You know, reviewing drums for a magazine like DRUM! is pretty melancholy work. (Stay with me now, this is going somewhere.) It's like a short, bittersweet romance and I'll tell you why. You receive these beautiful new drums, get to play them, enjoy them, perhaps fall in love with them, and then they fly out of your arms like an ungrateful mistress.
Such was the case with my latest fling, the new Club Jordan Cocktail Drum Outfit from Yamaha. They showed up on my doorstep all sparkling and sleek, blinding me with their beauty and wit, like the effervescent bubbles from a bottle of French champagne, then just as quickly as they entered my world, they were gone, leaving me gazing wistfully at the dust of the UPS truck that yanked them out of my life forever.
What is a cocktail drum, you ask? Well, it looks something like a very tall floor tom. The bottom head is played with an inverted bass drum pedal, while the top head is played like a snare drum. In the '50s, cocktail drums were born out of the need to save space in lounges and clubs. Drummers doing cocktail hour gigs and casuals needed a portable, quickly-assembled piece of percussion to accompany the small duos and trios that played background music for imbibing patrons. While the cocktail outfit was no sonic match for a real drum set, it offered an alternative for the busy drummer who needed a compact, stage-friendly kit.
The drummer played standing up and therefore took up much less room. One drummer I know actually used to drag a cocktail drum from table to table, serenading lounge lizards along with a saxophonist. (Try doing that with a four-piece kit, Mr. Big Shot!) As far as I can tell, cocktail drums disappeared about the same time as Frank Sinatra's famed Rat Pack and for probably the same reason: They were no longer considered hip. Then one day drummer-producer Steve Jordan and Yamaha decided to bring back the cocktail outfit and retrofit it with some modern technology. The result is the Club Jordan Cocktail Drum System.
The center of the system is a 15" diameter x 24" deep, birch/mahogany shell with an adapted "backwards" pedal that strikes upward on the bottom head and attaches to two of the three legs of the drum. Underneath the top head is an inner snare, which is tensioned against the head for a loose snare sound. The snare wires themselves resemble a cut-off coil snare that feathers out against the head. On the inside of the bottom head there is a circular piece of urethane foam that mutes the head, cutting down on sympathetic vibrations with the top head. Attached to the main drum by an L-type mount are a 8" x 5" mini snare drum and 10" x 5" tom tom. Each drum has Yamaha's YESS mount and can be positioned for use by both right- and left-handed players. A detachable "Percussion Board" mounts onto two tension rods and is used for creating side-shell "cascara" rhythms and sounds. There is also a combination cymbal-and-cowbell holder that attaches to a mount on the main shell and can accommodate a couple of cymbals, including a closed hi-hat. The drums are available in either Silver Sparkle or Pink Sparkle Lacquer.
So that's what goes into The Club Jordan Cocktail System. You're probably wondering if it's a realistic alternative to a drum set, so I took the drums out on some gigs to try and find the answer.
At first I was pretty intimidated by the idea of not using a full kit on stage. Although the music I was playing was country blues and American roots music, I wasn't sure if the cocktail set could deliver the goods, sound-wise. It took at least one set for me to become comfortable with the drums. By playing the pedal standing up, your opposite leg tends to bear most of the weight of your body and becomes somewhat uncomfortable after a while. By grabbing a barstool, I could go from sitting to standing without disrupting the groove.
After fiddling with the tuning for a while, I found a good combination of a kick drum tone and snare sound on the drum. The kick sound was focused and full, not at all what you would expect given the dimensions of the shell. There seems to be an optimum height for the pedal beater to contact the bottom head properly. Being 6'3" tall, I had to play the drums fairly high up. There was a little loss of bass drum thud at this elevation because the beater was hitting the head at an angle. However, when I lowered the drum, the problem went away.
The top-head snare sounds were deliciously trashy, although I ended up using the drum mostly with the snares tensioned off, preferring a sort of deep, funky tom-tom feel. (I would use the 8" snare drum whenever I wanted a crisp snare sound.) One weird by-product of playing both the top and bottom heads is that the drum sticks would disconcertingly bounce off the top head whenever I laid into the bottom head with the pedal.
I also found out that while this is, by a loose definition, a drum set, it requires a different concept and approach from your normal sit-down kit. Because of the actual positioning of your body to the drums, it changes your style of playing. It seemed the more simply I played, the better I sounded. Latin grooves and basic 2 and 4 beats felt awesome, especially when using the cowbell and percussion board. Everybody in the band loved the sound and the look of the drums, and when a fellow drummer sat in for a couple of tunes, I found myself gazing in affectionate admiration at the kit. O fickle and careless love, how you blind the heart!