Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Gig : Your Blank Canvas

I'm going to get slightly conceptual and talk about some ideas I've struggled with over the years.
Like many drummers, when I was first learning to play, I would listen to great players and was amazed at what they were able to do with any music they played. How they made the music feel. their sound and ideas, and how they made decisions on the spot yet always seemed to do the "right" or even "perfect" thing. When I was going to McGill University in the late '80s, I had a fair amount of opportunities to play live Jazz in front of an audience. On most of the gigs I was playing, people weren't playing much original music (in sharp contrast to now, I might add). I started to realize that while playing a lot of these tunes that had been played by great artists on famous recordings, I would start to experience hearing what I call "bandstand ghosts" in my head. By this I mean I would often find myself doing similar things to what I'd heard the drummer on the recording do on similar tunes. Sometimes I would even get the feeling that other people in the band wanted me to do what they had heard the drummer do on those records. I struggled with this sometimes, because I often felt like I wasn't improvising. Sometimes I went and played the complete opposite of what I'd heard the famous drummer do, just to be different. That also felt weird, because playing something different than what I heard on the record felt arbitrary and unmusical. I think, over time, I am now able to do something that is somewhere between these 2 approaches. If some part of the drumming on a tune seems part of the signature or personality of the tunes, I might play it verbatim (although rarely) or use the original idea as a jumping off point or play variations on it. Sometimes I might still deliberately turn left from the original. I believe why both these approaches work for me now is due to all the listening I've done over the years. If i want to be reverent to the original drummer on a recording, I can do that without feeling like I'm just sampling it. If I want to venture far away from another drummer's concept of a tune, I have logged a lot of time listening so I can find a new approach that is still tasteful and respectful to the piece.

I think, in a way, every time we listen to something we are developing our own aesthetic and instincts. There's no point in having a bunch of ridiculous technical things to do on the drums if we can't actually apply them to the music. I also feel that we listen in 2 ways, depending if we're learning from recordings or playing with people. When we listen while were playing we have to keep in mind that the world of the bandstand we are inhabiting is our world. Not Brian Blade's, not Vinnie Colaiuta's, not Art Blakey's. They aren't on the gig, you are! Base the decisions you make on your own judgement and experience. When I am playing the drums with you, you are in Tedland, and I am Tedland's (mostly benevolent) dictator. That's not to say I don't listen to or get feedback from the rest of the band, I certainly do. But ultimately i make the decisions about what the drums do and don't do, what I think is valuable or not, and how I react to the sounds around me. This is a great responsibility, but also a great privilege, one that I relish and celebrate every time I play!

I thought I'd end by posting the title track from John Scofield's Shinola. Go buy this recording! It's great. I love Adam Nussbaum's muscular tom work and time keeping with drums on this one!

1 comment:

  1. Great post Ted - it's all so true. I find myself thinking the same sometimes and doing the same in my bass playing - in most styles I play, not just Jazz - I'd rather use the chords as my guide and make my own part. :)