Daniel Sadownick: A Percussionist In Transition

Daniel Sadownick

It’s the proverbial Christmas story. As snowflakes drift downward on New York City, a five-year-old boy is led by the hand through a toy store, his gaze shifting side to side, fully aware that Santa will soon be on his way. He passes the train sets, board games,and G.I. Joe action figures, making mental notes with every step, until his gaze focuses on a beautiful toy snare drum with pictures of clowns dancing around the tin shell. He stops short, pulling his parents toward the drum.

Their reaction is appropriate. “My parents recoiled in horror, knowing what kind of noise they were probably going to endure,” Daniel Sadownick recalls, chuckling. “But they bought it for me. I broke it in a few days, then they got me a beginner’s set, and I got serious. By the time I was 13 I had a full drum kit and was taking lessons with a drummer who lived in our apartment building.”

From that humble beginning, Sadownick built an eclectic career, mostly as a straight-ahead jazz drummer and percussionist. He has played, toured, and recorded with a diverse roster of artists, including Lionel Hampton, Dewey Redman, Nat Adderley, Meshell Ndegeocello, Maxwell, Steely Dan, Nestor Torres, Nicholas Payton, Al Green, and the free-funk, avant-garde outfit Screaming Headless Torsos.

For the past three years, Sadownick has been a“Rising Star – Percussion” on the Billboard magazinecritic’s poll. In 2009 he finally came in at #2 on the magazine’s Percussionist Of The Year list and was also nominated for a 2009 jazz journalist award for Percussionist Of The Year. “After rising for three years, it was nice to make it into the regular category,” Sadownick says. “I’m honored and blessed to be recognized by my peers for my contribution.”

Stepping Out

More kudos will come his way once people get a chance to hear Sadownick’s new album, There Will Be A Day, his first as a leader. With the exception of a startlingly fresh arrangement of the old classic “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” Sadownick wrote all the tunes on the album and assembled a top-notch team of players to help him fulfill his wide-ranging musical vision.

“I’ve been writing music for a long time,” he explains. “Up to now I’ve always stayed busy with other people’s projects. I’ve never felt ready to put something out with my name on it. Finally, I decided to hire a bunch of guys and do it. I know a lot of players with wide-ranging experience and started calling people up. The piano player, Rob Bargad, is my best friend. We met in Lionel Hampton’s band in 1988, my first professional gig. We used to live in the same neighborhood in Queens and formed a great friendship. He’s always doing a lot of gigs around town and,rather than use a drum kit, he often calls me to play congas and percussion. I’m well versed in the straight-ahead jazz idiom, as well as Afro Cuban. I grew up as a drummer and switched to hand percussion late, so I know the jazz tunes and can fit in with a lot of jazz ensembles.

“I met Michael Karn, who plays tenor sax,at the master’s program at NYU. He was studying music performance and composition. I love his style. He has so much fire and intelligence in his playing. I’ve been on two or three Dave Binney albums, so he plays alto, and he knew the bass player, Scott Colley, who can swing his ass off in any time signature. The trumpet player, Joe Magnarelli, was in Hampton’s band as well. I forged a lot of long-time friendships in that group.” Drummer Daniel Freedman, percussionist Kenny Wollesen, and oboe player Keve Wilson round out the band.

There Will Be A Day is simply stunning. While it works well as an album, with the tracks flowing together like a suite to present a unified look at Sadownick’s oeuvre, each tune can stand on its own as well. Jazz radio should jump all over “A Kiss That Whispers,” a sultry love ballad with a hint of the Middle East in its sinuous oboe melody. The cover of “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” deconstructs the melody, then puts it back together with hints of rumba, swing, and R&B in the arrangement. “Most people play the melody, a few solos, restate the melody, and then go out,” Sadownick says. “That’s the formula for boring people, be they listeners or musicians. I arranged it in a totally different way.” Sadownick’s version has hints of Latin in its rhythm, but it’s a kind of skewed Latin, accented by a lot of time and tempo shifts. The solos are like fast-moving conversations between Bargad, Karn, Magnarelli, and Sadownick.

The other potential hit is the album closer, “Steady,” a collaboration with vocalist/lyricist Morley Kamen. “Morley has her own style.She’s kind of funky, a folk pop singer and songwriter, although she has a bit of jazz in her style too. She was an Alvin Ailey dancer and a close friend of Max Roach. We’ve been promising each other to write together, and chose this tune to close the record.”“Steady” is an uplifting prayer that combines Afro Cuban rhythms with the pulse of a New York street corner and strips the music back to its basics – just Kamen’s gospel-tinged vocal and Sadownick’s percussion.

“Percussion in a jazz context seems to be limited to certain styles, mostly in the Latin area,”Sadownick says. “When I gave this album to Nicholas Peyton he called me back and said, ’I didn’t expect this. This stuff is swinging.’ Percussionists have gotten comfortable with a lot of Afro Cuban or Latin-tinged things, but in straight-ahead jazz, you need players that can lock into the drummer and let him be the boss and play as an ensemble. You have to comp on the congas like you do on the bass or piano. You have to know the language and be able to swing. I react in a way that complements the soloist, while I’m listening to the other members of the ensemble as well. I don’t want to just play great Latin. I want to swing my ass off too.

“A lot of percussionists overplay, but the greatest ability is to support the music and make it sound special. I play straight-ahead jazz on an instrument not normally used in that capacity. In order to excel in music, you always have to be a student. I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else, but I am an avid student. I’m always listening. When someone sends me a piece of music, I break it down. Form is of the utmost importance. You have to know the roadmap if you want toget there.”

Sadownick and his compatriots crossed the finish line with engines fully revved and colors flying. “We had one rehearsal where I gave the guys the charts I’d written – they’re all phenomenal readers. Then we booked six hours at Systems Two Studio, set up, checked the sound, and we knocked out the six full band tunes in one four-hour session. Two of the percussion interludes I recorded to hold the album together I did in my apartment on my PC with Pro Tools. ’Urban Scene’ [Sadownick on congas, bata, clave, shekere, cowbell, and fretless bass] was recorded at Jim Mussen’s studio, Jimimidi’s House Of Swing, and ’Steady’ was done with Steve Addabbo at Shelter Island Sound. Everything was done in one take, except for a few percussion overdubs.”

Sadownick produced the set himself, with a minimum of fuss. “I knew what I wanted to hear before we started.I’m a big fan and student of Frank Zappa. He knew what he wanted and always got it. The engineer, Joe Marciano, is fantastic – he was right there with me. I knew how much reverb I wanted and if he didn’t know what I meant, I’d play him a tape or CD to illustrate the sound. I came prepared.

“I wrote what I felt: fast, straight-ahead jazz things, a ballad, a mid-tempo groove, a Brazilian thing – you want diversity on a record. As a percussionist, I get called for a lot of different gigs: R&B, pop, jazz. I can adjust to any style. I want that versatility to come across. The album is out on my own label. Being a freelance musician, I know about being an independent businessman. You have to do all the groundwork yourself and hire a publicist to send it out to the DJs that still play jazz. It takes time, but I enjoy it. I like being in control of my destiny.”

Family Values

Sadownick grew up in the South Bronx, in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. “We played music in the house, mostly records and the radio,” he recalls. “But my cousin Maurice, who was 13 years older than me, had a huge record collection. Every time he came to our house he’d bring me a record. This started when I was four or five years old. Maurice was one of the most generous people I know, a heart of gold. He had a guitar and a bass at his house, and tons of friends who played music.

“Maurice got me into Santana, Zappa, Tull, and Yes. I was playing drums already and wanted to play progressive rock. Then, when I was 15, a friend of mine named Robert Henry gave me a shopping bag with ten jazz records in it. ArtBlakey’s Moanin’, Sonny Stitt Goes Latin, Weather Report’s Black Market, Return To Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before, and Light As A Feather with Airto and Flora Purim, Wayne Shorter’s Juju, something by the Mahavishnu Orchestra with Billy Cobham, and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Those albums messed me up forever. Just looking at the intensity of Coltrane’s face on the album cover let me know it was going to be special. I couldn’tgrasp it at first, it might have been too advanced for me, but Where Have I Known You Before did it. Coming from prog rock with all those tricky time signatures, I identified with it immediately. There were no vocals and the solos floored me.

“When I had my jazz epiphany, Maurice and I went up to the roof of my building and sailed my rock records off the roof like Frisbees. I became a jazz purist. I got Afro-centric and stopped wearing jeans. I put on the headphones and listened and practiced every day after school. In high school we had band at 7:00 in the morning, before regular classes started. Mr. Altieri was the teacher – a great, dedicated man. No one was ever late. I was in concert band Monday to Friday and jazz band on Wednesday.”

The Worm Turns

“I went to college at NYU and in my first year, 1979, I used to walk through Washington Square Park. There were always guys sitting around playing the congas and I fell in love with the sound. Near the end of my freshman year, I bought my first conga. I was a good drummer, but there were guys coming to NYU from all over the country who were really fierce, so I concentrated on hand drumming, which I felt was my true voice. I got another conga, a pair of vintage LP bongos, and some other percussion stuff.”

Sadownick got a bachelor’s in musical education and taught in the New York public school system while finishing his master’s in performance and composition. At NYU, the music he played for his exams was always his own, which endeared him to the faculty. After his first year, Sadownick won three Presser Scholarships that allowed him to finish school without going into debt. “My teachers were excited that someone was taking chances with their own compositions. They gave me high marks for always being well rehearsed and playing well.”

While Sadownick was in school, he sought out drummer Andrew Cyrille. “Andrew was with Cecil Taylor for 15 years. I was getting into the free-jazz thing, listening to Ornette and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. When I graduated, I wanted to get more training on hand drums and looked up Frankie Malabe, the conga player for Eddie Palmieri and Larry Harlow. He became a mentor, but if I hadn’t learned everything he showed me every week, he’d get aggravated. He wanted me to immerse myself in the music.”

Into The Fire

Sadownick was determined to make his living as a musician, and played a lot of one-off gigs in small clubs for $30 a night. “My first phone call from a big name came from Mose Allison, who wanted a percussionist for a gig at Folk City. I started networking and finally got called to play with Lionel Hampton’sband. I met a lot of players with Hamp, including [pianist] Rob Bargad, who got me a gig playing on Nat Adderly’s A Night In Manhattan,and Jerry Weldon, who hired me for his Five By Five record. My rent was 100 bucks a month, living with four other guys in Queens, and I was doing weddings and other stuff too.”

By ’89, Sadownick had locked in touring gigs with Tony! Toni! Toné! Alana Davis, P.M. Dawn, and Billy Idol. He also joined outside-the-box guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynksi in Screaming Headless Torsos, playing a hybrid of jazz, punk, and avant-garde Jewish music. “When I saw Screaming Headless Torsos, my jaw hit the floor. I’d played with Fuze in other situations and told him, ’You’ve got to let me in this band.’ He let me sit in and I slowly became a regular member. I think that was my breakthrough gig. When we opened for Meshell Ndegeocello, she said she had to have me in her band. Her band was all guys, a very high-testosterone group, with a lot of big egos and strong wills, which was what she wanted.”

The gig with Ndegeocello led to studio work with Al Green, Nestor Torres, Michael Brecker, and Steely Dan. Sadownick has played on four Grammy-winning albums – Green’s Lay It Down, Torres’ Mi Alma Latina: My Latin Soul, Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature, and Brecker’s Wide Angles. Steely Dan and Brecker were even kind enough to send him his own Grammy certificates.

“I’m still a freelancer, but I’d love to have my own band. Meanwhile, I’ll continue developing my voice, which comes partially from living in New York. You can hear jazz, rock, funk,fusion, or Latin everywhere, and I love playing it all. I’m too self-conscious to talk about my sound, but I’m ambidextrous, and work on a lot of independent hand movements – playing conga with my left hand, mounted tambourine with a stick with my right hand, and cowbell with a foot pedal, developing as many simultaneous tempos as I can.

“I want to bring passion, intensity, and soul to mymusic and keep reaching higher and higher. Music has many ingredients.There’s a technical aspect, the melodic content, and the feeling. Does it make you feel good, or at least feel something? Not just, ’Yeah, nice song,’ but, ’Yeah, that really touched me.’ John Cage’s ’4:33’ [four minutes and 33seconds of silence] is a great concept, but there’s no content. I want music with content, concept, feeling, and emotion. It can be melancholy or uplifting, but I want the listener to get something out ofit.”

Sadownick's Setup

Daniel Sadownick

Drums: LP Galaxy Giovanni
1. 11" x 30" Quinto
2. 11.75" x 30" Conga
3. 12.5" x 30 Tumba
4. 7", 9" Bongos

Cymbals: Paiste
A. 6" Signature Splash
B. 10" Signature Reflector Splash
C. 18" 2000 Sound Reflections China

Percussion: LPC Jam Block
D. Cyclops Tambourine
E. Black Beauty Cowbell
F. Mambo Cowbell
G. Gajate Bracket with Pearl pedal
H. Percussion Table (includes assorted shakers, Ching Chok, Utters, claves, traditional Indian and Pakistani bells, African shells, Remo Thunder Tube, finger cymbal, sleighbells and tambourine)