Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Interview with Joe LaBarbera

I first met Joe LaBarbera during the summer of 1997 at the Banff Centre for the Arts and most recently reconnected with him via interviews I've conducted towards my doctoral dissertation. Some friends and I also brought Joe to Calgary last fall and was fortunate to spend some time studying and hanging out with him then. He is a really wonderful human being, a fantastic drummer and an incredible teacher.

Here's an interview with Joe in advance of a performance with his brother's big band at the Rochester International Jazz Festival:

Joe also recently released an album featuring his quintet entitled "Sixth Sense" and here's an edition of this band from a recent performance on the West Coast:

Dig the drum solo (sorry it gets cut off!) and big sound he gets out of the instrument.

Now one thing that has also really struck me is how loose Joe looks when he plays. Watching Joe play has always reminded me to keep a relaxed and proper posture, remember to breath and, most importantly, not be afraid to let the arms stretch out a bit and contribute to the overall stroke. One could easily get carried away with using the arms but the way Joe does it, it combines grace with practicality and, overall, translates into a huge, warm sound on the drums with a beautiful sense of flow.

So with these things in mind, I decided to ask Joe myself via e.mail about his thoughts with regards to how he physically plays the drums. Of course, Joe was nice enough to accommodate my request and offered these words of wisdom:

"Many people have commented on the relaxed motion I use when playing. My wife mentioned it to me recently in connection with a friend who is very active and physically fit but who is experiencing several problems involving arm, leg and foot pains. She went on to say that at 65 years of age I am still able to perform because I use relaxation to good advantage in my performance. I’m sure there is some plain old good luck involved here with the gene pool since both my parents lived to well into their 90’s with only the usual aches and pains. But over the years in my role as an educator I have given serious thought to posture, limb motion and set up of the kit and am on constant lookout for my students to help them avoid developing any bad habits. I think often of Buddy Rich who was plagued by back problems in his later years. Perhaps it was genetic or perhaps sitting as high as he did and playing down on the set with his back arched played a significant role."

"For myself, I have always strived for a fluid sound with a controlled attack so that I could be dynamically expressive with the drums. People who have never seen me play will often comment on the flow they hear in my drumming which is the same thing that others experience when they see me. Years ago when I was with Chuck Mangione, we shared the stage with Chick Corea and Return to Forever. After the gig Chick commented that I looked a Gazelle when I played!"

"I have never formally studied Moeller Technique but what I have learned is the value of a preparation stroke followed by a down stroke. When I am teaching new students how to play the ride cymbal I have them use an accent and rebound motion with exaggerated height and quarter notes only. The accent is on 2 and 4 and the up stroke on 1 and 3. Gradually we will introduce the dotted eighth/sixteenth or “ride” pattern. As the tempo increases the motion becomes more condensed but it is still there. This allows me to play up tempos for extended periods of time without tiring but it takes time and some serious practice to get it. I continue this approach when we work on the pads as well and am quick to comment when I see a student trying to generate all the power from the just the wrists. Maybe you have seen drummers who keep their arms locked when playing the ride cymbal and on the drums as well. Of course it is possible to play this way but it has never appealed to me."

"In a nutshell, I was trying to get a sound and a feel that I was hearing and my technique evolved to meet my needs. Hope this helps."

- Joe LaBarbera, February 2013

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