Friday, September 18, 2020

Ratamacue Variations

 Hey all,

I have an article in the just published issue of Canadian Musician magazine. It deals with Ratamacues and can be found at

Have a lovely day! 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The best lessons your teacher may be offering

I would like to relate a couple of things that happened to me this last summer that made me think about teachers and our relationship to them.
The first thing that happened is a well known drummer (forgive me, I can't remember if it was Adam Nussbaum or Joe La Barbera)  was posting photos of drummers that inspired him, and so he put Alan Dawson on his feed. What followed were many posts about his teaching and the rudimental ritual, but no mention of seeing him live or on video performing, or some of the great recordings he made.
I had a similar experience a few weeks later with the tragic death of my friend and great vocalist Shannon Gunn. Shannon also had taught at Capilano  and Humber colleges, respectively. As tributes came out to this wonderful musician on the scene, I was shocked at the number of young student musicians who had never seen her perform live, even though she had been doing so fairly consistently her whole career.

In both these cases, people were missing the best lesson of all, seeing these great artists perform!
When you get to see someone live, you get to see how they interact with the audience, their fellow musicians, and even the management of the venue. You can check out their body language, hear how they sound in the room, etc. Now, I'm aware that sometimes checking someone out live is impossible ( Mr. Dawson passed away in the 90s) but often there is available video footage and recordings. In short, if you are involved in the performing arts and your teacher is out there "on the scene', check them out! I guarantee you will get things from it you won't get from lessons alone! 

So, here's some great footage of Alan Dawson performing and TEACHING us all while playing with Sonny Rollins


Unfortunately, there's isn't much footage of Shannon Gunn online but here she is singing "Who Sang the Songs We Always Sing", dedicated to Frank Sinatra.

In closing, I certainly in no way want to denigrate or minimize the influence a great teacher can have, even if that teacher never performs. I just want to emphasize that we can learn a lot from our teachers/mentors when we observe them in "battle' conditions. Stay safe all……..

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Swiss triplet brushes

 Hey all,

Just a quick application of the classic Swiss triplet sticking ( RLL ) except with brushes. For all the Rs that are on the beat, we'll sweep to the right. For the 2 Ls, we'll sweep the middle note of the triplet toward us, and the last L away from us. I've also used taps with the Right hand to create the Jazz Ride Rhythm or shuffle, and have included some alternate sounds at the end. make sure all your swept notes are nice & legato.


The next example has me warbling "Blue Bossa" while playing a variation of the idea as well as the original 3 beat idea, all in straight 8th notes.


That's it. Nothing especially earth shattering here, but it is a nice chance to work on some motions and coordination with the brushes that might be new for some of us. :)                                              

Monday, September 7, 2020

Michael Brecker and the flat tire

I can't remember if I've told this story on here or not. If I have, not recently.
When I was teaching at Humber College, Michael Brecker was artist in residence. The head of the percussion department, Roger Flock, I think considered himself more of a percussionist than a drum set player, so performances with these guests would be famed out to one of the drum set specialists on the part time faculty. Mark Kelso was on the pat time faculty at this time, and with Mr. Brecker playing a handful of concerts during his residency, Mark was certainly keen to perform with him, as was I. The residencies usually featured the guest artist playing with various configurations of faculty and students, in a variety of musical settings. The faculty performances were to be Brecker with an acoustic group, an electric/fusion band, as well as some other things that escape me. ( I vaguely remember doing some sort of 2 tenor thing with Pat LaBarbera .) What was sort of cool was that because Mark was going to be away most of that week he wanted to play the first concert , which was the "straight ahead acoustic Jazz' one. So, I was to play the "Fusion" concert the next day. I relished the idea of both Mark and I playing "against type", and hopefully, yet slightly nervously looked forward to playing with Michael Brecker the next day. The next morning I got up early to make the hour long journey to Humber for the noon hour concert. I walked into the garage and realized I had a flat tire. There was a possibility of getting the motor club to fix it but, by the time they got to my place, time would be a little tight. So, I decided to change the tire myself. This was a while ago so, 1) the spare tire was an actual regulation tire so driving to Toronto and back on it wouldn't be a problem and 2) I used the owner's manual as my guide as this was pre-Google and Youtube. I followed the instructions carefully and methodically and soon I was on the road towards the college. I'd never changed a tire before, and i found the new experience satisfying and even sort of fun.

I got to the school, parked and then headed with my cymbals and sticks to the auditorium. Brecker wasn't there but the rest of the musicians  were there going over the music, which leaned heavily on some of Steps Ahead's music, most of which I was familiar with. As I was setting in and discussing what we were going to play, I couldn't help but notice how nervous and uptight most of the other players seemed, and also how I wasn't feeling that way.. Then it hit me, I had just changed my own tire which I had never done before. I was now going to play drums. Something I had been doing for decades. What could go wrong? IT WAS GOING TO BE FUN!

It was fun! The concert was a success. Brecker turned around to me at one point and said loudly, "You guys can play"! As I mentioned, I played with him again later that week, with similar results. The takeaway for me? No matter who you're playing with, listen, have fun, and give it your all, without self-consciousness. it usually goes well after that………..Thank you Mr. Brecker ( and flat tire) for this great lesson.

To close,  here's Brecker playing on Pat Metheny's Two Folk Songs" from then 40 Year old recording, 80/81. Still sounds as fantastic as the day it was released!

Saturday, September 5, 2020

It adds up….

 Quick post. I just realized that since the quarantine began, most days I have practiced at least an hour of piano and an hour of drums. So, just to be on the conservative side, say I practiced 5 days a week, and started in earnest by April. That means by now I will have practiced at least a 100 hours of each instrument. I'm not telling you this to brag or anything. In fact, there are many people who practice WAY more than this, as I have earlier in my career. My point is, I have seen a lot of improvement in my flexibility and comfort with both instruments as of late. I've said it before, but if you spend enough time with an instrument, it will start to whisper in your ear, telling you its secrets. The thing is, this is available to everyone! All you need to do is put in the time.

What are you waiting for???????

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Machine Age

                                                                                                                                                                           To say that we live in interesting times would be a vast understatement, even if we are looking at pre-pandemic. We musicians are aided by many modern inventions, from tuning apps, to electronic metronomes, to recording software we can use on a laptop or phone. For sure, we have gained much. But, have we ever given though to what we might be losing? A case in point is the history of the drum machine. In the early 80s, drum machines were developed as an aid to the recording process. Many drummers weren't happy about this, but some realized it could be an important tool. Many great recordings , especially in the Pop world, featured live drummer/machine hybrids that were very interesting. As we headed into the next decade, Drum n' Bass and Electronica used this machine in new and exciting ways. it's at this point something unprecedented happened. Drummers started imitating the machines rather than the other way around.
Now, this is not even remotely intended to denigrate the great things people like Jojo Mayer, Questlove, and others have done to take the best parts of drum machines and sequencers and add it to their musical palette. No, the problem is with the drummers that were influenced by these innovators.  and as a result, we live in a world where "machine-like" precision and execution has become the gold standard. Super tight, clean, playing is seen as the only way to play. If Elvin Jones had started recording now, I'm afraid there would likely be a lot of talk about how "sloppy" he plays, rather than how swinging, expressive, and beautiful it is. You can see the problem, right? There can be a beautiful looseness to how many drummers operate, especially when playing swing. I actually had a person tell me when he saw Lewis Nash for the first time how "tidy" his playing was. Now, Mr. Nash has very formidable and clean technique when he wants to use it, but it seems to me that focusing on the speed or evenness of his hands when he's painting such beautiful musical pictures strikes me a weird thing to focus on. I've been checking out a lot of Billy Higgins lately, and I love the relaxed looseness and joy that he brings to everything he plays. Check this out and I'm sure you'll agree with me…..

                                                In conclusion, I think it's important to remember that the reason nobody has successfully programmed a machine to sound like Elvin, Billy Higgins, Keith Moon, or many others is there is humanity and personality there that can't be copied.  By all means, work on your "perfect' playing, but also be ready to go for it and be yourself! :) 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Time, fills, and other myths

I  really wouldn't be surprised if anyone reading my blog thinks that I have a personal vendetta against Instagram. I don't. I just feel that the Instagram part of the social media neighbourhood has a lot of sensational qualities that can lead musicians, especially drummers, down the wrong path. Take this idea of "killer fill"-type posts I see constantly. I really feel, after one has been playing a couple of years, there is no point in differentiating between "time" and "fills".       
I mean, if we're not keeping time while playing fills we've got a problem. Also, as soon as we're playing anything, including a patterned beat, we are filling up a sonic space in the music.
Another problematic element is the idea that somehow playing some sort of pattern or groove, especially a hypnotic, repeating one, is boring, and the "fills" are where we get to shine . I must admit when I was younger I too, suffered from this limited thinking. No wonder when I listen back to old recordings I hear that impatience and lack of maturity in the grooves I was attempting to play. If all I was thinking about while I was keeping time was about how I was going to dazzle everyone when I played a fill, I wasn't truly in the present, where most great music lives. 
Yes, I admit there are times in the music where it makes sense to stay on one area of the drum set and play something solid that doesn't change constantly. ( Philly Joe on "Milestones', anyone? ) Then there are times when the music requests the excitement that moving around the drums and cymbals creates.
Some music requires no fills, some music requires so much moving around the instrument that one can't tell where the "time" stops and the "fills" start. In short, figure out what the music needs and judge yourself accordingly.

As a great example of someone to appears not to be worried and/or making value judgments about the dreaded time and fills, I give you the wonderful Paul DeLong. Yes, sometimes he spends more time on the toms and other locations in the music he's focused on the hi-hat, but MOST IMPORTANTLY, he's always playing and representing the flow of the music. Beautiful. See you soon.