In my last post, I drew a line between Indian classical music through Miles to Misha Mansoor. Yeah, I’m still trying to decide if that was a good idea considering the response. Well, I knew it was a narrow rabbit hole I was going down. I’m gonna go tighter in some crazy idea that it will become even more universal. I threatened to talk about drummers and by God, that’s what I’m gonna do.
Drums are a very primitive, cellular-level thing. Because of the initial rhythm-based nature, they were used for communication in early times, for synchronization still (think marching) and truly social interaction (dancing). Hand drumming has evolved to complex drum kits that use all limbs, hardware, sticks, mallets, electronics and computers. The truly remarkable technology is not in hardware but in the evolution of human software. The ability for a human to use 4 limbs, both in sync or independently, with an interactive layer in realtime is pushing beyond imagined possibility 20 years ago. The technical aspect of creating the physical coordination and power has to be connected to the mental processing of the math involved as well as the intangible “musical” element in the interaction with other performers. The use of memory (the drum parts), interaction (listening, reacting) and execution (movement and coordination) can be more than just “keepin’ a beat”.
I have been so fortunate to see some amazing drummers over the years (Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones,Louie Bellson, Oliver Jackson, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, David Garibaldi, Terry Bozzio, Ricky Wellman, Carlos Vega, Rikki Bates, Swapan Chaudhuri, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain ) and work for a few (Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Gadd, Bruce Carter, Steve Smith, Peter Donald, Peter Erskine,Pat Wilson, Dennis Chambers, Alan White, Ricky Lawson). They have all added to my education in some way. My father Val, who plays tabla and congas, was the starting point of all my musical education, especially from a drum point-of-view. The early exposure to Indian classical music showed me that some of the most advanced musicians could get the most complicated polyrhythms out of two drums, ten fingers and two palms. I found out the complexity of learning written parts, the freedom and challenge of improvisation and the underused tool of silence, where restraint was the greatest gift a drummer could give to a song.
Drummers have been the brunt of jokes probably for as long as logs have been hollowed out or skins stretched; yet some of the world’s greatest musicians also turn out to be good drummers. Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, Stevie Wonder, Jan Hammer… they all could play and usually insisted on having great drummers in their bands. To me it added to the way they composed and arranged their songs, the rhythms natural and weaved deep. Check out how a guitarist/pianist like Ralph Towner or Mike Keneally brings a unique voice to their other instrument. The jokes often tell of how the band is comprised of “4 musicians..and a drummer”; this is not always true.
Heavy music created some interesting challenges for the percussive; the tempos and aggression that came with the music require certain shifts in order to play. The physicality of drumming can be obvious; just watch Animal on the Muppets. It’s often like a long distance race combined with a mixed martial arts match that lasts a few hours. Drummers have to build extreme endurance into their ability for heavy music. When a band is coming up, they can get used to playing a 30 or 40 minute opening set, their energy expended in one furious burst. When they shift to headlining I’ve seen whole bands totally flatten out after the 50 minute mark and poop out before the hour.
Faster is often done by playing lighter; will the music lose its force and energy? The speed also will cause drummers to simplify parts just out of economy or ability. What else will suffer from the nature of the music? Many subtleties are lost; sometimes the simpler pats make it easier for the rest of the band to play and for the audience to listen. There is always someone stronger, faster and hungrier coming up behind you. What will this next generation of drummers be able to do?
Throughout my working career I have been on the lookout for the up and comers, not only because of my enjoyment of their playing but to see where drumming is going. I started out as a drummer and something happened to me in my early 20’s that stopped me from pursuing that dream I began at 13. I always referred to it as a dosing of a flame, a part of me that no longer burned. I didn’t have the natural gifts or the discipline needed to get to the next level. I heard something in my head that my hands and feet couldn’t do. I decided to watch closely as others tried and to help them get there if I could.
Working with Vinnie early in my career was like space exploration; there seemed to be no bounds to his ability or imagination. There are people who you work with that you learn their go-to licks, their fall backs; I never ever in 2 years got to that point. Bruce Carter’s groove was a force of nature that in another setting away from Kenny G may have been more appreciated. Steve Gadd revolutionized the modern drum kit and I was able to see him on and off over 20 years finesse, groove and play his way through every song put in front of him. So many of the next generation seemed like younger versions with a little more horsepower and little else; who would step up?
Seeing someone like Mike Mangini with Steve Vai was a clue. Toss Panos and Joe Travers came from the Zappa school, fiery and chops to burn. Abe Laboriel Jr. brought power and an open lope to both fusion and pop. Dennis Leeflang from the Netherlands makes great records with Bumblefoot. Bj