1. How did you get your start playing drums?
Around 1975 my uncle's former brother in law played drums. One day there was a family gathering over at their place and I saw this beautiful Ludwig Vistalite kit in the living room. I fell in love immediately with the looks of the drums. Then I heard him play along to a Led Zeppelin tune and that was it for me. Hooked for life. I was 5 years old.
Who influenced you early on and who inspires you today?
My first influences were the drummers of the bands my mom was listening to at the time. Ringo with the Beatles, Charlie Watts with the Stones, Ginger Baker with The Cream, Michael Shrieve with Santana, Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix. Those were definitely my first musical heroes. Then I moved on to other things in my early teens. Bonham with Led Zeppelin, Stewart Copeland with The Police, Neil Peart with Rush were my main guys for a while. After that I started getting more into Fusion and got into Weckl, Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers, Billy Cobham, Joel Rosenblatt, etc. I started getting into more acoustic straight ahead jazz in my late teens. The first guy that really did it for me was Tony Willliams. That brought me to other greats like Elvin, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Philly and Papa Joe Jones, Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette, Buddy Rich and many more. Today I get inspired by all of my peers; so many out there that are doing great things. I try to stay on top of what everybody is doing and that keeps me fresh.
3. Tell us about your cymbal set up on your album, New Life. What were some of your favorite cymbals to record with? What is your favorite track, cymbal wise, on the album?
My set up for “New Life” consisted of 14” old A's HiHats, a 22” Constantinople Medium Thin High, a 18” Crash Prototype with holes (similar to an EFX), a 6” A Custom Splash placed upside down on top of the Crash, a 22” A Custom Flat Ride that was made especially for me, a stack of a 14” Trashformer and a 12” Hybrid Splash, a 20” Swish with 6 Rivets and an old 21” K with a chunk missing because of a crack that I use as my main Ride.
My favorite track cymbal wise on the album is the title track “New Life”. It's an airy, spacey tune with a very hard grooving section so the cymbals get showcased beautiful throughout.
4. You are both a sideman, and band leader. What lessons have you learned as a sideman that you’ve incorporated into your role as a band leader?
I've learned how to manage a band to make the most of the music. I get very specific with instructions when I need to be, and very loose when the music calls for it. I've also learned what not to do since I've been supporting all kinds of great and not so great band leaders because I believe you can be a great musician but that doesn't necessarily make you a great bandleader. Nowadays I take great care on how the music is presented to the audience and how the flow of the show is going to affect people. I feel that if someone comes to see you the least you can do is have your music more than ready and put on a good show. I want to have the effectiveness and impact of a rock or pop show with the subtleties of a jazz concert.
5. The music you write in your solo work has been described as very melodic and not as "drum heavy" as other music you play. As a drummer, how do you interpret that description – is your drummer-self taking a back seat to your composer-self when you write? Describe your writing process.
Yeah, for some reason when I write I usually don't hear over complicated music and rhythmic patterns. I mean, I do sometimes but it just has to make musical sense to me. I always think: If I was just listening to this tune, would I want to hear it again? If the answer is no then I move on and change it or write something else. When I compose I'm always thinking about what I'm going to play on the drums but I usually come up with some kind of bass line or melodic line first and then figure out what I would play on top of that. Sometimes I hear a drum groove and then start trying to come up with something from that but it's usually the other way around. I want to write tunes that people want to hear over and over again (that includes me) and to me, the key is either great melody, great harmonic progressions and/or great rhythm. The best music happens when these three things converge. I want to write tunes that a musician would appreciate and be curious about but that an average person would also enjoy without having to worry about where beat 1 is or what time signature we're playing. I think a lot of modern jazz suffers from over complication and lack of memorable melodies. Sometimes the audience is left behind because of self indulgence and that defeats the purpose of playing for people. Jazz should be music by the people for the people. It's just a form of communication so you want the audience to get your message.
6. At a recent Master Class at Berklee College of Music, you talked about your theory on practice. Can you explain that here?
I think practicing should be devoted mostly to things you're not good at. A lot of times people spend way too much time reinforcing what they know how to do already because that makes you feel like you really know your stuff. Working on your weaknesses can be tough on the ego because it makes you realize how much work you have to do. It's a humbling experience, but how are your weak points ever going to become strong ones if you don't work at them?
7. How has your determination and “having a well thought out plan” gotten you to where you are today?
It's been key. You have to have short term goals and long term ones. Plan and visualize what you need to do today and tomorrow and next week, and at the same time think what you want to achieve in a year, and in 5, and 10. I think if you don't aim at something specific it can be easy to wander around and when you do, it’s easy for your plans to change without even noticing it because you were just going with the flow. It's like if you are in a wide open plain and want to reach a specific tree in the horizon; if you walk looking down you will wander off your path and when you look up you realize how far off you've gone. If you walk looking straight at the tree you'll draw a straight line and get there way faster and more efficiently.
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