One part wood, one part metal, one part magic — those are the basic elements that make up a groove between a bass player and a drummer. For a more in-depth look at the musical machinations that occur when these two cornerstone members of the rhythm section hook up, we sat down with Steely Dan’s prime-time team of Keith Carlock and “Ready” Freddie Washington.
Washington began his 30-year career with Herbie Hancock, making key stops with Lionel Richie, Anita Baker, Kenny Loggins, Michael Jackson, and Patrice Rushen (with whom he cowrote “Forget Me Nots”). Carlock, of course, has been the must-have stickman for everyone from Sting to James Taylor, while maintaining compelling side projects with Rudder and Wayne Krantz. The two first played together in the studio, recording Donald Fagen’s 2006 CD Morph The Cat live in two days. For the past two years they’ve been driving the Dan’s daunting 13-piece world-touring ensemble.
So what does the word “groove” mean to this potent pair? “For me, it’s knowing the song, the vocals, everything that’s going on — the big picture of what you’re hearing, and how your part fits into it,” says Carlock. “It’s the big pulse, the quarter-notes that have to be really consistent, and then everything in between — the ghost notes, accents, and nuances, and where I choose to put them a little bit ahead or behind.”
“You have the song, the bass line, and the drum beat, so first you have to decide on what tempo feels good,” Washington says. “Then you use your musical instincts to settle into your part and come together with the drums.”
And when the groove locks? “It’s a feeling I get, when I’m not intellectualizing, and it just becomes a part of my body movement,” Carlock says. “It’s effortless. You feel like you’re in a zone, like a runner who hits his stride.”
Adds Washington, “It’s all in-the-moment. For me, my body language signals that the groove is really happening. I always think in half time when I play. If I’m moving like this [sways in a halftime pulse], it’s grooving. If I’m standing still that means I’m waiting to see where the groove settles. And once it does we make sure it stays there. We’re going down with the ship if we have to.”
With listening established as a key component, what do these two look for from each other? “Well, when I see Freddie moving I know it’s grooving,” Carlock laughs. “And I noticed Keith is playing more with his body now,” interjects Washington with a smile. “He has all the technical gifts, but he adds his body to it and it sets him apart from other drummers. Steve Gadd plays with his body too.”
“What I love about Freddie is his how consistent he is,” Carlock continues. “His feel and touch are very even. He’s not digging in as hard as some other players, and that makes the feel real smooth. So I can say, ‘Okay, I don’t have to hit as hard to match Freddie; the drums aren’t going to choke, I can let the mikes do the work.’ I mean, I’m still hitting, but I don’t have to bash through everything.”
“I listen to Keith’s kick, hi-hat, and snare, and where he’s putting it, and what the intent is of what he’s trying to do,” Washington says. “And then I try to make my part dance to where he is. There are notes that I play longer or very short to let his snare release, because it makes the music clean. There’s an art to note duration, how long you play them and where — not sustaining all the time and ringing over.”
“Those are the nuances that can make a groove really special,” Carlock says. “The notes and the parts are already dictated to a large degree, but the way that we interpret it — letting the hi-hat ring, where I cut it off, different dynamics, the way we bend the groove — is the key.” Washington adds, “I’m all about space and simplicity anyway; trying to leave air and stay out of the way so I can hear another part playing where I’m not.”
How about keeping the Dan in groove mode? “What’s interesting about Steely Dan,” Washington says, “is when you really lock in all the parts their music sounds less sophisticated than it is. If it didn’t groove it would sound like some bar band trying to pull off music that’s too hip for the room.”
“Absolutely,” Carlock agrees. “The groove makes this music sound funky and less complicated than it actually is — it’s deceptive. Most of the time, I’m subdividing in sixteenth-notes, so the key with Steely Dan or any music that has this kind of detail is you can’t rush rhythms. You have to feel them like you do your breathing or your heartbeat. You just have to learn how to wait.”
“Really, everything we do is about waiting,” Washington replies. “Waiting for that next note, not rushing to get to the next beat.”
“Especially with sixteenth-notes, which tend to be rushed,