Following in the lineage of European drumming masters Pierre Favre and Han Bennink, Swiss-born Fredy Studer has deftly employed touch, tone, texture, noise, and rhythm in service of highly drumcentric music that, regardless of its avant-garde nature, communicates a rare sense of sincerity and humanity.
Active on the European avant-jazz and classical scenes since the late 1960s, Studer was a founding member of the influential, freewheeling fusion group OM, and has toured and tracked albums with such iconic musicians as Dave Holland, Miroslav Vitous, Joe Henderson, Rainer Brüninghaus, Markus Stockhausen, Charlie Mariano, George Gruntz, Franco Ambrosetti, and Christy Doran. Along the way, he’s ceaselessly explored out-rock, jazz, folk, psychedelia, blues, fusion, rhythm ’n’ blues, bebop, funk, contemporary classical, and open-improvisation terrain.
Among the dozens of albums Studer has recorded are the landmark 1977 ECM release Percussion Profiles with Jack DeJohnette, Dom Um Romão, Pierre Favre, Dave Friedman, and George Gruntz, and Favre’s 1984 release Singing Drums, featuring Paul Motian and Naná Vasconcelos, both of which expanded the then-current rhythmic consciousness. Other projects featuring Studer and Favre are the Four in Time drum quartet, with Daniel Humair and Fritz Hauser, and the long-running Drum Orchestra duo. Along the way Studer has also interpreted the percussive masterworks of 20th-century classical composers Steve Reich, John Cage, and Edgard Varèse.
Coinciding with his long-term consultancy with Paiste cymbals, Studer followed his own artistic muse, exploring unusual situations and challenging concepts in music, life, and drumming. Studer’s life works are detailed in a 224-page book included in the recent box-set Now’s the Time. On the package’s double-LP audio component, Studer incorporates random percussion within his freely performed rhythms, creating a complete rhythmic world that challenges Western notions of the drumset’s capabilities. Applying extended techniques and novel approaches to percussion, Studer speaks a musical language unique in its use of texture, sound, rhythm, and noise, and in the feelings it evokes. Remarkably, given the depth of his catalog, it’s his first true solo drumset work.
Opener “InPuls” introduces a 4/4 pulse, to which Studer orchestrates flowing cymbal and tom timbres. Performing with a vigilant yet subtle touch, Studer makes his set sing. “Katharina San” explores freakish detuned cymbals with mallets. “Another Day” is a liquid palette of shimmering bells, reverberating cymbals, brushed drums, and resounding bass drum. “Joysticks” follows the life of a double-stroke roll played on a snare drum, as Studer roams over the middle of the head, its edge, and the drum’s shell with comical strikes leading to long, hymnal bell tones.
Studer’s processes evolve as quickly as his brain and body can fly between projects. Today he continues to work with a trio featuring pianist Katharina Weber and guitarist Fred Frith; the Jimi Hendrix Project with guitarist Christy Doran, vocalist Erika Stucky, and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma; a trio with fellow percussionists Robyn Schulkowsky and Joey Baron; pianist Jasper van’t Hof’s quartet; and age-defying fusion tricksters OM. The DVDs Sedel: Rock ’n’ Roll Kingdom, Hardcore Chambermusic: A Club for 30 Days, and Namibia Crossings: Spirits & Limits find Studer traversing the world stage in the kind of unusual collaborations for which he is heralded.
Studer’s energy is contagious, ferocious, and endearing, his drumming equally so. We’ve captured merely a slice of it here.
MD: You’ve been an active, successful musician since the late 1960s; what’s the key to that sort of longevity?
Fredy: A love for music beyond borders. I love improvisation in a deep way. I saw Jimi Hendrix in London, and Mitch Mitchell became a big influence. John Coltrane also. And then I discovered the great black musicians like Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, and European improvised music and ethnic music from all over the world.
MD: How do you maintain your technique on a day-to-day basis?
Fredy: I use the books Stick Control [by George Lawrence Stone] and 4-Way Coordination [Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine]. I like drum books that are open, like Gary Chester’s books—neutral material where you can transform your own ideas. When I played bebop and hard bop I didn’t have that experience, but I was listening to records and practicing to execute that kind of music and feel. I always did what I had to do right in the moment. I went through so many different styles…that was learning for me instead of attending music university or a jazz school.
MD: Do you have a warm-up routine or hand-to-hand exercise you do on a regular basis for maintenance?
Fredy: When I go to my practice room, I start with basic practicing ideas using the double bass drum pedal: doubles, singles, very slow then faster, with accents and variations. And with my hands I play on a pillow on my snare drum with very heavy sticks. I play left-left-right, left-left-right or paradiddles and concentrate on the left hand, which is weaker than my right. After twenty minutes I change to lighter sticks, and then it feels much easier.
I also work on balance between the limbs: simple stuff like two 8th notes on the right bass drum, followed by two 8ths on the right hand, two 8ths on the left-foot hi-hat, and two 8ths on the left hand. Then I shift the beat by one 8th note. It sounds very simple, but it’s hard to do. Last year I really concentrated on that stuff to get ready for the solo recording.
Why Is Now the Time?
MD: Why record a solo drumming record at this point in your career?
Fredy: I was never really interested in playing solo drums, except a drum solo in a band [setting] or on the spot. Then visual artists asked me to play as accompaniment to their gallery shows or exhibitions, and I was never prepared. Five years ago, I was asked to play solo at a jazz festival. I was searching for stuff and preparing, and the concert went very well. So a lot of people encouraged me to continue with it.
It became a new challenge. I knew I wanted to play music on the drumset; it has to be musical. And I knew that it should be a mix of groove and noise or sounds—those two poles have been interesting to me since the beginning. That’s why I play groove music or really free improvised music.
MD: Did you create arrangements for each track/improvisation?
Fredy: I developed concepts, I worked on sounds, I worked on grooves, and sometimes it all came together. To give you an example, at the very end of “Now’s the Time,” it’s a polyrhythm between the legs and the hands. I had that written groove, a three-over-four pulse, but then I played a samba pattern on top of it. I didn’t use the right hand, just the left hand on the rim of the snare drum. The bass drum played a punctuation accent on the last beat, because I want to play dynamically with the hands and the feet. Then it was much more difficult to keep the right hand out. I made a crescendo on the bass drum and a decrescendo with the left hand, which sounded like what you hear on recordings with delays. I still had my right hand free, so I did free scratching on a small China-type cymbal that I put on my floor tom.
MD: For “Now’s the Time,” did you map out the ideas in advance, or was that just one long improvisation?
Fredy: It was mapped out in advance. In the studio it was very important to execute something that I was practicing, but also to take the risk in the moment of recording. I wanted to keep the momentum of improvisation very open.
MD: Were the other compositions arranged in advance?
Fredy: Two tunes on the record, “An Open Window for Frasi” and “Rostiger Himmel,” weren’t planned at all.
MD: There’s a YouTube video of you and Jojo Mayer playing kits together, and while he’s playing you sort of erupt. So much energy comes off your drumset. And on a video of Phall Fatale, we can see that you’re playing high off the drumset. Is it very hard to maintain that energy at seventy years old?
Fredy: I started karate in 1981 and did it for thirty-five years. I made the third Dan, which is the third black belt of nine. Karate has kept me in shape. Since the late 1960s I’ve been on the road. I like to hang out, to drink, so karate became my corrective. When I overdid the partying, karate helped me maintain some kind of balance.
MD: Would you say that Now’s the Time is more about sound in general than drums per se?
Fredy: I didn’t want to do something that was already done by other drummers who did solo recordings. So I concentrated on just metal and skin, to make a mix between sound and groove. That’s why some tunes are groove dominated and the sound or the noise is the smaller part, or vice versa.
MD: Are you using mallets and gongs as well as sticks and cymbals?
Fredy: I started working at Paiste in sound development in 1970. I followed Pierre Favre. I got a lot of prototypes including a heavy, thick 20″ cymbal, and I played it with a stick with a small mallet at its tip. It produces great overtones. I also have a little upside-down splash cymbal, and I got very close to that cymbal; it produces these unbelievable overtones that are like electronic sounds.
MD: In “Lies Mehr Nadeln” and “Circle Stomp” there are metallic, cutting sounds.
Fredy: In “Lies Mehr Nadeln” I’m using a hihat stand without cymbals mounted on it. I set up two China-type cymbals on cymbal stands, touching the rod of the hi-hat from two sides. So when I played the hi-hat stand, the rod went up and down and produced these sounds.
In “Circle Stomp” I used 14″ hi-hats, but I [also] set up a 22″ China-type cymbal on a cymbal stand over the rod of the hi-hat. In that song the bass drum plays on the first beat of the triplet, the hi-hat [chick] plays the second beat of the triplet, and the rod of the hi-hat stand touches the 22″ China on the third beat of the triplet. I played everything—no overdubs or electronic effects on the record.
MD: “Joysticks” begins with what sounds like a drum exercise on a snare drum with the snares off. Then it goes all these different places.
Fredy: I put a piece of felt on the skin; that’s why it sounds the way it does. I loved it. It’s a very simple double-stroke roll, but it operates between the felt on the skin and the rim. I’m playing the same roll but moving the stick closer or farther from the center, with different accents. It’s very simple, and I didn’t do a lot of takes. I always think the first take is the freshest. It’s not always true, but with me it mostly is. It came out great so that’s why we kept it.
Paiste Sound Development
MD: How did working at Paiste affect your approach to drumming?
Fredy: I worked in Paiste sound development from 1970 until 2016. I learned a lot about sound and the music world. One night I was hanging with John Bonham, and we discussed great drums and cymbals and music in general. I spoke with many drummers about similar things over the years. I worked many years with Robert Paiste, so my ears got really sharp. We had to create our own language because it is difficult to describe sound in a way another person can understand.
MD: What Paiste lines did you help create?
Fredy: Every line that came out. The last thing I did was get Vinnie Colaiuta interested in Paiste cymbals. We had to prepare in advance, and then he was ready to change. We developed a cymbal line with him, the Paiste Formula 602 Modern Essentials line. He was there in the middle and the end, fine-tuning everything, and he was freaking out.
MD: How was Percussion Profiles with Jack DeJohnette and Pierre Favre recorded?
Fredy: George Gruntz wrote the piece. We had a score. Then we also improvised. That was the first time I played together with Jack, which was unbelievable. A great experience, and I learned a lot. Before the recording, we played at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Then we recorded the album at Wally Heider’s studio in L.A.
MD: What’s the essence of your drumming approach?
Fredy: To tell a story and to play honest music. All the greats have that core of honest, true music. Even if I listen to drummers of Senegal or great tabla players, it’s always the same fantastic experience for me.
Studer’s Now’s the Time Setup
Drums: mid-’80s Gretsch
• 5×14 wood snare
• 8×12 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 18×18 bass drum (custom made)
Note: Snare and floor tom are often prepared with small metal objects placed on top.
Heads: Gretsch white coated Permatone snare batter and Remo Ambassador Clear snare side; Gretsch white coated Permatone tom batters and clear Permatone resonants; Gretsch white coated bass drum batter and Aquarian Force I on front
• 14″ Masters dark hi-hat prototype
• 18″ Masters Swiss thin crash prototype with inverted 8″ bell on top
• 22″ Masters dark ride prototype
• 10″ Masters light prototype cable-hat
• 22″ tuned gong on cymbal stand with inverted 12″ Signature bell on top
• 20″ Signature bell ride prototype
• 26″ Sound Creation gong No. 3
• 32″ tuned gong
Sticks: Vic Firth SD9, brushes, mallets, and Dreadlocks
Fredy Studer on Now’s the Time
Analyzing the Drummer’s Fascinating Solo Work
Transcriptions by Marc Halbheer
Text by Willie Rose
Swiss-based artist, educator, and Studer confidant Marc Halbheer transcribed four cuts from Fredy Studer’s 2018 solo drumming effort, Now’s the Time. Let’s dig in.
After establishing a double bass ostinato in which Studer’s left foot plays an open hi-hat splash and bass drum pedal at the same time, the drummer improvises on a Thai gong that’s placed on his snare. Here’s an excerpt from around the 3:20 mark.
Check out this wild triplet-based pattern Studer cycles through around the 1:20 mark of this tune. Halbheer tells MD that Studer’s China cymbal was mounted close to the hi-hat in such a way that any time he opened the hi-hat stand, its pull rod “played” the cymbal.
“Now’s the Time”
After establishing a firm ostinato between the ride, bass drum, and hi-hat foot, Studer carefully plays snare strokes and buzzes to create a melody over the pattern around the 5:30 mark of this song.
And at 11:14, the drummer plays this dynamically rich pattern between the bass drum, rim click, and hi-hat foot, while later incorporating improvised cymbal scratches. Notice how the cross stick fades in volume throughout the figure, while Studer maintains the bass drum accent on the “&” of beat 2.
Around the 8:10 mark, Studer phrases wide open Swiss Army Triplets as straight 16th notes around the kit smoothly, almost creating a modulation over the 6/8 hi-hat foundation.