It would be extremely difficult to exaggerate the impact that Steve Gadd has had on two generations of drummers since he hit the scene with tsunami-like force in the mid-1970s. No other drummer is more revered in the drum community and more highly regarded within music industry circles today. At age 63, Gadd has attained regal status among drummers. More importantly, he has maintained his masterful touch — that indefinable, intangible something that allows him to groove like no one else on the planet while instantly elevating the proceedings on any bandstand, regardless of the musical setting. As Chick Corea said in the new Hudson Music DVD on Gadd, which documents his third “Mission From Gadd” North American clinic tour of 2006, “He’s able to take a piece of music and actually compose something for it that makes total sense ... that actually brings the music to a completeness.”
Whether executing chops-busting unisons, swinging at blazing tempos with Corea, laying down relaxed, fat grooves with Joe Sample and The Crusaders, digging deep in concert with Eric Clapton on faithful renditions of “Layla” and “Sunshine Of Your Love,” or demonstrating his inimitable ability to lock it in on tour with the likes of James Taylor, Paul Simon, or Randy Crawford, Gadd continues to make the music feel good every time he hits.
It’s a rare talent that has as much to do with the drummer’s early years in drum corps back in his hometown of Rochester, New York as it does with his legendary technical proficiency on the kit. While playing in the drum corps back in the late ’50s helped form his team-player aesthetic (while also informing what stands as his most famous drum part on record, Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”), Gadd is also fluent in many idioms, from bop-fueled swing and shuffle blues to pop, rock, funk, fusion, disco, and Latin jazz, as well as being an incomparable improviser who strikes a perfect balance between orchestration and imagination. As renowned bassist Tony Levin, a longtime friend and colleague who played with Gadd during the late ’60s back in Rochester, says, “Steve is fluent and expert and comfortable in all styles. He’s an artist who has transcended all labels and categories, and invented some of his own in the process.”
Watching Gadd do his thing — the slick, signature paradiddle interplay between hi-hat and snare, the intricate ride cymbal and bass drum patterns, and explosive around-the-kit fills, all executed with uncanny precision and conviction — is like observing a martial arts master holding class at his dojo. There’s the same yin and yang sense of ultimate control yet total abandon to the flow, the sheer economy of motion producing extraordinary power, the Zen-like relaxation underscoring remarkable intensity, and an overall sense of being wholly in the moment.
At a memorable performance a few years ago at the Blue Note nightclub in New York City during a week-long reunion engagement of Corea’s Leprechaun band from the ’70s, the keyboardist made a point of stating to the audience that Gadd is “the best musician I have ever played with — not drummer, musician.” Others who have worked with Gadd over the years in the studio, on sessions or out on tour, concur with Corea’s assessment. As guitarist Steve Khan, a longtime friend and collaborator who hired Gadd for his string of potent fusion recordings in the late ’70s (Tightrope, The Blue Man, and Arrows), puts it, “He is, first and foremost, a great musician. And that is much more than being a great drummer. This is why Steve set a standard for a particular level of artistry, creativity, swing, groove, and musicality, which influenced so many drummers and will influence generations of drummers to come.”
Vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, who recruited Gadd for a succession of groups during the ’70s, beginning with White Elephant and including L’Image and Steps, recalls his initial encounter with the kid from Rochester. “The first time I heard Gadd play it was that kind of thing where you get goose bumps and you think, ’Wait a minute! Something’s happening here, and it’s deep!’ He was that good.”
Mainieri has maintained a working relationship with Gadd over the past four decades and, to this day, never fails to be amazed by what Gadd brings to the table. “I can’t say enough about the guy. He always plays with such conviction and a musical sensibility, no matter if it’s Joe Sample or Chick Corea or Luciano Pavarotti — and it’s totally effortless. It’s like watching Muhammad Ali in the ring. There’s a certain grace there that is sort of inexplicable.”
The typically unassuming Gadd remains humble in the face of such high praise. “My goal is to give something to the artist that’s going to be meaningful to them,” he says in describing his role. “If you give them something that helps take their music where they want it to be, that’s a good energy to share. That’s what I try to do when I’m on the bandstand, is to try and be the most supportive that I can be — figure out what’s going on and what I can do to sort of pull it together. And then when it’s time to solo, have some fun.”
Steven Kendall Gadd was born in Rochester, New York on April 9, 1945. He showed an interest in drumming at the age of three and around that time received his first pair of sticks and a practice pad from his uncle Eddie, who had played drums in the service. “He showed me how to hold the sticks,” Gadd recalls. “We’d put records on and play along with them together — John Phillip Sousa marches and stuff. He also liked jazz. I remember he bought me an Art Blakey album early on and later gave me records by Max Roach and Oscar Peterson. He was a real music lover and constantly wanted me to listen to these different albums.”
By age seven, Steve, along with his younger trumpet-playing brother, Eddie, had taken up tap dancing, entertaining folks at nursing homes and hospitals around Rochester. That same year, 1952, Steve received his first drum set (with calfskin heads) from his grandfather and began formal study with Elmer Frolig at Levis’ Music in Rochester, which was located right across the street from the Eastman School Of Music.