Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Well, it's turning into a sort of unofficial Mel Lewis week over here at Four on the Floor...and that's not a bad thing!
Thanks again to Christopher Smith, author of "The View from the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis" (UNT Press), for sending along these great Mel Lewis Transcriptions and rare photos my way to share with you all.
If you haven't already, make sure to purchase a copy of his book to learn more about the important legacy of Mel Lewis:
Monday, November 28, 2016
Today's post features an interview with Chris Smith, the author of the book "The View From The Back Of The Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis" (UNT Press).
I can say with authority that I've read a lot of books about Jazz drummers and Jazz drumming over the years and that this book, in particular, is one of the best. Smith really did his research, spoke to right people and asked all the right questions. This book is a very informative and well written testament to the life, style and contributions of one of Jazz drumming's greatest proponents. Furthermore, Smith is a very accomplished drummer himself, so his writing offers a great balance between biographical material and Jazz drumming-specific technical details. I really learned a lot about Mel Lewis from reading this (and expect to re-read this a few times in the future as well...)
Chris was kind (and patient enough!) to answer a few questions about this important book. He also sent me some rare photos, videos and a couple of great transcriptions, all of which I'll attempt to post later this week.
Now go over and purchase a copy of Smith's book for yourself:
Here's what Chris has to say about this very important piece of literature, written about one of Jazz drumming's most important figures:
1) Why did you choose Mel Lewis as the subject for your book/research?
This book began as a dissertation while a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado. Honestly I never imagined writing a full academic dissertation. So in 2010, completely freaked out, I wrote the following questions as I searched for a topic:
A) Most importantly, what topic will positively impact my drumming?
B) What topic/musician deserves wider recognition?
C) What topic will cultivate relationships with my musical heroes?
Years prior I played a jury at Manhattan School of Music and Dick Oatts’ commented that I should explore the legato side of drumming. For the longest time I didn’t know what that meant or how it translated to the drums. So as I began studying with Jim White at Northern Colorado and continued learning from my teacher John Riley, Mel Lewis’ name kept coming up again and again. Mel’s cymbal beat, legato sound, and Rub-A-Dub sticking became a fixation. Sitting down and closely listening to Mel clarified Oatts’ legato comment, I could finally hear it! All this to say that after years of checking out Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Art Blakey, my drumming was in need of Mel and he quickly became the focus of my research.
There had been no academic research done on Mel so that made the decision easy. Also my existing friendships with Dick Oatts, John Riley, and Jeff Hamilton allowed me to get in touch with pretty much anyone needed for the project.
As for the dissertation becoming a book – after graduating with my doctorate I edited, added to, and changed the manuscript into the book I had dreamt. The dissertation doesn’t have many of the more colorful Mel quotes, contains no transcriptions, and is a shell of the book. The process from finished dissertation to book publication took an additional 2 years, so all in all I worked on this project for about 4 years.
2) What did you learn from all of this (and interesting facts you were surprised to learn after the fact?)
- Mel was hired by Duke Ellington.
- Mel was hired by Count Basie twice.
- Mel never graduated high school because he went on the road his senior year.
- Mel’s last name is Sokoloff, not Lewis.
- Mel recorded over 600 albums.
- Mel said anything that was on his mind, he was almost honest to a fault.
- Mel was on hundreds of radio and TV jingles, everything from underwear to ketchup ads.
It was interesting to learn how cultural events and technology helped shape Mel’s career. Two examples being how he missed his chance to join Ellington because of the JFK assassination, and how his lively hood (like most jazz drummers) changed with the evolution of Rock and Roll and the use of electronics in recording studios.
Lastly, one of the most important takeaways from this project was the reaffirming that if you immerse yourself in something it becomes a part of you. Was it luck or a freak accident that a Jewish redhead from Buffalo was one of the most swinging drummers ever? NO! Mel Lewis lived and breathed swing. He spent his entire life listening to and playing swinging jazz music. As a result, swing was a part of his DNA and came out naturally. His “musical diet” consisted of straight ahead jazz and if more drummer’s these days had Mel’s “diet” there would be more swinging drummers, period. I know the same can be said about the “diets” of Sam Woodyard, Billy Higgins, Art Taylor…. the list goes on and on. What goes in, comes out. Mel was a prime example.
4) How has Mel's drumming influenced your own playing?
I try to never “set-up” big band figures by playing the same stock ideas. Using Mel’s example, I listen to the ensemble, keep the subdivision steady, and try to organically play what the music requires. That is a totally different concept than playing some rehearsed “fill”. Other ways Mel has influenced me include:
- Finding simple ways to change textures behind each soloist
- Using sweeping lateral motions while playing with brushes (check Jeff Hamilton for modern example)
- Tuning my bass drum lower and continuing to work on feathering at various tempos
- Playing my hi-hats slightly open as a ride cymbal option
- Relaxing my feet and playing my hi-hat with my heel down
- Using buzz stokes on the snare and toms to create legato notes
5) Why should a drummer check out and study Mel Lewis?
Mel was a magician at the drums, so subtle and tasteful. Everything Mel played seemed like the perfect thing for each musical moment. To support the music on that level should be the goal of every jazz drummer. That being said, if you don’t listen closely to what Mel’s playing it's easy to gloss over and not realize the great musical contributions he made. When Mel played with an ensemble, whether an octet, big band, or quartet, he matched pitches and articulations with the written music. It seems simple, it seems easy, but it's not. He was amazing at it and came out of him unconsciously. The ensemble played a short note; Mel played a short sound. The ensemble played a long note; Mel played a roll on the tom or plays an open hi-hat creating a legato sound. If he set up a low brass figure, he often played on his floor tom. If he played a counter line with the saxophones, he usually played it on the snare drum to match the timbre of the saxophone. He was constantly orchestrating. It is unbelievable how somebody could play that musically— it had to have been unconscious. There's no way he could be up there thinking or memorizing—like, in bar thirteen, the bass trombone plays the and of three, so I'm going to play on the floor tom. He internalized the music after hearing it once or twice and his interaction and orchestration in real time became part of the arrangement. A good example of this is Mel’s simple fills during the shout chorus of Bill Holman’s arrangement of “Stomping at the Savoy”. It’s nearly impossible to sing that shout chorus and not sing Mel’s fills. His playing became a part of the arrangement.
Mel often made simple decisions that resulted in powerful musical shifts. In the book one example I pointed out was Mel playing on Joe Lovano's album Tones, Shapes, and Colors. There's a song titled "Chess Mates" where Mel accompanies Lovano's intense solo for about three minutes, and at the point where most drummers would overplay, hit too hard, or get bad sounds out of the drums, Mel simply moved from his main ride cymbal to his Chinese cymbal and changed the intensity and vibe immediately. At that moment it sounds like the music got shot out of a cannon. To think on that level and have that much sensibility about what's happening in the music, that's what we should all be striving for.
Finally, Mel’s cymbal beat goes down as one of the best of all time. Listen to the feel of his quarter notes and the consistency of where he put his skip beat. Mel’s ride cymbal beat is swing, period. There's always a debate on what's swing and what's jazz. Well all I know is that when I hear Mel Lewis play his ride cymbal beat that's swing and that's jazz. There's nobody that's going to tell me otherwise.
6) What do you hope people and/or other drummers that read your book will take away from this?
I hope that readers come away with a much greater respect for Mel Lewis.
I also hope that reading this book leads to checking out Mel recordings they have never heard and inspires a closer listening to records they have heard hundreds of times. To sit down and closely listen to Mel on the shout chorus of “Three and One” provides such insight into his playing and the role of a big band drummer. Lastly, I hope that readers share this book with a young jazz drummer. This isn’t a Jack DeJohnette transcription book! Mel’s musical concepts, and the transcriptions included in this book, are achievable and immediately applicable to drummers of all levels, from middle school to professional.
7) What are your favorite recordings of Mel Lewis?
Impossible to narrow down, but here’s a list of several favorites:
Bill Holman: The Fabulous Bill Holman
Pepper Adams: Critics’ Choice
Don Fagerquist Octet: Eight by Eight
Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Swings Lightly
Terry Gibbs Dream Band: Volume 1-6
Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster
Witherspoon, Mulligan, Webster at the Renaissance
Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley
Sylvia Syms: The Fabulous Sylvia Syms
Jimmy Ricks: Vibrations (Arranged and Conducted by Don Sebesky)
Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis & The Jazz Orchestra
The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis featuring Miss Ruth Brown
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra: Paris 1969 – Volume 1
Chet Baker: Once Upon a Summertime
Pete Malinverni: Don’t Be Shy
Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra: Soft Lights and Hot Music
Mel Lewis Sextet: The Lost Art
Monday, November 21, 2016
Well it's been awhile now since this column has made an appearance here at Four on the Floor (months, in fact!), but here we are and thanks for coming back to check in!
As per usual, here's a wealth of interesting things making rounds here, around the office:
- Thanks to Adam Nussbaum who passed along this rare gem, an audio interview with Vernel Fournier, talking about the musical legacy of bassist Israel Crosby:
- Andrew Cyrille featured by the New York Times:
- Pianist Kris Davis has a new album out that features a variety of duet configurations, including tracks with drummers Marcus Gilmore and Billy Drummond. Here is a sample of one of these tracks featuring Drummond and Davis on Thelonious Monk's "Eronel":
- "Cat with Hats" is one of my favorite new discoveries in the world of on-line drumming blog's these days:
This blog features many regular video interviews with many of the world's great drummers including the likes of Pete Lockett and Ari Hoenig:
- A nice interview with Winard Harper, a drummer who everyone should know about!
- While I didn't quite realize it until relatively recently, drummer Jim White has been an influence on me for nearly 25 years (!) I distinctly recall reading a wonderfully written column he wrote for Percussive Notes in which he offered some listening suggestions, recommending which albums and Jazz drummers to listen to. These recordings have all stuck with me ever since and his article was huge help back when I was starting out. Thanks Jim!
Here's a four-part interview with Jim in which he talks about his career and development:
- Here's Bryan Carter interviewed over at the 180 Drums Podcast with some sage advice and practice ideas:
- Allison Miller demonstrates some cool ideas!
- Thanks to Tim Mah who passed along this one of Kendrick Scott:
- What am I listening to these days?
Dave Holland "ECM :rarum - Selected Recordings" - Steve Nelson (vibraphone), Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Billy Kilson, Nate Smith, Gene Jackson, Barry Altschul (drums)
Chick Corea "ECM :rarum - Selected Recordings" - Airto Moreira (percussion), Gary Burton (vibraphone), Roy Haynes (drums)
Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom "Otis Was A Polar Bear" - Allison Miller (drums)
Cannonball Adderley "Nipon Soul" - Louis Hayes (drums)
Albert Vila "The Unquiet Sky" - Jeff Ballard (drums)
Kris Davis "Duopoly" - Marcus Gilmore, Billy Drummond (drums)
Victor Lewis "Eeeyyess!" - Victor Lewis (drums)
Andre White "El Toro" - Dave Laing (drums)
Andre White & Bill Coon "Esprit de Corps" - Dan Skakun (drums)
Andre White "Give the Drummer Some!" - Andre White, Dave Laing (drums)
Clark Terry & Red Mitchell "To Duke & Basie"
Joe Lovano "Classic! Live at Newport" - Lewis Nash (drums)
Willie Jones III "Groundwork" - Willie Jones III (drums), Warren Wolf (vibraphone)
Kenny Barron Trio "Book of Intuition" - Johnathan Blake (drums)
Charles Lloyd "Of Course, Of Course" - Tony Williams (drums)
Tom Harrell "Number Five" - Johnathan Blake (drums)
- And for today's Final Word, I leave you with this wisdom and this insight from the late Norval Morriseau, one of my favorite painters who's depiction of First Nation mythology and spirituality has really captured my imagination these days...
"I go to the inner places. I go to the source. I even dare to say, I go to the house of invention where all the inventors of mankind have been."
- Norval Morriseau, Ojibway Painter and Shaman
Monday, November 14, 2016
Thursday, November 10, 2016
I've always been a big fan of drummer Peter Erskine and have found his teachings to be a wonderful resource over the course of my own career. When I first got started on the drums back in the early 90s (living in an urban centre with relatively few Jazz drumming resources!) an important teacher of mine gave me a copy of Erskine's "Everything is Timekeeping" video series and, in many ways, this set the tone for my approach to the drum set in the years to come.
Peter always manages to find the perfect balance between technique and concept in his explanations and writings and he always puts the utmost attention to playing the drums with the highest sense of musicality at all times. In this day and age of over-the-top, sensationalist drumming, whenever I see a video or article from Erskine, I take note and pay attention.
Here's a few great resources that have come across our desks over here at Four on the Floor lately:
- A lesson demonstrating some basic drum techniques (Peter always does a great job stressing and contextualizing his "back to basics" philosophy):
- Highlights from a drum clinic at the Donn Bennett Drum Studio:
- An important brush playing concept (Peter is a great brush player!):
- A wonderful and articulate interview with Peter from The Drummer's Resource Podcast:
- Some important considerations or "rules" for drummers to take into account:
- Erskine on bass players (the drummer's best friend!):
- And finally, thanks to the kind people over at NYU Steinhardt, here is an in-depth conversation with Peter Erskine: