Steve Jordan: Calm At The Eye Of The Storm

Merging from his dark and dingy Chelsea duplex on a bracingly cold morning in the mid-’70s, the 18-year-old struggling musician is blinded by a fluorescent white landscape. A heavy, majestic snowfall blankets the city. The air is crisp, the streets are quiet, the scenery stunning and remarkably lunar. His normally bustling neighborhood is silenced under 18" of snow, as is all of New York. What a great day to break in his newest investment: a pair of puffy new Moon Boots. Snow day. Time to play.

But the phone won’t stop ringing. It’s the Radio Registry — a booking service for studio musicians — and they need help. All the A-list players (championed by the then infallible Steve Gadd) live outside the city and can’t get out of their own driveways, much less across the bridge to their scheduled gigs. The show must go on. So the calls roll down the line to the B- and C-list names, the grunts who still man the trenches, city rats who can trudge their way to the cluster of Manhattan studios. Wanted: Players with Moon Boots.

The young, unknown Steve Jordan will answer that phone, he will strap on those Moon Boots, he will bound atop the snowdrifts and make the gigs — six of them that single afternoon — to play his guts out for producers he would’ve otherwise never met, and his career will change forever. But even as he basks in the success of the day, there’s no possible way for him to realize just how much this snowstorm has changed his life and just how far his career will stretch from here. The phone will keep ringing. He will always answer. And things will get big.

Bragging Rights
There are few drummers in the world who can boast the accomplishments of Steve Jordan’s résumé. Now 52 years old, the graduate of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School Of Music And Art was just a teenager when he joined Stevie Wonder’s band. Then he landed the Saturday Night Live gig, held the throne with the World’s Most Dangerous Band on Letterman, backed Belushi and Akroyd’s Blues Brothers, then got busy. Subbing for Charlie Watts, Jordan played on the Stones’ Dirty Work and established a relationship with Keith Richards that led to work with the X-Pensive Winos as both drummer and producer. A full-blown laundry list of top-tier artists followed, with Jordan as their drummer, producer, or quite often, both: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, B.B. King, Alicia Keys, John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, James Brown, and on and on … forever.

But for now he’s all ours. We broke through his seemingly impenetrable schedule and have him on the phone to talk drums. He’s every bit the pro’s pro that you would expect: courteous and thoughtful, intelligent and reflective, but businesslike and to the point. A New Yorker. And — go figure — we’re catching him on a typically busy afternoon.

“I’m the musical director for the Emmies this year,” Jordan humbly explains, “so I worked on that all morning. Then I’m cutting Rod Stewart’s vocals for his new album in the afternoon. And I’m sure I’ll be working with John [Mayer] at some point tonight.”
Wow.

“I’m very fortunate. I feel very blessed.”

Fortunate, yes. Blessed, sure. But more than anything, talented. Extremely talented. Steve Jordan is one of those rarest of breeds — a drummer whose ears are bigger than his hands, whose brain is quicker than his chops, whose patience is matched only by his natural musical ability. Through decades of hard work, he has established his own style — that Steve Jordan sound — that majestically balances beats and the space around them in a creative simplicity that is uniquely his own.

“The first thing is, there’s a misconception about simplicity,” he says. “People get nervous and self-conscious about playing simply because they’re afraid people will think that they can’t play or that they’re being dumbed down. You have to get rid of that mentality because not only is it not true, but it doesn’t serve a positive purpose in making music.

“Drums were one of the first modes of communication, sending messages from village to village. To get a clear message across you have to be simple, like Morse code. If you don’t do it correctly and simply, then you confuse your message. So, for me, drummers like Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield and Al Jackson and Earl Palmer and Jim Keltner and on and on, they’re my heroes, and they’re very complex but very simple. They’re very intense individuals but their touch and simplicity is what made them tremendous influences on me and everybody else. There are so many soundtracks to our lives, and they start with drummers.”

Perennial Student
If there’s a soundtrack to your life, odds are Jordan has a hand in it. To recap his entire catalogue of work would require an encyclopedic word count. There’s more than one King Of Pop, folks, because every pop song needs a beat, and Jordan has put his golden thumbprint on enough songs to earn his own jewel-encrusted throne. But despite his extensive experience and success, he’s still learning.

“Everything extends from the song. That’s how I play, whether on drums or [other instruments], I just play for the song. When you’re a younger musician, especially drummers, a lot of the time you’re trying to figure out what beat to play or what licks to play. Eventually you learn that the most important thing is to play the song. And once you play the song, things become simpler. That [understanding] only comes with experience. I’ve gotten better at it and as a musician, you always hope to get better.

“Every day that goes by you hope to be a better musician. I’ve played with Sonny Rollins, who’s 73, 74 years old and playing better now than ever. It’s a true testament to the advantages of the journey. As a musician I watch him, I study him, I listen to him, and play with him, and it’s a tremendous inspiration that shows if you do things right and stay true to your love for music, then you keep getting better. It’s fun.”

While we drool over Jordan’s ability to simplify his craft and let his touch and feel pave the way, it’s important to distinguish him from other accomplished players known for their minimalist style. Where a player like Phil Rudd — a great player himself — keeps things simple, he really only plays a handful of different (delicious) grooves. Not the case with Steve Jordan, whose creativity seems boundless, even within the ostensibly narrow confines of straightforward pop drumming.

“I’m a songwriter, so I don’t want to repeat myself all the time, even though there are certain things inherent in my songwriting style. Same thing with the drums. There are certain tendencies and patterns that are my favorites or that I might gravitate towards, but in playing the song they become different. You mentioned Phil Rudd. I love Phil Rudd. He is the perfect example of the perfect player for his band and the music that he plays. I can’t think of anybody who fits their band better than Phil Rudd. He’s just tremendous. Talk about a drummer who defines the sound of the band.”

Mr. Big Ears
The creative well runs deep for Jordan, and when the bucket needs filling he does what he does best: he listens. “I listen all the time. And I’m always inspired. There’s so much music out there, so much incredible musicianship, both past and present, that is available. I’m always learning, even stuff I thought I knew. You can listen to something at a certain time in your life and maybe you won’t get the message. Then years later you listen to the same thing but you go, ‘My goodness, I never heard that before.’ My goal as a [recording artist] is to make timeless music so that people are always discovering new pieces of it.

“Basically, I have the same approach with everything. I like everything to be timeless and the groove to have a special feel and style. And [juggling various projects] definitely keeps you on top of your game, there’s no doubt about that. It gets frantic, but at the same time it’s very, very rewarding, and one project helps out another project. You might try something in one project and it doesn’t work out, but it could work with another project you’re working on, that kind of stuff. Everything kind of cross-pollinates. Each project gets [different] juices flowing, and it’s exciting that way.”

Beyond Drums
As impressive a drummer as Steve Jordan may be, the truth is drumming is just one aspect of his vast skill set. He started producing records because, basically, he was tired of outside ears butchering his drum sounds. So he stepped in and took the wheel and really never let go. He’s now one of the most sought-after producers in the business.

Then there’s his work as a musical director. Red carpet award shows, Super Bowl halftime shows, TV, movies — if Jordan appreciates the artistic challenges and respects the people involved, he’ll do it, and do it well.

“I started writing a long time ago and I’ve done live television since I was 18 years old. I love television, film, all the different mediums. I learned very early on that I didn’t want to do just one thing, that I would be bored to tears doing that and, quite honestly, I wouldn’t be able to make a living doing just one thing. I was determined to be as diverse as possible, and that’s why I started focusing on writing and producing.

“A musical director is still a producer. You’re in charge of things and you have to make things work. As a drummer I use the drums as a mode of communication, to communicate with the artist. And as a producer and director I have to also communicate clearly from one camp to another so that people are on the same page and can get the job done and the product comes out the way it should. It does take some business savvy and a lot of patience. If you don’t have patience you could never succeed in this business.”

For many players, self-producing can be a dangerous practice. Without an outside ear to help guide them, many drummers find themselves adrift in the studio, their artistic vision blurred by their own performance. Of course, that’s not a problem for Jordan, who manages to separate the two roles and excel at both equally.

“Any time I’m producing anything, no matter who it is, I look at the overall scope of the music. I’ll produce my drum track as I’m playing, thinking, ‘This sound, this feel is what would be best for the song and for the record.’ And that’s how I approach everything. The great thing about producing is you don’t have to answer to anybody but yourself. [laughs] I know what I want out of the drummer, and since I’m the drummer, I can just tell myself what I need to do. It keeps the message clear. And I trim the fat. I know what’s best for the song. It’s very clear what has to be done, and I don’t have to negotiate with the drummer or worry about offending somebody by asking them to play less or play more.”

But …
This does not mean that Jordan closes himself off to outside input. On the contrary, just as he’s always listening for the song, Jordan is always listening to his collaborators for their thoughts and ideas. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in his work with John Mayer. Jordan and Mayer go back a ways, intertwined in a web of studio collaborations, and Jordan officially appeared on Mayer’s 2003 Heavier Things. They’ve worked together ever since, with Jordan acting as studio drummer, producer, and live performer for the John Mayer Trio. The two artists seem attached at the musical hip.

“We are pretty much always on the same page with what we want,” Jordan admits. “He’s very active in what he likes to hear as well, so it’s a very collaborative effort. He’s a very, very smart guy and obviously very talented. There are things he wants to achieve, and working together we can achieve them. He has ideas about everything. We collaborate on what we want from the drums and discuss different things to try out. We go back and forth and we’re very active with every aspect of the music.”

At press time they were still wrapping up Mayer’s newest record, Battle Studies, recorded in an expansive house that the bandleader and crew converted into a full-blown studio. The setup has allowed them to take their time — they’ve never continuously worked together for this long — and fine tune every detail of the production. We expect good things.

Recording in the converted mansion allowed for some creativity when it came time to track Jordan’s drums. Everything was adapted and modified according to each song’s specific demands. Large rooms, small rooms, vast foyers — the drums simply went where the song led them.

“It’s just something John wanted to do,” Jordan recalls. “We used different parts of the house. Most of the time we were able to manipulate the baffling to dictate what kind of sound we were getting, but we used a lot of different rooms and the music dictated which room we recorded the drums in.” While it’s surely a lot of work and the hours can get long and late, there is an excitement in Jordan’s voice when discussing Mayer collaborations. But mention playing live with the trio and he gets just plain giddy.

“Oh, yeah! The trio is a lot of fun. Our trio is very open. I don’t fill up space just because there are fewer people playing. I keep the same kind of approach: The music comes first. But there is more room to play, for sure. It’s such a gas. It’s fantastic.”

Getting Verbal
What comes next will shock you. Of all his accomplishments, all his accolades, all his aspirations, the one thing Steve Jordan is most proud of and most excited about is a pop project you’ve likely never heard of. It’s called The Verbs, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Meegan Voss is the face and voice of The Verbs. Rising from the legendary CBGB scene, she is the brains and the brawn, the creative spearhead, and … Steve Jordan’s wife. The couple, along with a few A-list collaborators, just finished their second Verbs record, Trip, and while it is certainly infectiously pop, it is difficult to categorize. And that’s exactly how they like it.

“Meegan and I were both classically trained. She’s a concert pianist, and so we share that background,” he says. “We have a lot of different influences and I think it comes out in the music. It’s not necessarily this or that — it’s basically our take on our favorite music and it really comes from the composition.

“I don’t know what people expect — is it a funk band? A jazz band? An X-Pensive Winos thing? Is it like John Mayer? Because it’s just really unique. I’m not the sole writer for the band. Meegan Voss is the main writer. We started writing together over ten years ago and we both love pop music like the AM radio we grew up with.”

Trip offers a cool peek at the gray matter inside Steve Jordan. He plays a bit more unchained here than on other works, stretching his creative capacities without ever succumbing to the temptation to overplay. Recorded mostly in their Manhattan loft, the drum sounds vary quite dramatically from track to track. Jordan must’ve reached into his grab bag of gear to help vary the sound. Oops, wrong.

“I’m very much into the sound of The Verbs. With The Beatles, it’s just one drum sound. It’s basically Ringo playing — I think it was a Premier kit before his Ludwig kit. But it’s just one kit. On this album I basically used one or two kits. It’s not like recording with John Mayer, where I might use a different kit for each tune, depending on what the song calls for. But for this I didn’t even switch snare drums as much. It’s the way the songs develop that allowed me to get different sounds out of the same kit, giving the illusion that I used a lot of different kits.

“Obviously, I changed snare drums some, because as a record maker I believe that’s one of the things that defines the sound of a record: Your lead vocal, your snare drum, things like that really define the sound of a recording in pop music. And Meegan is very involved in the sound, so we really experiment a lot and we’re both very active in every sound from drums, guitars, bass, everything.”

With such complicated schedules among the members, The Verbs’ live performances are tough to come by. But while touring Japan with Eric Clapton, Jordan had a month off and The Verbs met up with him for a jaunt around the island. The shows were big, the Japanese audience overwhelming, and the fun abundant. “I’m so excited when I play with The Verbs. It’s the most thrilling experience for me. Those shows we played in Japan were, without question, the most thrilling time I’ve ever had as a drummer. I’ve never had that much fun playing drums.”

That may be the case, but we’re willing to bet a close second was as an 18-year-old, wide-eyed C-lister on that fateful snowy day in New York City. It’s amazing how far a good pair of Moon Boots can take you.