John Hadfield

John Hadfield

Story by Jeff Potter
Photos by Marie Constantinesco

The drummer/percussionist with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist and composer Petros Klampanis, and other big thinkers simultaneously plays traditional drumset and traditional ethnic percussion, in the service of some decidedly un-traditional musical statements.

As John Hadfield increasingly found himself performing with ensembles exploring blends of jazz and world music, his quest for dynamic and timbral sensitivity became key. Meeting the challenges, Hadfield created hybrid drumkit/percussion setups that ingeniously served the music in a less snare/bass-centric approach.

There is perhaps no better forum for Hadfield’s deft, coloristic grooving than his hybrid-kit drumming with Petros Klampanis’s ensembles. As heard on the 2015 album Minor Dispute, Hadfield delivers a fluid groove, strong yet never intrusive, punctuated by adroitly chosen accents. His skillful sound-weaving choices create the illusion of a seamless multi-percussion section. This commanding rhythmic stream unifies and orchestrates Klampanis’s riveting and brilliantly arranged chamber mix of percussion, bass, guitar (played by Gilad Hekselman), and piano (Jean-Michel Pilc), supplemented by four string players, in a blend of jazz, classical, world music, and folkloric leanings from the bassist’s Greek roots.

Sitting astride a cajon, Hadfield will switch between hand drums and stick-struck instruments. Frequently he plays them simultaneously, often cradling a frame drum on his knee and playing it with his left hand while riding a cymbal with his right. Or he may groove the cajon with one hand while his other plies the kit. All four limbs are nimbly independent, navigating percussive layers that artfully support the music’s constantly shifting palette.

“The use of frame drum [in particular] really conjures the vibe and attitude of certain regions, such as Greece or Africa,” Hadfield says. “I love that aspect. There’s often an authenticity to that. When playing Petros’s music, it brings a vibe to it that just playing a regular drumset would not.”

Given the unusual instrumentation of his setup—and of the ensembles he plays in—Hadfield has found certain textural issues that he must remain sensitive to. “With strings,” he says as an example, “you have to be respectful and not play the cymbals too loudly. I could whale on the drums, cajon, and other percussion and it still could blend well, but you have to be aware that it’s the cymbals that can wash strings away.”

Besides offering endless textural variety, Hadfield’s rig solves a more mundane concern. “From a practical point,” John explains, “one of the advantages of playing percussion in New York City is that you can throw it in a bag over your shoulder, get on the subway, and go. Schlepping in New York is brutal!”

Following percussion studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Hadfield earned his master’s degree at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Immediately after graduation, he took a spontaneous left turn. “I went to Bali for six weeks,” he says. “I was curious about gamelan music, so I just went there, holding one person’s phone number. I studied and did a bit of playing, and it inspired a new way of looking at music.”

Hadfield then moved to New York City in pursuit of his jazz ambitions. “I was always into Elvin, Jack DeJohnette, and also classic rock like Bonham and Ginger Baker. But then Jamey Haddad at the New School became a huge influence on me.”

Hadfield attended the New School for two years, albeit under unusual circumstances. “l never enrolled,” he says with a chuckle. “I just got permission from professors to attend classes by people I wanted to study and hang with. At the time I was playing dance classes and club dates—whatever—to make money. And during the day I went to the New School and played in some of the ensembles.”

Haddad’s globe-spanning, multi-percussion artistry inspired Hadfield to develop his hybrid setups. “I wanted to get his whole approach,” Hadfield says. “For instance, with the kanjira—that’s a South Indian instrument that’s basically a tambourine made from monitor-lizard skin with one jingle. One kanjira player in particular, Ganesh Kumar, was a big influence on me. Jamey was teaching lessons on kanjira, frame drums, and also the South Indian syllable system, which was a vehicle for getting into, ‘I’m playing in seven, my foot’s in three, and I’m speaking in four.’” [laughs]

Since putting down roots in New York, Hadfield has continued to ply his trade within highly diverse ensembles, including Combo Nuvo, a funky jazz/world ensemble featuring sax star Lenny Pickett, and pianist Kenny Werner’s Chant quintet. John is also a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and he contributed to the cello master’s 2008 Grammy-winning release, Yo-Yo Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy & Peace. In addition, he’s subbed with the Saturday Night Live band and also holds the seat for the acclaimed Broadway show Fun Home, which won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical. His own compositions are featured on his releases, The Eye of Gordon (2008) and Displaced (2010).

This past fall Hadfield performed with Klampanis in Greece, followed by a European tour with clarinetist David Krakauer in a project dubbed the Big Picture, which features the band playing in sync with projections. He then embarked on a Canadian tour with Syrian clarinet star Kinan Azmeh. Hadfield previously toured with Azmeh in the Middle East—including a concert at the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman—and cites the music’s mix of jazz and Arabic influences as being highly influential on him.

Hadfield also finds time to pass the torch as a faculty member at New York University, where he teaches drumset and directs the school’s World Percussion Ensemble. The faculty position afforded him the opportunity to secure an educational grant allowing him to embark to Chennai, India, for percussion studies.

The diverse drummer is excited about his future endeavors with Klampanis, including their upcoming disc, Chroma. Slated for summer 2016, the release will include video content. “In addition to the Greek influence, what’s also unique about Petros’s music is the interplay between the musicians,” Hadfield says. “Some of it is very complex. There’s the tune ‘Ferry Frenzy,’ which is in eleven. The first time I heard that, I thought, Is this some kind of screwed-up 6/8? But that approach to eleven is very unique to Petros. The beauty of playing with him, ultimately, is that we definitely feel the beat in the same place. The first time we played in my living room, it was instantly great. You know how that is—sometimes you just immediately click with people.”

Hadfield’s HybridJohn Hadfield

Drums: Pearl Reference series
A. 6.5×14 wood snare
B. 14×14 floor tom
C. 16×20 bass drum

1. Sabian 12″ Chopper (mounted upside-down)
2. Sabian 13″ Fierce hi-hats
3. Sabian 22″ Monarch ride
4. 8″ Tibetan bell mounted on top of ride
5. Sabian 16″ O-Zone crash
6. Sabian 6″ splash (unknown model)
PercussionJohn Hadfield kit
aa. reco-reco
bb. Japanese fan drum
cc. Sela cajon
dd. Ksink Ksink hi-hat attachment
ee. South Indian ankle bells
ff. caxixi
gg. Cooperman Slapback (ocean drum)
Not shown: Emin darbuka

Heads: Evans, including Genera Dry snare batter, G2 Level 360 floor tom batter, and EMAD Coated bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth Bolero, Heritage brush, SD12 Swizzle G, and Rute 606