. We have in-ears and there’s a whole culture going on in the control room. They’re bringing you in and out of commercial and counting you down, etc. So, while I'm playing I have to listen to that as well. Paul listens to that chatter. The rest of the band doesn’t have it in their ears, unless they’re leading the band. We want to time the song so that we end it right when we come out of commercial. Hopefully at a dynamically intense spot.
So, they’ll go, “Okay—15 seconds,” and start counting it down. Then they’ll go, “No, no, no, keep it going for another few minutes,” so I to scream in a cue. It’s a little harder from the drum set because I'm behind everyone. Scream in the cue and like, "go to the chorus” or "back to the top of the song", whatever. We've got to maneuver out of it.
One week they put me right in front of the band, and there was communication between me and Dave. Other times, they had Warren Zevon interact with him. He would talk to Dave and I would just lead the band. In these instances, I would get together with Warren before hand, and select the songs. I would rehearse the band, and basically conduct them during the show.
BPS: Does Dave have any kind of musical chops? Like say, “come in at bar 8” or whatever?”
AF: He doesn’t do that, but he often requests songs. And he really appreciates the band. You feel like you’re playing for someone who’s listening to you. He’s always complimenting us, and sending requests. You know, the show’s very off the cuff. Dave might go in a whole different direction and that might change what we’re playing to suit the show. It’s not like, “Well this is the show and this is what we’re playing.” It all just kind of comes together. We have a short band rehearsal before each taping. Did you hear any of the rehearsal?
BPS: I heard you playing when we were outside.
AF: We just rehearse some bits and pieces, and none of the break songs. We just do it as we go. To keeps it fresh.
BPS: The times that I’ve seen you perform live in clubs, you’ve used a standard 4 piece kit. However your day gig requires a pretty elaborate set up. Triggers, pads, multi percussion etc. Does this back and forth pose a challenge? What setup do you use for your daily practice routine?
AF: Well I don’t have any daily practice routine. I play all the time. Funny you mention that though. We just had a couple of weeks off, so I decided to practice on the pad today before the show. I’ve been practicing the last few days just to get my hands feeling good, but usually I’m playing quite a bit so I feel somewhat in shape. I have a little practice set, up in the dressing room. So I’ll warm up just before the show. That setup is pretty dead, the pads have no bounce at all, so I have to work really hard. Same with my feet. I work really hard to get something going, just to get a bounce with my feet or my hands.
You know I used to mash in with the pedal, now I'm trying to get it off the head a little. I also would try to get the sticks off the head a little bit. I think that using different set ups makes you play differently. I think it’s a good thing to change your set up. Peter Gabriel did that whole “Shock The Monkey” period with Gerry Marotta he wouldn’t let Rick use cymbals. That made him play drums differently (laughs). I did a gig with Joe Bonamassa at Red Rocks, and I used 2 toms, 3 cymbals, and a bass drum. That’s plenty of drums for the gig.
For the show, I have more drums because I never know what I’m going to play. For example, I might have a timbale set up and a sample ready to go even though they may cut the song at the last minute. A little snare, a primary snare, I've got to have it all covered. If I did some other gig on a permanent basis, I could tailor the set to the gig, rather than have the same set and make it work with whatever gig it was.
BPS: So obviously this set is tailored to this (The Late Show) gig.
AF: Yeah, so when I started the show at NBC, I had a 3 tom kit. Then it evolved. I got an extra tom or an extra this or extra that, and it slowly grew. I went to the Tonight Show and saw Ed Shaughnessy’s kit and it looked like it had been nailed to the floor. With an ashtray. I mean this was the 80’s and it looked like this kit had just been grown out of the set (laughs).
BPS: Smoking in a TV studio! That’s great. So, any more recordings, performances, etc.?
AF: Yeah, I’m going to be doing a few records in the near future. And I’m going to be playing on a little tour with Eric Johnson and Mike Stern to promote the "Eclectic" record. I’m going out to Texas this weekend to rehearse for a few days. Then the following week the show’s off for a week and then I’m going to miss a week of shows, and do a little 2 week tour with them.
BPS: Who’s subbing for you?
AF: Shawn Pelton.
AF: So I’ll get out on the road and play with those guys.
BPS: Does Shawn bring his own kit in here?
AF: No, he plays on mine. Then it takes me like weeks to reset it. You know how you like it to be perfect, but I mean, he’s got to be comfortable and set it like he likes it, and it’s fine but it takes me weeks to get it back. He plays on a 3 piece kit for the Saturday Night Live Band.
BPS: You’re gonna take the Black Beauty you used today for the show, I presume. You’re not going to let Shawn play on that?
AF: (laughs) I may not. You know that Yamaha drum, that’s the only other drum I really use. My signature drum is really a great drum, I’ve used it on the show for a long, long time. I managed to get ahold of this drum (an all-original 1928 Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum), and I don’t want it to sit in a glass case. I want to play the thing. It was made about a hundred years ago.
BPS: Made in my home town.
BPS: Chicago, yes. So, Miles was on this show and you got to work with him. To wrap this up, give me a Miles Davis story.
AF: Well when I got there-this was at NBC, Paul says to us “we’re going to be playing with Miles tomorrow night. We don’t know what’s going to happen”. So I get there, and there’s this big drum machine, I don’t know which brand it was. It was this big drum machine on a pedestal with a velvet cloth. I thought, “oh that’s it, I’m not going to be playing.” The band tried to play with the drum machine, then they took the drum machine away. I guess it wasn’t working out. Someone suggested that I play, and use brushes. So I thought, “oh well, I hope this works because if the brushes don’t work out, then I’m out of luck”. The line up was the Letterman band, (the four of us), Marcus Miller on bass, David Sanborn on sax and Miles. Anyway, that seemed to work. There was a song in the movie “Scrooge”. Miles, David, and Marcus played street musicians in the movie. We played the song, “We Three Kings,” and it was in ¾. Then, in the middle of the song, Miles goes like this (chops down hand) and we go into a funk, solo-y thing, and he goes like this again (chops down hand) and we’re back into the 3/4. (laughs). If ever there was a time to be nervous, this would have been it. I said to myself, “I worked so hard, this is not the time to be nervous.” I felt really calm, like right in the middle of a hurricane. In the center of a storm. It was a very controlled kind of a song, really nice.
Before we began, I had asked Miles “what should I play”? He came up to me and said (Anton demonstrates) “vrmm, vrmm, vrmm” and I knew just what he meant. Afterwards I said to Marcus, “I didn’t really meet Miles, and I’d like to meet him.” So waited to meet him in his dressing room and he asked me where I was from. When I told him, he said “it’s a good thing you got out of South Africa”. This was all pre Mandela, it was really bad then. It’s a different country now. Then he said to me, “you’ve got a good feel for them drums.” Then I said “ok—good bye!” I mean, I didn’t want to hear a “but” or “except” (laughs). I didn’t want to hear any more to that sentence. So now whenever I’m having problems I think to myself, “well if Miles said the feel was good then it’s fine”. I can rest easy with that. It was great, because I was such a huge Miles fan, as we all are. I had listened to all the great drummers he used and it was wonderful to get that affirmation.
Among contemporary fusion musicians, drummer Will Kennedy stands out as a legend in both the creative and commercial scenes. Growing up in the Bay Area, Will found music at the tender age of four. By his twenties, Will was working in the LA studio scene as the go-to guy for talk show TV orchestras and movie scores. In 1986, Will joined the legendary jazz fusion group “Yellowjackets”, remaining a key figure in the band for nine years and recording ten full length albums. I caught up with Will at The Jazz Showcase in Chicago after one of their first shows with bassist Felix Pastorius.
Ben Scholz: Yellowjackets were one of my first forays into world of fusion. I’ve always dug Robben Ford’s music-his singing as well as his guitar work. Looking into both of your Yellowjacket histories, I can’t see any overlap in times you each played in the band together. Have you ever performed or recorded with him?
Will Kennedy: Robben remains one of the big key figures in the Yellowjackets band. We don’t get a chance to work very often cause he’s been busy with his own career, though he’s definitely a friend of the band. However, we’ve had the opportunity for him to sub in a couple times There’ve been a few instances when Bob Mintzer wasn’t available for a gig, this has happened at least 3 or 4 times in the last 5 or 6 years. Additionally, Robben was featured on the Timeline recording, 4 years ago now on Mack Avenue records. That was the last CD that Jimmy Haslip recorded with us before his departure from the band. So, there have been some instances where we worked with Robben. It’s really cool to play some of the songs he was featured on back in the beginning of the band. When Ricky Lawson was in the band. It’s great fun for me to get in there and do my Ricky impersonation.
BPS: I had no idea. Are there any recordings, other than Timeline, of that music?
WK: Maybe some bootleg recording on YouTube, from the audience of the gig that Robben did with us in Santa Barbara, CA. It was a charity event for Eddie Todoury; we did a benefit concert for them. Bob Mintzer wasn’t available so Robben did the gig with us. A week or so after we did that gig someone mentioned to me that it was on YouTube. Outside of that and the Timeline recording, I think that’s it.
BPS: I know that you and Peter Michael Escovedo were on the Wayne Brady Show together. What was it like working with Wayne? Was it scripted out or was there a lot of improvisation like on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”
WK: I took a 10 year hiatus from Yellowjackets starting in 2000. Peter Michael and I are both from the Northern California, San Francisco Bay area, and that’s where we met in the mid to late 70’s. Peter found himself in the musical director position for The Martin Short Show. Martin Short had this day time talk show with Peter Michael at the helm and myself on drums. It was short lived, but it was a lot of fun. After Martin Short’s show went down, Wayne Brady came up right after. Wayne Brady was doing “Whose Line is it Anyway,” but he broke off and started another daytime talk show. It was kind of a variety show that we participated in, so it didn’t have much to do with “Whose Line is it Anyway”. Basically, it was a daytime talk show with a few musical guests and it was really great fun. Peter Michael was leading it, and there was a fair amount of improvisation.
Now, here’s a bit of behind the scenes trivia - it costs a lot of money to perform a popular song on television. Obviously you have to pay the composer, publisher, etc. Because of this, we found ourselves composing similar sounding songs, that had the vibe of a song you might’ve heard before. We developed a great technique while on the air, right before a commercial break. Wayne would do a little talking, then lead us into a commercial and the band would start playing. Then boom, a commercial would start playing. There would be a good 10-15 seconds of the band playing on camera, and at that point we would play a similar sounding song. Then, as soon as the cameras would go off, we would kick into the real song! It was really great fun. Obviously when we returned to the air we would flip back to the generic song. Then we would cut it off and Wayne would continue with the show.
There were pluses and minuses to having a television gig. Obviously there’s no travel and no leaving town. Musically, there was very little soloing or overall development. You’re playing; you’re on and then you’re off. You’re on, next commercial, and then you’re off. The concept of developing musically and shaping a song was just not there. There was no time for that sort of thing and this was a downside. As a musician, you strive to impact your career by developing and growing music, but this situation did not lend itself to that type of development. This was television and that was one of the hazards. We had a bunch of really great musicians who played with us, we supported the musical guests that came on the show, and that was fun. We had to really pull it together and learn a song quickly because five or ten minutes later we were on the air playing in front of national television. It was challenging and great fun at the same time.
BPS: I assume that was filmed in LA?
WK: Yeah, we were at the CBS lot down in Los Angeles. They had pictures on the wall of some of the previous shows—like Carol Burnett and all the Jerry Lewis telethons. You really felt like you were a part of television history as you hung around the place. It was really cool.
BPS: Now you’re from the bay area. What are the biggest differences between the bay area music scene and the southern California music scene?
WK: In some ways they were quite similar camps. One of the cool things about Northern California, San Francisco Bay area, was that there were great communities of musicians that really loved to play and were inspired to create sounds that was unique to the area. You hear stories and recordings about the Philadelphia sound, or the New York musician. We had the East Bay grease which was represented in bands like Tower of Power, Con Funk Shun, and Sly and the Family Stone. There was also an offshoot of Sly’s band, Larry Graham’s “Graham Central Station”. The East Bay had a certain character of funk that was really prominent and fun, once you grabbed a hold of the formula. I think that was one of the things that made the Bay area stick out over the Los Angeles area. These days there are young musicians with great talent in almost every major city. The cool thing that LA had over the Bay area was the movie and sound track opportunities. There still isn’t anything like that. To have that sort of opportunity in your home town, to be able to record or participate in a movie sound track, all that stuff is just amazing and really cool to be a part of.
BPS: Regarding your rig: In most of the videos I’ve seen, you have the right side of your kit positioned relatively high. At the Jazz Showcase in Chicago last month, I noticed you had your right hand crash cymbals placed below your rack tom. Is that something you do for the Yellowjackets gig or is that something you’ve been experimenting with, for a new set up?
WK: Yeah, that’s pretty much Will Kennedy, these days. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more creative with my set up. Of course, any musician’s rig or set up is unique to them. It’s almost a unique fingerprint. I find this sweeping sort of way to strike the cymbal as opposed to a direct, straight down hammering. I found that the sweeping technique has taken prominence in my style. A way of hitting the cymbal, especially on the right side. It’s much more conducive for me to have them lower, with the edges leaning up toward me. So, the cymbals are basically leaning outward, which is putting the edge of the cymbal closer to me without having them high. I guess we could just chalk it up to my laziness of not wanting to put up my arms up high any more as I’ve gotten older. Easy access is strictly the strategy for having them like that.
BPS: So what’s next? Are you planning to stick around with Yellowjackets for a while? Any new projects you’d like to mention?
WK: Yellowjackets are probably going to go into the studio about 3 months from now. We’re still writing material. We’re still signed to Mack Avenue Records, and we are certainly planning to go in soon. So, it will be a few months before you see something from us. After we finish recording, it will probably be mid to late summer before it’s available. As a solo artist, I’ve signed a recording deal with a record company called Riverphlo Entertainment, and I’ll be one of the first jazz artists on that label. Presently, they are prominent in the gospel genre with artists like Andre Crouch. They just started a jazz division, Riverphlo Jazz, and I’ll be one of the first artists to put product out. I’m going to gather my skills and contribute compositionally, and of course I’m going to play drums and any other instrument I can get my hands on. Probably play some keyboards. I’m really excited about making a personal contribution and statement as a solo artist.
Article by Ben Scholz
Ever the emphatic artist, drummer Dave King is most famous as a founding member of the contemporary trio “The Bad Plus”. Rooted in jazz, The Bad Plus has taken creative music to a new abstract height, examining reinterpretations of works by artists as diverse as Stravinsky, Nirvana and Tears for Fears. However, his re-definition of a performing musician’s role has not been limited to TB+, his personal side projects, or even the drumset. In this article, we’ll explore Dave’s love of comedy, visual art, and the creative process behind his music.
Ben Scholz - The first time I saw you perform with The Bad Plus was at The Old Town School of Folk Music and I remember coming away from that performance thinking “Wow, these guys must have rehearsed these songs a thousand times before they performed them live.” Can you give me a window into your preparation process when it comes to learning new material?
Dave King - Sure, one thing that’s interesting is the fact that we don’t rehearse very much. A lot of people talk about how the music sounds like something that we’ve run many times, and that’s really not true. Everyone in the group learns music really quickly, and we have a long history of playing together as a band. When you have a working band, these are some of the “fruits” of sticking together. You can develop a process that not only moves quickly but also benefits from the fact that we understand each other. There’s no second guessing what the motive is.
Typically, everyone writes separately. So, everyone in the band is a composer and when we have new music we rehearse it at sound check. I might sit at the piano with Ethan, sometimes there are charts, sometimes not. My music typically doesn’t have charts because Ethan and I tend to learn by rote memory. One of the benefits to learning things by rote is that it really helps us memorize and develop skills. I will typically sit at the piano and play my music for them. Reid typically brings out charts for his music and Ethan sometimes has charts for his music. I’ve used charts a few times, but only when I’ve had something that people really need to look at.
Basically, we bring new music in and shed it at sound check. If everyone’s feeling ok the day we learn it, we’ll try it that night. That’s sort of the trial by fire that we’re into. Typically when we play live shows we do play new, unrecorded music in order to keep things fresh. Because we tour so much, and don’t want to be one of those bands that plays the same music every night, we write a different set every show. Now that we have so many records and have been around for so long, its really fun to think about stuff we haven’t played in a while. Sometimes we’ll get requests for things and we’ll have to remember old songs really quickly. With the exception of “The Rite of Spring”, we never have charts on stage. That’s the one thing we don’t do.
BPS - I was fortunate enough to perform at The Artist’s Quarter in St. Paul before they closed last year. I know that you’re from Minneapolis, can you talk about your history with the Twin Cities’ music scene and what that club meant to the musicians in St. Paul/Minneapolis?
DK - Well, The Artist’s Quarter’s closing left a huge hole in the local music scene. That club meant a great deal to the creative musicians,here,number one because it was a club run by musicians. There was no restaurant, it was just an old school jazz club. Just drinks, a stage, and a nice piano. It had room for 200 plus people, yet it was intimate and it was where I developed a lot of my groups. The first Bad Plus shows were at The Artist’s Quarter back when we just went by our names. We weren’t even called “The Bad Plus” yet. Those guys would fly in from New York and I had moved back to Minneapolis from Los Angeles. This would have been in the mid 90’s. I started playing there again right away and they were really supportive of my band “Happy Apple”. That band kind of grew out of that club.
The Twin Cities area is famous for its music scene and The Artists’s Quarter was a great place for jazz and creative music. The scene is well known for rock and hip-hop, however there is a strong contingency of jazz musicians here, so it was a really important place. I’m glad you had a chance to play there because it was one of the great jazz clubs in America. It wasn’t corporate-y or anything, you know? We’re all feeling it, I’m raising my children here and there’s no place like that for them to hear this music. I played there for years with people like Anthony Cox and Bill Carothers, and it was a real breeding ground for the music. Heavyweights like Roy Haynes were friends with the family that owned the club and they’d play The Artists’ Quarter every time they came through town. Now there aren’t a lot of options other than the higher-ticket price type of places that can afford to bring in touring acts. So yeah, we’re feeling it. We’re feeling the loss.
BPS - Absolutely, I understand. So, one thing I’ve noticed is the fact that you tend to inject a fair amount of humor into your live shows as well as your overall presence as an artist. Your sense of light heartedness reminds me of Matt Wilson. Has his sense of humor been an influence on your musical personality?
DK - Laughs. No, not really. I like him, he’s a nice guy but I don’t know him really well. We came up around the same time in the 90’s while I was doing Happy Apple and he was doing The Arts and Crafts band. I’ve only met him a few times over the years at festivals when he was playing with Charlie Haden.
I’ve always felt like the music will say what it needs to say, and taking yourself too seriously doesn’t do the music any real kind of justice. Staring at your shoes, or burying yourself in charts etc. For me, the music is joyous and I want the evening to be kind of a surreal experience for people. I feel like The Bad Plus has always followed that track as well. Talking to the audience in a way that feels more familial and just being more relaxed and unscripted.
If anything, I feel like I relate more to comedic people as opposed to say a musician who’s funny. Honestly, I’m not sure what Matt does that’s funny because I’ve never seen him live with his own band.
BPS - Oh, really?
DK - Like I said, I’ve met him a couple times, I’ve heard his recordings and no disrespect but I just haven’t checked him out that much. I don’t really know what he does, so I wouldn’t be able to tell you what he does that’s “lighthearted”. I’ve seen him play with Charlie Haden though, and he sounded great.
BPS - You mentioned comedians and the comedic “style" as an influence on your performances, can you elaborate on that?
DK - When I was growing up in the 80’s, David Letterman was on late at night and he was much more abstract than he has been since hitting the big time. I don’t know how old you are, but Letterman in the 80’s was really surreal, dark, and funny. I would watch Letterman religiously and I feel like that opened me up to a certain level of surreal rapport with an audience. That experience helped me realize a way of being serious and abstract at the same time. Being in the Twin Cities and watching a little black and white TV while in high school, I obsessed over Letterman and I feel like it left a mark on me. This idea of creating fantasies, basically creating scenarios where anything can happen.
If you were watching Letterman in the ‘80s, anything could happen. Andy Kaufman could come on and be insane, or he’d have Captain Beefheart as the musical guest. You don’t see that kind of thing anymore. So you were sort of wowed. Chris Elliott doing all these completely insane characters, drinking bottles of cooking oil, those guys were just out of their minds. That’s really where I would say the biggest influence for me lies. Taking myself seriously, but at the same time, leaving room for a surreal element.
BPS - That’s interesting, I guess I never really put those two together. I remember Dave Chappell commenting on the idea that all comedians want to be musicians and all musicians want to be comedians.
DK - Absolutely. Or visual artists, or whatever. Visual art is a huge thing for me and I spend huge amounts of time poring over art books and the different art movements throughout history. For instance, I would know more about a contemporary painter than I would about Matt Wilson. With no disrespect to Matt Wilson at all, he’s great, you know what I’m saying? We do music so we know music and of course I check out my peers a lot. I have my favorites, but I also spend a lot of time with visual arts and comedy as well.
BPS - You finished a tour with the Dave King Trucking Company this summer. Do you have any plans to record or tour in the near future?
DK - Absolutely. We’re going to make a new record hopefully sometime this winter. We’re hoping to tour more so we’re going to hook up with some European booking soon. I’ve been so busy with The Bad Plus that I try and fit other things in when I can. I also want to prioritize my trio with Bill Carothers, make a record in the spring, and tour with him.
Come 2016 I’m going to be working more than I have been in the past ten years with my own projects, alongside The Bad Plus. I’m going to constantly put out more records, but I want to tour with these bands as well.
A few months ago, in the article "School Band Percussion 101" we discussed ideas for newbie drummers looking to purchase their first instrument. As we approach the holiday season, the opportunity to augment your drummer’s arsenal of percussion tools is a great way to encourage them to practice during those cold winter months.
There are a lot of great options out there, and narrowing down the list can be daunting. Take a look at this guide for some suggestions on what to get to spread the holiday vibes.
If your beginning drummer has a habit of leaving sticks all over the practice room floor, what better gift than a drum stick bag? This handy case is a percussion implement essential and most models easily hold a dozen pairs of sticks, mallets, brushes etc. We recommend the Zildjian T3255 Nylon Drumstick as an entry level option. For drummers looking for a larger “toolbox” check out the Ludwig Lx31 Atlas Pro, complete with shoulder strap and side pocket.
Help your percussionist learn the art of drum tuning with this helpful digital device. Developed by Overtone labs, the tune-bot was modeled after digital guitar headstock tuning devices. Features such as pitch measurement, overtone filters, and save slots allow drummers to find optimal pitch ranges and save preferred tunings.
When all those overtones are slowing your drummer’s roll, give them the most popular dampening device available. Moongel is a self-adhesive, washable non-toxic gel that sticks to the surface of drum heads, cymbals and most percussion instruments. Cheap and effective, a tub of Moongel is an essential tool in any drummer's stick bag.
Easily the most crucial component in any drummer’s rig, a quality drum key can save both time and fingertips when it comes to tuning and setting up. For drummers looking for a multi-tool we recommend the Evans DATK Torque Drum Key. Complete with an ergonomic grip for maximum comfort, a knurled knob for quick spinning, and a slip-resistant magnetic head, the torque drum key makes the job easy. The torque drum key’s handle can also be set to a desired tension to help attain more accurate tuning.
Though we discussed the topic of metronomes in our last article, it bears mentioning a second time, that a quality time keeper is perhaps the most important tool for any musician. A simple device such as the Korg MA-30 will help keep the beat, while the Boss DB-60 offers a full range of rhythm patterns, looping functions and tuning options. For a more classic feel, the Wittner 803M Wood-Case Metronome is a great addition to any practice room or recital hall.