Mark Egan is one of the most highly regarded bassists in the history of electric jazz. Performing and recording with many of the prominent drummers of our time—a short list would include Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Steve Jordan, Billy Cobham, and Dave Weckl—he’s gained rare insight into the thought processes of our instrument’s most advanced practitioners. We asked Egan to comment on what he feels are the masters’ common elements.
Mark: I think to be a great drummer it takes the dedication to study the techniques and feels of the great lineage of drummers and incorporate these ideas into your own sensibilities and styles of playing. It takes a very serious commitment of study and practice.
The common element that I have experienced with all these great drummers is their sense of groove, time feel, and conceptual flexibility. They all express the time feel in an individual way that is timeless, and they’re all team players. When I listen to drummers like Philly Joe Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, John Bonham, Ringo Starr, Steve Jordan, Steve Gadd…they’re all committed to the groove. They all listen and touch the drums in a different way.
MD: What advice can you offer drummers in terms of attaining these attributes?
Mark: Beyond developing a total command of your instrument, which is a lifetime goal, it’s important for drummers to listen and be flexible with the music at hand. A drummer should think like a composer or arranger while he or she is playing, and sculpt the drum parts to fit the situation. I love it when a drummer orchestrates an approach to a composition and thinks and plays in terms of textures and development. An example of this would be very selectively using cymbals only in certain places in a song, to create a different texture.
A drummer with a great groove and the flexibility to listen and interact with the entire ensemble is a drummer that I enjoy playing with. I also feel that a drummer’s dynamics can be very powerful and a great tool for the development of a song. It’s a challenge to play softly and still have a burning groove. A great rhythm-section exercise is to experiment with playing as softly as possible and gradually increasing the volume until you’re as loud as possible. This gives you an awareness of the range of volume that’s possible.
It’s all about the groove, overview, complementing, listening, and reacting. Technique is important in order to be able to execute your ideas, but without groove and creativity, it’s meaningless.
Listen to and study the roots and masters of jazz, Latin, Afro-Cuban, funk, and R&B drumming. It’s important to play along with recordings of the masters and to try to come as close as you can to the original. I also think it’s important to find a great teacher to study with—really surrender and be a diligent student. And it’s important to play with a band to develop your skills.
I’ve been in playing situations where I’ve had to completely go with an inflexible drummer’s feel. This goes against everything I’ve learned as a creative musician, which is to be reactive, in the moment, and a team player. The bass and drums have to fit together like a hand in a glove.
MD: Having appeared on hundreds of recordings in every style of music imaginable, what are you hearing that makes a great jazz drummer swing, a great rock drummer rock, a funky drummer be funky, and so on?
Mark: It seems to me that the common thread with all great drummers is their feel, concentration, uncanny sense of time, transcendence of technique, and dedication to the groove, which starts when a tune is counted off. It goes beyond the instrument and is an extension of the player’s spirit. I can remember playing with the master percussionist and drummer Airto Moreira and listening to him play a groove on a matchbox with his fingers or create a whole symphony of rhythm with tambourine and voice. I’ve heard him play without any instrument at all—just playing rhythms on his chest—to a standing ovation. All this tells me that the groove comes from within.
MD: I’ve noticed from playing with you in different situations that you possess a remarkable flexibility when accommodating the various time feels present in a group of musicians. Do you have advice for drummers on how to find the best way to groove with bass players and other musicians who may have different time feels from their own?
Mark: For me it’s all about listening, supporting, and reacting. I’ve spent countless hours experimenting with drummers, both during my Miami University days and my time in New York since the mid-’70s. I’ve learned that you have to be aware of the entire sound and not just your own sound. Everyone feels the time in a different way, and that’s natural. A drummer should have the overview to hear that someone is laying back or rushing and be able to adjust his or her time feel to help that player fit into the groove.
When a time feel or a tempo is started with a song or groove, it sets a time frame in motion, like the gears of a human clock. The gears are a constant, and it’s our duty as musicians to add soul or feel. The most important thing is for the entire group to listen and move together. When you listen to James Brown, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, or all of the Motown music, there’s no question about the groove. It’s timeless.
MD: Your latest recording, Truth Be Told, features Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. When I told you that my first impression was how “loosey goosey” Vinnie sounded, you knew exactly what I meant. I think many listeners would be surprised at the elasticity in the time that the two of you create together.
Mark: Vinnie and I were reacting to each other, to the songs, and to [keyboardist] Mitch Forman and [saxophonist] Bill Evans. I wanted this recording to be on the edge yet relaxed. I wrote several drum solo sections specifically for Vinnie to do his amazing thing—which he did in a huge way.
Vinnie is another drummer with amazing technique and a very creative approach. But he can transcend the technique and go places that you just wouldn’t imagine. It was a loose feel because Vinnie was always listening and going for different ideas while at the same time grooving ridiculously. I remember breaking out laughing at the end of takes at the session because Vinnie played so strongly.
MD: There are many “Vinnie moments” on the CD. I find that when drummers attempt advanced ideas that they’ve heard Vinnie play, they often do so at the expense of the groove and time. How do you think it’s possible for him to stretch the limits without ever sacrificing the groove and time?
Mark: He’s a magician, an extremely talented musician with what seems like limitless technique and an uncanny sense of time. But again, what I’ve learned from knowing and playing with extremely accomplished players is that they have all put their time in on the instrument.