Intro - trade not-so-secrets
After playing minimalist jazz for the past several years, jazz fusion legend Peter Erskine stretches out with his new album Dr. Um. The Doctor is in!
Peter Erskine has appeared on more than 600 albums and soundtracks with over 50 of those as leader or co-leader. He’s collaborated and played with the Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson big bands, Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Diana Krall, Kenny Wheeler, the Brecker Brothers, Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny and Gary Burton and John Scofield to name a few.
He has won two Grammy Awards, plus an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. He is also a producer and author. His latest book, No Beethoven, is an autobiography and chronicle of his time with Weather Report. Peter is also an educator, presently serving as Professor of Practice and Director of Drumset Studies at the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California.
If that wasn’t enough, he also develops instructional drum apps and play alongs that have innovative features for the iPhone and iPad. Even with all of the accolades and accomplishments, Peter feels he still has much to contribute to the instrument.
It was a cool fall night in Santa Monica when we caught up with Peter, but there were warm jams emanating from his home studio. His tenure with Weather Report was at the advent of a musical shift in style and sound. The band fused elements of jazz and rock with critical and commercial success.
Now, Peter’s new album, Dr. Um, represents a return to that electric style of jazz that he is well known for, and he talks with us about the album, his inspirational new instrument and the effect it has had on his playing.
You’ve had quite an eventful career. What are some of the highlights that coincided with a shift or elevation in your playing?
“The first thing that comes to mind are the ECM albums. The drumming devices that I had gotten used to, building excitement by expanding the playing palette as it were, didn’t work. The fabric of tension, instead of making a big splash, was more like that incredible surface tension where a mosquito can rest on top of the water.
"That was a real elevation. I learned not to play ‘at’ the music.That’s very liberating. It was also liberating whenI finally learned that it’s not important to either be recognised or feel like you’re a top dog. As soon as you let go of that, it’s a lot more fun to play. It’s more interesting to appreciate, admire, respect, compliment and give to your colleagues.
"Drumming is unique that way. I think we do that more than any other field I can think of. We share trade secrets. A true turning point occurred for me when I met the contemporary classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage in England during the early ’90s.
"Our first collaboration was his opus Blood On The Floor. I’ve gone on to play that piece with the City of Birmingham, BBC, Los Angeles, Berlin and Oslo symphony orchestras. More recently, I premiereda new concerto for drumset and orchestra titled ‘Erskine.’ I’ve played that in the German cities of Bonn, Bochum and Hagen with orchestras there, plus in Los Angeles and soon in Manchester with the BBC Philharmonic.
"This piece is a breakthrough and seems to sum up much of who I am and what I do. It is not a ‘jazz meets classical’ type of piece, but rather a true concerto for drumset. A first of its kind as far as I know. Tremendous fun and challenging. No rhythm section or other soloists, just drums and orchestra. I have much to thank Turnage for, as well as the entire UK music scene.”
Anti-drumming, Jaco, Weather Report and reboots
What was the origin of Dr. Um and how did your approach on the drums change for the album?
“The genesis actually came from a friend of mine, a theatre director named Jack Fletcher. About 25 years ago he said, ‘You have to make an album and call it Dr. Um.’ This is before I made a gradual, determined move away from much of the drumming that had characterised my playing style and career.
"I had taken ‘anti-drumming’ as far as I knew how to take it. In the process, I had discovered a lot of things about touch and tone. Dr. Um got a reboot when the good folks at Warner Brothers in Japan said, ‘Would you make a fusion album?’ I was tap dancing real quickly, pulling ideas out of the air while we were sitting in this restaurant.
"Now, at the ripe, young age of 61, I felt that it’d be fun to play some backbeat music and fusion stuff. The record is meant as an homage, a tip of the hat, a big thank you, to a lot of the kinds of music and musicians associated with that style. It’s been a very Weather Report year and continues to be.
"I’m spending a lot of time speaking about Jaco, taking part in the wonderful documentary film that Robert Trujillo produced. I’ve been interviewed for an upcoming Wayne Shorter documentary and there was a Weather Report documentary.
"I felt now that this album is in the can, and all these films have come out, maybe I can move on. I wanted to revisit not just the musical styles, but some actual tunes. Some are tunes I felt never really got a fair shake. One of those being the Joe Zawinul composition ‘Speechless’. A gorgeous ballad. I play it in much of the same style that I did when I was 25, just better.
"That raises the question, ‘What’s better?’ The secret to the whole thing is, number one, listening. Then, playing what you like to hear. So, I have a better idea of what I like to hear. ‘Hawaii Bathing Suit’ was a tune I had brought into an ECM record date. Everybody hated it [laughs]. I submitted it to a Japanese theme park and they hated it! When I came across it a few months ago, I thought, ‘This could be fun.’ So, I reworked it.
"There was a Joe Zawinul tune I had, this manuscript I spirited away from a rehearsal, I didn’t know what it was called. He had recorded it with the Zawinul Syndicate, edited down from all the music we had. So we chose some parts that he didn’t include in the piece. It’s an interesting version of the song with the added dimension of playing the bits that he had decided to leave out.
"The album, I think, tells a story. It does demand a bit of attention. You can put it on at a party, but it’s really a record to be listened to. Of course, who doesn’t hope for that when you make an album?”
What factored into your decision as regards who to have play on it?
“I had complete certainty that John Beasley would be the perfect keyboard player. When he plays a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer electric piano or Mini-Moog, he can play them. And he can evoke the way Zawinul can phrase but without sounding like a parody or an imitation. That, to me, defines someone that gets the essence of it.
"Janek Gwizdala is the most talented bass player I’ve run into since Jaco. The cool thing about him is that he really enjoys playing the bass. He plays the bass as a base much of the time on the album. That freed me up greatly.”
How did it feel to you emotionally and physically to get back to that style of playing?
“It’s the bicycle riding analogy, just knowing how to keep my feet out of the spokes. Not falling over as much. I’m still doing a lot of big band jazz stuff.
"The odd thing is I’m busier than I’ve ever been. That’s just following the example of the jazz players or the drummers of any style. But, particularly the jazz players, it seems to me, remain the musicians most interested and invested in constantly evolving. Plenty of rock artists are like that too.
"The jazz guys, they stay out there, they do it. The people who can stay interested enough to discover new things, it’s there to be discovered. It doesn’t make you a genius, it makes you someone that stays in the game.
"These are the same people that seem to stay young. One example would be Gadd. The joyous thing for me in watching what Steve’s doing right now is he rediscovered that. I didn’t sense that all the years he was working with Clapton. Now, with his own band,I think he showed all of us.”
Did you do any pre-production or rehearsal before you went in the studio?
“John came over, I did some writing. We spent a couple of dinners talking about music. As we drank more wine, we came back to the studio, pulling out old albums. I had a couple of ideas for tunes. We didn’t rehearse.
"Janek is such a strong musician, he came in right away. Bob Sheppard and this guitarist, Jeff Parker, they came and played. It wasn’t rushed. You start at 10 in the morning, you’re tracking by 11 and you’re done by 4 for each day. You can get a lot done.”
Will you be touring the album with this group?
“We’re taking the show to Japan. The album will be released there a few weeks after it’s released in the US [22 January]. For the summer, I’ve agreed with Mike Mainieri and Eliane Elias to join a Steps Ahead reunion. We might tease and play a little bit in Europe the latter part of the summer.
"Otherwise, we’ll take a little bit of time and plan that. That stuff takes time, planning a tour. Making the music is the easiest part. I don’t want to travel that much, to be honest. In general when I travel now it’s to do a specific project, like this concerto for drumset and orchestra.”
Tama revelations and modern drummers
How did your relationship with Tama drums come about?
“The last thing I was looking to do was to change drum companies. When I left Yamaha and was invited by Don Lombardi and the good people at DW to play their drums, it was very exciting. But something was lacking. Nothing to do with the quality of the instrument, just something that I knew was missing.
"The folks at Tama had contacted me. I had zero interest. I knew Elvin [Jones] had played them. And of course, Billy [Cobham] played them back in the day. It seemed like a rock drum. There seemed to be no relevance. But, they came out with this new instrument they developed, a drumset called Star.
"The only reason I became at all aware was because I asked a student of mine, walking around the floor of the NAMM show, ‘Is there anyone you’d like to meet?’ He said, ‘Could you introduce me to the people at Tama?’ They asked if I’d like to play the Star drums. I said, ‘Well, no, but if it means you’ll talk to my student, yeah, sure.’ [Laughs.] I played them a bit.
"As noisy as the NAMM show can be, I didn’t get much of a read on them. But, they looked beautiful. They contacted me and said, ‘We respect your relationship [with DW], we would just like you to try them and hear what you have to say.’ I finally said, ‘Okay. We’ll do it at my cartage company warehouse if you agree to pay him for his time. I don’t want anything.’
"Instead of an A/B test, we set up an A, B, C, D, E test. We set up a lot of different drums that day. These [the Tama Star] sounded better. I was like, ‘Holy cow! What’s this?’ I decided to play them at a gig that night. I asked my wife to come down to the club, curious to see what she’d think.
"At the intermission she said, ‘I really like the way these drums are making you play.’ That was the end of that. I’m really knocked out by this bubinga drumset, the Star kit. The other selling point was the Iron Cobra pedals. I instantly fell in love with those. The crux part of the deal, no money involved, was that they would design and manufacture a flat-based cymbal stand to my specifications. They modelled it on the old Ludwig stand.
"The few changes they came up with were for the better. The key thing is the disc below the felt that the cymbal rests on moves. When you play a cymbal, the cymbal can follow its own momentum now and moves. The other thing the old stand did was rattle. Tama figured out how to get rid of the rattle with a completely elegant, incredibly simple idea.
"With the cast iron hoops, beautiful bearing edges, rounded at the top, I can get these drums to tune easier than other drums. With the triangulation of the mounting hardware, it seems the drum is freer to resonate. I’m not feeling any pain when I play. I was going through some elbow issues the last few years and I don’t have it now.
"I’m able to draw out the sound that my ears want to hear and as a result I’m playing more drums. The album is a reflection of that. I’m having more fun. When I got these new drums, it was just easier to play.”
Would you say that your instrument can elevate your playing? Is it physical or psychological?
“I think it’s both. Perception is an important part of our reality. But, if I sit in somewhere on whatever drumset and whatever cymbals, my job and duty as a drummer and musician is to play good. When students audition at USC and they start to move something, I say ‘Uh-uh. You’re sitting in. Just play.’
"Roy Haynes talked about when he was doing a double bill with Buddy Rich and he was playing drums for Sarah Vaughn. He had to play on Buddy’s kit. He started to lean over to adjust something and out of nowhere he heard Buddy’s voice say, ‘Play it like it lays Haynes.’ He said that was a great lesson for him.
"All the drummers I’ve admired can make great music on anything. You have to be able to do that. It comes from a combination of having some moxie, confidence and experience. Certainly when you pick up any instrument and it’s gratifying, satisfying and rewarding, it frees you up.
"It takes away a level of concentration or concern that you don’t have to really deal with. But, a little bit of adversity every now and then is a welcome challenge.”
Speaking of adversity, you run your own record label. Can you tell us the freedoms and pressures that entails?
“Having a record label is fun and it’s a challenge we took on with eyes open. The aspirations are musical, not business. It’s nice to be able to do a project and not have to wait and convince somebody this would be a good idea. That gets old.
"I’m not patient that way. Fuzzy Music has enabled me to do a number of things that I’ve wanted to in addition to the CDs. Admittedly, it became a vanity label. We didn’t want to put out other people’s records because we couldn’t do for them what they had every right to expect.
"We just don’t have those resources. I’m too busy doing other stuff. I have only myself to complain to, and that’s okay.”
What are your thoughts on how modern times have affected drumming?
“Today’s drummers have access to thousands of performances you’d be lucky to find in the old days. Maybe you would see it on TV. Now, with YouTube, it’s all available. There are two things that I regret for the younger generation of drummers.
"One, you would buy an LP, it was generally 20 minutes of music per side, sequenced or programmed with some care and thought. You spent a lot of time with it. You developed a personal, intimate relationship with that music. When you have 10,000 songs in your pocket, it’s hard to develop that kind of relationship.
“Number two, I’m sorry for anyone who didn’t get to experience sitting in front of Art Blakey’s bass drum, or in front of Elvin Jones’ kit or have been hugged by him when he was soaking wet from when he played.
"To see and hear Max Roach play live, or Buddy or any number of drummers. You can sit in front of great drummers today but there was something about sitting in front of those drummers. That bar we aspire to, of our drumming heroes?
"They did it every night, of every week or at least six nights a week, three or four sets a night, 50 weeks a year. A band could tour and play in a club for a week. Nowadays, if you can tour, it’s generally one concert. Everyone’s up at the crack of dawn to travel to the next city.
"Back in the day, when you went to hear working jazz bands, it was this tremendous laboratory that was intense. We get to play nowadays, but it’s a gig here, a gig there. It’s hard to get to that level of innovation.
“Then, you factor in what happened in the 1960s. Every generation has their go-to decade. I don’t think there’s anything to compare in the timeline of the last 100 years to the speed and the intensity and the amount of innovation that was taking place.
"Musical boundaries were being redrawn every few minutes it seemed. It was exciting. When each of these albums came out, it felt like you were getting a postcard from the future. Or, an instruction manual for this is the way music ought to be. That sense of deliverance is largely missing.”
Do you think you still have something to say on the kit?
“More than ever. I will say one thing. Bands like to play with me. And I like that. I’m glad if drummers like what I do and if they can get something out of it, whether they just enjoy listening to it or learning something, that’s great.
"I play for the trumpet players, bass players and piano players. They’re the musicians I’m playing for. That involves trusting the music, being honest with the music. That means being versatile. I’m versatile because I like a lot of styles of music. When I was young, a great musician named Johnny Richards, who used to write for the Stan Kenton band, said, ‘Be sure to listen to every kind of music.’
"I took that as a direction. I was lucky I could authentically recognise that the musicians I worked with knew more than I did. I was in school for a very long time. That kept me in work environments where I might otherwise have been tempted to go home. They weren’t always easy gigs. Weather Report was a real pressure cooker. That kitchen got very hot.
"I remember saying to myself, ‘These guys know more about this than I do, and I still have a lot to learn.’ I can still take care of the gig. It was one big learning process. Now, those elements are all there but it’s more of a joyous thing.”