As it turns out, asking Steve Gadd about what he played on a song on one particular night of a recent tour is a lot like asking a painter to recite the order in which he executed each stroke of a masterpiece. Or maybe harder. As far as raw, technical information goes, and despite the existence of hi-fidelity audio documentation, Gadd has no real recollection of what actually transpired between his limbs and the kit during the evening’s performance of “Them Changes” captured on his recent album, Live At Voce.
This is both disturbing and endearing. Disturbing because the realization hits you that his frightening suite of talents: the supreme gift of rhythm, stunning fleetness of hands and feet, eternal creativity, legendary stylistic versatility – a perfect storm of drum mastery, actually – all seem to require very little in the way of active consciousness on Gadd’s part. Even the constant and complex musical conversation carried out between him and his bandmates, surely a conscious process, must be part of this powerful groove-trance Gadd falls into as a tune begins.
On the other hand, it is endearing because the man who you hear multiple times a day without even realizing it, the man who has played more sessions than the number of times you’ve hit a drum, the man who pretty much invented the concept of pocket, is way more concerned with spreading the love around than he is with discussing any of the predictably awesome things he did to his kit that night. “To me, it wasn’t about anything that I played or anything that any one person played,” Gadd says. “The band was just happenin’ that night and that’s what was important. I think whoever listens will hear different things that the individual players do that they’ll enjoy depending on what their instrument is. I mean, if they’re organ players they’re gonna love what Joey plays and if they’re guitar players they’re gonna love some of the stuff that Paul does and if they’re saxophone players, Ronnie’s a killer, and hopefully the drummers will get something out of what I did. And just musicians in general – hopefully they’ll be uplifted when they hear it. To me it’s just some good grooves, nothing heavy, just some good playing.”
These words reveal a deep appreciation within Gadd for the simple pleasures of a small touring group: the camaraderie, musical chemistry, creative legroom, even the club setting. Naturally, these would be the things that a session legend would long for, so Gadd not only seems to take none of it for granted, he’s understandably sentimental for the occasion. As a result, Gadd is only really interested in discussing the sum of his band’s parts and the “magic” created when the conditions – sound, club, and crowd – are just right. When asked if his bandmates expressed enthusiasm over any particular moves of his, he responds with, “Well that happened between all of us every night. That’s what was the fun of this band. Every night we had fun. And when we could hear good, it was even more magic. It was just some guys getting together playing some music and that’s what it was.”
Sure, only these are the kind of guys that decide to form a band and hit the (international) circuit without having so much as jammed. “We had a gig scheduled in Greece and we didn’t have any rehearsals so we had to put our heads together and come up with things that we could play and that we’d enjoy playing, so that’s how it evolved,” Gadd expains, referring to his selection of tunes. “And also because its like ... there’s some shuffle here, there’s some back-beat things there, there’s a nice variety of grooves, so that plays into why I would choose what we played.” One needn’t listen to the whole record to experience this variety of grooves, though – “Them Changes” spans many in the course of one song.
Gently tweaking the melody, the group transforms this Buddy Miles classic into an ebullient, organ-driven lesson in groove evolution. The performance, featuring spirited solos by bandmates Paul Bollenbeck (guitar), Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax), and Joey DeFrancesco (organ), undergoes numerous modulations of feel throughout, culminating in a memorable solo from The Man himself. Gadd opens the tune with a solid, four-on-the-floor backbeat topped with one of this signature back-and-forth-with-right-hand-between-ride-and-hi-hat grooves (totally impractical, totally ’70s, totally Gadd). The excitement begins not even a minute into the song with a lively confrontation between guitar and drums where Gadd blurs the backbeat to deflect Bollenbeck’s funky chord jabs. Before long, they’ve made up and agree on a hard swing feel at 2:00, inviting the organ along on bass.
Knowing he can rely on DeFrancesco’s astonishingly left hand, Gadd manages to comfortably drift back and forth between swing and funk as if they were one and the same until the next head, when the ’70s ride-hat groove reappears. This time, though, a subtle adjustment has been made as the ride takes the upbeats and the hi-hat the downbeats. Following, Cuber embarks on a solo and Gadd introduces more vintage groove, adding sixteenth-notes on the hi-hat to complement the upbeat ride bell. This means the right hand plays the pattern hat-ride-snare-ride-hat-ride-snare-ride as straight eighth-notes.
As Cuber really gets into it with the bari, you begin to recognize a familiar melody. Is that ...? Yeah, that’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and by the time you’ve figured it out it’s long gone. “That was something that just happened that one night,” Gadd says. “Every night we played the same tunes but they were always a little different than the night before. But that was just that one night and it was nice to play homage to Michael.”
“Them Changes” continues with each section seeing Gadd initiate subtle changes in texture and feel. The organ solo welcomes some of his famous paradiddle grooving between hats and snare, as well as DeFrancesco’s own tribute to the King Of Pop with a few seconds of “Bad.” After the band meets up for the fourth head, Gadd slides into the remarkable solo transcribed on the following pages.
As this occurs, a few things immediately come to mind. 1) Never has there been a drummer as adept as Gadd at incorporating rudiments into his or her drumming without it sounding like a page out of a method book. 2) Never has there been a drummer as adept as Gadd at playing a drum solo without it sounding like a bunch of purposeless fast notes. 3) How can there possibly be that much feel in one man’s body? Seriously, though. Gadd is one of the few soloists who manages to express all of his musical thoughts in the form of some type of actual groove. The material never seems meaningless or gratuitous, always musical and important. Put in the context of the rest of the song (which was too long to transcribe here in it’s entirety) it makes perfect sense.
As his solo proceeds, Gadd fully explores his kit, experimenting with different orchestrations of patterns, pairing ride with toms, hi-hat with snare, snare with floor tom. At around 11:00 into the performance he breaks out the six-stroke rolls. You know the ones: RLLRRL played as a straight sextuplet, the first (R) and last (L) notes played on the ride and hi-hat, respectively, with both notes accompanied by the right foot. These are followed excitingly by a climactic moment of RLLF/RLLF (F = right foot) with the left hand on the snare and the right hand moving back and forth between floor tom and snare. After this, the boys, perhaps a little petered out, pull it together for one more head before calling it a take.