Monday, August 22, 2011

The Andre White Interview

Today's special interview features Montreal Jazz drummer, pianist, recording engineer and McGill University professor Andre White.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Andre has released a new album entitled "Code White" that features him on drums joined by trumpeters Kevin Dean and Joe Sullivan, Remi Bolduc on alto saxophone, Kirk MacDonald on tenor saxophone and Neil Swainson on bass. Half of the tracks feature Sullivan's four horn arrangements of Andre's original compositions and the other half features a two saxophone, chordless quartet with bass and drums. The music and playing (as always with this cast) is outstanding.

I decided to take this opportunity to ask Andre about his new album and some other questions regarding his drumming and music:

1) What can you tell us about your musical background?

My father was a jazz pianist so I grew up listening to Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and a lot of boogie woogie, which he used to play almost every day when he had the time. I got my first drum set when I was 12, an old set of WFL's from a friend of my father's who had retired. Before that I was making noises on the pots and pans in the kitchen when I could. I took some piano lessons when I was young, but hated it, and didn't really consider the piano until I was 15 or so, and after that I more or less taught myself.

How did you learn to play Jazz drums?

Another friend of my father's, Keith "Spike" McKendry, who is a legendary figure to a lot of Montreal and Toronto musicians, showed me paradiddles, which confused me for the next 30 years! He also ranted about Kenny Clarke, and I went out and bought Dexter Gordon's "Our Man in Paris" on vinyl, which was the only disc I could find that named Klook. After hearing "A Night in Tunisia" I was completely sold. After that I played in a rock band called Zodiac with guitarist Bill Coon, and the two of us continued playing and writing music together through high school, CEGEP, and after.

2) Who are your musical influences and why?

Well, I try to listen to everything, but the stuff that I return to again and again is Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Max Roach, Kenny Wheeler, Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, etc.

Who are your favorite drummers?

Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Frankie Dunlop, Jerry Fuller, Paul Motian, Jon Christensen, Jack DeJohnette, Papa Jo Jones, all of them!

3) Name your top 10 favorite albums and how they have influenced you.

This is very difficult, because I spend most mornings before school starts listening to new stuff I have discovered in my Internet travels, trying to fill the holes I have missed in the past. So here are ten IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER:

1) Bud Powell - "A Portrait of Thelonious"
2) Stan Getz - "Focus"
3) John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme", "Transition", "Interstellar Space"
4) Art Tatum - "Solo Masterpieces"
5) Jimmy Raney - "Motion"
6) Jimmy Raney - "Solo"
7) Bill Evans - "Turn Out the Stars"
8) Elvin Jones - "Coalition"
9) Billie Holiday - "The Complete Columbia Recordings"
10) Kenny Wheeler - "Music for Large and Small Ensembles"

4) What sort of things are you practicing on the drums and developing musically these days?

I'm trying to get better at playing lots of different tempos, and being able to subdivide well in those tempos. I'm also really trying to develop my soloing to speak more as Max did, and especially Frankie Dunlop, because my technique is limited, and I'm getting older and I feel a certain urgency to be able to express myself more clearly. I'm continuing to develop my doubles at a lower dynamic level to achieve this, and I'm also trying to make the switch between doubles and singles as seamless in my soloing as can be.

5) What interesting projects do you have on the go at the moment? (gigs, recordings, etc.)

I just finished a three day recording project which reunited Bill Coon, Dan Skakun and myself playing the original music we used to play almost every week for a few years that never went anywhere. Bill and I revised some of the music through email, and we recorded as many of our tunes from back then that we could. I'm very happy that I was able to make this happen, and feel that I finally have something I can feel good about after I'm gone.

6) Over the years you have accompanied a wide range of Jazz artists as a drummer. What musical "lessons" have you learned from some of the people you have played with?

I learned a lot from my experience with mainly two musicians: Sonny Greenwich and Steve Grossman. Both of them liked to play long solos, and Sonny encouraged me to get away from strict time keeping. That forced me to check out more modern drummers and more modern music, which I desperately needed to do at the time. I had to invent a way of playing that had some time keeping, but also had way more interaction and power. With Steve I had to figure out how to provide momentum behind the soloist during chorus after chorus, learning where the music had to go up dynamically and where it was OK to come down dynamically in a subtle way while the solo continued so that there was more dynamics available as it continued. It's not just dynamics that change, but density in the music as well. Most drummers are used to increasing the density by about the third or fourth chorus of a solo. When you have twenty or thirty choruses it's a different road map. You have to consider every stroke, sound, drum, hand and foot. You have to truly diversify the amount of expression. Elvin Jones, Frankie Dunlop, and Jon Christensen are three contrasting examples of perfect accompanists.

7) In addition to being a great drummer, you are also a world-class Jazz pianist.

Well, thanks!

How has your experience as a drummer influenced your piano playing?

Tremendously. I hope on a good day that my piano accompaniment reflects my drummer thinking, especially when it comes to comping. I've also learned how to play against a drummer in order to "stir the soup" which can be really effective behind a soloist if it's done right, but all the rhythm players have to understand that that's what's happening. It requires being proactive and yet listening carefully outside of your own ego.

How has your piano playing influenced your drumming?

It's enabled me to understand why drummers who play less are as great at times as drummers who play more. I don't think I would ever have appreciated and learned to love Connie Kay's approach if I wasn't a pianist. It also has helped me really hear how the drums actually sound when I'm playing them, and how they might sound if I take care of business.

8) Years ago, during a set break at the Upstairs Jazz Club (Montreal) while playing with guitarist Ben Monder (this was also following a previous weekend where you played there with guitarist Ed Bickert), you confided in me that despite everything that we as drummers are capable of playing on the drum (in terms of comping, fills, polyrhythms, interaction, etc.) at the end of the day and once all is said and done that "all you really have to do is swing!" (ie. keep it grooving!) This simple piece of advice and music humility has stuck with me for a long time and speaks volumes as why so many people enjoy your drumming. What musical advice would you give young musicians who are considering a career as a Jazz drummer in this day and age?

Well, thanks again, but I'm not sure the idea of swinging has the same kind of importance that it did when I was learning how to play. I do know, however, that seldom will anybody get on you for playing good time, whether it's 7/4 or even 8ths or ding-da-ding. They will usually be more vocal about overplaying and underswinging. Bobby Watson told me it was like a standard car. "When it's time for 3rd gear, make sure you're in 3rd gear. Make sure you HAVE a 3rd gear!"

9) Your most recent recording project "Code White" brings together many familiar and frequent musical collaborators of yours.
Please tell us all about this exciting project, the music and your compositions.

I used to do a gig every Christmas vacation at Upstairs when everyone was with their families or out of town. Usually it ended up being trumpet tenor bass and drums, which I enjoyed for the amount of experimentation it afforded. So I resolved to try this with Kirk and Remi, and then I though it would be nice to have a slightly larger ensemble with some arrangements by Joe. I sent him the tunes, mostly lead sheets, and he went nuts. I knew some of the stuff I wrote was going to be "improved" because that's how he works, and I welcomed that. We rehearsed the music in the studio and recorded it. Kirk has been involved with most of my recording projects because he is extremely reliable as an improviser, and always sounds like himself. Remi is a virtuoso with an unbelievable work ethic and abundant imagination. Kevin is well known for his sound and expressive improvising and Joe, in addition to being a first-class composer and arranger, has a fiery and complimentary iimprovising style to Kevin's. You really hear four mature voices when they solo. Neil is the ultimate perfect bassist. His level of musicality scares me when I play with him, but since I'm there to play, I have to try to overcome that. I don't think I've ever heard him play a bad solo. I toured with him in May, and he had to play a couple of questionable borrowed basses. You would never have known from the solos. He's like Tatum that way; he can assess quickly where the instrument is unplayable and avoid those areas without any compromise in his musicianship.

As for the tunes, well, I'm a songwriter more than a composer. If I write a suite, it will have three or four tunes. I'm self taught and I listen to music that most of the time is lyrical and harmonically interesting. That's what I aim for in my compositions. Some of the tunes on "Code White" are based on other tunes; I find that to be a great way to get started on coming up with original material. First I'll write something on familiar changes, and then once I've got the juices flowing, I set off on my journey. I also at times will sit down in my office or at home or whatever and record myself playing the piano freely improvising for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. Then, later, the next day or two, I'll listen to what's there. Usually I come up with a germ or strain that I can develop into a tune, in an afternoon or two. Once in a while I will spend months or weeks going over these recordings forcing myself to develop something. I don't write music that quickly, I mean entering notes on a page, because I don't read well, so for me it's faster and more complete to record myself, so I don't forget things.


Here's a few nice clips of Andre in action:

From a recent cross Canada tour, here's Andre playing drums with alto saxophonist P.J.Perry and Kevin Dean on trumpet from the Cellar in Vancouver:

This one is a repost from awhile ago but here's Andre in a trio with Montreal guitarist Greg Clayton and bassist Alec Walkington:

And finally a couple of audio bootlegs of Andre playing drums with bassist Brian Hurley and guitarist Ben Monder:

As you can tell from all these examples Andre plays with an exceptional feel and amazing sense of swing. I first met Andre in 1994 in Regina, Saskatchewan at the Regina Jazz Society (which at the time was being presented at the University of Regina Faculty Club) while he was touring with pianist Bernie Senesky in a group that also featured Mikes Downes on bass and former Miles Davis sideman Gary Bartz on alto saxophone. It was amazing ! Andre really, as he likes to put it, put the music into "3rd gear" that evening (I even distinctly remember an involved version of them playing "Afro Blue"). I immediately appreciated and identified with Andre's style of drumming and that gig was a huge influence on my decision to move to Montreal to study at McGill soon after.


  1. Great to read you Jon.
    André is an amazing musician. A real inspiration for me
    Rémi Bolduc

  2. Thanks for doing this interview Jon. Always a pleasure to hear from one of Canada's greats!

  3. Nice interview. Andre is a beast