His résumé reads like a drummer-fantasy list: Allan Holdsworth, Al Di Meola, Joe Sample and the Crusaders, Banned from Utopia, David Foster, Brian Bromberg, Gloria Estefan, Stu Hamm, Jon Faddis, David Sánchez, Oz Noy, Hendrik Meurkens, movie soundtracks, solo recordings, and gigs around Los Angeles—and all over the world.
Possessing a clean, clear, punchy style that he can adapt to any environment, Joel Taylor is one of the most in-demand drummers in Los Angeles, a city full of great drummers. An L.A. resident since 1984, Taylor has seen the fat times and the lean, and he’s navigated the city’s musical and political scenes with a good-natured attitude that keeps his phone ringing and his gig book full.
Taylor possesses immaculate chart-reading skills and proficient technique in any style, yet his drumming is loose and flowing, the result of years of experience playing jazz, funk, pop, Afro-Cuban, fusion, and R&B, both live and in the studio.
He also leads his own groups, the Brig Band and the Vintskevich-Taylor Quartet, and works regularly with Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s Jam Kitchen—as well as in a King Crimson tribute band. Running a home studio also pays dividends for Taylor, equipping him for almost any gig imaginable.
MD: You’ve recorded everything from Guitar Hero to Gloria Estefan at your home studio, Jackalope Studios. What else happens there?
Joel: I track for composers and producers from around the globe. I work a lot with one particular film composer from Santa Monica, Kenny Burgomaster. He’s the coleader in my jam band, the Brig Band. Kenny composed the soundtrack for the Jonas and Hannah Montana TV series, and the Frenemies and Wizards of Waverly Place movies, all of which I’ve played on. I’ve done a ton of Kenny’s movies. For Gran Torino, I played a martial snare drum part any time the lead character picked up a shotgun. I did four takes and that was it. Clint Eastwood [the film’s director] asked me to play the snare drum parts after he heard me playing with his son, Kyle, who was the composer on that movie. Clint has a home studio in his house, so that’s where we cut it.
MD: How has having your own studio helped you get work in L.A.?
Joel: Guys know that I can turn it around fast and get great sounds. They don’t have to pay for studio time. I don’t really charge that, but I do charge for recording and engineering time. But it’s definitely helped because the live session scene these days is not so alive. Everybody does it in-house. When I moved to town in 1984 there was a ton of studio work, but now I maybe do a dozen sessions during the year with a full band. I probably do forty to fifty sessions a year here at the house.
MD: Did you work with Gloria Estefan at your home studio?
Joel: I tracked drums for her new record at my studio. She tracked the album in Brazil with a producer, Mauricio Guerrero. I replaced some of the drummer’s takes from the Brazil session. Everything was finished on the tracks they sent but the drums. I had to sync with the bassist, who had locked with a different drummer. In the end, I think they retracked some of the bass parts.
MD: Was there a click?
Joel: Yeah, I tried to nail the click but make it feel good with what was already there, and come up with the right parts in the Brazilian style, which I’m very familiar with. We played some sambas, baiãos, and the samba variation partido alto—a funky samba.
MD: Were her vocals in the tracks?
Joel: Yes, they were. When I got sent the tracks, I didn’t know who the artist was. I started listening to this voice. It sounded familiar. One of the tracks was labeled “Gloria,” and I put two and two together.
MD: Does everyone in L.A. have a pro studio with a control room and a live room?
Joel: Not everyone does, but I do. Gary Novak had one; he was sharing it with an engineer. I think Vinnie Colaiuta records in his house sometimes. But Vinnie is still doing tons of sessions down at Capitol and United Recording/Ocean Way Recording/ EastWest.
MD: What did you record with David Foster?
Joel: That was a fantastic experience. I worked with him for five years, between 2001 and 2006. I was in Brian Bromberg’s band for many years, and Brian was doing a bunch of stuff with David. JR Robinson and Vinnie were Foster’s first-call. I became number three. We backed up Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, etc.; we kind of broke in the new singers Foster was producing. And we backed Foster when he played piano.
MD: How did you land that gig? And what did he want from you in particular?
Joel: Bromberg recommended me. Foster handled a lot of different artists. There might be ten different singers that would come up, and we’d back them in Las Vegas, L.A., etc. David was looking for a drummer who had a lot of styles together and could sight-read anything. And number one with Foster is time—his time is ridiculous. He’s like a perfect metronome, so if you waver, it’s over.
I remember once we were playing one of his funk tunes, “Got to Be Real,” when he gave me a little eyebrow nod. I’m looking at him and he plays behind my snare, basically telling me, “Pull it back.” That’s the only time he ever had to do that. I got it right away. He was a real stickler for time. He expects you to read a chart down the first time with no mistakes.
MD: Describe your Holdsworth experience.
Joel: That was an amazing experience. I played with Allan on and off for ten years. We recorded something about ten years ago; I don’t know if it’s ever going to see the light of day. For that project Allan had two different rhythm sections play the same five tunes—Jimmy Johnson and Gary Husband, then bassist Ernest Tibbs and me. It was maybe in 2006. Then Allan shelved it. He’d call me: “Man, you sound amazing on this. But I want to redo my guitar parts.” He wanted to release a double album of both rhythm sections playing the same tunes.
MD: Did he complete the project?
Joel: Nobody knows if he ever replaced his guitar parts. I know his rhythm playing is on there. But then he passed away. The tapes are in probate. Nobody knows what’s on them. So we’ve been talking to his daughter, and if there is finished product in there that we could put out, then great. But nobody really knows.
MD: How did you get the gig?
Joel: I was teaching at Musicians Institute in 1994 and playing in [bassist] Jeff Berlin’s band. Jeff asked me to play a Holdsworth clinic. Jeff wrote out a couple of Allan’s tunes. One was “Water on the Brain,” which Chad Wackerman played on the original version of. It had a lot of odd meters. I sight-read the chart, and we just jammed for the rest of it. We went for a drink across the street on Hollywood Boulevard after, and Allan invited me to be in his rhythm section, as Chad was going out of the country. It was that quick. Then I got the Yanni gig, and that was on retainer so I couldn’t pass it up. I did that for a couple of years. Then I rejoined Holdsworth, until 2007.
MD: What demands did Allan place on the drummer?
Joel: He was absolutely the nicest leader ever. He would never tell you what to play. The hardest thing was learning the tunes, because the forms were so difficult and they modulate all over the place. It’s like a lot of his forms are through-composed. Often you don’t solo on the same form as the head, in a traditional jazz sense.
From my years playing trumpet, I can hear the basic notes in his harmonies and melodies. So I transcribed his music not from a drummer’s perspective, but from a musical perspective, with the harmonies and the bass parts. I learned more from the chord structures and the forms of his compositions. I certainly can’t hear all of those harmonies, but at least I could write down the bass parts and the harmonies I could hear. That really helped to understand the forms.
If you’re listening to Allan’s music as a drummer, you can’t tell that there are modulations everywhere. When I started learning the harmonies and especially the bass parts in his music, I realized, It’s modulating here. And this is the same sort of progression, but in a different key. So it really started to open doors for me, just looking inside his music. After that, I checked out what all the different drummers had played originally. And then we talked it over. Allan said, “I want you to play like Joel Taylor.” He helped me find my voice. That’s the best any leader can do.
Then to Now
MD: When did you arrive in L.A. after attending Berklee?
Joel: I came to L.A. in ’84. At first I played all the weekly jams. I took a top-40 gig and a theater gig. My first break was with Brian Bromberg, a great bassist and a longtime friend. I’m on many of his records. I’ve been playing with him thirty-some years. Tom Brechtlein was his drummer then, but he couldn’t make some gigs. Brian and I were supporting composition majors together at Dick Grove School of Music. I did one of
Brian’s gigs, and then he asked me to join his group. That was my first break, and then from that I got exposure around town and people would come out to see me. It started snowballing from there.
MD: Next gig?
Joel: After that was Justo Almario from the band Koinonia. I learned about Latin-jazz playing with those guys. That was probably ’89, a few years after Brian. Then keyboardist Rob Mullins gave me work. I was playing and recording in those bands simultaneously.
MD: You’ve also recorded a lot for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. L.A. soundtracks would seem to be great work but hard to break into.
Joel: It’s all word of mouth; there’s no auditioning for soundtrack work. How I got into the Guitar Hero circle: I met Toss Panos, who plays drums with Draco, a Puerto Rican artist. He got the call for it, but he couldn’t do the date. Guitar Hero had an awards ceremony, and they wanted the guys who played on the tracks to play the gig. Gregg Bissonette played on a lot of the early ones. They called a film composer, Lyle Workman, who played on many of the first Guitar Hero tracks. He knew me from playing with Allan Holdsworth and from Toss, and I got the gig.
I met the composers who were doing Guitar Hero, and since I had my own studio, it worked out well. I did that for a couple of years; they’d send me a track a day. I’d transcribe every tune verbatim and tune the drums exactly the same as the original tracks. I tried to replicate the same heads they used, what kind of drums and cymbals used…. It was a ton of work, but it was fairly lucrative. A lawsuit ended the whole thing. The stuff I played on sold three billion dollars’ worth of merchandise. Unfortunately, it was a nonunion gig, and before the union had a scale for video game soundtracks, so we didn’t receive any backend special payments.
MD: What’s your current workload like?
Joel: Besides playing around town and studio work, I also colead a jazz band in Russia, the Vintskevich-Taylor Quartet. We play the International Jazz Province Festival in Russia every year. I’ve been doing the gig for twelve years, also backing their artists, and they’ve asked me back every year.
We’ve made four records as the Vintskevich-Taylor Quartet. It’s straight-ahead jazz but with a Russian influence. I also have a residency at the 1881 Bar in Pasadena, a jazz gig where I employ friends from around town. And there’s the Brig Band, a jam band. We recently recorded an album, Alive & Plugged. We play regularly in Venice, California. Danny Carey, Kirk Covington, and Robby Krieger often sit in. I’m on another forthcoming album from Robby Krieger’s Jam Kitchen. And I’m on the faculty at both the University of Redlands and Cal Poly Pomona.
MD: If you came to L.A. now, would you still have the opportunity you had in the ’80s?
Joel: No, there are a lot fewer gigs to be had these days, and the talent pool is a lot bigger. That limits the number of available gigs. I was lucky to come out here when I did. These days I’m working as much as a leader as I am as a sideman.
MD: To what do you credit your sense of flow and relaxed feel?
Joel: Probably just confidence. When I was a kid I did tons of rudimental stuff, and when I studied with Gary Chaffee and Alan Dawson while at Berklee, Chaffee drilled me on odd-grouping stickings, etc., and Alan had me interpret Ted Reed’s Syncopation dozens of ways and do his rudimental ritual.
But generally, it comes from experience. When I was twenty-seven, I didn’t sound at all smooth. I probably had more chops then, because I practiced all the time. But the experience of playing in a lot of different situations gives you the confidence to relax. If you’re not confident, you’re going to feel hyper, and that may affect your breathing. When I’m on the bandstand, I’m not thinking.
If I have a forte, it’s my ears and that I immerse myself in the situation, in the music that’s happening in the moment. I’m trying not to think, just play music. I’ve had so much experience over the years that I can feel relaxed even if it’s a pressurized environment.
Joel Taylor uses DW drums and hardware, Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks and brushes, and Remo heads.