Exemplifying the power of versatility and the perseverance of tradition, Ricky Martin’s main rhythm man is a juggernaut of sheer drumming muscle.
If you could somehow merge the monster groove of Abe Laboriel Jr., the jazz skills and independence of Antonio Sanchez, and the sizzling energy of a Latin percussion section into one drummer, that drummer would be Tony Escapa.
Whether he’s playing with the Latin pop superstar Ricky Martin, the Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Franco De Vita, or the jazz alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, Escapa marks each gig as his own. His contributions to De Vita’s CD/DVD set Franco de Vita en Primera Fila offer a lesson in groove keeping of the highest order, showcasing the thirty-one-year-old drummer’s tastefully chosen parts and gorgeous-sounding kit. On the other side of the spectrum, the zone where jazz and Puerto Rican percussion meet in the boxing ring, Escapa scalds odd-meter Latin jazz on Miguel Zenón & the Rhythm Collective’s limited edition OYE!!! Live in Puerto Rico.
Early on, Escapa, who’s a native of Puerto Rico, played along to the recordings of Weather Report, Journey, and Miles Davis— learning the value of versatility at a young age—and found his drum footing working with his father, a renowned keyboard player. Between 1999 and 2003, Tony attended the Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship, then left school to join a Latin jazz orchestra. In 2005 he joined Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” band. After that, there was no looking back.
Escapa has since performed with Al Di Meola, David Sanchez, the Caribbean Jazz Project (subbing for Dafnis Prieto and Mark Walker), and the NY Gypsy All-Stars. He’s also recorded his own as yet unreleased projects, including Progress Report, an earlier version of the group Now vs. Now. Other artists he’s recorded with include Manhattan Vibes, bassist Steve Jenkins, and cellist Dana Leong. “These recordings went under the radar,” Escapa says, “but I feel really proud of them all, because I was doing some things that I think contributed to what’s going on musically in New York nowadays, and because I got to hang with some really heavy cats and learn a lot from them.”
MD spoke with Tony soon after he came off Ricky Martin’s 2011 world tour.
MD: You cover many different styles of drumming on your various gigs. What’s the key to performing with that level of versatility?
Tony: I understand the concepts of changing styles, and that has a lot to do with changing sounds by using different drums, trying different drum sizes and tunings, and hitting the drums differently. There are so many parameters. Some drummers are trying to find an authentic sound and be super-unique. But I come from the studio-drummer angle—it’s a work in progress and a matter of trial and error to find what works.
MD: How do you strike the drum differently with Franco De Vita versus Miguel Zenón?
Tony: First, I tune the drum in a whole different way with Miguel Zenón. For acoustic jazz I tune the drums higher, so they’re more in the range of the other acoustic instruments and so that they don’t get in the way sound-wise. For acoustic music and jazz I go with open tuning, and I use traditional grip because it takes me into that whole vibe of playing jazz. For pop music I use bigger drumsticks and I hit harder, using a bigger stroke and trying to get a fatter sound. And I tune the drums lower. With Franco, for instance, I use a 24″ bass drum. It all depends on the gig.
MD: Traditional or matched grip for Zenón’s hard-charging Latin?
Tony: Traditional. We put that band together for the [John F.] Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to travel to Africa. It’s Miguel’s music fused with Latin rhythms. I also played a year and a half with Claudia Acuña while I lived in New York between 2003 and 2009. I played with Oz Noy as well. I came to New York as a percussionist after leaving Berklee. I landed a gig with Alfredo de la Fe’s salsa big band. It was the last ten-piece salsa band assembled to travel the world before 9/11.
MD: In an online Latin Percussion video, you’re playing Latin rhythms ambidextrously between two cowbells, to the left and right of the set. Did you also do that in de la Fe’s orchestra?
Tony: Basically, yeah. In de la Fe’s orchestra I was the timbale player. I didn’t grow up listening to Latin music, although I am from Puerto Rico. When I was a young kid I played drums with my father, who was a keyboard player with many national Puerto Rican acts; he hipped me to the Yellowjackets, Weather Report—music with a lot of keyboards. So I was into jazzrock fusion as a kid. I thought salsa sucked. There’s no drums, I thought—I was ignorant. But when I was fourteen we moved to Florida, and I felt I had to go back to my roots. So I started studying Latin percussion, and I really got into playing congas and timbales.
When I moved to Orlando I went back to salsa. It’s part of my heritage. I was always aware of it and always listening to it. It just came out naturally.
Understanding the Cuban side of Latin culture was harder. Puerto Rican music is simple and straight up. When you add the Cuban influence, they have a whole different thing happening, with rumba and the tradition. Understanding all of that made my drumming really solid rhythm-wise. I already had the 2-and-4 and the rock and fusion thing together; the sensitivity came from listening to jazz. That teaches you to interact and react in a trio or quartet setting.
MD: How has studying Latin percussion helped your kit playing?
Tony: As a drummer I felt that I had to understand Latin percussion. Drums are always separate; you don’t really hear the drumset in Latin bands. There were bands with drummers back in the ’70s, like Fania All Stars—Billy Cobham even played on a couple of their records. Changuito was the first bandleader to introduce the drumset to a salsa band. I studied all that music, and it gave me an understanding of the drummer’s space within a Latin band.
Latin music is primitive in a way. It’s all patterns. There’s not much freedom in terms of what you play. As a drummer I understand the role of the congas, bongos, and timbales, and I can incorporate the drums without stepping on the percussion. I groove and I know how to play flexibly with time inside the concept.
MD: Perhaps that relates to your deep groove on the set, because you understand Latin percussion as a whole.
Tony: Latin music is very syncopated, so you have to be aware of where the 1 is. Everyone else’s rhythms are all over the place, so if you always know where 1 is, then you can flow and do things on the drumset that are really cool for the percussionists. When the drummer fluidly plays ideas that incorporate over-thebarline playing or messing with the time, it’s really good for everyone on the bandstand.
MD: On the LP video you also play a lefthand clave pattern on the left bell while improvising around the set with your right hand and feet. Then you play another Latin rhythm on the right cowbell over a funk pattern. What advice can you give to enable that kind of ambidexterity?
Tony: You just have to practice it slowly and with a metronome to understand the different patterns. You have to understand the different claves, how the cascara fits with the clave; that’s how I started. I worked really hard with the metronome. I would practice the patterns with either hand. One of the best method books is Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez’s Conversations in Clave. It teaches you how to subdivide everything so that you know how it all fits with the pattern of the clave or cascara. You work out every beat playing the patterns. It’s all repetition and independence.
MD: What are the demands on you in Ricky Martin’s band?
Tony: With Franco De Vita I approach the gig as if I’m Abe Laboriel Jr. With Ricky it’s like a Broadway show; it’s almost exactly the same every night. They want consistency. Ricky’s gig is hard for a lot of drummers. You need to understand all these different concepts. When Ricky plays pop, you have to understand pop music. The Latin sections of his music require you to really know each rhythm. It’s not just the songo or cascara or a salsa; you have to understand Brazilian percussion too. How do I incorporate a samba drum line into the drumset?
In “Cup of Life” I play a batucada rhythm on top and four on the floor on the bass drum. I add more or play less. Generally I stylize the beats into my own thing within all these traditional elements. On “Lola” I’m playing timbale accents on the cymbal bell and hitting accents with the soloists. It’s Latin, but it’s pop too. Generally I have to find the fine line between playing hip Latin and super-straight grooves for the audience and Ricky.
MD: Were you hired for the Ricky Martin gig because of your versatility?
Tony: I was hired because of a mistake! I was called to Miami for the audition, and that same day we got six songs down, so I stayed. They needed someone to come in fast. I had to play five different songs on the audition. The hardest was the new single, “I Don’t Care.” The song is entirely electronic, so I had to approximate the live drums to match the electronic drums.
At home I had checked out all the hits: “Cup of Life,” “Vuelve,” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which was ska-punk. I knew all the hit songs when I got there. But nobody told me what songs to prep. They didn’t say anything. But we played all those songs. On “I Don’t Care” I incorporated triggers into the drumkit. Then they sent me the electronic tracks from the record, and I incorporated those into the acoustic drumset as well. We distributed all the original sound clips from that song onto Pintech pads. I also approximated the programmed electronic part of the song on the acoustic kit. That all came from the audition.
MD: What’s in your current electronic setup?
Tony: Well, the show runs on a click because of the visuals. Everything is synched. The tour in ’05 was more live, more open. We could really play then. On the latest tour Ricky wanted to replicate the techno and electronic styles and rock guitars of his new record, M.A.S. Josh Freese recorded the few tracks on the album with live drumming. I used the Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12 for electronics. I use a trigger on my bass drum to get that techno feel. That gives me the acoustic feel mixed with the electronic sound; it makes me play more in the style. I have a pad on my left if I need to play a particular sound, and I use the MULTI 12 for two songs that are entirely electronic. I use it as a color in the kit. That gets me in the whole techno headspace.
MD: What are the other challenges of Ricky Martin’s gig?
Tony: It takes a lot of endurance to play with Ricky Martin. Back then I ran five miles a day to get in shape. The show is two hours, nonstop. I am the only instrumentalist playing nonstop for the entire night. I have to play super-hard, everything from “Livin’ La Vida Loca” to heavy, slow songs and the Latin thing. On one song I play a solo batucada for six minutes while Ricky does a call-and-response section with the audience. You’re in a stadium, and if you want the crowd to feel your energy you have to play hard. I was trying to achieve the consistency to play loud and controlled.
MD: Which specific Latin rhythms do you play with Miguel Zenón?
Tony: Traditional songo, bomba… That gig is strange because we created something avant-garde with Puerto Rican music. His music has super-complicated meters, a lot of mallet playing—it’s very challenging. The way Miguel composes, he’ll combine odd-metered bars to bridge sections. So you really have to understand subdividing. For preparation, Miguel emails all the charts and MP3s, then I study the music for days. I have to identify all these little bars that he puts in there to screw things up. It’s making something simple very complicated, but in a very musical way. His music is amazing.
MD: What do you practice now?
Tony: I still practice with old records, like Miles Davis’s Nefertiti, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Journey albums, the Brecker Brothers with Steve Jordan, Todd Rundgren’s “If I Have to Be Alone” from 2nd Wind—that song has a 6/8 feel. I actually don’t work on technique that much now. Earlier, though, I learned a lot from Dennis Chambers’ Serious Moves and In the Pocket videos, and I loved Buddy Rich videos. And I played with the Magic of Orlando drum and bugle corps for a short time; that’s where I got all my technique.
MD: What do you think is the key to your success?
Tony: Versatility has been helpful for me—understanding groove, understanding rhythm, and understanding melody. Knowing a little about harmony is important. And just being able to understand how music works, the whole pop song form. And knowing what the gig calls for. I always find little ways to shine, but the most important thing is to find out what the artist wants and make them sound great. That’s also the greatest thrill.
TONY’S RICKY MARTIN SETUP
Drums: Yamaha Beech Custom Absolute in black sparkle fade finish, including a 6 1/2×14 Mike Bordin signature snare, 7 1/2×10 and 8×12 toms, 12×14 (left side) and 14×16 floor toms, an 18×22 bass drum, and a 14×18 bass drum mounted as a gong drum
Cymbals: Zildjian, including a 19″ Z3 Ultra Hammered China, a 17″ A Custom crash, 14″ A New Beat hi-hats (brilliant), a 20″ A Custom crash, a 9″ Oriental Trash splash, a 10″ A Custom splash, 13″ hi-hats (K top, Z bottom), a 21″ A Sweet ride (brilliant), an 18″ A Custom crash, and a 20″ A Custom EFX crash
Hardware: Yamaha chain-drive double pedal, DW rack system
Electronics: Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12, 12″ DTX-PAD, and DT-20 trigger on main bass drum; 16-channel Mackie mixing board
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador X main-snare batter and Hazy Ambassador bottom, Black Suede Emperor tom batters and Ambassador bottoms, and Clear Powerstroke 4 on bass drums
Percussion: LP Cyclops mountable brass tambourine and Salsa timbale cowbell, both on Yamaha cowbell mounts
Sticks: Vater Josh Freese H-220, Bamboo Splashstick, GS-Fusion, Sugar Maple Teardrop, and Sugar Maple Fusion Accessories: Vater Single Pair stick holder and drink holder
Miguel Zenón & the Rhythm Collective OYE!!! Live in Puerto Rico /// The Damon Grant Project Sonidos Nuevos /// various Got the Impeach Bush/Cheney Blues /// Yan Carlos Artime Recuerdos Que Lleva el Viento /// Cucu Diamantes Cuculand /// Franco De Vita En Primera Fila
Rush Moving Pictures (Neil Peart) /// Yellowjackets Live Wires (Will Kennedy) /// Tony Williams Lifetime (Tony Williams) /// Luis Alberto Spinetta all with Daniel “El Tuerto” Wirtz /// Sintesis Ancestros 2 (Raul Pineda) /// Vinnie Colaiuta Vinnie Colaiuta (Vinnie Colaiuta) /// The Beatles all (Ringo Starr) /// Tito Puente Golden Latin Jazz All Stars (Ignacio Berroa) /// Prince The Rainbow Children (John Blackwell) /// Toto Past to Present 1977–1990 (Jeff Porcaro) /// U.K. Night After Night (Terry Bozzio) /// Los Van Van all with Changuito or Samuel Formell