David Calarco is probably one of the hottest young acoustic jazz drummers around today. He’s the regular drummer with Grammy- and down beat-award-winning saxophonist, Nick Brignola, as well as the driving force behind Doug Sertl’s Jazz Menagerie big band. He’s a young man working with a young man’s energy, but with a perspective that reflects the traditions and outlook of a much older, more experienced jazz musician. Dave is also an outspoken man, frank and candid in his opinions on jazz and other forms of music, drum sounds, the contributions of other players, and anything else you might care to ask him about. He’s full of ambition, confidence, and a personal philosophy that stresses musical individuality—a characteristic that he displays in every aspect of his playing.
Born and raised in Upstate New York, Dave maintains that there is a certain musical and personal attitude unique to musicians from that area. If he is any example, based on his uninhibited manner of speaking and playing, I’d have to agree with him.
RVH: Most of the influences on young players today come from pop and rock. What steered you toward mainstream jazz?
DC: When I was a very little kid, I studied drums with an older-style, swing-type drummer. He had this large drumset, fashioned very much around the old Gene Krupa sets, with tacked bottom heads and everything. When I studied with him, I somehow felt as though I was playing “jazz.” Of course, I didn’t even know what that was, being a kid. But I guess he influenced me in the sense that he was teaching me straight-ahead time and all the “beats,” versus just pop music. I learned the merengue, the rumbas—all the beats that went along with playing music, whether it be commercial or whatever. I got involved heavily in the school music scene all the way through grade school and high school. And that had a lot to do with my being interested in other styles of music besides pop.
When I was eight or ten years old, the endorsers for drum companies were the great drummers of our time—Joe Morello, Buddy Rich, and people like that. There weren’t that many, but every single one was a monster player—what I call the “masters of the instrument.” I can remember going to see those drummers, and I think I liked the challenge: I wanted to be like those great players. And they all played jazz, so why was I even going to look toward Ringo Starr? I later learned to appreciate Ringo and drummers like him, but at the time, I was just taken by the instrument and those drummers who could really play it. I can remember picking up an old ’64 catalog, and it was like the bebop haven. They had everybody from Art Taylor to Elvin Jones to Mel Lewis lined up. There were no rock drummers endorsing drums then. So in a way, I was influenced by the industry at the time, which was geared toward jazz drummers.
I have to agree that the whole rock thing came in and turned everything around, and most young players went in that direction. I kind of feel like I’m not of my peer group. I was involved with a “legit” music scene and tried to pursue that. I had a jazz trio in high school and was arranging for the stage band. And yet, I went through my rock thing, too. I remember one summer when I was about 14 or 15 years old, when in the space of eight weeks we made about $1,000 apiece. And we were just a garage band playing dumb little gigs. I went through that, but it never really presented me with a musical challenge.
RVH: What other formal training have you had?
DC: I went to Berklee for two and a half years. I was working in Boston, trying to play and go to school. But school was no longer teaching me anything. Most of the writing courses and things—the good ones—were over with; now it was just music-education requirements and all that business. It just came to a point where it was time to get out. There were a lot of different philosophies involved. School was good at the time; I learned a lot, but I also postponed learning a lot. By that I mean, I learned a lot of things that pertained technically to the instrument, and I learned about the music, but I never learned the music. It came to the point where I said, “I have to go,” and I quit. I moved back to Upstate New York and took some gigs on the road—a lot of different show gigs.
I worked short stints with people like Delia Reese and Perry Como. I remember one week with the Mills Brothers, when I probably learned more about how to play in that old Basie feel than I was ready to handle. I learned a lot doing these show gigs, but I was becoming a mechanic. It was the same exact notes night after night, with bad local bands or pickup horn sections. I started to get itchy. I had this drive to get out and play some bebop; I wanted to be a jazz drummer. After the second or third night of a gig, I’d have the book memorized and would be starting to search for ways to make it interesting for myself.
RVH: Which can get you in trouble with the employer/artist.
DC: True. But you also have to realize that it was a demanding gig, musically— as far as being creative. That’s what got me away from it.
I did one gig as the drummer in a house band at a theater. I didn’t do that too long, because the money there wasn’t as good as when I played on the road, and I got tired of “giving it away.” I don’t want to sound like I’m monetarily based, but when I work with a guy like Bob Hope, who makes a hundred grand a week, and I’m making a set scale that is ridiculously low, I get a little bitter. After all, a drummer can make or break a show. I remember working with a production of Guys And Dolls. I felt as though I did a very good job, and that’s not being cocky; it’s just saying that it took a lot of time and hard work to do a good job. When you’re playing a show like that, and you realize that the guy who’s singing the lead is tone-deaf and drags or rushes half the time—and yet everything you’re playing revolves around him . . . I was too young at the time to put it in perspective. Remember, I was going to be a jazz drummer—the next Tony Williams! Eventually, it came to a point where I just cut the show thing loose and started to pursue the other goal.
RVH: How did you go about that?
DC: I went back to Upstate New York. At that time, I was still trying to make contacts through musicians that I knew from Berklee who were on other gigs. I was trying to break into the jazz and contemporary music scene.
RVH: How did you hook up with Nick Brignola?
DC: When I was in high school, Nick was the big jazz guru from Troy, New York—where I lived. Nick and his group came to our school for a career music day on one occasion, and I was picked to play with these guys. Nick will sometimes tell this story today before introducing me. He refers back to this first time when I played with him, and says I was “a diamond in the rough.” I don’t know if I’ve yet reached being a diamond, but that’s what he called me. Nick says today that he noticed the potential then. Four or five years later, when I came back to Albany, I happened to get a call from a local big band that needed a drummer. So I came down and played one week, and Nick happened to play in that band! You have to understand that Nick had been to Europe, and he’d won the down beat poll. He’d done all this stuff previously, with others and on his own. But he happened to play in this big band because he lived in the area, and they rehearsed on Monday nights, when he was generally free. So I played in that band. Nick remembered me from that high school gig, and we became friends. He had his own group at the time, but we played together in the big band for a couple of months. Being the young and anxious guy that I was—and now that Nick and I were playing together a little bit—I took a gig in a club in Albany, and I hired Nick Brignola! After that particular gig, the management wanted to hire Nick again. So Nick took the following weekend in that club, and he hired me! I don’t think there’s been a gig of his—that I could make—that I haven’t been on since. When I look back on that, I’m embarrassed. I was really learning how to play then—I’m still learning how to play—but this guy had enough insight into what talent I may have had, and enough interest and enough trust in me to give me a chance. We’ve gone on to be best friends. It’s a personal and musical relationship, and it shows when we play. I really am grateful to him for the opportunities that he’s given me. By playing with him, I’ve gotten to play with a lot of other great jazz musicians, and through all these experiences, I finally am learning how to play—hopefully.
RVH: Did your association with Nick get you involved with the Doug Sertl Jazz Menagerie big band?
DC: In a roundabout way. Doug is another story. Here’s an 18-year-old kid who goes to Potsdam University music school for a month: can’t make it. So he comes home, puts on a concert with a big band, and hires Nick to be the soloist. I had been playing with Nick at the time, but Doug didn’t hire me. He hired people he knew from his school days, and a bunch of kids and a couple of local musicians from the area. I went to the concert, and that was that; I didn’t think much about it. Then a couple weeks went by, and we were playing a local club on a night off from one of our tours. Doug came in, said that he was going to put together a big band, and offered me the job. Of course, I wanted to be in it and see what it was all about. He had a band that gigged more than rehearsed, so even though it was a “local” band, it wasn’t a “rehearsal” band. We would rehearse an hour before the gig. Then all of a sudden, Doug decided to get a band together to record an album, and that was how the Jazz Menagerie big band came about. This was about a year after the first band was assembled, and it was put together mostly of musicians from New York City. The only guys from around our area in Upstate were myself, Nick, a trumpet player, and of course, Doug himself. So that’s how my relationship with Doug started. It’s now to the point where we’ve pretty much got set personnel. I do most of Doug’s work— anything that doesn’t conflict with gigs that Nick has. And since Doug also hires Nick for most of his things, conflicts don’t often happen. It’s become almost like a family thing. It’s a matter of Doug looking for something that we have, and that’s what we try to deliver. I try to do with Doug what’s necessary for his gig, and what I think he wants. Consequently, I’ve ended up doing almost everything he’s done.
RVH: Do you make any adaptations between drumming in Nick’s small group and Doug Sertl’s big band? And do you have a preference between the two?
DC: I do make adaptations, and I do have a preference. Doug’s band is a bebop band, and the charts are very difficult at times. And to sit behind this band, catching kicks and having everything swinging, is a great feeling. But, as far as the music goes, I definitely like the small-group thing better. That’s because there’s more individual input; there’s more group creativity. There are a lot of drum stars in the world right now—a lot of players who could sit down and smoke their drumsets. But there are very few group players—on any instrument, never mind drums. Everybody’s soloing; everybody wants to be a star. I really relish the group situation: musicians who are spontaneously playing, creating, and working towards an ultimate goal as a whole. To me, that’s a long-lost art, yet it’s the most fun. I like soloing as much as the next person. But I can—and do—sit home and play some outrageous drum solos in my basement. In dealing with the music, I want the end result to be a total contribution to the group. I think the subtle things I play are twice as hard as the bombastic drum things that I see rock and other contemporary drummers doing and being called great. It think it is great to a point, but I’m talking about playing the nitty-gritty of the music. I’m talking about the only true, creative art form in this world where you spontaneously compose, edit, and perform within a millisecond. A painter can come back tomorrow and say, “I don’t like that orange. I’m going to darken it up.” Stravinsky could put down his score, and come back to it in two weeks or two years. You can’t do that on a jazz bandstand where you’re spontaneously improvising. Of course, we all rely on our little secure licks and things, but to me, the greatness of a small-group situation is that spontaneity.
I approach a big band just like I would a small group. The nice thing about Doug’s band is that there’s a lot of blowing—a lot of open sections and soloing. We play the arrangement down, and then we open it up for soloists, and at that point it’s a quartet. But even the big band ensemble things we do, we try to approach like a small group. You have different styles and different conflicts, so I try to get together with the lead trumpet players and other players who phrase the music. I tell them: “Just think light and it will happen.” I mean, you can play loud, or whatever dynamic volume is called for. But think in that concept, and the time will happen. The band will sound like a small group, versus some of the big bands that are very weighty and ensemble- oriented to the point where it never really swings. Basie’s a whole other bag, but there are bands in that heavier style that just never get off the ground, instead of having a soaring feeling. When we’re playing, I want it to feel like you’re flying, and the only way to do that is to think in that bebop conception. Bob Florence’s big band is a great example, and their album, Soaring, is aptly titled.
Speaking of Bob Florence’s band, the late Nick Ceroli, who was the drummer in that band until his untimely death last August, was one of the most underrated drummers on the scene. As far as I’m concerned there are a lot of people who are being completely overlooked right now. you do anything differently with your As as much as I like Mel Lewis, for him to say something like he did in his interview in MD [Feb. ’85] where he mentioned only a couple of people that he felt were good big band drummers … I’ll be very honest with you; I don’t know how he can make a statement like that. I’m not judging Mel; I’m just saying that I can think of a ton of drummers. I personally think that Terry Clark of Rob McConnell’s group is one of the finest big band drummers I’ve heard; that band feels like a small group when it plays, and Terry always plays just the right thing. Jeff Hirshfield—who plays with Toshiko’s band now and has played with Woody Herman—and Joey Barren—who used to play with Toshiko—are good drummers. I consider myself a good big band drummer. I don’t know how great I am or anything like that, but I consider what I do pretty decent, and there are a million other people who are good at it.
RVH: Let’s get technical for a minute. Do you do anything differently with your drums, between the small-group and the big band situations?
DC: I don’t do anything differently. Isn’t that terrible, in this age of technology and tuning and muffling? I tell you, all these players who talk about how they do this, how they tune differently for that—their drums always sound terrible to me. Now, we don’t do any rock; we don’t do any real funk; I’m not doing a commercial gig where I need that “commercial” sound. But I’ve found—just through my various experiences of playing—that no matter what you play, the best thing to do is just to get the drums to where they sound the best naturally, and then leave them alone. I’m very meticulous with what I do. I know how I want to sound, whether it be in a small group or a big band, and I don’t really think there’s much difference required from the drums between the two gigs. The volume and technical factors, as far as what I play, come from me. If I can’t play strong enough in the big band and quiet enough behind the quartet, then I shouldn’t do both gigs. I don’t really change much, other than the bass drum. On all my recordings with either group, I use a 20″, but I use a 22″ live with the big band because it cuts a little more. I’d rather not have them use mic’s, because you’re always putting your fate in someone else’s hands when you mike too much. For most of the gigs we do, I’d rather go live, and let me control the sound. I can play soft, loud, or whatever the need may be. I studied all my life to be a musician, so I should call on those skills. I play the same drums, the same cymbals, and I keep the tuning pretty much the same. I always carry a couple of snare drums with me in case something happens; it’s a nightmare when you break a head right in the middle of a tune. I don’t have roadies who are going to jump up and change tubs for me; I’ve got to be equipped to do what I do on my own.
When I do a clinic, I get a lot of questions on equipment. I tell everybody that there’s too much unjustified experimenting going on. Now, don’t get me wrong; one should never be afraid to experiment with sound. But there’s too much going on where they can’t tell me why they tried this or that. I see people who are putting Pinstripe heads on because they read about them somewhere or saw someone live doing it. Then they go out and play, and although the drums may sound real good right where they are, when you get ten or 20 feet away, you can’t hear them. The head manufacturers will all tell you that the thicker the head, the less projection. Drummers want projection, yet they start doing all this heavy muffling. I think, though, if you look at a lot of name drummers right now, the tendency is getting away from that. They’re realizing that the only way they’re going to get the sound out there is to take the muffling out. I don’t muffle anything. I tell my students and I tell people at clinics: “Learn how to tune the drums properly to get them to where you want them to sound. Get that good, fat, overall sound, and you don’t need muffling. You’re going to get projection like you won’t believe, and you’re going to get sound that you can’t match.” I don’t use thick heads; I basically have stayed with coated Ambassadors on the tops and clear Ambassadors on the bottoms, although for some reason I have a preference for the Ludwig snare side head over the Remo. It gives me what I’m looking for. Sometimes I’ll use a little duct tape— very little—to take unwanted ring out of a head that’s starting to go. That’s it. As for muffling on the snare drum, I only use a little bit, once in a while. I don’t like internal mufflers, so I might use an external muffler or a half ring of an old head, about an inch thick. But generally, my drums are wide-open, yet they’re not real ringy. The only thing I muffle is the bass drum. I play it double-headed, with clear Ambassadors on both sides, and I use felt strips. The key to felt strips is that you have to make them tight on the shell before you put the head on. You can’t just lay a felt strip across the drum; you actually have to tape it to the drumshell, so that when you tighten your head up, the felt is tight against the head. That’s all I use on my front head. On the batter head, I also use a small piece of foam wedged between one post of my pedal and the head. With this method, I have a 20″ bass drum that sounds bigger than any 26″ I’ve ever heard when I need it to, and my 22″ has been described by people as a howitzer.
RVH: On Nick Brignola’s Signals album, your toms sounded very high-pitched—much more so than one would expect on any form of commercial music.
DC: Well remember, that’s an acoustic jazz record. The problem is that we’re starting to get into this whole area of accepting everything as everything. It’s not. My drums certainly are not as high-pitched as Jack DeJohnette’s, and my snare is not as high-pitched as Roy Haynes would play. Meanwhile, when you start to listen to things like Peter Erskine, that’s not really an acoustic jazz situation. He’s still playing creative music, but he’s got a more contemporary drum sound for other kinds of things. That really wouldn’t work very well in a lot of situations I play. Even if I were to play some cliched bebop lick on a set of drums like that, it wouldn’t sound the same; it would sound completely wrong. It’s a matter of getting a sound that fits a given situation. Now, I will say one thing: The recording of the album may have a lot to do with the drum sound. You’re at the mercy of the equipment, and I don’t know an awful lot about that part of it. I try to get the best sound I can from the drums, but I think that engineers have a tendency to make drums that sound like mine sound different when they come out on the record. You wind up thinking it’s a much deeper-sounding drum than it is, when really it’s all a matter of being EQed and digitally enhanced and all that.
RVH: Perhaps I’m comparing the sound of your drums to what I’ve heard more in electric jazz, like the latest Steps Ahead album, or Steve Smith with Vital Information.
DC: That’s a whole different kind of music. I’ve caught Steps Ahead live a few times, and I’ll be very honest with you: I wasn’t knocked out by the drum sound at all. But that’s just personal preference. And remember, Peter’s got the benefit of a major record label and the amount of money that they’re pumping into that album. I don’t have the benefits of that whole technological side of recording, so what comes out on our record is just the result of trying to get a good initial drum sound; that’s all I can go with. Listen to an album like Steve Smith’s recent one, Orion. It’s great, but on the side that’s supposed to be the “small-kit, acoustic group” sound, those drums sound bigger and tubbier than those of most jazz drummers I’ve ever heard. And when you listen to the other side, which is supposed to be the rock side, I’ve never heard a drum in my life that sounded like that. It’s all the studio, and how the drums are miked and processed. There’s no drum in the world that we could bring into this room right now that could sound like that.
The sound that I had on the Signals album had a lot to do with the drums I was playing at the time. I have since gone through a complete change of equipment and brand—I’m now endorsing Gretsch drums—and for the most part, my sound has changed. On the album, I was using a set of five-ply Slingerlands that were real thick. They had a tendency to be very difficult to tune sometimes. In order to get that “singing” sound that I look for, I think I may have had to tighten the toms up a little more than I would have liked. I had a gorgeous snare drum, but in order to make it fit the rest of the drums, I think I had it tweaked up a little more than I would normally.
RVH: I thought I heard two ride cymbals on that record.
DC: Well, I have a Chinese cymbal that I play a lot. It has a couple of rivets in it, and gives a very warm, dark, mellow sound. I don’t bash it; I play it with the tip of the stick. I have it positioned pretty low, where I can nail it if I have to, but angled so that I can play it like a ride. So, in a sense, I guess I do have two ride cymbals. My other cymbals, including my ride, are actually positioned a bit higher than the Chinese one. They’re all Sabians. I’m endorsing them, and the reason I do is that I wanted to play them after I heard Keith Copeland’s set. I play a 22″ ride, although I actually didn’t want to use one that size. I was working in Maine, and had a day off, so I drove to the Sabian factory in Canada to choose a ride cymbal. I was thinking originally of a 20″ ride, but they didn’t have anything there that was suitable for my taste. We tried 21″ and 19″ rides, but nothing sounded right. I was getting discouraged. Then, they suggested that I try some 22″ cymbals. We got into a batch of about six 22s, and they all were great. I got it down to a choice between two, and literally had to do an “eenie-meenie-minie-moe” thing to pick one. It’s an HH, and when listening to it live, that cymbal sounds about as close to the Tony Williams 1964/65 K. Ride sound—the sound he had when he played with Miles—as I can come. The rest of my cymbals include 16″ and 18″ crashes and standard hi-hats. The Sabian company has been very good to me. You know the way things are in the industry, with the “big-name” thing, but Sabian looks out for the little person as well. That product, as far as I’m concerned, is the best I can possibly get my hands on.
RVH: On the Signals album, you are credited with writing “Once Upon A Samba.” How did that work out?
DC: I don’t consider myself a writer. Henry Mancini, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Bill Dobbins [pianist on Signals]— they’re writers. I consider myself a musician who once in a while gets an idea and likes to give that idea to other musicians to see if it works. I wrote “Once Upon A Samba” around 1977. I had fooled around with it a lot, being influenced by the Chick Corea/RTF samba sound. We actually had been playing it in the group for about two and a half years before the record date came up. At that point Nick said, “I want to record your tune.” And that was the way it was. I wrote a standard lead sheet, and said, “Here’s the arrangement I want.” We decided on a vamp on the end to let me just play a little something over the end and take it out.
I also wrote a tune for the new album, Northern Lights, and brought it in, but after we rehearsed all the tunes down, I decided that I didn’t want to record it. Nick wanted to, but I said, “No, I’d rather not. I really prefer the tunes the other guys wrote.” And then I kidded Nick by saying, “Besides, I’ll get Gerry Mulligan to record it.” I’ve written two more tunes in the past month or so. One is a ballad, one is a Latin thing, and I’m pretty happy with them. I write a lot of ballads, which may be because I don’t have to think as a drummer; it’s a real form of release for me. I write at the piano; I play enough piano to use it as a writing tool.
RVH: There’s another song on Signals called “Fun,” which just you and Nick play together, and on which you solo. Underneath the playing, I could swear I heard humming.
DC: The Oscar Peterson syndrome! Yes, that’s me humming. We recorded that album, and a week later went back to mix. When we did, we realized that we were about five minutes short for the total time we wanted on the album. So now what were we going to do? The other band members had gone home to Boston and Rochester, and there were just the two of us there. When we play in concert, we frequently play duets. Right in the middle of a tune, the other guys will just drop out, and we’ll get something going like the old John Coltrane/Elvin Jones thing. So we went back into the studio that day to do a duet. “Fun” was a tune he wrote originally for Dewey Redman and himself to do at a concert as a duet for two saxophones. We had fooled around with it a few times, so I knew the tune. It was a one-take-only situation, with no rehearsal. In this era of everybody being afraid of mistakes, I’m not. I think some mistakes sound really good sometimes. We went in and they turned the tape on, and I started out. Then Nick came in and did his thing, and you can indeed hear me humming. But I don’t think it detracts from the piece. I don’t hum all the time; I think I was humming then because of the intensity created by the duo thing. I was really thinking melodically of the song—it’s a very short, catchy tune—and that just went on the tape.
RVH: You have solo breaks on several of the tunes on Signals, as well as virtually all of “Fun.” For a small-group situation in which you’re not the leader, you play a lot of drums on that album. How did that come about?
DC: Well, like I said, I’ve been a permanent fixture of Nick’s group since I started playing with him back in Albany. Many a bass player, guitar player, or pianist has come and gone, but Nick and I are always there. We’re like Batman and Robin. I almost resent it, in a certain way, because although it’s helped me get a lot of things, I’ve always been associated with Nick, instead of being judged as an individual. That can hurt you when you’re this young and trying to pursue a career in this kind of music. But I do get a lot of solo space when we play live, and on the albums. On that particular one, you’ll notice that there are a lot of different types of music. There’s a samba, a bebop thing, and the “out” things that Bill Dobbins writes. The title cut has no time signature and no changes; we’re just playing a pulse. It just worked out that on “In From Somewhere” Nick wanted me to do a little drum exchange. Great—I’m not about to say no. On my tune, he wasn’t about to say no to my little vamp on the end. I take a one-chorus solo on the bebop thing, “Tad’s Delight.” And then I get the extended thing on “Signals.” That’s an awful lot of space on one album, but the final say wasn’t mine. Nick felt that it fit the album, in the sense that this is what our group is all about. If you read the liner notes, he says, “We’re just trying to present some of the different music that you’ll hear when you come to hear this group.” I get to stretch somewhat live, so he let me do it on the album. Now, on our new album, Northern Lights, I don’t get as much. I trade some eights with the band on one tune, take two choruses on another, a slight vamp thing on the end of a third, and that’s it.
RVH: Even that seems like more feature space than many sidemen would get—especially on drums.
DC: That’s because Nick doesn’t approach me as a sideman. It’s not like he came into town to do an album and said, “Okay, let’s call Billy Hart to play drums and so-and-so to play bass . . . .” I’m really a pretty integral part of the sound of his group, and I think he realizes that. He gives me the leeway to stretch out and play. I don’t think it sounds the same when he does gigs with other people as when I play with him. There’s an attitude and a concept, and part of that stems from a mystique about Upstate New York jazz players—especially Italian Upstate New York jazz players. It’s called “The Upstate Burn.” There’s an intensity there that you just won’t find in people from the West Coast. I don’t know where it comes from, but everybody I know from Upstate New York who plays acoustic jazz has it. In a sense, Nick is paying me a compliment when he gives me so much playing room, because he’s saying, “You’re really a more integral part of this sound than a ‘sideman.’ ” I’m perfectly willing to bow out when the need be, but let’s face it: I like to play drums. I like to play time and I like to solo, and when given the opportunity, I’m ready!
RVH: Have you ever thought about going out on your own as a leader?
DC: Are you kidding? It’s hard enough being a sideman. I was just talking on the phone last night to our bass player, John Loughlin, and we agreed that to be a leader on either of our instruments is extremely difficult. If I were a tenor player, I could probably go out, start my own group, and push it. From the drum chair, you’ve either got to be a drum technician—a person who’s there to play all the flash or “drumistics,” as I call them—or someone like Art Blakey, who’s been around and is himself an establishment. I don’t think everybody’s a born leader, and let’s face it, most drummers are bad leaders. I think you see a tendency for drummers to be leaders now only because it’s easy. It’s easy for Peter Erskine to be a leader, but to me, he’s no leader. I don’t mean to offend Peter, because I love his playing; I think he’s one of the great players of this particular time. But the album he put out was nothing more than a little bit of altered Steps stuff put out under his name. I don’t get the sense of being a leader there—not in the sense that Art Blakey is a leader. I mean, with Blakey, that’s his group. It’s the same way that Wynton Marsalis is a leader. As much as Elvin Jones is an individual, I don’t get the same feeling from him being a leader as I do from Blakey. Steve Smith, to me, is not a leader. What’s he leading? He’s got a lot of money, so he can afford to take his own group on the road and get his jollies. That’s great, but I don’t consider him a leader. Everybody else wrote the tunes on the album—not that they don’t with Blakey, but somehow it seems different. It was just a case of “got some bread—put out an album.” That’s the way this business is. If you had $50,000 right now, you could put out an album that would be right up there and would get out just as much as any of those albums. They’d say, “Oh—Rick Van Horn is a new leader.” I don’t consider myself a leader, because I know how hard it is to do, either from the drums or the bass.
People are going to miss my point, which is that I am interested in the music; I want that to be the most important thing. I’m not putting any of the guys I mentioned down; if you do put this in print and it gets to them, I hope they don’t take it wrong. I don’t mean it negatively; they’re great players. I just mean that we’re in an age where it’s easy to do a lot of different things, and everything is being called “great” nowadays. I knew Steve Smith when we both went to Berklee; Vinnie Colaiuta used to ask me up to his room, and we’d swap stickings. I love the way they play, but to me they’re just other good drummers. They’re not these gods that the industry has turned them into, and I don’t think everything they play is that heavy. Put that in. I’m not afraid of offending anybody, because I don’t mean it in that sense. If they get offended by it, then they obviously have bigger egos than they let on. They’ve got to understand: I play a kind of music that’s not in the limelight; I don’t play to crowds of 10,000 people or more all the time. I have; we’ve been lucky enough to play festivals where we did. But those usually stink, musically. I’d rather play to a little smoke-filled nightclub with 100 people and have them sitting right on top of the drums; I usually play better music. I’m not on the same thinking level as a person who’s playing in those larger realms of music. I’m more concerned with the music, and less with the hype and baloney that goes on. I’m not concerned with this contractor or that show. That’s great, but I’m talking about music, when we get right down to the bottom line.
I don’t know how rock drummers feel, because I don’t consider myself a rock drummer, and I don’t know how the studio players feel, because I don’t really consider myself a studio drummer. I consider myself to be—hopefully—an individual, and to be creative. I’m playing this music called jazz, which is supposed to be both: creative individuality. There’s a certain thing inside that sort of dictates to me, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that. There are times when I sit and say, “Gee, maybe I did the wrong thing; maybe I should have pursued pop or rock.” That’s because of the state of the whole jazz situation right now. Let’s face it: Music is an industry today, instead of an art form. I’m still trying to deal with it as an art form. It’s not that nobody’s listening or that nobody wants to listen; it’s just that it’s difficult, because the outlets for jazz are really not there like they are for other types of music. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but it is that much harder to do. Looking at it in that perspective, I say, “Maybe I should have done something else.” But then I always come back to the question: “Could I live with myself?” Of all the experiences I’ve had, and the different kinds of music I’ve played, I have to ask myself, “When was I happiest?” I have a saying that I like to use, which is, “When could I go home and sleep?” A lot of nights, after gigs that were so-called prestigious and that paid a lot of money, I would go home and not be able to sleep, because the music wasn’t there. My whole concept of playing is that I want to be an individual. I want to play my stuff, even if it stinks. I would rather have you come into a club and say, “Oh, that’s David Calarco. I can’t stand the way he plays,” than to have you come into the club and say, “Yeah—sounds okay, man. Who’s the drummer?” There are enough good drummers around the world, man. There are thousands of people who sound good, but very few individuals.
It took me the longest time—I know I sound like an old man here at 29 years old—but it took me until now to realize that the only person I have to please is myself. And this came about through my work with Nick Brignola and other great musicians who kind of fed me little things here and there, and told me how it really was. I was in a hurry to succeed, and that can put you into a situation where you want a gig so badly, and you wonder so much about what the leader is thinking, and you try so hard to play the gig, that you wind up not playing you! You wind up trying to please everybody, and you don’t please anybody, least of all yourself. If you came up to me and said, “Gee Dave, I thought you sounded great tonight,” and meanwhile I felt terrible about the way I played, does it really matter what you said? I appreciate the compliment, but I’m still going to walk away not feeling good about what I did. On the other hand, if you don’t say anything, but I feel good about what I played, that’s it: I feel good. Some of the hippest stuff I’ve ever played went unnoticed by anyone but me. That’s when you realize that, if you’re happy and you enjoy what you do, that’s the most important thing. If you’re an individual, somewhere along the line that’s bound to get out, and somebody’s going to listen and take hold of it. In this era of stock drummers and sound-alikes, that’s the last thing I want to be. That’s kind of a diehard statement, but there’s a lot to be said for people who want to hang in there.
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