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Peter Erskine On The State Of Jazz Drumming

Peter Erskine

A list of Peter Erskine’s career signposts might appear erratic. After joining the Stan Kenton band at age 18 and then playing with Maynard Ferguson, Erskine was branded a big band drummer, a career that had a questionable future at that point in the mid-’70s. But in the late ’70s when Erskine joined Weather Report, a high-volume electric band that was defining the cutting edge of jazz, he became a modern “fusion” guy.

When he moved to New York in the early ’80s to join the acoustic mainstream jazz quintet Steps Ahead, Erskine took another left turn. Then, as the individual identities of the Steps Ahead members (and the band identity as a whole) began to blur as a result of too many MIDI cables, Erskine began working more and more with another group of musicians who were all about his same age and who were begining to emerge as leaders. The credits on the recent re-issue of Erskine’s album Sweet Soul read like an all-star date, with such now-prominent names as John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Marc Johnson, Kenny Werner and Bob Mintzer. But although these players were all respected when the album was recorded in 1991, they were caught in the limbo between being “young lions” and “respected elders.”

In the ’90s, Erskine’s career has continued to be marked by stylistic bends in the road. He has made his strongest personal statements with his own trio, releasing four albums on ECM displaying a particularly musical approach in which a minimum of notes played softly carry more weight than a fortissimo flurry of flams. But he also toured with Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs, and he recently recorded with Joni Mitchell and joined the Yellowjackets.

Still, despite all the twists and turns in his musical path, a strong, overall direction has emerged. Erskine has achieved his own voice on his chosen instrument, fulfilling the ultimate promise of jazz, that of self-expression.

DRUM!: What were some highlights of your career during the 1990s?
Erskine: I should have brought my computer so I could look at my schedule over the past few years.

DRUM!: It might be more revealing to see what simply comes to mind. If you leave something out, I can do the 60 Minutes thing: “But isn’t it true ...”
Erskine: [laughs] Okay. Actually we need to go back nearly two decades. Just as I was leaving Weather Report, I moved to New York to become a jazz musician. In New York, I started playing with musicians whose understanding of what jazz music is capable of doing really helped elevate my own level of understanding and playing. I joined Steps Ahead when I first went to New York, but the more important association for me, musically, was when I started playing with people like John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson and John Scofield, and with projects that were centered around ECM records. I began traveling more and more to Europe, and I was also becoming a vital, creative component in a lot of these groups as opposed to just being the hired drummer. Then, a couple of years before this decade began, I moved back to California. A lot of my musical contacts and most formative musical associations in terms of my present reality were still located in New York. So even after I moved to California, I was very tied to that whole area of music-making. When I think of the ’90s, Kenny Wheeler is one of the first names that comes to mind. Playing with John Abercrombie led to my meeting Kenny. That was also the first chance I had to work with [bassist] Dave Holland, [pianist] John Taylor, and [bassist] Palle Danielsson. This led to my doing more and more work with Manfred Eicher at ECM, which eventually led to my doing solo projects. I’ve now done four solo recordings for ECM with my trio that includes John Taylor and Palle Danielsson.

DRUM!: But isn’t it true that you also worked with Steely Dan during the ’90s?
Erskine: Right, Mr. Wallace. [laughs] I would list projects like Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs as an aside. I also did studio work in L.A. for some films and records. But when I think back on the ’90s, it’s the jazz stuff that triggers the fondest memories and that still seems connected to me now. I also started a record company called Fuzzy Music with my wife. Things have been slow for the past year or so, but we’re going to kick it back into gear again. That’s just a further expression of wanting to play the kind of jazz music that I want to play. Comparing the ’90s to the ’80s, the thing that comes to mind right away is the electronic revolution. In the ’80s we were going nuts in terms of being excited by triggering and MIDI, but also going nuts in terms of being frustrated by how inadequate the stuff seemed to be. In the ’90s, our relationship with computer technology has evolved to where we don’t even think about sampling and MIDI and all these things. They are all built in and we somewhat take them for granted. But with the communication frenzy that’s going on, the personal computer has empowered everyone to a far greater degree than would have been possible in the ’80s. I see all of us as being able to take a little more control of our destinies, musical as well as business. It’s a real prolific period for a lot of people, whether they’re writing books, making CDs and videos, or just keeping in touch with each other. So this was the decade where that emerged, or rather exploded.

DRUM!: How do you feel your drumming has changed and/or evolved over the past decade?
Erskine: In reaction to this explosion my drumming has gotten further refined and reduced. I’m still fond of the occasional outburst, because that’s a necessary part of musical emotion. But I’ve gotten more and more involved with the simple expression of a musical idea. How much more connected can I get to the music by playing simple, and what possibilities does that open up? It doesn’t mean that you can’t burn if the situation calls for a burning, Elvin Jones kind of thing. When I see Tain Watts play, it’s exciting and fun, and there’s a place for all that. Personally, though, it’s been a matter of finding my way by learning how to play more simply and concentrating more on tone. So my cymbal sound has improved, my drum sound has improved, my technique has improved. It’s an interesting dilemma for me, because I joined the Yellowjackets last year, and it’s fun to get into the backbeat stuff. But I can’t express myself as well at that dynamic level. It just doesn’t feel like me anymore. When I’m playing in a piano trio and it’s soft, that’s really cool. So to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, “It’s not going to end with a bang but a whimper.”

DRUM!: Y2K will be the century of brushes.
Erskine: Yes! And the Peter Erskine Ride Stick, now available at your local Vic Firth dealer. Thank you.

DRUM!: Have you observed any general trends in drumming over the past decade?
Erskine: The major trend I’ve observed is that there are more young drummers coming along who play better than ever. Players like Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl excited a lot of people and made them aware that you can do all these different things on a drum kit.

DRUM!: I hear the better technique in the younger players who have obviously been influenced by drummers such as Colaiuta and Weckl, but I don’t always hear better musicality or originality.
Erskine: I’m not comparing them to older, more experienced drummers; I’m just comparing young drummers breaking into the scene now to when I was breaking in. I was lucky because of the kinds of experience I could get. It’s very hard for drummers to get good big band experience now. For all of us, it’s different than it was in the ’50s and ’60s when drummers were playing seven days a week, six to eight hours a night. Of course your playing is going to get better. Originality? I think it’s there, or it’s there waiting to come out. The availability of recordings and the chance for drummers to hear a wide variety of things is there.

DRUM!: What do young jazz drummers starting out today need to know that they wouldn’t have needed to know ten years ago?
Erskine: A lot of the things they need to know are timeless. You have to make the music feel good, you have to play in such a way that it makes the other players reach their highest level of contributing to the music. You have to listen like crazy. You have to get out of routines; the only good routine is swinging, and if it really swings it dances.

DRUM!: What is your definition of swing?
Erskine: The time is centered so you never feel uncomfortable. It isn’t speeding up or slowing down. There is a discernable quality of space between the notes. It dances; it moves. Swing is never too hard. To me, any drummer who hits the drums too hard doesn’t swing. Harold Jones playing Basie charts with a big band swings. Jim Keltner playing rock and roll swings. When you think of Keltner you think of these delicious, huge gaps, and when that backbeat comes down, it’s just sweet. And the reason it’s sweet is that it’s not filled up with a bunch of stuff. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned and every good gig and bad gig I’ve done. But if I’d gotten hipper at an earlier age to playing a little more simply and more relaxed, it would have been a much more entertaining ride for me.

DRUM!: Isn’t that just something musicians have to live through? With many players, the older they get, the more they say with fewer notes.
Erskine: It seems to work that way. But some guys get it together pretty young. Billy Stewart seems to be doing that more and more in his playing, and I hear Jeff Watts playing with a more musical focus. I think focus is a good word. I did a TV film date last week, subbing for a guy, and it was kind of country stuff with acoustic guitar, bass, flute, piano, and mostly hi-hat with a couple of bass drum accents. So they played me some cues from past shows, and I heard the drummer playing along with a nice groove, and then he suddenly started doubling up notes. I figured he was getting bored, so he started adding stuff. It took all the charm out of the music. Instantly I knew what not to do. Drum-wise, it was as simple as you’re going to get – just eighth notes, concentrating on being with the click and playing musically, which means no exaggerations but a slight bit of flow or wave so it’s not like a drum machine. A little bit of color here and there, but really keeping it minimal so that anytime you do add color it has meaning. The composer was like, “Yeah baby, you sound beautiful!” And there was no burn; I might have played one little tom fill the entire three-hour session. That really struck me when I thought about it. It’s so simple to play good, if people could just figure it out. People could possibly confuse the idea of playing simple with the idea that you’re playing repetitively. That’s not the case. It’s kind of like the Zen brush strokes. You’re figuring out architecturally which strokes are going to work, and you don’t need to fill in all the background.

DRUM!: On the projects you described as asides, did they feed your jazz drumming?
Erskine: It’s that process I talked about in my book The Drum Perspective. Every musical style informs the others. Basic musical rules almost always work, unless it’s an extreme kind of band. A guy called me for a country-pop record recently and sent me the tracks. I sent him a fax back saying, “I’m not the guy for this. Let me recommend some drummers who would be much better.” But if it’s a project that I think I can bring something to, or have an affinity for, I’ll do it. Steely Dan was an easy decision because they have great tunes and a lot of my favorite musicians have played on those records. That 3 1/2 weeks of rehearsal before we did the tour was incredible training in terms of time focus, spaces between beats, and making everything fit as well as move along. So that’s great when you go back and play jazz. Working with singers is also really good because you learn more about how to play songs. I like being a professional who can play a lot of different music. But I am starting to get to the point of realizing that I’m really a jazz drummer, and I’m becoming more and more a particular kind of jazz drummer. If you want to sit me down in a Basie-style big band, hey, I’d love to do it. A Buddy Rich thing, that’s not me. Electronics are interesting; I’ve gone up and down and around and around with this one, and at PASIC I saw the new KAT where they had my drum sound loaded in, and it was cool. But nothing does it for me like touching the instrument. And I like doing it when it’s not too loud.

DRUM!: Anything you’ve done over the past ten years that would have surprised you if you’d seen it in a crystal ball in 1990?
Erskine: The ECM records were pretty surprising with their emphasis being on so many things that aren’t typical of drums and drumming – the sparse quality, the space between the notes, the playing choices that were not in my vocabulary when I was younger. I wasn’t as confident, so I played more stuff. My intentions were honorable, I just didn’t know how to get that rhythmic velocity across without playing busy. Now I do, and I’m having more fun playing than ever.

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