Mark Mondesir: ‘I’m known as a jazz drummer, but really the jazz thing came about purely because I wanted to learn more about the instrument’
Jazz ace shares some wisdom
“Today is a talk, a seminar, a masterclass, not a drum clinic…” asserts Mark Mondesir, of the educational wisdom he is about to impart at a London studio and teaching facility.
“It’s not a drummer-only thing as far as I’m concerned, it’s something I want all musicians to attend, and I will be playing drums today only to demonstrate what people have been asking me about for the last 30 years…”
Anyone lucky enough to have witnessed Mondesir playing during that time, marvelled at his extraordinary, dextrous technique or found themselves retrieving their jaws from the floor at the ease with which he seems to step into a musical situation and bring a unique energy to everything he plays on, will understand just why we’ve come to witness his Shapes In Time masterclass at North Acton’s Rubixgroup studios.
“Let me say I’m nowhere near the standard of some drummers out there…” he says modestly, explaining that his session will be more about how his unique style and approach to the drumset comes from within the music itself rather than any crazy chops he’s worked up to squeeze into it.
“There are guys who have put the hours in and can play incredible things regarding their physicality, but I’m not about that, I’m really more about composing on the spot. I always remember something Wayne Shorter once said: ‘Improvising is composing fast, and composing is improvising slowly.’
“And I think when you’re playing any kind of rhythm you’re basically composing and putting different shapes together. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle where you are playing with these shapes, and certain shapes will fit inside other shapes. It’s also about being aware of the spaces in the music, what fits and what doesn’t fit, and how you can play inside those as well. This is what today’s talk is about.
“I meet people who can play and manipulate rhythm all the time, but they can do it as a result of having practised it or practised certain rhythmic phrases or practised over odd time signatures. They are adept at that, but it’s very different to having an innate ability. You see I’ve never practised playing odd time signatures. I don’t practise rhythms, per se, but I sing them all the time, I always have them in my head. I can perceive cross-rhythms as they are happening, how it all feels, how it weighs...”
Mondesir is a drummer that kick-started his pro career in the mid-1980s with saxophonist Courtney Pine before going on to play with other notable jazzers such as Julian Joseph, Jean Toussaint, Kevin Eubanks, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, McCoy Tyner and Barbara Dennerlein.
So, to really get inside the mind of a player like that, one has to dismantle the perception that many have that he is exclusively a jazz drummer. When he speaks of playing with “shapes in time” or “perceiving cross-rhythms”, it’s not an improvisational brain running on overtime, it’s how he finds his way through all music he plays, even the rock-infused stuff he’s made with Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Van Morrison or Jeff Beck.
“I’m known as a jazz drummer, but really the jazz thing came about purely because I wanted to learn more about the instrument,” he says. “I’ve always had an innate ability to play, and even before I became part of the drum community I assumed that drummers could all do the same thing. It was just an assumption of mine that everybody that played drums and was interested in rhythm had a similar mindset to what I had. So it’s still something of a culture shock for me when drummers ask me how I do things when, to me, it’s just the natural way I’ve always thought.”
A child of the 1960s, Mondesir was born and brought up in the East End of London and raised on a musical diet of rock, funk, jazz, country, soul, pop and the seductive sound of calypso that wafted from the family stereo in his West Indian household. One of five children (counting his equally-talented bassist brother, Michael) he showed an early interest in drums at school, aged 12, before taking the instrument seriously at 16 thanks to players like Lenny White, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham (with whom Michael now plays bass).
Though discovering these jazz greats would massively motivate Mondesir, it was a chance sighting on television of another celebrity sticksman that opened his eyes to his position at the drums, not to mention help the rest of us to join the dots to his dazzling, dextrous technique and insane ability to lead with both hands.
“The first few years of me playing drums, my concept, along with a lot of other people’s concept was that you set up the kit right-handed. And it wasn’t until I saw Phil Collins on Top Of The Pops, playing and singing at the same time, that I saw his hi-hat was to his right, and the ride and toms round to his left. It was so weird. He was the first left-handed drummer I’d ever seen, but while it looked odd it didn’t make me wanna switch things around…”
Taking cues from Cobham
Despite him being born a lefty, Mark pressed on playing a right-handed kit before adopting other approaches and ideas from Cobham and co.
“I heard Billy and Lenny on records and was trying to copy what they were playing, but then I later saw them on TV and noticed their drums were set up right-handed and their cymbals set up left-handed. Then I went and re-learnt everything I learnt right-handed with my left to play like they did!” he laughs.
“I later found out that Billy was actually right-handed and I was totally inspired by his concept of playing everything right-handed and left-handed, rudimentally speaking. It made sense to me that I should learn to develop leading with both hands and I’ve been playing in this dextrous way since the mid-80s. But, again, it’s not something I practised. I didn’t lock myself away in a room and develop it, I’d just, on occasion, switch from left to right and over time my ability started to improve and level out. I still feel more natural playing right handed, but my ability to lead with my left is now about 95 percent as natural. It’s interesting because it opens things up more if you’ve learnt to play dextrously. It also takes away any restrictions...”
Word Gets Around
After years of raiding shops or local libraries for any LP or cassette he could tap along to on his bed at home, it was Mondesir’s invitation to attend a London-based jazz workshop run by noted trumpeter Ian Carr in ’84 that his drumming career really began to move forward.
Here, as a largely self-taught player recommended to Carr by drummer Trevor Tomkins, he hooked up with the likes of vocalist Cleveland Watkins and also Julian Joseph, a pianist he would enjoy a long musical alliance with to this day, despite the fact Joseph left for Berklee and a tour with Branford Marsalis a year after they met. He remembers this being around the same time he first went on the road with Courtney Pine in ’86, ’87.
“Courtney had out that single ‘Children of the Ghetto’, and we were doing lots of popular TV shows at the time like Wogan, French And Saunders and Hale And Pace. We also played at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party at Wembley and we were doing all these prestigious gigs because Courtney had been discovered, but I had also by then been discovered as a drummer within the drum scene.
I got my Zildjian endorsement around that time too and I was starting to travel and meet up with so many incredible musicians. We would all have a mutual admiration for each other’s playing and I’d be mentioned in interviews. Soon the word got around and I was playing drums at festivals all over the world.”
The Law of Attraction
For any readers out there not familiar with Mondesir’s playing, some serious clips to scrutinize online might well be his rumbling solo during a John Coltrane tribute from last year, a funky jam between him and Michael at Ronnie Scott’s or the juicy solo he rolled out during the Jazz at the Proms show with the Julian Joseph Big Band in 1995.
Then of course, there is a string of gigs he played with John McLaughlin’s Fifth Dimension Band - in many ways Mondesir’s dream drumming gig, given his lasting affection for McLaughlin and his music.
“I’m a big believer in manifestation and what people call the law of attraction,” says Mark, relating how he came to get that particular gig. “I’m really not a religious person by any means, but I do consider myself spiritual. I think things come into your life when they are supposed to come into your life, and the McLaughlin gig came about because back when I was in my mid-teens and I’d discovered the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Billy Cobham, I’d be in my bedroom listening to this music and miming along. At that moment I was fully-immersing myself in all that music, and I really believe that if you visualise something strong enough, or if you focus on something positively or negatively enough, it tends to show up...”
Of course, just tapping away to Birds Of Fire or meticulously memorising every last detail of The Inner Mountain Flame doesn’t automatically land you the drum seat with one of the most celebrated and prolific jazz guitarists in the world, so what happened next?
“Well, because people started to hear about me, I was starting to get recommended and naturally met lots of people,” he explains. “I was already great friends with a great percussionist called Talvin Singh who had started to play with Courtney, and he was great friends with Trilok Gurtu who was in John McLaughlin’s band at that time. I remember I went to that [now-legendary] gig at the Royal Festival Hall and afterwards went backstage and met up with Trilok and he introduced me properly to John.
“I don’t think John knew about me then but by the time Dennis Chambers was in the [Free Spirits] band with John, I got chance to go backstage again and Dennis re-introduced me. By then John knew me and we chatted. He told me later that because he always has his ear to the ground regarding music and musicians, if he hears of somebody of interest he will go out there and look them up.
“So in the early ’90s when I was doing a lot of gigs in a club in Paris with people like Gary Thomas, Matthew Garrison and Jean-Michel Pilc, John one night stopped by to check me out. Cut to 1995, and I get a phone call and he invites me to play one track on an album [The Promise] and mentions an old friend of his will be on the track too, an old friend he hasn’t played with in 20 years. This friend turned out to be Jeff Beck! So there I was, sat there in the middle of this large studio with John McLaughlin standing on my left side and Jeff Beck on my right…
“I’ve had loads of incidents where I’ve been blessed to get to play the music I played along to as a kid,” he adds, “with the people that were actually on the original albums… one of which being this guy!” he offers, whipping open his denim jacket to reveal a Glenn Hughes T-shirt.
“I discovered Billy Cobham because a guitarist friend told me and Michael about him, and this same guy was the first person to play us both the Deep Purple album Burn… many years later and I get the call to play with Glenn and I’m playing Burn!”
Experience is the Greatest Teacher
Having been in the fortunate position to work with so many great artists that have individually sculpted him into the musician he is today, Mondesir still believes that there is no greater teacher than experience and offers names of those that played a part in motivating him early in his career.
“I still own a cassette with me playing with Wynton Marsalis back in 1988 where he told me to play straight fours on the ride on the first couple of choruses of his solo and I really understood the concept of swing after that. Then there was another time when Elvin Jones sat behind my drums and played before whispering to me, “Dynamics!” That was a lesson right there… from the source!
“Pee Wee Ellis was another major sculptor, and not many drummers get to learn about playing funk with the man who basically created the genre. He knew what he wanted to hear and would verbally arrange the band as we played, calling out chord and form changes. Pee Wee is a jazz musician mentored by Sonny Rollins, and the tune Cold Sweat, which Pee Wee co-composed, and which is arguably the first legit funk tune, was inspired by Miles Davis’s So What?.
“I think everyone is free to learn from, or be inspired by, whoever they choose, but personally, it’s really served me well to go out and discover who inspired my favourite drummers and do detective work to find out who inspired those drummers. You eventually work your way back to the birth of the drumset. I remember I saw the Dirty Dozen Brass Band when I was in New Orleans in 1987 and watching the separate bass drummer, snare drummer and percussionist totally opened me up to how the drumset should be approached. It’s a band within a band. An orchestra within an orchestra. My experience in jazz has given me a deeper more nuanced sense of dynamic, melodicism and orchestration on the drums, that I have to say I’m rarely hearing these days.”
Technique and Teaching
With the room now starting to fill up with guests, the conversation drags back to technique, today’s event and how Mondesir feels his approach to his instrument has changed since he first turned pro.
“I have never looked at my approach to the drums in a methodical way,” Mondesir observes. “I’m largely self-taught, just a few lessons here and there, so I’ve always felt, and continue to feel, inspired by the music I’m exposed to rather than dealing with the instrument on its own. In fact, it’s not something I was aware of until I really became part of the drum community in the early ’80s and I got to speak to other drummers at clinics and in clubs. It was only then that I discovered this whole geekiness about the drumset, in the same way people can be geeky about cars and recording train numbers.”
“Of course, I can appreciate the beauty and history of say vintage drums, but I only own two sets of drums at any one time, so I’m not a snare drum collector or aficionado or anything, I’ve never been like that,” he says, pointing to the Rubix facility’s mass of delectable drums on the shelves around him.
“My interest in drums and approach to playing and learning is simple in that if there’s a piece of music that inspires me and it contains something that I could incorporate into my playing then I’ll go towards that. Rather than deal with the drumset alone, develop lots of chops, and after the fact sit and work out how I can fit these techniques and chops into a musical situation, I want to naturally develop what technique I already have by dealing with the music.
“One analogy I use a lot is it’s like having two different people, one that goes to the gym on a regular basis several times a week and works on specific equipment to isolate certain muscles and after a time have an impressive physique as a result of this continuous exercise. Then there’s the person that has taken on a job that involves manual labour on a regular basis and as a result of doing that job for several years has built an impressive physique, but the muscles here are muscles that are used.
“The labourer’s physicality is gonna be more pertinent to the job at hand and I basically think that’s how I develop. When people talk to me and ask about my technique or question how fast my hands are, I say my hands are only fast as a result of reproducing phrases I have picked up or enjoy listening to. So it all comes from music rather than being sat working through a book, trying to push past 260bpm with a metronome.”
Shapes in Time
Mondesir says the concept of Shapes in Time is merely a perception of music in which rhythm plays a big part.
“It’s a holistic thing. I don’t have a great deal of harmony or theory knowledge but I know what I hear and whether it sounds right or wrong. This attributes to my memory and my ability to learn the form of compositions quite fast. For example, recently I began working with a fantastic saxophonist by the name of Chris Potter and for anyone not familiar with his music he is a wonderful composer and incredible musician.
“He sent me some of his compositions via MP3 and between then and us meeting in Switzerland I internalised all the music he sent. He and the band were impressed with how I was able to play the music without the charts and not only play the form, but improvise within that form. That stems from years and years of being completely passionate about music, paying attention to the form and how the harmony and orchestration works, arrangements, counterpoint…
“I always tell people the drumset is an orchestra because it has the widest frequency range of any instrument,” he concludes. “It also has the widest volume range, from whispery quiet to overpowering anything. There’s so much breadth to drums, and as a player you have the coordination thing as well, the ability to have four things happening at once. Like an orchestra plays several themes at once, the drumset does this too, and my approach to the drums has always been melodic, harmonic and rhythmic rather than just rhythmic, that’s my thing.”