Kid - “I wanna join band.”
Parent - “That’s wonderful! What instrument do you want to play?”
Kid - “The drums!”
Parent - (Radio silence)
Parents, if this conversation sounds familiar you may be suffering from a case of “percussive misinformativ-itis”. However, you should have no reason to fear. Far from a chronic headache of blast-beats and drum rolls, band percussion can be a literal symphony of sounds and textures. A burgeoning percussion student will soon discover that the decision to “play the drums” in school means learning all the note-reading skills of his/her peers as well as developing proficiency on a half-dozen unique instruments. Oftentimes however, this instrument choice can quickly become overwhelming as parents feel the pressure to decide what gear to buy.
The most obvious first instrument choice for a new percussion student is a snare drum. Beginning lessons will focus on stick technique and rudiments, so a snare kit with a stand, case and sticks is an essential piece of gear. We recommend the Ludwig LE2477RBR drum kit with rolling bag as a first purchase for your new drummer.
Within any music program, a multitude of options exist for new instrumentalists looking to explore the percussive arts. Concert band and orchestra will usually require an entrance audition, and ensembles such as marching band and jazz band may or may not be extra-curricular. As I’ve written before, the process of choosing correct sticks depends on what type of music your student will be performing. Band and orchestra will require specific sticks, as well as mallets for timpani and xylophone. We recommend the Vic Firth SD1 General, the Vic Firth T1 Timpani Mallets, and the Mike Balter “Band Director’s Special” pre-pack.
If your student gravitates towards drumset, jazz band may be an appropriate choice. Most programs require students to audition for a concert band spot, and jazz band class may not be included as part of the curricular program. While drumset may be the obvious choice for jazz oriented percussionists, vibraphone is also an option and the request to “play vibes” will definitely perk up any director’s ears. For drumset, we recommend the Vic Firth VF 7A Wood Tip drumsticks and the Regal Tip Classic Telescoping Brushes. The Gretsch Catalina Club Kit is also an inexpensive standard drum set for students looking for a be-bop trap set. For vibraphone, we recommend the Mike Balter Pro Vibe 23 Mallets with rattan handles.
Drumline and marching band go hand-in-hand with football season, and this activity requires a special set of implements. Most, if not all, programs provide drums, and depending on the assigned spot, it is a good idea to purchase a personal set of sticks or mallets. For percussionists in the drum line, we recommend the Vic Firth Ralph Hardimon SRH Marching Snare Drumstick, the Vic Firth Corpsmaster Multi Tenor Stick or the Vic Firth Corpsmaster Marching Bass Drum Mallet. Side note - if your student is playing marching bass drum in the line, be sure to purchase the correct mallet that corresponds to the size of his/her drum. If your percussionist is performing in the front-ensemble (pit), we recommend the Mike Balter Chorale Series Birch Handle Marimba Mallets and the Vic Firth T3 Staccato Timpani Mallets. Again, the Mike Balter “Band Director’s Special” pre-pack is a good investment as your student will likely perform on more than one instrument if he/she is placed in the front-ensemble.
It is important to note that this guide is intended for percussionists who are entering their school music programs without much if any prior experience. As your student progresses, choices will be made regarding instrument specialties and style preferences. Mallet/keyboard instruments such as marimbas and vibraphones can cost thousands of dollars and tend to take up a large foot-print of space in a house or apartment. Timpani can be even more expensive, and transportation alone requires a large van or truck. Even a drum set can be a financial and spatial investment. While no student should be discouraged from pursuing a specialized percussion instrument due to cost or space concerns, most band programs provide access to these instruments during school hours. Every attempt to take advantage of school-owned equipment should be made before a student commits to purchasing his/her instrument.
On a final note, I would like to mention the fact that a percussionist’s best friend is his/her metronome. No setup is complete without a quality time-keeper and most brands can be adapted to project through headphones or an amplifier in high-volume situations. We recommend the Boss DB-60 Dr. Beat Metronome for general applications. Drum set musicians will also appreciate the Vic Firth SIH1 Isolation Headphones. These headphones feature an internal metronome as well as volume control, and a line-in for playback and monitor mixes.
Well, there you have it. We hope that this guide provides you with the tools to properly equip your budding percussionist. Remember, there is no substitute for a good teacher, and music education can provide a young person a lifetime of opportunity and enjoyment in the arts.
Over the past ten years, electronic music and jazz have developed a curious relationship. As programmers and DJs sought to remove the human element from their beats and loops, acoustic musicians sought to apply the tight, complex patterns of house and trance music to their traditional instruments. Drummer Mark Guiliana is at the forefront of this new vanguard of progressive acoustic artists. In this article we’ll discuss his work with acclaimed pianist Brad Mehldau, his studies with renowned instructor John Riley, and his new record label “Beat Music Productions”.
BPS: I have to admit that I wasn’t too familiar with your work until I saw you play with Brad Mehldau at S.P.A.C.E. last year. The whole “Brooklyn Duo” idea seems to be popular among indie rock artists and hip hop outfits, but has been slow to catch on in the world of jazz. Why do you feel jazz artists are reluctant to embrace duo collaborations, especially amongst rhythm section instrumentalists?
MG: There are definitely fewer examples among rhythm section instrumentalists, and there are a few dual situations amongst lead instrumentalists that I’ve enjoyed over time. However, when one of the two elements happens to be drums, by definition the other element is responsible for the harmony and melody. Our situation is an electronic configuration that allows Brad to be the bass player, the accompanist, and the soloist at the same time. So, obviously he’s carrying a lot of weight. The technology allows him to do so in a way that we’re used to hearing from a larger ensemble, and that’s the reason it works in our situation. I don’t really have to change the way I play except in very subtle ways. I’ll fill more space at times or become aware of the space that’s available. Often times, there will be more space because there’s just two of us. But really I’m just playing the way I hear the music.
For him it’s a much bigger leap into new territory. I think it goes without saying that he’s an incredible musician, and he brings his language to that electronic template. It’s pretty exciting. For me it’s funny, because sometimes I’ll find myself with my eyes closed on stage just being in the moment. I’ll hear Brad introduce this new voice as we’re playing and I’ll open my eyes and say, “Where’s this coming from?” There’s already a bass line, maybe some harmony happening, and there’s a solo, and somehow he’s using one of those voices as well as space to create another texture. It’s pretty cool.
BPS: Was the Mehliana collaboration between you and Brad mutual, or did one of you enlist the other to realize a personal artistic goal?
MG: It was mutual. Technically it’s a world that I’ve been living in a little longer than Brad. My world has been electronic instruments as well as live band over the past decade, really a lot of electronic influences, while Brad’s output has been mostly acoustic. We met years back, I don’t remember exactly when, but we bumped into each other on the road, became friendly and talked casually about playing together. He came to see an earlier version of my band play in New York one night, and after that we decided to form the duo. It made more sense to go the electronic direction so that we could meet in the middle, between our influences. He had done playing like this before—I later found out that in High School he had done some duo work with a Mini-Moog bass and drummer. So, he had this organic sound inside his brain, but had never really explored it since.
The template was also informed by the fact that if Brad were to play bass lines on piano, these lines would be less effective in creating a larger ensemble of sound. We more or less agreed on the instrumentation, and the sonic template and from there it became a balance of playing, interacting and learning about each other musically.
BPS: John Riley was the subject of my first article for the Drummer to Drummer column and I know you studied with him at William Patterson University. Can you relate to me a particularly
memorable lesson or educational experience that you had with him?
MG: It would be difficult for me to point out one moment, the reason being that all of the moments were incredible. I grew up in New Jersey and he lives upstate in New York, and I began studying with him when I was a senior in High School. I would drive up to his house once a month and take a lesson. After graduating, I continued studying with him at William Paterson University for a year. At that moment in my life I was extremely impressionable, like a sponge. Really open. I wasn’t exactly sure about where to go artistically, but I was very, very hungry so he was the perfect teacher for me. He encouraged me to explore and he challenged me as both a musician and a drummer. I really feel like studying under him was my most compressed and extreme progression.
Looking back on it now (I didn’t realize it at the time) those years spent with him were a real burst of improvement in my learning. What I value most (and this is something I try to do every time I sit down to play music), is the ability to incorporate all of these experiences. He would draw from a wide variety of sources to deliver the information. If we were working on odd meters, or I would have to play a difficult song in one of my ensembles in school, I would pursue a jazz application in a way that was comfortable to me. However, in our lessons he would incorporate traditional Indian music, tabla etc. Things like that.
BPS: I understand what you mean. I had a chance to study with him a couple of times when he came down to UNT. I felt like there was an arc to his lessons. There was space for improvisation within them, but there is a deliberate progression in the way he teaches.
MG: He’s amazing.
BPS: So—I’m going to assume that Jojo Mayer has been a big influence on your playing. Can you talk about some of your other influences and how they’ve impacted your musical style?
MG: Sure—but I’m just curious, he is an influence of mine, but I’m curious as to what makes you think that....
BPS: The Sabian video mostly. I’m a big fan of Nerve and that kind of drum and bass acoustic break beat stuff...
MG: Yeah, Jojo’s definitely been an influence. I’ve been lucky to have him as a friend and we’ve spent a lot of time together. From time to time I’ll have some technical questions for him. When I’m re-evaluating my technique I’ll run things by him and he always helps me out, but more so in a general more conceptual way. He and Zach Danziger were the first two guys that I saw emulating electronic music or programmed music in a live setting.
Aside from the details of the playing, the music has been about the concept, the production element, and the approach. It’s an intimidating task to try to emulate some of the programmed music, and seeing these guys pulling it off live in an exciting, musical way really gave me the courage to pursue this road. I still look to them as sources of inspiration, but more importantly, their sources of inspiration. The reason they are so convincing in the way they play their music, is because they’ve really done their homework. They truly are historians in this field.
This field, albeit with few exceptions, does not feature a drummer performing. It’s almost entirely samples and programming, so it was never my intention to top what JoJo was playing. If I had done this, I’d already be a generation removed from the source. It’s tricky because it’s cool, really exciting stuff that he’s playing, however it’s much more about trying to interpret the original source material in my own way. If drummers do this naturally, then we all come out with our own slightly different versions of these emulations. Those guys pointed me to original source material like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and Photech. I really tried to immerse myself in those recordings and tried to find my own way in that music.
Was your question about the other drumming heroes I have, because I could give you that, too.
BPS: Yeah, sure!
MG: A short list would be guys like Chad Smith and Dave Grohl . They were the reason I started playing drums as a teenager, while watching MTV. I still love that music and hold it dear to my heart. Later, I immersed myself in jazz. So, Tony Williams, Max Roach and Elvin
Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes—the list goes on. I really dove head first into that world. When I was in college and going to check out a lot of music in New York, I got to hear drummers like Jim Black, Jeff Ballard, Joey Barron, Dan White, Dave King, and Bill Stewart. Those were the guys I was checking out all the time. It was really special to see them play and be in the front row at every gig. Each experience was like a lesson. That’s a short list of drumming heroes, and, oh yeah—you’re going to see Steve Gadd mixed in
there as well.
BPS: I’m not sure how long you’ve been with Sabian or what your relationship is with them. The reason I ask is you seem to prefer kind of a dry, trashy sound in your cymbals. I was wondering if Sabian was a conscious choice for you and if you could talk about your setup and the sound that you’ve developed.
MG: I’ve been with Sabian since about 2006 and I’m humbled by the relationship I have with them. They’ve been really nice to me, and I had a chance to go through the factory a couple of years ago to work on some stuff. We have plans for me to go there for another trip later this year. I’ve also been collaborating with Jo Jo, in order to promote his cymbals, and it’s been a very productive, inspiring relationship.
I’ve always found the sounds I was looking for with Sabian. I do like dark sounding cymbals for sure, and the achieved the short trashy sounds with different combinations of stacks. They already have some mini hi-hat combinations in the catalog, but I’ve been collaborating with them on some prototype designs as well. Regarding ride cymbals, I have some thinner versions of the Artisan line that give a slightly darker tone. I play a wide variety of music, and I have WAY more cymbals than I need. However I’m always changing my
set up from gig to gig. Night after night I’m trying to evaluate the best combination for that music. I found that all my cymbals do have a place in the music I play, and it’s process of assessing the right combination.
Sabian has been very generous and open minded, and I feel that attitude is invaluable, especially with a cymbal company. Drums can be manipulated with head choice or muffling, but cymbals, it’s whatever it is. You can manipulate a cymbal with a rivet or some tape or something, but you have far fewer options if you want to change the sound once it’s been created.
BPS: So, for a last question—what’s next? Do you have any plans to record again with Avishai Cohen? Can you talk a little about Beat Music Productions, any touring plans?
MG: No plans to record with Avishai in the near future. What’s next for me? I have two of my own albums coming out and I’m starting my own label (Beat Music Productions). These albums will come out in two weeks. I’m playing gigs around them with two different ensembles that both have an electronic influence. I also have an acoustic quartet that I wrote repertoire for, and we’re playing a bunch of gigs in the fall. I want to record this group by the end of the year, and put the album out the following year.
Brad and I have been touring consistently, and I have two gigs with Donnie McCaslin and his band coming up as well. We recorded Donnie’s new record a few months ago, I’m not sure when that will be coming out. So, I’ll be with Donnie a little bit and with Jason Lindner’s group a little bit as well. I’m doing a workshop series this Fall in New York City, two Saturdays each month, where I’m presenting different topics and including different guests. So, I’ve got my stuff spread out, but it feels good to be releasing new music while I’m building this new company as well.
As a percussion educator, I often hear a particular question - "What kind of sticks should I buy?" With nearly a dozen brands and literally hundreds of models, the humble drumstick has evolved to fit every possible hand size and musical style imaginable. We've narrowed the search down to our top five favorite brands and included a how-to that will help you choose the right pair.
Legendary percussionist, Everett "Vic" Firth bills his company as the largest manufacturer of drumsticks and mallets. This brand offers the standard 5A, 7A, and 2B sizes as well as over a hundred signature series drumsticks. Vic Firth was the first company to offer signature lines of drumsticks, and debuted the "Steve Gadd" SSG model in 1982. With its sleek black finish and light barrel tip, the SSG has become a mainstay for session drummers. We recommend the Maple 5A for rock/pop, and Classic 7A for lighter applications. The SD1 General is also an essential tool for rudimental work and practice-pad jamming.
Pro Mark -
Founded in 1957 by a drumshop owner in Houston TX, Pro Mark is now owned and run by D'Addario & Co. The company was the first to successfully market sustainable Japanese oak drumsticks, and the "Shira Kashi Oak" series remains popular with heavy-hitters. We recommend the Shira Kashi 2B Nylon Tip for "those about to rock". For subtler situations, the Hickory 7A offers a light shaft and barrel tip that provides rebound without reducing cymbal sound. While not technically a stick, the Hot Rod "dowel bundle rod" model is also an essential tool for low-volume acoustic settings.
Another company that was created in the basement of a drumshop, Vater established itself as a boutique designer for the likes of drummers such as Buddy Rich in the early '50's. The company labels its hickory 5As and 7As as "Los Angeles" and "Manhattan" with respect to these regional musical hubs. For both live and studio work, the Los Angeles 5A is well balanced with a heavier tip for fast attack on the drums. The Manhattan 7A is popular among be-bop musicians and features a longer shaft with a round tip. Vater is also well known for its Sugar Maple series which offers a lightweight alternative to hickory without sacrificing stick size.
Until Regal Tip was founded by Joe Calato in 1958, the problem of disintegrating drumstick tips was a drain on many an aspiring drummers' wallet. According to legend, Joe solved this problem by chiseling a plastic screwdriver handle into the shape of a bead and gluing it to the end of his spent drumstick. Primarily made of nylon, synthetic-tips are available as an alternative to natural wood in most makes and models of drumsticks. While other companies offer nylon tip options, Joe claims that his "E-Tip" is "durable, yet offers the warmer sound of wood on the cymbals". We recommend the 5A E-Tip for a variety of musical styles. Regal Tip also manufactures a wide variety of wire brush models including the Classic Telescoping Brush, an industry standard.
Primarily known as a keyboard mallet manufacturer, for the past decade Innovative Percussion has made a name for itself designing high quality drumset sticks. Featuring an extensive roster of both touring and regional artist signature series sticks, IP also promotes its Vintage and Legacy series stick choices designed for specifically for jazz. We recommend the IP-7A hickory stick with an acorn tip for jazz cymbal work.
Synthetic tips are one option in the drumstick world, but what about something for the truly explosive drummer? Ahead's synthetic drumsticks feature an aluminum core wrapped in a polyurethane jacket and a nylon tip. Available in standard diameters/lengths, Ahead also offers a variety of signature models including three different Lars Ulrich custom designs. For drummers concerned about stress related injury, we recommend the Hybrid Series with its patented Vibration Reduction System. At over $30 a pair, these sticks are an investment, however many of the models can be fitted with replacement tips and the company offers a recycling program for broken sticks.
So once we've settled on a make/model of drumstick, mission accomplished? Wrong. As any luthier will tell you, wood is a fickle product that is highly susceptible to a variety of different environmental conditions. Drumsticks are no exception and despite any manufacturer's claims, no quality control is ever 100%. Obviously, purchasing your sticks from a local dealer is the best option. However, this may not be convenient and many online retailers offer a wide variety of options to choose from. When buying online, it is important to purchase sticks "as new". Anything "used" or sold as "blemished" simply isn't worth the few dollars saved. When purchasing sticks in-person, follow this guide -
Straight - A pair of sticks that is straight and true will not wobble when rolled across a level surface.
Weight - Most companies match the two sticks in a pair by weight. Make sure the sticks you are using are approximately the same mass and keep them sorted in their sleeves.
Grain - The grain of a drumstick should run parallel to the length of the stick. Again, quality control is usually good at keeping the manufacturing process uniform, however defects are not uncommon. Hickory and oak tend to have a fairly pronounced grain, however maple grain can be difficult to see. Any stick with an angled grain will break and should be discarded.
Pitch - Wood is an incredibly resonant material, and a large part of the "feel" in a pair of sticks is determined by the vibrations traveling through the implement. The weight and cut of a wooden dowel will dictate the fundamental pitch of the resulting stick. To find the pitch, pinch the stick at the fulcrum (2/3 down the stick from the tip) and tap it with your index finger while holding it next to your ear. Two sticks with the same pitch will generally be equal in weight.
Hopefully this guide will help you choose the right pair (or pairs) of sticks for your musical ventures.
Foremost an innovator, John Riley has always been a “drummer’s drummer” in the world of straight ahead jazz. With nearly a hundred recordings, a dozen videos, and five books under his belt, Riley is a veritable font of knowledge in the be-bop realm. In this article, we take a look back at some of his musical endeavors including recording with Miles Davis, working with Quincy Jones, and playing drums with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. We’ll also examine the changing landscape of music and discuss how younger drummers can find inspiration.
AAJ: I’ve been a fan of yours since I first saw the Live 3 Ways video with John Scofield and I’ve seen you perform with Bob Mintzer, the Vanguard Band, and at masterclasses nearly a dozen times in both in New York and Chicago. I’ve used your books extensively throughout my career, and some of the first articles I read in Modern Drummer were yours. In one of these articles, you mentioned the importance of seeking out musical innovators in the development of your career. Will you elaborate on this?
JR: We all want to be inspired—and the people that are playing things that seem new or significant to me are the ones that inspire me the most. So, that’s what I mean in that case. This is a fluid, evolving endeavor, and I’m always looking at new trends and how they relate to what happened in the past. Just trying to stay inspired and growing through that process.
AAJ: In a lesson a while back, you touched on the concept of wearing different hats. I think this was in the context of my side work as a producer and manager for record labels. In addition to performing as a leader and a sideman you are also a prolific writer and an educator. What moved you to pursue these other vocations and are there other hats you wear that you’d like to share with us?
JR: Well, I started teaching at North Texas my junior year when the school had an overflow of drum students. Currently I’m teaching at Manhattan School of Music and SUNY Purchase in New York and I find the process of teaching to be inspiring in many of the same ways that performing inspires me. I was motivated to publish my books by a drummer named Dan Thress. Dan had been taking lessons from me over the course of a couple of years, and at one point Dan said to me, “I really like these lessons, I don’t think there’s anything like it on the market, why don’t you think about putting a book together?” So he encouraged me to do it and had access to a publisher. That’s how the books began.
AAJ: You’re well known in the straight ahead be-bop world of drumming. Are there any recordings of you performing avant-garde or fusion styles?
JR: I guess the two most recent recordings I did with trombonist Luis Bonilla are kind of aggressive, people were surprised to hear my playing on them. They’re not really fusion or avant-garde, but they’re another side of what I do that’s different from what people are familiar with. There’s a record I made years ago with pianist Kenny Werner called Uncovered Heart that has some back-beat-y stuff, and a couple of the Minzer records could be considered “fusion”. There was a point in 1980 or 81 where Frank Zappa called and asked me to audition for him as well. So, I have an interest in all kinds of music and have cultivated some skills in areas besides jazz. However, these dimensions haven’t been exposed as much because the opportunities I’ve had really haven’t called for them.
AAJ: Some people might not know this, but you had a chance to play with Miles Davis. I wanted to ask you what that was like and specifically, what he was looking for in a drummer at that time.
JR: The circumstance of that was kind of unusual. We performed together at Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and Quincy Jones had been the festival’s music director for a number of years. He had been begging Miles to do a retrospective, looking at the music of Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain as well as the larger ensemble music he did in the late 40’s and again in the late 50’s.
So, finally Quincy convinced Miles to do this, and I think it was in 1990 or 91. This being in Switzerland, they hired a Swiss piano player named George Gruntz to contract the musicians. I was playing with George at the time, so he asked me to do this event with Miles. Then, Quincy got the idea that it might be difficult to make this new product better than the original one, so he said “How can we make it better than the original one? Well we’ll double the size of the band, we’ll make it twice as big, that’ll make it twice as good.”
Which, was kind of a crazy idea. Gil Evans wrote most of the music we were going to perform, and he had had a band in New York before he passed away. That band was brought in to supplement the musicians that were hired in Switzerland, and Kenwood Dennard was the drummer.
Now, we get to Montreux and we had 3-4 days of rehearsal. Right off the bat, I see Grady Tate is there. It turns out that Quincy Jones didn’t know me, didn’t know Kenwood and brought Grady Tate in to play drums. Grady was really funny---I had worked with Grady-- he was also working as a singer. He had hired me to do a bunch of gigs with him in the late 70’s early 80’s and I’d known him for a long time. He said the funniest thing, he said, “man I’m 59 years old ..I’ll sell my drums, retire and just be a singer, but I get a call to play with Miles…” and he was really scared that Miles wasn’t going to like him. He said, “Man, you should be playing this gig.” In fact, he’s playing my drums and my cymbals on the thing. So Kenwood and I play percussion, and Grady plays drums.
That’s the long and the short of the story. It was a fantastic experience. We rehearsed for a couple of days, but Miles didn’t show up for the rehearsals. We were rehearsing in the hotel in Switzerland. We knew he was in the hotel, but he never came to the rehearsals until the conclusion of the rehearsal the night before the concert.
At about 10 o’clock we were wrapping up the rehearsal, and Miles kind of floats into the room in this amazing leather suit and giant sunglasses. There’s about 40 musicians there, and film crews, and fans and stuff, and Miles walks straight through the crowd of people, right past Quincy Jones, and walks straight up to Grady Tate, and gives him a big bear hug and says, “Man, Klook (Kenny Clarke) left me and he left you here for me, you swingin’ mother fucker” and Grady was really nervous about this whole thing. This giant smile came across his face when Miles gave him this hug. It was almost like Miles had telepathy that the most important guy in the room to him, was uptight, and said to himself, “I’m gonna put him at ease”. I was standing next to Grady when this happened and it was really a magical moment.
We rehearsed some more since Miles was there. We rehearsed the next day, and he was in really good spirits, was very playful, and really seemed to be enjoying himself. I think he passed away about 3 or 4 months later. So he must have had some inkling that if he was ever going to do this retrospective, it had to be now.
AAJ: That’s a great story.
JR: My role as a musician was kind of minor, but my gratitude for being part of the whole thing is major.
AAJ: I had no idea, I did not know that Grady was involved with that concert.
JR: I think the CD lists Grady and I as the drummers and Kenwood on percussion, but Grady played drums on the whole thing. And Grady actually said, “You should be playing this.” But I said “Quincy wants you and that’s the way it should be…”
AAJ: All of your books contain chapters where you stress the importance of listening to the music and studying the master drummers. People listen to music differently now than they did even 10 years ago. In your opinion, how has the popularity of streaming radio and Mp3s changed the way young drummers internalize music?
JR: Well, people are bombarded with every possible kind of music, with the entire history of music available to them every second of every day. That’s different from 10 years ago or 40 years ago when I would go to a record store and pick up a record. For example, maybe that particular album was a Chick Corea record. I remember this Chick Corea record called The Leprechaun and discovered this drummer named Steve Gadd. I went to that record store every day for the next 8 or 9 months looking for the next Chick Corea record with Steve Gadd on it. I listened to that record every day until the next one, which I think was called My Spanish Heart, came out.
I had the same experience with many records. Records with Jack Dejohnette on ECM, that I listened to every day for months until the next one came out…I listened to Four and More every day for more than months. So I think that there’s a kind of absorption that happens with repeated listening and the value that I would put on a recording when I received it. Because I knew that if I loved it, it was going to be a long time before I would find something else like it.
Nowadays that scenario has completely changed. New records are coming out every day, AND even though the entire history of music is available, it seems like people don’t know the recordings. Well, let me put it this way. It’s rare to find someone who’s lived with the recording as long as we used to in the old days.
Music seems to gloss over people just because they don’t have to commit to listening to one record. They have opportunities to hear so many. It’s almost like having a box of chocolates in front of you. You pick one up and you take a bite out of it and you say “oh yeah, I like that,” but you put half of it back in and you pick up another flavor and you say “oh yeah, that’s nice too” and you pick up another one and there’s a cherry in that and you take a bite out of it, and another one has a nut in it, and then by the fifth one you don’t taste anything any more.
When you have that one recording called Four and More or that one recording called Speak No Evil, and you listen to that record every day for months and you know every part that every musician on the recording plays and can sing them all, there’s a kind of a depth that appears. You can’t achieve this when you listen to something once, or you listen to ONE song from Speak No Evil. I think that it’s unfortunate that glossing over stuff seems to be the trend. In my opinion, everything is out there tempting you to listen to it. The people that I admire all seem to have spent a lot of time listening to particular recordings, and really absorbing the material.
AAJ: Do you feel with the way that vinyl is coming back into vogue, that on some level that aspect of digesting an album might be coming back?
JR: Well it’s possible but I’m not hopeful. Having the stuff on your iPhone is so much easier, it’s unfortunate. Well, it’s fortunate that everything’s available because I’m hearing things I’ve never heard before. But it’s unfortunate that musicians at an earlier developmental stage are more inclined to get at the surface of many things as opposed to the depth of a few things.
AAJ: I have to say I agree with everything you just said, especially concerning the disposability of music nowadays. From a quantitative point of view, the money that would have come in from album sales or even song downloads has kind of dissipated. What would have been one dollar or ten dollars, is now a penny or ten pennies for a song that’s been streamed, and it doesn’t seem like people are listening to things more than 2 or 3 times before they move on to something else.
JR: Yeah, that seems to be the way it is, yet that’s not the way the people who made those early records listened to music. I remember Jimmy Heath telling me that when he was a kid he went to the candy store to get something, and there was a Jay McShann record playing on the jukebox and he heard an eight measure Charlie Parker solo—I think it was the first time he heard Charlie Parker—and it blew his mind. And his mother had given him a dollar to get some ice cream or something, and he took the dollar to the counter and got twenty nickels and listened to that song twenty times. By the end of it, he had that solo memorized. That’s an even older approach than what I had. I think there’s something missing when you don’t live with the music for a long time.
AAJ: I guess I could say, I concur. I don’t really have an answer—I guess that’s just the way things are now.
JR: That’s the way things have evolved. There are a lot of virtuoso players today, so I guess this new way of looking at things isn’t affecting their craftsmanship, but it may be affecting the way they’re using their craft.
AAJ: Do you think people are just spending a lot of time in practice rooms and not sitting down and focusing and listening to music?
JR: I think people are spending a lot of time in practice rooms, and becoming fantastic athletes on the instrument, and that dimension can influence how one approaches the music. To follow up on what we discussed earlier: when one listens to tons of music rather than live with a smaller collection of music what seems to stick with you are the "highlights" or busiest moments for all those recordings. Of course we're all drawn to the big moments in the music; I've found that as one listens to something longer and longer, the significance of what a musician is doing most of the time - between those highlights - starts to sink in and that's where one learns about musical balance, to be patient and musically supportive.
AAJ: Before we finish, I had one more kind of “fun” question to wrap this up. Living in New York, one of the things that surprised me was the fact that most drummers seem to use the same 4 piece set up that you use. Visiting drummers seem to pare down their kits as soon as they reach the city limits. Is it really too much to ask for one extra tom?
JR: Well, when I first moved to New York I would carry my drum set on the subway. So I had to carry everything and get it up and down the stairs in one trip, otherwise I would carry one half the kit down and when I would get back up the stairs to get the other half, it would be gone. A lot of people get accustomed to carrying small kits because they’re schlepping the stuff around. Now things are changed so many of the clubs have their own drum sets. They got tired of having drummers carrying stuff in and out and bumping into tables and customers, so that was the choice of the clubs or the budgets of the clubs that limited them to those 4 piece kits. I’m fortunate to play at the Village Vanguard which is one of the last clubs in New York where people play their own instruments. When Tony Williams played there he played a 24 inch bass drum with 2 toms on top, and 3 floor toms, and you got to hear HIM play HIS sound. At the Blue Note, everybody plays the house kit. So a lot of it is a measure of practicality: the clubs are small, transporting the stuff is difficult, and carrying it in a taxi is a drag—an extra piece?—well an extra tom is not too much to ask if you want to CARRY it. Or if you have a cartage company willing to deliver it. But a lot of the venues have 4 piece kits, so there’s no option there.
AAJ: I didn’t know that the Vanguard didn’t have a back line, well I guess I’ve only ever seen you play there.
JR: Well my drums are there because I’m there every week [with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra}. But they’re only played on Mondays. When Al Foster comes in or Louis Nash comes in etc., they always play their own drums. Hardly anyone is carrying their own drums on the road anymore so we're all dealing with "drums du jour." It's always interesting to hear players I know well playing on a strange kit. Some people consistently get their own sound, others seem to savor finding new sounds in the 'du jour" kits. One reason everyone loves playing, and listening to music at the Village Vanguard is you really get to hear that drummer's sound in an intimate setting with great acoustics. I look forward to playing there every week.
Author’s note: This interview was conducted while I was driving Oz Noy and Oteil Burbridge to the Chicago Music Exchange after their shows at Martyr’s the weekend of 5/22/14. I didn’t know that Oteil would be joining us until that morning.
Rarely does the opportunity to interview a touring musician arrive with much advance notice. Schedules tend to be dictated by airline departure times, hotel check-out policies and sound checks. If I am lucky, I’ll know of an upcoming show in town a few weeks in advance and can plan accordingly. If the artist has a few minutes to chat post-gig, I usually attempt to prep them with a few questions and follow up via phone later. Sometimes however, an opportunity literally sits down in the back seat of your car and starts a conversation.
Like most generation x-ers, I grew up with a lionized version of the 70’s and the music that grew out of the Vietnam war era. The myth that Hendrix and The Dead were household names in their respective heydays prevailed as we dug up our parents’ old vinyl and declared that we had been born in the wrong decade. I received a copy of The Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East when I was 17 and was surprised to learn that both Gregg Allman and Duane Allman had cut their teeth as session players before their big break. In the 00’s, the band included bassist Oteil Burbridge, and guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. This association led to Trucks’ forming the Tedeschi Trucks Band with his wife Susan Tedeschi, and brothers Oteil and Kofi Burbridge. This past May, I was fortunate to catch up with Oteil in between these projects the day after he performed with Oz Noy and Keith Carlock at Martyr’s in Chicago.
A consummate artist in several styles of American Music, Oteil Burbridge is most famous for his fifteen year contribution to The Allman Brothers Band. A native of the D.C. area, Oteil and his brother Kofi relocated to Atlanta and have maintained a rigorous touring schedule for the past 10 years. This decision to move to the deep south had a significant impact on Oteil’s musical perspective.
OB: It’s probably why I’m so into folk music. I find it fascinating, cause it gives you the real story. The uncut...not the bullshit party-line story. It’s the real story, it shows you somebody else’s point of view and it can be enlightening. You can see where people are coming from, their motivation. I think that’s why bluegrass kind of continues to capture my attention. Because, it’s the music of poor people. Coal miners, and people who are getting shit on badly. They have it just as bad, in some cases worse, than people in the ghetto. We do this song called ‘Coal Dust Revenge’ about people having black lung, you know? Your job was gonna kill you, it was just a given.”
While folk and bluegrass tend to dominate Appalachian music, the roots of southern music extend deep into the heart of America. From its conception in the delta to the migration north after the war, jazz has maintained a cultural significance through many iterations. As the music evolves, it tends to mirror popular trends while retaining a focus on improvisation. Styles such as “funk”, “rock”, and “gospel” are really just different branches of the family tree that grew out of the deep south.
OB: “No matter how far you dig down south, you never hit the bottom. Funk: Augusta Georgia, New Orleans. Right? And other places, but that’s where that shit really starts. Blues, which gave birth to rock, and jazz. Again, New Orleans. I mean, how do you go any further back? Then you have country, bluegrass, and all kinds of gospel music. I mean Jesus, all that shit came out of there.”
Often compared to Jaco Pastorius in his use of chords and harmonics in his solos, Oteil Burbridge has successfully synthesized elements of rock, folk, bluegrass, and gospel music into a highly personalized musical style. Whether seamlessly integrating scat solos ala Richard Bona, or fusing tight chops with Americana in the styles of Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, Oteil Burbridge has proven himself a musical chameleon of sorts. Nevertheless, his roots in folk and jazz music lend an artistic honesty that can be felt whenever he performs.
OB: “Jaco didn’t consider himself a jazz bassist, he was a punk jazzer. I think I’m a folk jazz player.”