“With Steve, it’s always about picking up where you left off,” says alto saxophonist David Sanborn. “We’ve known each other for over 30 years, and we’ve been through a lot together.”
Perhaps more than any other musician Steve Gadd has played with, Sanborn has been a veritable constant in the drummer’s personal as well as professional life. “I am friends with Steve,” Sanborn notes, “and consciously and unconsciously we share the same values about music. I certainly have a personal rapport with him.
“We were both on the road together with Paul Simon back in the mid-’70s during Paul’s Still Crazy After All These Years period. Playing with him night after night on the road, I loved the extraordinary connections he made. His playing was so simple it had everybody going completely fucking crazy! It was about the groove, that sense of swing, which was and is so profound in Steve’s playing. He made [Paul] McCartney, Carly [Simon], and Paul [Simon] swing.”
Having appeared on countless Sanborn recordings, Gadd is once again the saxophonist’s drummer of choice on his new Here & Gone CD, an album of blues, R&B, and jazz that features, among others, Eric Clapton, Sam Moore, and Derek Trucks. “Whatever situation I am in,” Sanborn relates, “I can relax because the shit is there, because Steve’s being creative. He frees you up. He makes that stuff happen. You can leave a space and he can make that space make sense — that’s magic. He knows how to use space like Miles, Hank Crawford, Ray Charles — Steve is a living manifestation of that. That’s why, to have moments like that with Steve, it’s addictive, better than anything else.
“Steve is one of those guys who’s got real humility as a musician,” Sanborn continues. “He plays in the service of the tune. It ain’t about showing off, about ’me.’ And he’s got incredible chops that blow you away even though he’s not a flashy drummer. He can elevate the situation he’s in, make you want to play and be in the zone with him. His momentum and groove are so strong, he makes me feel I can play, man! A good measure of what that is, is you’ve got this guy listening to everything you are doing, and he makes you sound good.
“With Steve, it’s about reconnecting to the essence, reminding yourself why you do this, making music. When I heard Ray Charles growing up, I realized there’s a world out there that I have to be part of, even if I can only be on the fringes of it — that’s the thing that Steve has had over the years. He retains that, always listening, always learning. He’ll come up with these things that will turn the corner, thinking, ’What can I do to make this happen?’ He’s a real collaborator. He infuses everything he does with the jazz spirit, because he’s a jazz drummer.
“Steve’s always coming up off the beat — it’s so natural. His shit with independent motion with all four limbs — how does he do that? I’ve been watching him do that for 30 years and I still can’t figure it out!”
“I’ve always been a huge fan from his recordings.” Colleague/bassist Lee Sklar has that much respect for Steve Gadd going all the way back to their early days of the mid-’70s. “I met Steve when he was in the house band for Saturday Night Live,” says Sklar. “I’d be touring with Bonnie Raitt, or Jackson Browne, or James Taylor, and we’d hang out and get to know each other.”
Since Sklar has always been an L.A.-based musician, working with the New York-based drummer hasn’t resulted in a lot of face-to-face work. Case in point: A recent “collaboration” between the two musicians came at the urging of producer Richard Perry. “It was for a Ray Charles record on [Leon Russell’s] ’A Song For You,’” Sklar remembers. “Richard called me up to see if I’d do the bass part since he wasn’t happy with the bass and drums. He sent me the track with Steve’s overdubbed playing. I listened and just basked in the coolness of his part while I added mine. We did end up in the same place for a Livingston Taylor album about four years ago in Nashville. It was great. He and I looked at each other and basically said, ’I can’t believe we actually recorded a record in the same studio together!’ He’s got a unique ability to take the mundane and make it special. With just the simple placement of a beat, he can change a song from night to day. Steve reminds me a lot of Jeff Porcaro: He’s a brave musician who goes with his gut. What Steve played may have sounded pretty basic in the studio, but you go back and listen to the tapes and realize his playing was fantastic.”
A familiar name on scores of records in his own right, Sklar has vivid memories of listening to “so many records where I asked who was playing drums; I knew, but I wanted to reaffirm it.” Along with Raitt, Taylor, and Browne, Sklar has worked with, among others, Billy Cobham, Toto, Phil Collins, not to mention being part of one of the great rock and roll backup bands of all time: The Section, with Danny Kortchmar, Craig Doerge, and Russ Kunkel. You could say Sklar knows a thing or two about great musicians. “You just sit there and listen,” he notes, “and you go, ’This cat’s so good!’ Steve is part of that old school, from the ’60s and ’70s. He’s one of the guys who came in as part of a full rhythm section cutting records, pre Pro Tools, pre-click. He has an organic quality of laying down the beat. It’s a heartbeat instead of a brainwave, a living and breathing beat instead of a click machine. Steve’s pocket is so deep.
“Like Jeff,” Sklar continues, “Steve doesn’t do what’s expected, but exactly what’s needed to make it special, not pedestrian. You go anywhere in the world, and there is a reverence for him, a kind of ’Oh yeah, Steve Gadd!’ He carries a ton of credibility. He’s an all-around musician — you can’t cubbyhole him. And he has appeal across generations. If a kid is serious about being a drummer it’s imperative that he or she to listen to Steve.” As if to sing his praises endlessly, Sklar adds, “Steve’s the cream of the crop when it comes to great drummers. If the chance comes along, I will jump at it in a second to play with him.”