Vinnie Colaiuta Tackles Classical Jazz

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To watch Vinnie Colaiuta play is to witness a master. It seems as if there is no lick, chop or style that can escape his grasp. It’s no wonder that a guy with this much talent has done so much. Even if his high visibility gigs with Frank Zappa and Sting escaped your notice, no doubt you’ve heard at least some of the studio work he has done over the years. So when a new piece of his recorded work came to our attention, we thought it time to dissect some of it.

These transcriptions come from Wigged Out, a recording by pianist Randy Waldman, who also is no slouch. He’s played with Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Madonna, to name but a few. His latest work is a collection of “classical standards,” like “Peter and the Wolf,” “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” and “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony,” believe it or not. Colaiuta attests to this guy’s chops. “Randy knows that stuff inside and out and he can blow too,” Colaiuta says. “So he wanted to do the music that he likes.”

Waldman arranged these classics with a jazzier overview. Lucky for us it took a monster like Vinnie to cover all the styles contained within these formidable charts. “It’s actually really hard,” the drummer says. “It’s almost like cartoon music – real notey.” Waldman was also wise enough to give Colaiuta a fair amount of room to solo in these challenging arrangements.

Ex. 1 and 2 come from “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” where you’ll find Colaiuta blowing over hits. Both the examples are phrased in 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4. The first of these examples starts at about two minutes and eight seconds into the tune, just before the bass solo, and the second, longer example starts at about three minutes, 18 seconds. We’ve also included the rhythm of the hits that the band plays, so you can see how Colaiuta navigates these musical markers.

DRUM! Notation Guide

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These two examples are written with all the notes stems-up, since Vinnie treats all four limbs equally. How did he develop his four-limb fluency? “What you do is just change your conception,” he explains. “It’s mental. You can work on the mechanics, but it’s how you think of it. You just conceive if it differently. Nothing different happens. The foot is still hitting the same drum.”

The third example starts at about three minutes, fifteen seconds into “Prelude in C# Minor.” Here the feet are written stem-down, as the hi-hat serves a different purpose, playing mostly quarter-notes. Colaiuta says, “The use of the hi-hat as a timekeeper is reliant on the context that it’s in. The hi-hat is just another voice or it’s a timekeeper. If you’re playing a solo in such a way that you’re not using it as a voice, and nobody is comping for you, it will always be a marker of where you are. In a general time-keeping sense, the hi-hat is kind of like the glue.”

vinnie colaiuta

These four-bar solos are in 7/4, which Colaiuta plays so smoothly that you might not notice the odd phrases when you first hear them. How does he do it without sounding like eight-minus-one? “When I first started practicing odd time signatures, I noticed that,” he says. “And that is one way to do it. But what if you don’t want it to sound like that? Then you have to figure a way to get out of that. You know that it feels funny, so you have to figure a way to not make it feel funny. There are ways to do it, like dividing it in a certain way. You can avoid 1. You can play over the bar line.

“The bass usually sets the pulse. The ostinato will tell you how it’s divided, and gives you the general sense of the hump of the bar, just like any other groove. The only time it gets tricky is when you have to memorize it, because the actual hump changes. You basically have to look and see how the bar is divided, and that might change from bar to bar. You have to count it first and find the subdivision. It’s easy to feel when the subdivision stays the same, because the subdivision becomes like the clave. And sometimes that changes from bar to bar. It’s like driving a race car. It’s like when you run at that speed, you have to think a certain way and you have to react a certain way. You can’t pause. You’re in that flow and time reference.”

With chops like Colaiuta’s, it certainly must be like driving a race car, and like most great players, he keeps getting better. “I just want to grow, like we all do. It’s a journey.”