Friday, June 1, 2012

The Drummer as Composer: Part One

I find it interesting that still, in this day and age, that some people find it hard to believe that drummers are capable of composing and arranging meaningful music. I've conducted several interviews in the past month with regards to my latest CD release Sunalta and it's amazing how some people still think that we, as drummers, just hit things and are not capable of composing music nor contributing to an ensemble in the same way that other musicians do. Audience members will often come up to me after a gig and are shocked that I wrote all the evening's music! I suppose it's just all part of the stereotypes that we still have to deal with. Some like to believe that we just hit things with no regards to the total elements that make up music and being a musician. What a pity!

Of course, the legacy of Jazz history teaches us that this is certainly not the case (however this post really isn't intended to throughly defend that notion...I don't really need to as I think that the music speaks for itself!) but one only has to look at such musicians as Max Roach, Louie Bellson, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Denzil Best, Peter Erskine, Kenny Clarke, Chick Webb, Paul Motian, Joe Chambers and many, many, many, many others to see that great drummers have been writing great music for quite some time now.

Check out Owen Howard's recent release Drum Lore as this album contains pieces of music ONLY written by drummers. It was motivated by Howard's own personal experience dealing with people who were ignorant about the important contributions that drummers have made to Jazz composition over the years.

I myself was first inspired to write my own music after hearing Toronto drummer Barry Elmes' group Time Warp circa. 1996 at a small tavern on St. Catherines Street in Montreal called Bar Camera (when I reminded Barry about that gig he exclaimed: "Oh yes, I remember that gig too. The owner didn't want to pay us!!!) The experience of hearing Barry's unique approach to Jazz composition, how he dealt with melody and forms such as the blues and how he integrated the drums into the arrangement of his compositions really spoke to me. It started me on my own personal path to developing my own voice as a composer in addition to that as a drummer as well.

I was also very fortunate to have some great composition teachers during my studies at McGill including Kevin Dean, Jan Jarczyk and Joe Sullivan. They not only taught me the basics of dealing with melody, harmony and form but also encouraged me to think to think about music from different perspectives and to think creatively.

Personally, my own influences as a composer range from the likes of Wayne Shorter, Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Thad Jones and Herbie Nichols, among many others. I'm also a big fan of such contemporaries as Ben Allison and I have to say that the albums "Rectangle Man" by John Stetch and "Whyte Avenue" from Mike Rud weighed very heavily in terms of inspiration as well during my earlier years.

I personally tend to write music from primarily a melodic perspective when I compose and build everything around that (although when I studied with Tim Ries at the University of Toronto he spent a great deal of time trying to identify HOW I wrote music and then getting me to do the opposite in order to generate some fresh ideas.....and you know what? It worked!) Many people have commented how much they appreciate the lyrical quality of many of my compositions and while I really appreciate that, personally I think I need to explore some more rhythmic elements and ideas in my writing in the future (which perhaps might sound kind of ironic speaking as drummer/composer!)

To date I have two albums as a leader which feature my original tunes and I'm quite proud of them. I've written a substantial amount of music over the past fifteen years and I hope to continue to document my compositions and progress in the years to come. Still much work to be done...

Today there are tons of great drummers writing great music. Here are a few of my favorite current albums that contain material composed/arranged by contemporary Jazz drummers (by current I guess I'm referring to albums released in the last 10-15 years or so as it were). This list by no means complete or comprehensive but these are just some of my personal favorites that I seem to go back to for some drummer-as-composer inspiration:

Bill Stewart - "Snide Remarks"

Brian Blade & Fellowship - "Perceptual"

Peter Erskine Trio - "As It Is"

John Hollenbeck - "I, Claudia"

Billy Drummond - "Dubai"

Jeff "Tain" Watts - "Citizen Tain" & "Watts"

Matt Wilson Quartet - "Humidity"

Ted Warren & Broadview Trio - "Two of Clubs"

Andre White - "Code White" & "Signal"

Barry Elmes - "Different Voices" & "D.E.W. East"

Mark McLean - "Playground"

Dafnis Prieto - "About the Monks"

Jeff Ballard & Fly - "Fly"

Ralph Peterson Jr. - "The Art of War"

Jason Marsalis - "Music Update"

Karl Jannuska - "Liberating Vines"

Victor Lewis - "Know It Today, Know It Tomorrow"

Dana Hall - "Into the Light"

Francisco Mela - "Cirio"

Herlin Riley - "Cream of the Crescent"

Marvin "Smitty" Smith - "The Keeper of the Drum" & "The Road Less Travelled"

Trilok Gurtu - "Crazy Saints"

Johnathan Blake - "The Eleventh Hour"

Willie Jones III - Vol. 1-4

Hey drummers! Write! Compose! Create!

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