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On The Set Of SNL With Shawn Pelton

“One of the really invaluable things was the concept that, as the drummer, you’re almost always going to be a sideman working for someone else. I think there’s a real trip to dealing with that, working with other people and knowing how to take direction, knowing when to have your own ideas in a session, and knowing when to just shut up and give what they want. All those people skills that have to do with working a session and getting called back.” Along with his interpersonal talents, Pelton was honing his ability to sight-read a chart in a flash, play a wide range of styles authentically, and still season each stroke with his own unique flavor, a determined digging-in that seems to make every note count, from massive bass drum wallops to delicate brush sweeps.

When he’d finally had enough of the South and the Midwest, Pelton moved to New York City in the late ’80s and started getting gigs. The early going was tough, complete with failed record deals and bad Bar Mitzvah bands, but in 1992 a bass player who he’d gigged with named Paul Ossola put in a word about Pelton to then-SNL bandleader G.E. Smith. Matt Chamberlain had just abdicated the drum throne that had also been held by industry greats like Steve Jordan, Chris Parker, Steve Ferrone, and Buddy Williams. Pelton pounced and he’s never looked back.

As always, the space for the 11-piece band doesn’t seem anywhere near as large in real life as it looks on TV. A tiny aisle divides them into two sections, with bandleader/saxophonist Lenny Pickett, keyboardist Katrese Barnes, guitarist Lukasz Gottwald, saxophonist Alex Foster, and percussionist Valerie Dee Naranjo on one side; bassist James Genus, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, Pelton, trumpet player Earl Gardner, baritone sax/arranger Lew Del Gatto, and trombonist Steve Turre on the other. The famous New York City street scene of fake storefronts where the guest host always pops out of is right behind them.

Space there is tight, especially for Pelton, who couldn’t be overweight if he wanted to be able to slide onto his drum throne without knocking anyone’s music stand over. A folding chair is procured for me, and I sandwich myself in between Naranjo and Turre. The other players breeze in, nod at each other, exchange a few pleasant words, and then start digging into their charts so fast it’s unbelievable — I’ve been in two-man bands that took ten times as long to play their first note at rehearsal.

The mission here is to be prepared to play about 50 of the songs in the band’s impressive 700-song master list of standards, ranging from pure funk jams to New Orleans shuffles and more high-energy styles. Pickett zeroes in on the ones the group needs to rehearse, and as the SNL band goes through each song, they seem to start and stop together as if by telepathy. The groove on standards like “You’ve Got The Love” and “Big Bang Theory” is positively ferocious, and they haven’t even had their morning coffee yet (well, maybe they have). The horns are rich, the bass is funky, and Naranjo flies around her well-stocked percussion stand like a highly focused trapeze artist, all part of an incredibly tight interplay that she enjoys with Pelton.

Watching this group go to work, I’m reminded of what it means to be serious pros. These players can come together effortlessly on charts, whether they’ve seen them before or not. And while the SNL band is designed to play for a national audience, it’s clear that they’re all-New York City. They’re loose, they’ve got attitude, and they’re totally casual about their mastery of the music.

Seated just a few feet from Pelton and his five-piece kit, which includes two snares, a DrumKat, and his own personal Mackie mixer, I’m startled again and again by the fierce intensity he applies to his playing — the snare strokes are like gunshots that make me blink every time they land. In the next tune, however, he can pull it way down with gentle brush strokes, all while sight-reading if need be. It’s a compact demonstration of the diversity and approach that Pelton has applied to reaching his position in the drumming scene, whether he’s on the SNL set, playing with another artist, or with his own band, House Of Diablo.

“If you’re freelancing, the more styles you can slip in and out of and survive in, playing-wise, probably the more work you’ll do,” he explains. “Playing for the song and what the track needs is something that I place a high priority on. I’ve always been interested in drummers that have a great feel, and that’s always been the focus for me. They can play the simplest beat but for some reason it feels so good, makes the walls sweat — maybe another drummer can play the same beat but it doesn’t sound as good.”

The core of this outlook is Pelton’s mastery of finding the pocket, that mystical zone that — if a drummer nails it — can make any funk, rock, or jazz song all the sweeter. “A pocket drummer establishes a great groove that a band can build on,” he states simply. “It has to do with being in love with playing simply. I think that’s a real bridge for drummers to cross, playing a simple groove but making it feel amazing. There’s a real art to that, especially since drummers today can be seduced by the louder, faster mentality.

“With pocket drumming, it’s almost like some of the simplest beats that you learn within the first month of playing drums ends up being the stuff you’re doing 30 years later on a gig. It’s all about getting inside, making something feel really great and believing in that. There’s a lot of drummers that, once they learn a certain technical facility, it can be hard to simplify that and go back to the basic building blocks of what good groove is about.”

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