Danny Gottlieb

Electric Jazz: 1985 (co-winner)

It was a fairly typical Monday night at the Village Vanguard in New York City. The Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was grooving along, supported as usual by the mellow swing of the drummer. In this particular band, the role of the drums isn’t so much to cut through as it is to blend, filling out the band’s sound with warm drum tones and well-chosen cymbal colors that seem to come from within the band’s sound rather than sit on top of it. And that’s exactly what listeners were hearing on this particular Monday night—even though Mel Lewis wasn’t there. Mel was in Europe. Danny Gottlieb was filling in at the Vanguard.

A couple of months later, the Mahavishnu Orchestra did four nights at the Bottom Line. In that band, the drummer’s job is to propel, to excite, and to project through ear-splitting volume levels. Where the Mel Lewis band is based on tradition, Mahavishnu is out to explore new territory, and the drummer must be able lo handle everything from funk to Indian rhythms, but use those influences in atypical settings. Again, that’s what the listeners were hearing, and again the drummer was Danny Gottlieb.

That the same drummer can handle gigs with such different types of bands certainly says something for his versatility. But perhaps it also says something about the cur- rent music scene, where a musician may be called upon to draw from almost anything. While still in high school, Gottlieb’s quest for knowledge led him to Joe Morello and Mel Lewis. As the years progressed, Danny continued to check out anything and everything that interested him—and everything did. As a result, perhaps it has taken Gottlieb a little longer to find his own voice, but the more different situations he plays in, the more certain elements of his style seem to solidify. One thing is for sure: You can always recognize his touch on the cymbals, and that goes back to his very first influences.

RM: What importance do you think your background with Mel Lewis and Joe Morello had on what you went on to do?

DG: It really shaped the future of things to come, although I applied it in my own way. The thing about Mel that I was so enthralled with was the sound of his cymbals. One of the primary factors in the way that I play and the way that I hear music is really the sounds, and specifically the cymbal sounds. Almost all of the groups I’ve played with have given me some chance to work with a variety of cymbal colors, and I would really have to trace it back to Mel Lewis. Tony Williams, of course, was also a big influence once I found out about those Miles records.

It’s funny because I use a different type of cymbal, I play in a different type of setting, and I have a different type of sound, but those roots are real strong. Joe Morello was also significant in that way, because of his technique and his touch on the cymbals. Joe is such a technical master of the instrument that, just because he holds the stick a certain way, he gets a certain sound out of a cymbal. Also, not that I’m a brush player of any major significance, but there was a sound in Mel’s and Joe’s brush techniques that I related to. I could also talk about the fact that the sound of the drums was also very unique— Joe with the classic Ludwig open sound, which you can hear in my playing, and Mel Lewis, who has a “slip-sliding” way of playing, which you can hear in my playing very obviously in the records that I’m on. It’s a different type of music and you probably wouldn’t even relate it to that, but I can hear the influence very strongly.

RM: Okay, with those guys as your roots, the logical progression would have been for you to become a mainstream player. But you took those roots and applied them to first the Pat Metheny Group, then Mahavishnu, and now Al Di Meola. There’s not a lot of history behind that music, so you kind of had to make it up as you went along. Can you talk about the process by which you arrived at what you did?

DG: When I went to college, I was exposed to an incredible variety of drummers. Rather than just focusing on one or two, I found that I liked a ton of drummers from Jack DeJohnette backwards through Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Art Blakey and all the way back to Baby Dodds. But then at the same time, I was also listening to the avant-garde players— the Ornette Coleman/Billy Higgins, Paul Bley/Barry Altshul school. Then Mahavishnu hit, and Billy Cobham was on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Mark Egan, who became a good buddy, was very much into James Brown and Miles Davis, and so all of a sudden that whole lineage came along.  Then there were the rock ’n’ roll and the funk/R&B drummers. I hear so many different types of music, and I loved it all. I would take a little from this drummer and a little from that one, and just listen to a little of as many drummers as I could find.

Then when the Pat Metheny Group started, Pat was very strong in not wanting our group to sound like any other group. So sort of by default, I would change things. Instead of playing a traditional beat on the hi-hat and snare drum—like a tight pattern—I shifted it to the cymbals and I found different tonal colors that would work within the group. It was a combination of certain things from a jazz point of view and certain things from a rock ’n’roll point of view. I couldn’t really go too much in either direction, but by the same token, I had to be familiar enough with both styles to be able to integrate them.

One record that I must mention from my college days, which was equally as significant as anything else that I ever was exposed to, was the first Chick Corea Return To Forever album on Polydor, Light As A Feather, with Airto playing drums and percussion. His drumming on that record is very, very close to what I ended up sounding like on the Pat Metheny records—a lot of cymbals, a lot of colors—although there’s more groove than a lot of the stuff that I was playing.

RM: After the group was established, were new influences coming along that you had to incorporate?

DG: I was still listening to a large variety of music. Pat was experimenting with the guitar synthesizers, and Lyle [Mays] was developing from only having an Oberheim synthesizer to having a bank of synthesizers. Pat gave me an Oberheim drum machine to work with, which we ended up using on a couple of tunes on stage. So all of a sudden, we had a chance to start experimenting with electronics, as were all the groups. Also, when Nana Vasconcelos joined the group, it made me aware of all the different cultures of music around the world. I bought some records and tried to understand a little bit of what I was dealing with. Furthermore, while the group took a couple of breaks, I had a chance to work with Airto. Here was another Brazilian percussionist coming from a completely different place than Nana. Then I was hearing music where these influences were starting to creep in, such as the Police. Stewart Copeland was very important because of his sense of backbeat. I really found the reggae/rock combination fascinating.

I also discovered some of the rock people that I had kind of neglected over the years, like John Bonham. I really started to listen to a lot of rock ’n’ roll from the ’60s and ’70s, which I hadn’t really checked out that well, and started to find that creeping into my playing. I wasn’t really concentrating only on the music of the day. I was still going back and checking out a lot of drummers. My head was really spinning during those years, because I had an outlet where every tune was a different style. So I was trying to check out the authentic drummers who played those different styles. I found that I had an affinity for pop AM music, and I was also listening to that. The studio drumming was having an effect on me: Steve Gadd, Chris Parker—in fact, I remember really enjoying the James Taylor Gorilla record with Andy Newmark on it. His backbeat knocked me out. I also found myself listening to classical music. On different things out of the blue I would find something that would knock me out, and it would be in a variety of styles.

RM: After you left the Pat Metheny Group, what were your influences during the next few years, both from what you were listening to and from the situations you found yourself in?

DG: I found that I was sort of known for a stylized way of playing, which in some ways was great and in other ways was severely lacking. I realized that one of the ways that people support themselves in New York is to do record dates and jingles, and in order to do that, you have to be able to handle an incredible variety of styles. So I started checking out a lot of the drummers on the New York scene. Two that come to mind right off the bat are Chris Parker and Dave Weckl. I must also say that another of my absolutely favorite drummers was Steve Jordan. I was hanging out with him sometimes, and I would pick up things, especially from his involvement with the 24th Street Band. So my R&B playing—the little I was doing and what I was working on—was directly influenced by Chris Parker, Dave Weckl, and Jordan especially.

Then Weckl told me about Gary Chester, and I started taking lessons with Gary. Along with studying with Joe Morello and listening to the drummers that I’ve already mentioned, this was probably the most significant thing that I’ve come across as far as developing my playing. I still haven’t made a tremendous amount of progress with Gary, mostly because I’m going out on the road all the time. But the few lessons that I was able to take with him increased my flexibility in that area tremendously.

So as for what was going on, I was able to do some jingles and a few record dates here and there. Then Mark Egan hooked our band, Elements, up with singer Michael Franks, and we did two or three tours with him. That type of music called for some of the R&B/studio drumming approach, and also enabled me to put in some of my cymbal colors that had been carried over from Metheny.

RM: You just mentioned your own group, Elements. What part has that band played in your development?

DG: Elements was significant for a couple of reasons. First, it sort of signifies my association with Mark Egan, who was the original bass player in the Metheny Group, and who I’ve known for 14 years. He’s a very great musician and our association has played no small role in the development of my musicality. There’s a certain closeness after you’ve played music with someone for that long a time, especially when it’s in the rhythm-section context between bass player and drummer. This was a chance to put some of this down in another context besides the Pat Metheny Group records.

Number two is that I’d never been in charge of production of a record project before, and there were a lot of things that I wanted to do that I never had a chance to do on any records up to that point, such as overdubbing cymbals and colors. In addition, we played with a click track a lot. I’d been in the studio with a click track, but I had never done a whole album that way. So Elements was a chance for expression, and it was a culmination of things that I’d worked on at that point in time.

RM: Probably the next significant step in your life was your association with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu band.

DG: Absolutely. It changed my life completely. It was basically a phone call from John: “Can you come to Paris tomorrow? Yes or no?” I dropped everything and ran to Paris. We rehearsed, and we did a tour of eight concerts. I was playing the music as best I could based on the experiences I’d had, but I could tell that there was something lacking. After I came home, John called and said, “Danny, I’d like you to come back to France, and I want to work together for two weeks solid—just drums and guitar.” So I jumped at it and ran back to Europe. Those two weeks changed my whole approach to playing. We spent six to eight hours a day just playing music— intense music. The thing that John hit upon early in his musical career was the significance of Indian music, and specifically Indian rhythms and Indian drumming. I’d listened to a little Indian music, especially from the Shakti records with John, but I didn’t know what I was listening to. John started to explain to me his understanding of the basics of Indian rhythm and drumming, and how to apply it to the music we were playing. After a few days of playing, talking, writing things down, and listening to records, a whole new world opened up for me. I started to understand how he was improvising and playing rhythmically so I could complement him. Also, I realized that he really needed someone who played very hard and very intense, and who played a lot of drums—not so much cymbals but drums. I sort of adopted what he was talking about. From listening to the Indian drumming, I ended up playing a lot of things on the tom-toms and also really going for a much more powerful approach to the instrument. I even got double bass drums. I’m still nowhere even close to someone like Rod Morgenstein, Simon Phillips, or Louie Bellson, and the great double bass drum masters, but I’m able to kick it in when I need to.

So John was a tremendous influence on me. We’d listen to Indian drummers playing drum solos of seemingly incredible complexity, and he would say, “Danny, these drummers are talking to you in your language—the drums.” I thought to myself, “He’s right. What are they saying?” I realized that this is a whole other area of incredible wealth that, when integrated to the drumset, is going to change the way drummers hear things. It’s going to take a lot of investigating and a lot of figuring out. There are going to have to be some books written in ways that people can understand and also a lot of concentrated, focused effort. I still consider myself very much a beginner.

There are two people that I’ve come in contact with who play drumset and who use these rhythms. One is from Cleveland. His name is Jamey Haddad, and he studied with an Indian master named Raghavan, who plays on the first Shakti record. The other one I’ve come across is Trilok Gurtu, who is a percussionist from India. We got together recently and talked. He showed me that funk rhythms are directly related to Indian rhythms. It’s just a question of trying to understand their tremendous subdivisions and different applications of sound. We have the basic quarter-note, 8th-note, 16th-note system. In Indian drumming, there’s definitely a lot more specific theory about ways to count than we have ever really devised for drumming. I really think that this is going to open up a whole new area.

RM: The other major thing that happened to you in Mahavishnu was that you really got into electronics.

DG: When I got the gig with Mahavishnu, I realized that electronic drums would give me a chance to play in the Billy Cobham style, where I could play fast single-stroke tom rolls as loud as possible without having to work very hard because I could just crank up the volume control. So that’s the original reason why I got the Simmons SDS7 drums. Meanwhile, John was trying to work with electronics and develop his own approach using the Synclavier. Mitch Forman, the keyboard player, was playing only electronic keyboards. Jonas Helborg, the bass player, was playing not only fretted and fretless bass, but also bass pedals. Bill Evans had an electronic device on his saxophone. So what I was doing was in keeping with the direction of the group, which was to try to use the technology in a new way. The old Mahavishnu was amazing, but it had been done. John was looking for a new sound—a new direction— and the electronics played no small part. That was my chance to start experiment- ing. I came up with a combination of Dynacord drums, Simmons drums, and acoustic drums. There’s a whole new set of possibilities. I still have my acoustic drums and those sounds, which no one can ever take away, but now I can add all types of other sounds to them and combine them. I think it’s great.

There is a danger in all of this, which a friend of mine pointed out. Andy Laverne, who is a great piano player, has decided he is not going to get into electronics. He’s going to focus on the acoustic piano, and that’s it. The reason is that there are only a certain number of hours in a day, and if you really want to master one thing, you have to devote an incredible amount of time to it. Here we are messing around with wires and trying to get new sounds. The argument could be made that we’re not spending enough time developing the virtuoso aspects of the instrument.

I feel like I want to do it all. I don’t ever want to lose touch with the drum. I want to concentrate on technique, control, and new ways to use the drumset, but I also want to enjoy the new sounds that are available, because I like sounds so much. So I am sacrificing some valuable practice time to experiment with the electronics. It’s all up to the individual. You have to establish your own priorities.

As for where it’s heading, it seems like anybody is going to be able to sample any- thing soon. Al Di Meola, who I’ve been playing with, is using the sampling features of the Synclavier more than anyone I’ve come in contact with yet. He sampled a bunch of Airto’s percussion equipment, and now is soloing using Airto’s bell sounds on the guitar. If I had the Linn 9000, I could sample any sound that Airto has, put it in the machine, and use it. Once everyone can get access to any sound anywhere, which is possibly going to happen, at a reasonable price, then it’s back to the musicians. Right now, sounds are selling. In other words, you can buy records where it’s not so much the music that’s played but the sound of the instruments involved. Well, as soon as those sounds stop being novel, then it’s going to be up to the context that you put them in, and that will be the true test of your musical ability.

RM: Airto recently told me that, since he’s known you, you’ve changed your playing four different times.

DG: Well, I think that, if someone walked into the Vanguard and heard me play with the Mel Lewis big band and only heard me play that gig, that person wouldn’t have a clue to my playing with Mahavishnu. I guess I like so many different types of music that I try to fit into whatever I’m involved in as well as I possibly can. On the other hand, I feel that there’s a little bit of a problem with this approach, because of the fact that the drummers I admire most basically have a sound and a way of playing, and that’s it. When Jack DeJohnette plays a reggae beat, it doesn’t sound like Sly Dunbar playing a reggae beat. But I like approaching it authentically rather than trying to bring in something new. That’s not necessarily good or bad. That’s just the way that I’ve been dealing with it. Mel’s band has a certain sound, and in order to do it justice, you really have to lay down a groove in the style of Mel. But when I get into a situation like Mahavishnu or Al Di Meola, where it’s basically wide open, then I can do what I want to do, within reason. So by Airto saying that I’ve changed my playing four times, I think he’s probably heard me in four different contexts. I think I’m growing as a musician and all these things are adding up to a style, but the style is dependent upon the situation that I play in.

RM: It sounds like maybe you’ve accomplished something that you wanted to. You said earlier that, when you left Metheny, you had developed a reputation as a very stylized drummer. Now, three years later, you’ve become a chameleon who can sit in with Mel’s band and sound like Mel, and then go into Mahavishnu and do that.

DG: I don’t think I ever want to get into just one thing and stay with it. For example, I have chosen not to make big bands my life. If I were going to do that as a primary focus, I would put together my own big band that sounded like the way I wanted to play; it wouldn’t sound like Mel’s band. Mel’s band represents Mel. It’s the same with the Pat Metheny Group and with Mahavishnu. These are people creating groups around the way they play. Of course, my ultimate goal is to do a record solely based around the way I play, using players and a context that I feel rep- resents my type of playing. It could be a variety of styles with the link being the way that I approach those different types of music.

RM: If drummers who want to remain contemporary lock into one style, they’re dead. I’m thinking of drummers who were hot when fusion first hit, but when music progressed into other things, these drummers were too stylized to move on. You’re growing with the music by not locking into any one thing.

DG: It’s true. For example, in Al Di Meola’s situation, the music is very much in a light texture similar to some of the Metheny music. In Mahavishnu, I was using 2S and 3S sticks, having to change drumheads every day, and putting dents in Rude cymbals, but that’s what the music called for—intense, loud drumming. Here I’m using much lighter sticks—a whole other context—but I’ve got that Mahavishnu music in reserve, so maybe once a night I’ll let it loose for a couple of measures, and hopefully, it will be effective. And when I go back to play with John, I’ll be integrating some of the subtleties that I’ve been working on with Al and that I have carried over from the Metheny group. It’s a nice combination.

RM: Bob Moses refers to you as the eternal student.

DG: I agree. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I could see myself studying with Joe Morello, Gary Chester, these Indian drummers, and anything else I come upon that I don’t know about for the rest of my life. My major problem with this is the fact that I try to study with 80 people at the same time, and thus don’t focus on anything, [laughs] But I think it’s just because I’m so in love with the music world and there are so many different possibilities.

RM: Maybe not focusing on any one thing is your strength. You’re not a Joe Morello clone, a Mel Lewis clone, or a Gary Chester clone, because you’re not just losing yourself in someone else’s style. You’re just grabbing all of these different things, and they’re all ending up as little parts of you.

DG: It’s absolutely true, and being around Bob Moses and Jack DeJohnette was no small part of it. Just living in New York and getting to hear all these great drummers who play around town all the time is also important. Every time I go to a jazz club, I’m a student. Every time I go to a rock concert, I’m a student. I’ll listen to Max Weinberg, Gina Schock, Rod Morgenstein, Myron Grombacher, or Phil Collins. At whatever concert I go to, I learn something. Even if it’s something I don’t like, I can say, “Well, that was something that I don’t really want to integrate into my playing.” I never was really into putting people down, and I don’t think it’s even necessary. You either like it or you don’t like it, but I think everybody’s entitled to try to make a statement. So I feel like an eternal student in a way, but I do think it’s a positive thing ultimately, because there are just so many things to pick up on in the world. I’m just thankful to get a chance to do it.