Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Inside the Drummer's Studio

Hey folks,
I'm starting a new feature at the blog today. Frequently I will talk to fellow musicians and ask them questions about things I'm curious about, and hopefully you will find the conversations edifying. I've got quite a few interesting guests lined up so I'm very excited about this. Maybe I can talk to some of them in person too, but that'd mean I'd have to clean the house!

Anyway our first guest is the wonderful Jon McCaslin. He looks like this:

Jon is a tremendous Drummer/Composer/ Bandleader/ Educator. He also hosts the great Four on the Floor blog that I have mentioned before in this space. Check it out for incredibly informative ideas and videos from the world of drumming. You can also see his detailed bio there. I asked Jon a few questions via email and was very pleased, though not surprised, by the eloquence and thoughtfulness of his responses.

1) As well as working frequently as a sideman, you also lead bands and compose for them. What do you think other instrumentalists can learn about these disciplines from drummers?

I feel very fortunate to find myself in so many different musical situations these days as both a leader and as a sideman and as a performer and a teacher. The reality of the music business as it is, you really have to wear a few different hats to make it work. As the old saying goes: “The more you can do, the more you can do!” But overall I think that having the ability to go many different musical directions makes for a very well-rounded musician/individual and just gives you that much more options to musically draw from. Ultimately, I think we are all trying to develop our own unique musical “voice” as a jazz artist and part of that process comes from playing other peoples music, checking out the history of music and studying the masters. However, at some point you really have to make the leap and seriously try to write/find your own music, make your own musical decisions, commit them to a page of paper and then organize musicians to get your music played. I think it’s all about the process of discovering who you really are as an artist.

2) Can you name a recording that was particularly influential to you?

Max Roach’s drumming on Clifford Brown’s “Study in Brown” and Klook on “Kenny Clarke Meets The Detroit Jazzmen” were both very special recordings to me during my younger years when I was first getting started around early high school. They both really inspired me to learn about the legacy of jazz drumming (keep in mind this was during the early 1990s when most of my peers were listening to Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden!)

3) Can you name a profound live performance?

This is a tough question as there are many! I’ve been fortunate to have seen many of the masters play live over the years. Even just lately I heard Bela Fleck and the Flecktones perform here in Calgary and it was inspiring on so many levels. Jeff Coffin (saxophones) is a force!

But one performance that does really stand out for me was attending a drum clinic in 1993 at the IAJE conference in San Antonio, Texas. I was performing there with “The Classics” (drumming with my school’s vocal jazz ensemble) and I was fortunate to attend a drum clinic with none other than Tony Williams! It was just awesome. He played (on his drum set of yellow Gretsch drums with the big black dot drum heads and no less than three gigantic floor toms!) and he talked about his approach to drumming. About half way through his clinic in walked....Max Roach! Of course everyone gave Max a standing ovation and Tony introduced him appropriately (Max was, of course, was Tony’s hero). Tony proceeded to answer a few more questions from the audience in almost a witty/comical sort of manner (for example: when asked about his brush technique Tony replied that he really didn’t like the brushes (!), that he made a better spaghetti sauce than he played the brushes and that he thought that the brushes were invented by someone who didn’t like drummers very a club owner!) Then, Tony Williams invited Max Roach up on stage to play. And of course Max launches into “The Drum Also Waltzes” and from then on I was hooked and there was no looking back....

4) What are your current goals in drumming, teaching, and music?

Well, I’m currently researching and writing towards my DMA dissertation through the University of Toronto and hope to have that completed in the next year or so. I’m interested in how contemporary jazz drummers conceptualize and deal with melody in their playing (whether in the context of playing time, soloing or anything really...) My inclination is that traditional definitions of melody aren’t really broad enough to accommodate what we drummers can do in terms of creating melodies on non-pitched instruments or instruments of indeterminate pitch. There are many musical examples of drummers who do this so well (Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Ari Hoenig, Jeff Hamilton, Matt Wilson and yourself are great examples) and I’m also interviewing as many of the masters as I can to solicit their ideas. I’ll be giving you a call soon Ted!

I’m also working towards a major recording project next spring in Vancouver and plan to have another full-length album of my original music released later next year with a subsequent tour to follow. So I’m busy writing and editing my tunes for that and trying to figure out the logistics necessary for such a project. As you know, it’s a lot of work but a labor of love. I released my last album in 2003 so I’m due for my sequel! It’s going to be a good one.

In terms of the drums, above all else, I’m always trying to work on and deepen my sense of swing, time and groove at all tempos. I spend a lot of time playing with recordings (sometimes just with my ride cymbal) and with play-a-longs (like Allan Cox’s “Meet The Bass Player” - a great resource to practice wacky or oblique ideas without imposing them on other musicians on the bandstand!) Sometimes I’ll record myself playing time (with and without other musicians) and then go back, listen to the recording and try to make my comping figures more relevant and musical (I’ve got a lot out of Peter Erskine’s “Comping Game” exercise in that regards). Groove-wise I’m trying to expand my phrasing in 3/4 and playing really fast, break-neck swing tempos. I’m also big on snare drum technique and have been checking out Joe Morello’s and Tommy Igoe’s technique DVDs lately. I spend a good deal of time improvising on the drums using different set structures and have been exploring the use of space, melody, dynamics and different textures on the drums as well. I also spent some time with John Riley last summer and he gave me enough things to think about with regards to odd meters that will last me for a lifetime and then some...When I get bored on the drums (which doesn’t happen often!) I’ll pull out and work on some pages from Billy Martin’s coordination book “Riddim” or Bob McLaren’s hand written book and those always keeps me “out of the mall” (as Bob used to say). Oh yes, I always find time to work on my brush technique. You can’t forget that.

I’ve also been dedicating a significant amount of time to playing the vibraphone over the past few years. This has really forced me to apply my knowledge of jazz theory in a seriously different way. Before I really only applied my theory skills as a composer and arranger (on the piano) but dealing with jazz harmony as a real-time improviser on the vibes changes everything! I’m really digging the musical path this instrument has taken me over the past few years and I’m hoping to make the leap to another level on the vibes as well in the years to come. I even have my first gig booked on the vibraphone on April 30th of next year (yikes!) Thinking about melody and harmony from another perspective has also significantly changed the way I hear those aspects and relate to them when I’m sitting behind the drums. It’s interesting that more drummers don’t consider the vibraphone as a means to apply or learn about those elements of music.

As a teacher I’m doing a fair amount of private teaching these days and a great deal of clinics and workshops at various schools across Western Canada (and at all levels too from elementary and high schools to colleges and universities). I’m trying to develop myself as an effective communicator/motivator and hopefully inspire other drummers to learn about the great legacy of jazz drumming, percussion and the joys of improvised music on the drum set. I’m really big on fundamental technique and exploring the creative options that the drum set offers. I’ve had a great number of great teachers over the years and sincerely hope that I can continue that lineage and pass it on...

5) Has your blog changed your approach to playing or teaching?

I started blogging during the spring of 2009 as a means to share all the random tidbits of jazz drumming (and otherwise) that I came across on the web that I really enjoyed and found inspirational and thought the world needed to see and pay attention to.

How has this changed my approach to teaching? When I started posting my own thoughts and opinions on the internet (especially in the form of drum lessons) I sure had to think twice and make sure that I was clear, accurate and really believed in what it was I was writing about. Because once it’s out there on the web, it’s for the entire universe to see! Sometimes I’ll occasionally receive some flak from some anonymous internet troll but I’ve also received some great feedback from many high-profile jazz drummers so I think I’m on the right track.

How has my blog changed my approach to playing? Well, I post a lot of video clips of my favorite jazz drummers and I suspect that sometimes many aren’t even aware of the footage until it hits (whether the footage is homemade or otherwise). When one realizes that anyone with a camera on their cell phone or an iPhone can record your playing (even if you don’t know it!) it sure makes you aware that you never know who’s watching (or recording!) so it’s always best to be professional and play as though everyone is watching...(I know sort of “Big Brother’ish” isn’t it?)

6) Why is everyone from Regina, Saskatchewan obsessed with football and pizza?

Good question. I have no idea. Must be something in the water.

Go Riders!

Go Western!

(the sauce is the boss...)

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