Marc Anderson: Zen Master of Ambient Percussion

Marc Anderson: Zen Master of Ambient Percussion

Marc Anderson is best known for his long association with experimental jazz guitarist Steve Tibbetts. They’ve been close collaborators since Tibbetts asked Anderson to participate in the sessions for YR, his 1980 debut for ECM. Today, Anderson is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, composer, grandfather, and bandleader, but his career started with Tibbetts, and the guitarist is a major influence on Anderson’s own music and outlook.

“Steve invented his own language, which is what every musician wants to do,” Anderson says, via phone from his loft in St. Paul, Minnesota. “He doesn’t use any chord progressions that make sense, but his guitar conjures up these simple repeating motifs with an amazing technique. He draws people in to an experience that doesn’t sound like anything else that’s out there. Its sensitive, reserved music, and the new album may be the most introverted of them all.”

Anderson is talking about Natural Causes, his eighth collaboration with Tibbetts. Its meditative flow suggests images of deep inner peace and quietly exploding cosmic consciousness. Anderson’s almost ambient percussion contributes much to the album’s subtle texture.

“I was very spare in my approach, very minimal,” Anderson explains of the recording process. “It wasn’t as collaborative as Big Map Idea, but I had a lot of flexibility. We spent several days tracking; I don’t think I had to redo more than one or two passes. He’d sent me the tracks already, but my style isn’t to work out patterns in advance.”

Going With The Flow

Anderson is a Zen Buddhist priest from the Soto Zen tradition. He finds the discipline of meditation helpful in any situation where he needs to focus, especially playing music. “Sitting helps you zero in on your thoughts and trim away the distractions, so I passively listened to the tracks. I may not hear a pattern, but I’ll find some sound in the music that resonates. My approach is painterly. I have a tendency to hear colors and respond to that. When I’m actually playing, I think about my drumming and how the parts are going to overlap. [on Natural Causes] I played quietly, because the music suggested restraint. It wasn’t groove-based, so a lot of space and a quiet approach seemed appropriate.”

Anderson used frame drums, tabla, steel drum, clay pots, tuned Paiste gongs, and a wooden udu during the sessions, improvising to the tracks Tibbetts played him. “He’d give me several passes, sometimes with direction, sometimes without. If he wanted more cymbals, or gong, or a shekere pattern, we’d do some overdubbing, but all in an improvisational performance style.”

On “Gulezian,” Anderson used two frame drums: one Remo bodhran and one larger drum with metal shells set around the edge, like a huge tambourine. “It almost has the sound of a snare,” he says of that drum. “I played them with brushes and they were closely miked to get that low brushy sound. Steve layered in a sample of a Balinese kendang to get more of a bottom. For ’Lakshmivana,’ I used a hanging gong that I played with my hands and steel drums that I play using tabla fingering patterns. With a light touch of the fingers, you can get the fast patterns you usually play with mallets.

“I mostly responded to [music] he had, some fragments and some complete pieces. He’s famous for taking simple patterns and sonorities and integrating them in ways one would never expect. The studio is one of his main instruments.”

Anderson isn’t sure if they’ll tour behind this record on account of Tibbetts and his wife having had triplets a few years ago, which obviously keeps the guitarist’s hands full. “He’s still working every day in the studio, though,” Anderson says.

Anderson has plenty of things keeping him busy as well. He teaches drumming to children, gives workshops in West African, Haitian, Afro Cuban, and Brazilian drumming, practices Zen, and is developing his songwriting skills. “Steve has been a big influence on my songwriting. It may not show up in the music we make, but there is a lot of pop music in our playing. Maybe not verse-chorus-verse, but part of that sensibility is there.”

Before Tibbetts

Anderson had no particular musical sensibility when he was growing up in Austin, Minnesota, the town that gave the world Spam. “My parents taught ballroom dancing and my mother loved to sing. My dad had a pair of bongos around the house he never touched. He listened to white folk’s jazz bands like Stan Kenton. I don’t think I was particularly inspired by the music he liked, but I’m thinking it must have had some unconscious influence.”

Like many musicians of his generation, it was The Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show that really sparked the fire that still burns in his heart. “I went from no interest in music to chasing The Beatles. Soon after that broadcast, I was drumming in a band called Captain America, playing horrible covers of Iron Butterfly and Jimi Hendrix tunes. I was drawn to the drums and trumpet. I tried to get serious about trumpet, then one day I blew as long and hard as I could and passed out. After that, drums seemed safer.”

Luckily, Anderson’s parents were supportive of his percussive leanings. “My mom hooked me up with a drummer named Bill Apold and I started lessons. He was a neighborhood guy, a bit older than me. He’d just gotten out of high school. He played in jazz, rock, and swing dance bands. He was a good teacher and still plays.”

Then Anderson discovered Santana. “I heard Abraxas. I didn’t know music like that existed. I had a friend who had a conga and I’d just flail on it.” Anderson also attended two concerts that cemented his decision to become a percussionist. “I saw Weather Report with Dom Um Romão, a crazy Brazilian percussionist who was running up and down the aisles with a huge shekere in his hand. A week later, I caught The Paul Winter Consort. Billy Cobham was the drummer and the stage was full of hand-percussion instruments from all over the world. Little did I know that 32 years later, I’d look at my living room floor and see an exact replica of Winter’s stage setup.”

After that eye-opening experience, Anderson went down to the library and checked out any record that had a conga player or a percussionist listed in the credits. “I found Don Ellis, Michael Urbaniak, Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, and all the fusion stuff they weren’t playing on the radio in Austin. It opened my mind to the many possibilities of sound.”

After high school, Anderson got serious with a band called Dogarama. “We morphed into a group called Clear playing originals and Bowie covers.” When the band fell apart, Anderson moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul to study music at the University. “I didn't have the reading skills to get into their program. I went back to playing in bands, jazz, and rock. I met Tony Marino, a bebop drummer from my neighborhood – no relation to the New York Latin pianist. I was hanging with his free-jazz friends and discovering musical directions I’d never considered. To make ends meet, I’d play Top 40, rock, country and western, and jazz. I got a gig with a belly dance troupe playing bodhran, knowing nothing about Middle Eastern music. I’d dive into situations that were over my head and learn what I could.”

The Clear Path

In 1977, Steve Tibbetts wrote Anderson a letter after having seen him play in Clear. At the time, Tibbetts was working on his second album, YR, and asked Anderson to meet with him to talk about adding percussion to it. “We were immediate good buddies and started hanging out,” Anderson remembers. “He told me what he wanted on his recording and let me loose.”

Anderson started playing live with Tibbetts and studied tabla with the guitarist’s associate, Marcus Wise. “After five years I realized I didn’t want to devote my life to classical Indian music. I use the techniques I’ve learned to play steel drums with my fingertips and, when I took frame-drum lessons from Glen Velez, I could apply those techniques to that as well. When I started playing udu, they came in handy.”

Anderson made two more records with Tibbetts, Northern Song in ’81 and Safe Journey in ’83, then considered dropping out of music. He studied to be a chiropractor at the University Of Minnesota, until Tibbetts asked him to join him on tour. He dropped out and went on the road.

“I met Sowah Mensah, a master drummer, multi—instrumentalist, and composer from Ghana. He became my friend and advisor. He took me to Ghana to study with master drummers he knew. I returned to school and got a degree in ethnomusicology and a job teaching cross-cultural aesthetics at Hamlin University in Saint Paul.”

While finishing school, Anderson collaborated with Tibbetts on the writing and recording of 1987’s Exploded View and 1988’s Big Map Ideas, probably the noisiest albums in Tibbetts cannon. “Steve used electric guitar and I got to play loud and let go. I have a noisy timbale solo on Big Maps that was really fun.”

After The Fall Of Us All, in 1994, Tibbetts and his wife had triplets and he curtailed his touring and recording. Anderson became an adjunct professor in the Anthropology Department at Hamline University, where he leads a number of drum ensembles, teaches master classes and workshops, and puts on retreats for corporations that combine drumming and meditation. “Some people frown on academia, but it allows me to be a musician without playing in clubs or being in six different bands.”

Going Solo

Anderson also wanted time to make his own music. “I had ideas and wanted to see if I could make music without having channeled things through Steve. That’s what I did on Time Fish, my first solo album, although Steve plays on a few pieces. I used four or five singers, but used their lyric-less voices like instruments. There’s sax, cello, and Ghanaian xylophone and drumming. You can hear the Tibbetts’ influence for sure.”

Anderson’s second solo effort, Ruby, was a tribute to his grandmother. “I used percussion to carry the melody, although the tunes are all fairly simple. I’m not a melody guy. I do play steel drums, but melodies don’t easily grip me, although people tell me my drumming has a melodic flow.”

Ruby is a feast of eclectic rhythms, textures, and colors. “French Bourrees” combines bagpipes and African percussion into an ancient dance form. “I played at a French dance with [bagpiper] Laura MacKenzie and liked her big scary sound, so I did some big scary drumming to go with it. ’Gati’ is based on a dance rhythm from Ghana called agbadza and uses fiddle and xylophone. ’People Are Leaving’ has melodic steel drum played with fingertips. It opens with my grandmother Ruby telling the story of the people she lost in her childhood. She died just before the album came out.

“These days I teach drumming to children, give workshops in West African, Haitian, Afro Cuban and Brazilian drumming, perform with a variety of great musicians, make records, and practice Zen. Next year, I’m introducing a new group and I’m writing pieces for our debut. [The music] will be based on drum patterns I’ve come up with played against ambient sampled sounds that ebb and flow. Once I have the patterns down on my computer, I can fill out the rest of the tune, or move things around.”

Anderson is always in search of the next new sound, pushing the boundaries that Tibbetts had help him move beyond, and expanding into his own unique realm of creative expression. “I want to work with songs, but without the verse-chorus form or without it being too linear. I love what [trumpet player] John Hassall did with The Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street. His sound is super-processed with a linear, ambient groove thing happening. I want to break that down and find ways to obfuscate my patterns and new ways to break up the beat. I like having a groove and melodic fragments developing without going in any specific direction. I love the idea of patterns emerging from the music without any resolution, but still pulling the listeners along.”

Marc Anderson's Kit

Hand Drums
1. 11.75" x 30" Meinl Conga
2. 12.5" x 30" Meinl Tumba
3. Hand-made Ghanaian Djembe
4. Hand-made Turkish Dumbek
5. Hand-made Brazilian Cajon
6. Remo Bodhran
7. Cooperman Tar

Drum Set: Custom-Built By Dave Hansel
8. 24" x 20" Bass Drum
9. 14" x 5" Premier Snare Drum (vintage)
10. 10" x 8" Tom
11. 12" x 9" Tom
12. 14" x 14" Floor Tom

Percussion Rack
A. Paiste tuned gongs
B. RhythmTech Tambourine
C. LP Jam Block
D. LP Mambo Cowbell

B. 14" Zildjian A Custom Hi-Hat
C. 17" Sabian AA Medium Crash
D. 12" Zildjian A Custom Splash
E. 22" Istanbul Mehmet Dark Ride
F. 21" Istanbul Mehmet Brilliant Ride

Marc Anderson’s setup frequently includes Ghanaian bells and rattles, Tibetan finger cymbals, and a custom steel drum. He also uses Meinl heads on the congas, Remo and Evans heads on drum set, and Vic Firth sticks and mallets.

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