Oh, he knows his jazz history, and his rock as well. But by immersing himself in concepts far afield of traditional Western drumset approaches, he’s developed a pure musical voice, a highly sensitive ear, and a world of ideas to communicate.
It’s typical to hear the influence of master musicians in the drummers we admire, whether it’s Vinnie Colaiuta expressing Tony Williams, Bill Stewart suggesting Roy Haynes, or Chris Dave channeling J Dilla. But the converse is more unusual, when a drummer’s style sounds free of influences, when his playing is pure, articulate, and singular.
New York–based kit and tabla drummer Dan Weiss, whose graceful, powerful, and direct drumming can be heard with a dizzying cast of jazz luminaries including Lee Konitz, Miles Okazaki, David Binney, Amir ElSaffar, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Miguel Zenón, has mastered the style of himself. Of course, if you look at Weiss’s list of influential albums, drum heroes from Max Roach and Tony Williams to Lars Ulrich and Tomas Haake figure prominently. But Weiss’s studies of both Western and Eastern traditions have enabled him to create his own inimitable style.
One environment in which the source of Weiss’s drumming is totally transparent is his exploration of tabla playing. On his albums Jhaptal Drumset Solo and Tintal Drumset Solo, Weiss transposes table patterns to the kit, accompanied by his own complex Indian vocal cadences (using the Konnakol sung-syllables system) and the guitar of Miles Okazaki. Clear, pinpoint, and expressive, Weiss’s playing can storm with heavy-metal thunder or dance like an English military march. Exhibiting demanding independence skills, metric shrewdness, and a cerebral approach to note groupings, Weiss brings West and East together as a literal time traveler.
As a sideman Weiss has played straight-ahead jazz, New York–centric fusion, doom metal, and rock. His latest album, Fourteen, is a culmination of all of it. A largely through-composed recording featuring—you guessed it—fourteen musicians, the collection comprises a suite written in seven parts that is both a chamber music piece and a noisy avant-garde adventure. The music features more of Weiss’s table patterns on the drumset, as well as three singers, piano, bass, guitar, saxophones, trombone, tuba, electric guitar, harp, glockenspiel, and organ.
Fourteen isn’t easy listening, but it is rewarding. As instruments slide and shift, working into place as you hold on for the ride, Weiss plays drum solos that tilt and collide like a Ferris wheel motoring down a city street. The music recalls the cyclical scenarios of Steve Reich and the noisy rock of King Crimson, or, more pastorally, the layered tones of Canterbury innovators Hatfield and the North. The female vocalists sing long-voweled tones, the guitarist creates classical-like complexities, saxophones twirl and honk, and the drumming is broken up by Weiss’s spoken/sung utterances.
For an encore, Weiss’s next album transposes familiar drumming phrases from Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, and Kenny Clarke into a larger ensemble scenario. Hold on, Dan’s coming.
MD: Your new album is very broad. What was the goal?
Dan: Like my album Timshel, it’s basically a song cycle, one long piece. My other two Indian-based records are also about a broader concept. The instrumentation is larger than I’ve written for in the past; I wanted something on a grander scale. I wanted something super-intense juxtaposed with meditative qualities. The rest of the compositions took care of themselves.
MD: Your drumming is free of directly heard influences. It’s also clean and at times delicate. You’re a minimalist.
Dan: I don’t really have a thing. It depends on the situation, on the circumstances, on the lighting, on the audience, on that day in the studio. Along with rock and metal influences, I’m a huge advocate of the jazz tradition. I love metal, free jazz, rock—it depends on the situation.
MD: Does tabla drumming affect all of your music?
Dan: It affects everything, and not just musically. Tabla influences sound production, clarity, how to accompany, how to deal with developing themes and rhythms, a certain respect, and a certain restraint. A lot of aspects that come from studying with my teacher have infiltrated my playing.
MD: The tabla also seems to influence your touch on the drumset. You’ve transferred that hand-on skin sound and approach of tabla to the set.
Dan: There’s definitely an awareness of sound and a certain sensitivity. I practice drums and table every day. It took me seven months just to get a passable sound on the tabla. It’s very difficult. Every stroke you play in the beginning requires a certain amount of effort. If you hit a drum with a stick, you can get a sound. The sound might not be pleasant, but you can get a sound. When you start playing tabla, if you drop your hand on it, nothing’s going to happen. Every time you practice tabla, that’s always there—trying to get a nice sound and trying to get a sound. That attention to sound and tonal quality has influenced my drumset playing.
MD: Your drumming sounds different from someone who has studied only the jazz tradition.
Dan: I also love hip-hop, punk, Motown, rock, Brazilian and Cuban and African music—it’s all had a big effect on me. I try to expose myself to as much different music and as many drummers and drumming traditions and composers as I can. I did get hit hard with the jazz bug when I was thirteen, and later I went to the Manhattan School of Music and devoted eight years to jazz. I majored in performance and minored in classical composition. I studied with John Riley for four years and learned from everyone from Baby Dodds to all the present-day drummers.
MD: How has metal influenced your playing?
Dan: I like Steve MacDonald with Gorguts, Gene Hoglan, Tomas Haake with Meshuggah, Flo Mounier from Cryptopsy; I take their through-composed approach to drumming and songs. [I’ll focus on] the way they orchestrate certain beat cycles. You can hear the composition in their drum parts. Also, the way they return to certain themes, and the way they embellish, is very orchestral. Tomas Haake is like John Bonham; his groove is in another league compared to most metal drummers. It has real weight.
MD: How else has Indian drumming influenced you?
Dan: I like to think in larger chunks of sound, as far as a way to wrap my head around and understand things. If someone brings in a tune, I’ll try to learn the melodic shape rather than try to read it, or I’ll learn the biggest pulse I can. That might come from the tabla tradition.
MD: How do you apply tintal or northern Indian drumming to trapset?
Dan: Tintal is one of the beat cycles in northern Indian drumming. It’s basically equivalent to four measures of 4/4, a sixteen-beat cycle. It’s different time cycles, like we have different time signatures. In terms of repertoire I would try to match the sound, the flow of the rhythm, and the essence of the composition. I would try to [play] something on the drums that sounds like the composition I’m playing on tabla. It would have to flow, so I would align the stickings or footwork to flow in a drumistic way. The resonant and nonresonant drums would have to match in some way to the tabla.
And the essence of the composition would have to stay true. So if I’m playing [sings pattern] on tabla, which might be a very demanding one-finger rhythm, I will try to maintain the integrity of the rhythm, maybe play it all with the right hand. That’s how it relates to orchestrating the composition. I’ll perhaps try to maintain the highs and lows of the tabla, so the lows might be the bass drum; the highs or dead sounds could be a hi-hat or a rimshot; and the resonant sounds could be a cymbal or a floor tom or mounted tom. If I’m playing a common tabla phrase on drumset, I’ll play it the same way every time. That helps develop a language and also [enables me] to challenge myself in ways I normally wouldn’t play.
Transferring the tabla to the drumset has helped me break habits; I have to make a conscious effort to play counter-intuitively. The drumset figures have to adhere to the same tempo. You have to find stickings that will allow you to play at those certain tempos.
MD: How has tabla technique affected your hand-to-hand drumset technique?
Dan: Especially with my brush playing, now I’m able to use more fingers. I really like gracefulness in drummers, guys like Jo Jones, Frankie Dunlop, Philly Joe Jones, and Max Roach. I love Keith Moon, who’s not so graceful, but I’ve always been attracted to graceful drummers. Someone like Bernard Purdie is graceful in his own way.
MD: On David Binney’s “Dignity,” from Barefooted Town, you’re locked in with the bassist, playing three-over-two phrasing and layering different meters. Was that written or improvised?
Dan: That’s improvised. I grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey [just outside New York City], so coming up I was able to see all the guys—Jeff “Tain” Watts, “Smitty” Smith, Bill Stewart, Adam Nussbaum, Elvin, Max, Philly Joe, Joe Chambers. I made an effort to see everybody and pick their brains.
MD: Did that make it easier to break into the New York scene?
Dan: I think so. I was so lucky. I was always searching and trying to get as much information as I could. That was huge for me. Also, my high school had a good music program. I was taking harmony, sight singing, ear training, and counterpoint there. And all those schools have good libraries. I was getting CDs out all the time.
MD: Did you begin with rock or jazz?
Dan: Rock, when I was very young. Led Zeppelin IV was my first record. Then Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan. Then progressive rock and metal.
MD: What was your first name jazz gig?
Dan: Joel Frahm. I played with Kenny Werner a bunch.
MD: When did your interest in Indian music begin?
Dan: I bought a Ravi Shankar album, and then I saw a video of him at the Newport Jazz Festival. Even before I started playing tabla, I was transcribing the rhythms and trying to understand them. I would just play what I thought the rhythms were on the drums.
MD: Was learning tabla similar to learning drumset for you?
Dan: The actual learning process is more intense. You have a guru; it’s a very deep relationship. There’s nothing close to that in the West. Basically, you put your life in his hands. He takes responsibility for you. It’s that deep.
MD: Your life? Why not just your hands?
Dan: It’s a really deep tradition. When your teacher accepts you as a disciple, he is taking responsibility for you. It’s a spiritual relationship, and the music then takes on a spiritual approach. My guru is Samir Chatterjee, who moved from Calcutta to New Jersey in 1994. You can study the music without a guru, and technically it may not mean less, but this is how this music has been passed down and taught. It’s a very sacred and spiritual thing, and it’s definitely made music more of a spiritual journey for me.
MD: What is a way into that music for Western ears?
Dan: Try to listen to some different kinds of instruments and different vocalists to see what attracts you, be it male or female vocalists or sitar, flute, tabla. Try to learn a basic overview of the main ragas, and listen to recordings of two or three versions of each of those. One raga is a yaman, the bhairav is another, marwa is another—those are parent ragas. There are ten parent ragas in the northern style of music, and all of the ragas come from those ten parent ragas. They all have different feels. You might look for Amir Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, or Ali Akbar Khan.
MD: When working with Rudresh Mahanthappa, how do you play such complex music? You’ve said that you don’t rely on understanding the meter beforehand.
Dan: I think of the phrases—the melodic phrase, the bass line. Sing the melody and the rhythm. Although I am a very good reader, I try to get away from the chart as soon as possible. I try to memorize everything I play; I don’t like to read music. It could be a result of the oral tradition in tabla, where nothing is written. You write to document what you have, but the way you learn the music is the teacher sings you a phrase and you either play it or recite it.
MD: What is the first thing you learn when studying tabla?
Dan: One syllable at a time while alternating hands. Then it’s like letters turn into phrases turn into sentences turn into paragraphs.
MD: When you record with Rudresh, is there sheet music or a rehearsal?
Dan: We’ve rehearsed and played some gigs, and then we’ll go into the studio. By then I know the music. But playing with Lee Konitz is more challenging. You constantly need to adapt to what he’s feeling. From second to second it’s a different kind of energy, and you’re trying to make it feel comfortable. A lot of the tempos I play with him are right behind or right above mid-tempo, and it can be very difficult if you’re playing that same tempo to really get it to sing. That’s challenging not because of the technique involved—that’s a hard tempo! You’re more restricted in that setting. When I play with Dave Binney or Rudresh, anything goes.
Miles Davis Nefertiti (Tony Williams), Milestones (Philly Joe Jones) /// John Coltrane First Meditations (Elvin Jones) /// Keith Jarrett Standards Vol. 2 (Jack DeJohnette) /// Sid Catlett The Chronological Classics 1944–1946 (Sid Catlett) /// John Coltrane and Don Cherry The Avant-Garde (Ed Blackwell) /// Led Zeppelin IV (John Bonham) /// Rush Exit…Stage Left (Neil Peart) /// Metallica …And Justice for All (Lars Ulrich) /// Meshuggah Chaosphere (Tomas Haake) /// Yes Close to the Edge (Bill Bruford) /// Nikhil Banerjee Live in Amsterdam (Kanai Dutta, tabla) /// Samir Chatterjee Teental Solo (Samir Chatterjee, tabla) /// Squarepusher Feed Me Weird Things (programmed)
Drums: Vintage Sonor rosewood
A. 5.5×14 Gretsch round-badge snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 12×14 floor tom<
D. 14×18 bass drum
Cymbals: 1960s-era Zildjian
1. 14″ K hi-hats
2. 20″ prototype ride (usually uses a flat ride)
3. 22″ Zilco
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador batters and resonants all around (except snare bottom)
Sticks: Vic Firth SD10 sticks and Steve Gadd brushes
Dan Weiss Tintal Drumset Solo, Jhaptal Drumset Solo, Fourteen /// Dan Weiss Trio Timshel, Now Yes When /// Miles Okazaki Mirror, Figurations /// David Binney Cities and Desire /// Rudresh Mahanthappa Gamak /// Miguel Zenón and Laurent Coq Rayuela
Interested in learning more about how you can incorporate Indian rhythmic concepts into your own drumming? Look out for next month’s issue of Modern Drummer, where we continue the discussion with Weiss and chat with Eric Harland, Sameer Gupta, Steve Smith, and Pete Lockett.