Michael Sarin

Texture shifts, quiet drive, and a finely honed melodic sense are the subtle tools this drummer uses to facilitate some of today’s most intriguing new jazz.

“One thing I like to do is mute the snare with the brush, then take the brush off in another part of the song, changing the sound,” reveals the busy New York jazz drummer Michael Sarin. “From just one drum you can get all kinds of texture—stick, brush, hands, rods, using pressure on the head— all of which changes the dynamic of the music.”

In a performance with cellist Erik Friedlander’s group, Sarin (pronounced “sa-REEN”) bends his tom pitch by pressing the head while seamlessly switching sticks. The use of such tactics comes down to listening and observing, Sarin suggests. “There’s no formula to texture,” he says. “Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Jazz is transitory, and sometimes I listen back and wish I hadn’t played this or that. But it’s about creating on the spot.”

Looking over the list of jazz and improvisational players that Sarin works with, you notice a shared quality: the desire for a considered yet honest creative push—one that often blurs boundaries in the process. A drummer who’s comfortable with the uncomfortable, Sarin is frequently found in settings where many musicians might pause while figuring out what to play. Sarin listens, drawing on a broad range of influences. It comes down to texture and color, and also to the desire to, as Michael says, “try something surprising. There’s a willingness to bend to the music, to take what I do and mold it to the context I’m in.

“In 1989, when I moved to New York,” the drummer explains, “I didn’t come to play with [tenor sax legend] Johnny Griffin or anything. Not that there’s anything wrong with mainstream jazz, but I was hearing other things that were bringing in more influences.”

Coming from a small, creative music scene in Seattle, Sarin took some time to meet up with like-minded people in New York. But eventually he was moving among those associated with the downtown scene, working with the trumpeter Dave Douglas, the saxophonist Andy Laster, and the late sax and flute player Thomas Chapin. Musicians of this ilk were absorbing sounds from many diverse sources: the explorations of Steve

Coleman’s groups, the work of composers such as György Ligeti, and folk music from various corners of the globe. “Dave was writing music with classical and Balkan influences,” Sarin recalls, “and people who could read difficult, multimetered music and not just jam were needed. People started using me for pieces with this kind of writing. There was a lot of free improvisation, but it was improv with ideas about sections and composition. It wasn’t totally free; there were written parameters.”

By being open to these influences and ideas, Sarin has built an impressive career. Highlights include performing and recording with Chapin’s trio, involvement with Douglas’s landmark string group and its album Five, clarinetist David Krakauer’s jazz-klezmer hybrids, and projects with Myra Melford, Mario Pavone, and Brad Shepik, among others. All the while, Michael has developed a reputation for being an instinctive, versatile, and sympathetic player.

When asked about filling the needs of musicians with such individual visions, Sarin says, “Few people tell me what to play; the tune usually suggests it. But I’m not trying to play a generic feel, like samba, swing, drum ’n’ bass, or one-drop reggae. Rather, I’m trying to capture a particular feel for a given piece of music, using my own creativity and style. I think people hire someone because they know what they’ll bring to the music.”

Recent projects include the album Sacred Chrome Orb by Joe Fiedler’s adventurous trombone trio and the brilliant Americana sound of Erik Friedlander’s Bonebridge album, an outgrowth of the cellist’s Broken Arm Trio. Playing with these musicians involves open ears, as each artist synthesizes a broad spectrum of influences into his personal aesthetic, calling on Sarin to use color and feel in creative ways. In each case the drummer interacts as an equal, engaging in a quietly propulsive dialogue that provides a framework for others in the group to work from.

Also notable with these artists is Sarin’s control of volume while maintaining energy, often by way of using brushes and rods. “In Seattle I learned a lot about playing quietly in hotel bands,” Michael says. “And brushes I learned from just playing and watching others—there was this book that Philly Joe Jones had written, Brush Artistry, and then there were Ed Thigpen’s videos. But basically my brushwork comes from playing a lot and experimenting.

“It’s a personal style,” Sarin continues, “and there are certain things I will never be. I’m never going to be Elvin Jones. But I like the sounds of brushes, and not everyone does.”

Really, it just comes down to what the music calls for. “Joe Fiedler plays a lot of multiphonics on the trombone,” Sarin says, “which are difficult to play and can’t be done loudly, so I use brushes there. The drumset is a collection of instruments. You have to be aware of the timbres you’re playing and the timbres of who you’re playing with in the group. What sound do you use on the drums, and when? Great drummers play something and it sounds like it should be there. Listen to Gerry Hemingway, Tom Rainey, or Joey Baron and how they approach orchestration. Also Shelly Manne—when I was young I listened to him and how he played compositionally. Paul Motian, Al Foster, and Billy Hart are also like that.

“I always heard from a melodic standpoint,” Sarin concludes. “Some people are born to be a catcher in baseball or a goalie in hockey, and some are born to play the drums. I don’t believe I’m like that, as much as I love the drums. I always heard music from a melodic standpoint. Because of that, I think I bring something different to the drums. What I play is usually triggered by something going on in the melody.”

Sarin uses a mix of drums, including an 18″ Pearl maple bass drum; 10″, 12″, and 15″ GMS toms; and sometimes a Yamaha 14″ pedal tom, which can pitch-bend like a timpani. He chooses from several snares, including a Ludwig 6 1/2×14 Super-Sensitive, a Gretsch 5 1/2×14, and an old Time Tech 5×14 maple model. He usually uses Remo Ambassador heads. His cymbal setup is apt to change but generally includes either Istanbul or UFIP 13″ hi-hats, 16″ and 18″ UFIP crashes, a 1960s 20″ Zildjian A (which he got from Jerry Granelli, a former teacher), a 21″ Bosphorus Master, and a 20″ Paiste 602 Flat ride of Kenny Wollesen’s. (Kenny, if you’re reading this, Michael wants to know: “Do you want this cymbal back?”) And he has continuously used a lightweight Yamaha bass drum pedal from 1984.