Daniel Freedman

His restless global spirit has informed the music of renowned artists such as Anat Cohen and Algelique Kidjo, Along with his own fascinating collectives, which feature kindred spirits like Meshell Ndegeocello, Avishai Cohen, and Omer Avital.

Daniel Freedman becomes most animated when talking about other drummers, his influences and inspirations. A reverent sense of wonder settles into his voice, whether he’s recalling giants like his former teachers Max Roach and Billy Higgins, lesser-known players, or the multitude of regional musicians he’s communed with during his many exotic travels. Now the drummer/ percussionist is playing the world’s major venues, yet his eternal life-student attitude never flags.

Growing up in New York City, Freedman set his sights on jazz drumming. His hungry curiosity quickly led him to embrace every rhythmic allure that passed his way, especially the riches of world music. Reaching far beyond formal study, he immersed himself in international musical cultures. He undertook trips around the globe, observing and playing with fellow percussionists in North Africa, West Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and beyond. Now, combining his vast worldly vocabulary with his jazz background, Freedman has serendipitously found a fertile niche. His busy career keeps the globe hopping going, demanding a vast scope of grooves with a variety of overlapping bands and projects.

On his second disc as a leader, Bamako by Bus, Freedman bears the fruits of these journeys in a sensual excursion featuring a healthy dose of African influences as well as Afro-Cuban, jazz, funk, Brazilian, and a touch of reggae. His core group, with bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, keyboardist Jason Lindner, and trumpeter Avishai Cohen, is supported by outstanding guests including guitarist Lionel Loueke, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and percussionist/singers Pedrito Martinez and Abraham Rodriguez.

Freedman also continues his long, successful tenure with reed player Anat Cohen’s group. On Cohen’s latest release, Claroscuro, featuring guests Paquito D’Rivera and Wycliffe Gordon, the drummer also served as coproducer. In addition, Daniel records and tours internationally with the powerhouse Afro-pop star Angélique Kidjo, whose latest live CD and DVD release, Spirit Rising, features the highly eclectic guest roster of Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves, Josh Groban, and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. Also available is a recent digital-only EP, iTunes Live From SoHo.

Somehow Freedman also manages to fit in regular tours with his jazz-meets–Middle Eastern–meets-African unit, Third World Love, a collective with bassist Omer Avital, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and pianist Yonatan Avishai. The quartet recently released its fourth CD, Songs and Portraits. Daniel has also recently begun playing with the Brazilian group Forro in the Dark.

Whenever he’s back home, Freedman jumps into jazz dates and mixing gigs and plays on recordings such as Avital’s recent CD Suite of the East. His multi-percussion layers also appear on Sting’s If on a Winter’s Night… “In the meantime, I try to keep learning new things,” Freedman says. Recounting the luminaries he’s been performing with recently, he adds, “At these gigs I always feel like the luckiest guy in the room: ‘Really? I’m here?’”

Yes, Daniel Freedman is there, and for very good reason.

Daniel Freedman


MD: Your newest CD was inspired by one of your music-seeking journeys.

Daniel: Yes, I visited a friend in Bamako, Mali, for about five weeks. That trip really blew my mind. There’s just so much music there. It was an experience of music for music’s sake.

Music has a different function in their culture and society; whether it’s a wedding or ceremony or party, people just play. They don’t have that sense of looking at a watch, saying, “Okay, rehearsal’s over.” A rehearsal there might go all night. In the neighborhood you could just walk around and hear drums—some incredible musicians.

I budgeted a djembe lesson or some sort of lesson every day. I got enough djembe together to be able to play supporting parts and gig with an ensemble that played weddings, which was amazing. And then I would get paid at the end, which is awesome. Play and get my five bucks! It felt great. But it was an eyeopening, mind-opening experience on a human level.

MD: When you returned from these trips and played straight-ahead jazz again, did you find that your drumming was enhanced?

Daniel: Yeah, I was playing at Smalls back in New York with Jason Lindner’s big band. Everyone was looking at me: “What happened to you, man?” My playing opened up a bit. I think I also opened up as a person. Because however you play, you play your experience.

That’s why I titled my record Bamako by Bus. I wrote that tune about a trip we made to the north of Mali through a town named Gao, which is the last town before the Sahara begins. They played a one-stringed instrument that they plug into a little radio, using it as an amp. And it sounds like Hendrix, like distorted blues guitar. The accompanying drummer just plays a calabash gourd with rings on his fingers.

We took a trip to find that music. The bus trip itself was epic. I’d never done anything like that—more than twenty-four hours on a bus that hardly ever stops, with people crammed on top of you and animals on the roof. You get to the point of, “My God, I can’t take this anymore!” But then you realize, “No one else is bitching. Let me just try to relax.” That made flying easy for years! When I first got to Mali I thought I couldn’t deal with it. But soon I realized it was the most fun I’d ever had.

MD: On your return home, what specifically was it that changed?

Daniel: I think my beat got wider. My sense of time probably got wider.

MD: A “swingier” feel?

Daniel: Rounder, more room in the beat. Because a lot of Malian rhythms are compound rhythms: There’s a two against three in half time and double time simultaneously. If you want to play with those people, you have to eventually start feeling all those rhythms. In a way, it’s not different from Elvin Jones: He’s heavily triplet-y, but at the same time, everything is in there.

Playing with those people every day rubs off. Then, as with other trips, that eventually wears off and I feel I have to recharge my battery.

MD: The Kidjo gig seems like a perfect recharger. You’re playing such a wide range of challenging grooves with the band, in addition to backing a changing roster of star guests, everyone from Youssou N’Dour to Keb’ Mo’.

Daniel: Also, just playing with her rhythm is incredible. Her former bass player said she was born quantized. She also has an amazing sense of tempo, so if a song is not the exact tempo she needs, she won’t want to sing it. And her percussionist, Magatte Sow, is an encyclopedia of Senegalese rhythms.

MD: That’s a lot of responsibility, being the new guy. You had to prepare in a whirlwind.

Daniel: Yeah, it was rough. I was on the road, and I got her music for the audition with only a couple of days to learn it all. I just stayed in my hotel room and made my own charts and had to learn them without actually sitting behind the drums. They sent a CD and didn’t tell me what to learn. They just said, “Here it is!” We rehearsed three or four days and then went right from the studio to Europe. It was trial by fire.

MD: The gig was such a different physical challenge from your previous work.

Daniel: I learned a lot from our front-of-the-house engineer, Patrick Murray, who’s done big rock tours. He said, “You have to hit the drums hard for me to get the attack I need to mix you right.” I wound up changing my setup, switching heads, sticks, and cymbals. The cymbals I tended to use before were thin and pretty—old K’s and things that have color. But that stuff doesn’t even compute when you play a big show. And of course I had to change the way I hit the drums, the velocity.

If I don’t play with that kind of intensity, Angélique will turn in a second: “What! Where’s the energy?” She’s cool, though. It’s very different from an acoustic situation like Anat’s, where the sound you create on the drums is what’s happening. With Angélique, it’s more about getting a sound that will fit into the mix and be part of a larger electric whole.

I also realized a lot of “inside” things, like that small rolls or colors that I normally use just don’t fit in, don’t even get heard. Instead, everything you play has to have a function, a purpose.

MD: You have plenty of formal conservatory training, but it seems you always had a “seeker” approach, journeying beyond the classroom. Not everyone can follow through with packing up and seeking out music sources around the world.

Daniel: It’s also found close to home. I went to Mannes School of Music, and the custodian was a great conga player who was friends with all those great musicians in the Bronx. So I hung with him a lot.

MD: That’s New York. I’m sure you didn’t anticipate the custodian being a conservatory resource.

Daniel: It was a very fertile time for that kind of music in New York. I also met lots of Israeli musicians who shared their knowledge of Arabic and North African music. So I started getting into Moroccan music, Yemenite music, and I fell in love with classical Arabic music as well. Then I took a couple trips to Israel, then Egypt. It also led to a minor obsession with playing the oud.

And when I lived in the East Village, there were rumberos playing every day in the park. I spent a lot of time playing there, learning how to fit in with others and how the conversation between drums happens.

In the early ’90s, there were also lots of opportunities in New York dance classes. A dance studio might have an Afro-Cuban, Haitian, Senegalese, or Malian dance class—you name it. A lot of the drummers and teachers were amazing. So I started going to those. Some of the drummers started taking me to play Haitian and Afro- Cuban ceremonies in Brooklyn. That was amazing, because it involved playing for ritual experiences.

At first I didn’t understand most of what was going on. But once you start playing, it’s a whole other thing from a gig. You have to play music for people who believe in the spirit world, and it’s super-important to keep the rhythm going continually. There’s nothing like learning how to play in 6/8 by playing just the bell for eight hours straight. It becomes part of your body. I remember once having an experience while I was playing and having this feeling: “Who’s playing the bell? Oh! I’m playing the bell!” It gets inside you that way.

MD: Even though you’re making a mark with your mixtures of world influences, you’ve still cited straight-ahead jazz players as your main influences.

Daniel: There’s something about those older jazz guys. They might give a lesson to you and not even play the drums; they may just talk about music and life.

Finding out who you are is a big issue. Billy Higgins talked to me about a period when Elvin began to dominate everything and Billy realized, “Man! I don’t know what to play now.” But he told himself, “Well, I just have to be me. I’m not Elvin.” To hear Billy Higgins say that, it’s heavy. If he had tried to play like that, we wouldn’t have had Billy Higgins.

Another time I remember sitting with him and he talked about Kenny Clarke the whole time. Here I was talking to a master, and he’s just talking about his master! That’s the point: You have to remember that people have given their lives to make the music, to push it ahead for all of us.


Daniel’s Setup

Daniel Freedman

Drums: 1965 Ludwig Club Date
A. 6 1/2×14 late-’60s Slingerland (pictured), early-’70s Ludwig Acrolite, Pearl brass piccolo, 61/2″ hammered Ludwig, or 5 1/2″ mid-’50s Gretsch blue sparkle snare
B. 12″ tom
C. 14″ floor tom
D. 20″ bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 14″ old K hi-hats
2. 22″ K Renaissance ride with four rivets
3. 22″ prototype with two rivets (“in between a Bill Stewart and a Kenny Washington”)
4. 18″ K EFX
5. 20″ old K

Sticks: Vic Firth mallets and Swinger, 5A, and AH5A sticks; Zildjian John Riley Artist series sticks; Remo brushes

Heads: calf snare batter and Remo Coated Ambassador tom and bass drum batters

Hardware: DW 7000 hi-hat stand and 9000 single pedal

Daniel adds that for Angélique Kidjo and other pop gigs, he uses a setup with two snare drums, 12″ and 13″ toms, and a 16″ floor tom with clear Evans heads, with a Coated Powerstroke 3 on the bass drum. He’ll also use a different cymbal setup.