Alex Acuña: Command In All Directions

Alex Acuna

(Above) Acuña lays it down with fellow Weather Report veteran Peter Erskine

Heavy Weather, Indeed

At the first recording session Acuña attended as the newest member of Weather Report, co—leader Wayne Shorter made a huge impression on him. “Wayne got up from the chair he was writing at,” Acuña recalls, “and he told me these words – I will never forget them. He said, ‘Alexandro, if I were a percussionist, I would play the same way you play.’”

At that time, Weather Report was also auditioning bass players. Acuña made a key suggestion. When asked, he told Zawinul, “I know one: Jaco Pastorius. And Joe said, ‘Yeah, Herbie [Hancock] told me about him. I think Herbie recorded something with him.’ So they called Jaco. So when Jaco came, there was a bass player playing a song in the studio; the name of the song was ‘Cannonball.’ You know who was playing drums? Narada Michael Walden. So, they also were trying out other drummers.

“By this time, I never told them that I played drums. Because I was hired to play percussion, and I wanted to sync in with the band, to really know what I could bring to the band. Jaco knew that I played the drums. The first time he played with Chester, it didn’t click. Jaco said to me, ‘I don’t play that style of music. I play more your style, like loose, Tony Williams, more like lighter, flying, not backbeat-driven.’ So Wayne said, ‘Well, should we hire another drummer?’ And Jaco said, ‘No! I want Alex to play the drums.’ And Wayne said, ‘Who’s going to play percussion?’ And we started auditioning percussionists. And Manolo Badrena came to the band.”

Like all great artists, Acuña’s drumming style and approach are always changing and evolving. Referring to those heady days of the 1970s, he notes, “If you listen to Heavy Weather [1977], you see we are playing ballads. I’m playing brushes; we’re playing a kind of pop – I don’t want to say disco – on ‘Teen Town’ and ‘Birdland.’ [sounds out line] And then we’re also playing Latin – dat, dat, dat! – that’s Latin jazz. Wayne wrote that. And then there is another tune: ‘The Juggler’ is kind of a European 3/4 with South American rhythm. I’m playing a rhythm that my father showed my brother; and I’m playing that rhythm that is in 6/8 but I play it in 6/4, two bars of 3 [demonstrates with melody and rhythm]; beautiful, you can hear nice, beautiful harmonies. No band was recording music like that, that kind of writing, that kind of a style, so distinctive. So that album, you can see the combinations of many different genres: Latin, Latin jazz, jazz fusion, European, South American, ballads, pop, jazz.”

Acuña was also becoming part of the Los Angeles scene, and would delve further into his surroundings when he eventually left Weather Report. “It was,” he remembers, “a totally different situation, musically speaking [sounds out more backbeat rhythms]. I start playing with Lee Ritenour, start playing at the Baked Potato; I meet Abraham Laboriel, and he introduces me to a lot of musicians. I start playing that Los Angeles sound, drumming, no jazz. You have to play one beat. Well, I’m exaggerating; you have to play that kind of beat from beginning to end, that downbeat. So I did a lot of recordings on drums, playing like Harvey Mason, Steve Gadd, Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner.”

L.A. Story

In L.A., Acuña started to get calls to play on movie sessions from people like Lalo Schifrin and Dave Grusin. And, then, Acuña suddenly received an invitation to play drums with Al Jarreau. From there, on and off, between 1980 and 1986, Acuña hitched his wagon to Jarreau’s musical machine, touring half the year, the other half working from home and doing studio work. But by 1986, Acuña told Jarreau he didn’t want to travel anymore. He wouldn’t go on the road again for 20 years. “I didn’t tour with anybody,” Acuña says. “I got calls from big names in pop and rock to tour with them, and I’d say no, because I’d been there, done that.”

Up until 2006, Acuña limited his playing to gigs, writing songs, and forming three different bands. One group, Tolu, played a “hardcore” Latin jazz. Another, Alex Acuña & The Unknowns, channeled Weather Report. The third, heard on To My Country, was a labor of love Acuña did of Peruvian music by Peruvian musicians that featured four of his favorite saxophone players: Paquito D’Rivera, Wayne Shorter, Ernie Watts, and Justo Almario.

Then, in 2006, Acuña was invited to go to Norway to play with two musicians, keyboard player Jan Gunnar Hoff and bassist Per Mathisen. “I started playing with these guys,” he recalls, “and it’s a trio but we sound like six musicians. Piano, synthesizers, acoustic everything. I’m playing drums and percussion at the same time, an octopus kind of player. We started touring Europe, and we made a record, Jungle City. It’s like Weather Report, because these guys can play that style, they understand that lingo.” In 2010, the trio made a DVD, recorded live in L.A., Acuña/Hoff/Mathisen. Available on the Drum Channel, it’s comprised of all-original music.

Acuña’s work has continued with symphony orchestras – Lalo Schifrin and the London Symphony’s recent Latin Jazz Meets Symphony Orchestra a good example. 2010 also saw Acuña appearing on Bobby McFerrin’s new album, VOCAbuLarieS, and touring with McFerrin and an orchestra this past summer in Europe. “It’s an album where I play all the percussion,” he says. “It’s a choir, kind of African, esoteric.” Back home in L.A., Acuña’s studio work remains steady, one of his latest collaborations being the new Vince Mendoza CD (untitled at press time), due out in January. And movie soundtracks? “I play all the percussion tracks to the new movies Red and Toy Story 3,” he says, before signing off with his characteristic abrazos, or “hugs.” It’s the perfect closer for a guy who, whether playing the drums or percussion, or simply talking about it, couldn’t be happier.

Acuña’s Setup

DRUMS: DW Collector’s Series (Tobacco Burst)
1. 22" x 16" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5.5" Aluminum Snare Drum
3. 8" x 8" Tom (mounted on cymbal stand)
4. 10" x 8" Tom
5. 12" x 10" Tom
6. 14" x 14" Floor Tom
7. 16" x 14" Floor Tom

CYMBALS: Zildjian
A. 13" K Constantinople Hi-Hat
B. 16" K Constantinople Crash
C. 20" K Constantinople Ride
D. 10" EFX Splash
E. 12" EFX Splash
F. 22" K Constantinople Ride
G. 18" K Constantinople Crash

PERCUSSION: Gon Bops Alex Acuña Signature Series Congas and Bongos
H. 11.75" x 30" Conga
I. 12.5" x 30" Tumba
J. 10.75" x 30" Quinto
K. 9.75" x 30" Requinto
L. 7", 8.5" Bongos
M. Gon Bops Djembe Cajon
N. Gon Bops Tambourine (mounted on BopsBell stand with DW 4000 pedal)
O. Gon Bops Alex Acuña Signature Peruvian Cajon
P. 14", 15" Gon Bops Alex Acuña Signature Timbales
Q. 18" Zildjian Azuka Timbale Cymbal (designed by Acuña)
R. Gon Bops Bomba, Bongo, Cha Cha, and Paila cowbells
S. Korg Wave Drum
T. Gon Bops FootBell

Alex Acuña also uses DW 9000 series hardware and DW 9000 series double pedal, Evans heads, Vic Firth Alex Acuña Signature Conquistador and El Palo timbale sticks and Peter Erskine Ride Stick (SPE2), and Shure microphones.

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