A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.
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The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.
“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”
It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.
“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”
Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.
During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.
“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.
“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”
Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.
“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”
The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.
“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”
In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”
Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.
“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”
This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.
“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”
A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”
Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”
“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”
“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”
Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”
For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.
Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”
James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”
Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”
“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”
When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”
If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”
Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.
Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.
In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.
“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”
Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”
Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.
“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”
At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”