Although he's celebrated for his idiosyncratic, virtuosic drumming in bands such as the Dixie Dregs, Winger, Jazz Is Dead and The Jelly Jam, among others, Rod Morgenstein says that great drum albums don't always have to pack explosive displays of technical firepower.
"What makes something a brilliant listening experience can vary album to album, drummer to drummer," he says. "The role that percussion plays in the music just has to draw you in somehow, and that can be anything. What moves me can be all over the map, but I always respond when somebody is inspired and it shines through."
Like so many other children of the '60s, Morgenstein bought a copy of Meet The Beatles after seeing the band's historic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Wearing out both sides of that disc, he marveled at Ringo Starr's wildly inventive, idiosyncratic playing. "He did these little things that were so interesting," Morgenstein says, "but it wasn't about being a show-off. He was just being himself, and he was integral to what was going on. He was one quarter of what made the music sound the way it did."
Three years later, Morgenstein's musical world turned upside down yet again when a friend sat him down and played The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experience. "I never heard a guitar played in quite that way before," he says, "but that also holds true for what Mitch Mitchell did on the drums. Hendrix was a very dominant figure, but to me, Mitch was just as important to the whole of the music. I was floored. Soon after that, along came John Bonham and Jethro Tull’s Clive Bunker and, of course, all the fusion guys. Drumming really opened up."
As one of fusion's most acclaimed drummers and highly respected instructors (16 years as a professor in the Percussion department at Berklee College of Music), Morgenstein has spent years analyzing the minutiae of musical composition and performance. Yet he's the first to admit that what distinguishes a great drummer from a good one can be a subtle, elusive difference.
"It’s always a question mark in my head," he says. "'What is it about this person’s feel that’s different from everybody else's?' is what I ask myself. A lot of times, it goes beyond ability and comes down to personality. If you can allow some aspect of your character to come out in your playing, you'll stand out, you'll drive the music. Any time I hear an album that's really great, it's because the drummer is driving the band."
On the following pages, Morgenstein runs down his choices for what he considers to be 10 essential drum albums (listed alphabetically by artist). "I could probably have picked 20 very easily," he says. "Led Zeppelin alone have several records where you're like, 'How can I decide? It's all too good!'"