For more than thirty years, his drumming has been put under a microscope so often that it might as well be given its own genus and species name. Two exciting new projects get us even closer to understanding its true nature.
Dave Weckl burst onto the international scene in the mid-’80s with jazz piano master Michel Camilo, after which he began a long affiliation with fusion pioneer Chick Corea’s closely watched Elektric and Akoustic bands. Meanwhile, Weckl was building a remarkable résumé of freelance recording and touring credits with artists as diverse as contemporary jazz giant Mike Stern and folk-rock legends Simon & Garfunkel. Like Steve Gadd and Billy Cobham before him, Weckl became a magnet of attention among players who were awed by his stylistic flexibility, ambitious interdependence concepts, and game-changing precision. Today an entire generation of drummers shares fond memories of having gone through their “Weckl phase,” which for many meant focusing on incorporating Dave’s advanced techniques into their playing.
Interestingly, around 2000, the year MD readers voted Weckl into the magazine’s Hall of Fame, the drummer, fueled by studies with educator Freddie Gruber, began to focus his own attention on the more slippery issue of groove. “The whole feel of what’s being created has taken precedent for me over the past fifteen years,” Weckl says today. “I’m not at the point where I’m going to get, or care about getting, any faster around the kit—or any of the stuff that takes more physical input than I want to give. It’s about the emotional aspect of what’s being said and created, and how that makes somebody else feel. That’s where I’m at.”
If you’re worried that Weckl has become some sort of fusion minimalist, though, you needn’t be. Dave is absolutely ripping on two distinct new projects. The Dave Weckl Acoustic Band, a swinging and funky collaboration with keyboardist Makoto Ozone, saxophonist Gary Meek, and kindred spirit bassist Tom Kennedy, has just released its debut album, Of the Same Mind. Meanwhile, the electric (and electrifying) Convergence, a multifaceted album by Weckl and keyboardist Jay Oliver, represents the latest chapter in the duo’s long-running collaborative output, which includes Weckl’s 1990 solo debut, Master Plan.
“There’s so much diversity on Convergence, a lot of different styles,” Weckl says. “There are three vocal tunes, a couple of jazz-oriented ones, and the full-on fusion type of thing that we used to do. It’s sort of going back to the Master Plan concept, where we pulled in a lot of different vibes.” The crowd-funded Convergence is also a multimedia embarrassment of riches, featuring charts, videos of the drummer tracking, and separate play-along material for all instruments, including mixes with and without drums. Weckl fans will no doubt be pleased.
MD: On Convergence you reconnect with your old mate Jay Oliver.
Dave: Jay and I were partners on all my early projects, and our friendship goes back to the mid-’70s, playing and learning and doing things together musically. My schedule over the past ten years has been a bit crazy, going back into the sideman world with people like Mike Stern, Oz Noy, and Jeff Lorber.
Along with my own studio work here at home, that’s been keeping me quite busy. But in order to do Convergence, the reality was that we needed some funding. Back in the day, when record deals were more prominent and everybody, including me, had one, budgets were such that they allowed us to stay home and work and not do other things. I could go into complete creation mode, writing, doing preproduction, and just making the record. We wanted to see if our fans would invest in us, so we tried this crowd-funding direction.
We went with Jayce Varden and the people at PledgeMusic, who were huge fans of our work. In order to plan far enough ahead to stay home and reach our goals, we came up with some investment tiers for fans. That idea snowballed into all the things that we could do beyond making the CD. To my surprise it actually worked, and I had to stop booking myself and stay home to do this thing. It turned into a mega-project beyond my wildest expectations.
MD: It’s also an instructional multimedia wonderland.
Dave: As far as drummers are concerned, it’s pretty deep. There’s video of me playing every tune, and there’s a mix without the drums or percussion, with and without a click. We went into recording the CD with the realization that we had to do a play-along for every song, so complete separation was necessary. The videos are the actual takes of the tunes you hear on the CD. Quite an undertaking. We’re selling Convergence, the DVD play-along data disc, and the Acoustic Band CD via daveweckl.com.
MD: Without a label, are you free to do whatever you want, or are you creatively going about things the way you always have?
Dave: I’m pretty much going about it artistically the way I always have. And that’s always been with no constraints stylistically or content-wise.
MD: Was there ever pressure put on you to have a hit record back in the GRP days?
Dave: Back in the GRP days, most of my stuff was up to me, and I was given free rein to create and compose and put the record together however Jay and I wanted. When I was with them in the late ’80s, early ’90s, smooth jazz hadn’t hit yet. It was a mishmash of different styles—fusion, funk. It’s funny, because when I started to do a lot of records for different people, I was always confused as to what I was supposed to play. I always had to ask the question, “What are we doing here? Are we doing a groove record? Or are we doing dialogue, conversation, improvisation…”?
In other words, was I supposed to play simple, or busy? So it was kind of a confusing period. But for my own stuff, I wasn’t taking commercial aspects into consideration at all. Maybe only song lengths, to try to keep things in the five- or six-minute range, in order to get them on the radio. Other than that, it wasn’t about conforming to something the record label or some producer wanted. We always produced our own stuff. Later on, GRP was sold and they began to concentrate more on smooth jazz with more constraints, which is when I left and went to Stretch Records, Chick Corea’s label at the time with Concord Records. And on Stretch/Concord, I also had free rein.
MD: There’s some programming and some loops on Convergence. Does Jay handle most of that?
Dave: Over the last ten or fifteen years Jay has gotten way into production, loops, and what he does to create his vibe, and I’ve gone sort of in the other direction. I’ve completely gotten out of the electronic thing and have gone back to being an acoustic drummer. Most of the stuff I’ve been doing over the past few years has been a bit more spatial, with not as much content with synths or loops. So that bag was completely his voice on this record.
MD: Convergence is somewhat reminiscent of your 1998 album, Rhythm of the Soul, with its mix of acoustic and more blowing tunes.
Dave: Rhythm of the Soul was the first project I did that was written for a band with the intention to perform it live. We had no concept of performing any of the Convergence stuff live. We wanted to make it sound as live as we could, but it was pretty much completely a layered record.
MD: Is that you taking a timbale solo on “Apocalypso”?
Dave: Yeah, it’s me. I’ve always been attracted to timbales and have been studying the great timbale players over the years. I’ve played timbales on a few records that I’ve done for other people, but I don’t think I’d ever taken a timbale solo on one of my own records. With “Apocalypso” I had tried a couple of more flamboyant solos, but Jay and I decided to keep it more groove oriented, so it wasn’t completely a timbale feature. So the take that got on the record was more subdued.
MD: Can you offer any tips on how non-percussionists can build chops to play that stuff convincingly?
Dave: You have to really study the players and understand the parts—not that I fully do. Though Luis Conte and I were once at a festival, hanging out afterward, and we both sat in with this Latin band playing at our hotel, him on congas and me on timbales—and he was surprised. He looked at me and said, “Hey, man, you’re speaking the language!” You have to study the touch and feel of it all, no matter what the style or instrument. Even on the drums, you have to understand the real feel of a style to get into it. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Joey Heredia and guys here in town, like Ronnie Gutierrez, who is one of my favorite timbale players.
MD: “Road to Connemara” features you playing with a tap dancer. Was that live?
Dave: No, we recorded step dancer Mick Donegan in Ireland to a demo track of mine. Then I overdubbed my drum part here. We spoke on the phone about the concept and how to structure the idea, and there were some directives from me about doing the ending lick together and the triplets coming out of his last trade. But we never actually met. In a tap dance sense, I was pulling out some of my Buddy Rich references here and there, going into that frame of mind.
I’ve always loved and respected tap dancers. We drummers all know that Steve Gadd is a tap dancer, and there are others who do it well. On “Road to Connemara” it wasn’t a competition, like “Let’s see what you can do.” I wouldn’t have approached it that way, even if we had done it live. It was more of a call-and-response type of thing. I think it came out fairly convincingly. Jay and I have a term for what we do—preplanned spontaneity.
MD: You do a nice homage to Elvin Jones on “Twelvin.” Did you immerse yourself in some Coltrane, or is it just part of your DNA at this point?
Dave: It’s DNA. People don’t hear me do that stuff that much. Not that I do it completely authentically. And that wasn’t my goal. But the play on words there with the title came with the groove I wanted to play, that whole 12/8 triplet thing, which he was so great at. Everybody tries to emulate it, but nobody can get it to feel like that.
MD: Is there a track you can release exclusively to fans where we can hear you growling?
Dave: [laughs] I used to hum when I was around ten years old. My dad and I would record me playing drums and we’d listen back and ask, “What the hell is that hum”? I got rid of my Elvin-esque vocal tracks early.
MD: “Twelvin” and “Sternoids” are acoustic based, as is some of your recent sideman work. Is this where your head is now?
Dave: “Sternoids” was written for Mike Stern. We have a long history of playing together in different situations. I played a 20″ bass drum, full double heads, because most of the tune was bebop oriented, even though it goes into Mike’s overdrive section at the end. And I approached it that way: I had two rides instead of my normal fusion setup with only one ride and multiple crashes, and Tom Kennedy played electric bass. I wanted to make “Twelvin” more acoustic oriented, so I used an 18″ bass drum, only one rack tom, and two rides, and Tom played acoustic bass on it.
I grew up playing acoustic music. As teenagers, Tom and I used to play with his brother Ray, who’s a great piano player, and all we used to do was swing. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I’ve never considered myself an authentic jazz player, though, and I don’t think most people would. My new Acoustic Band isn’t only doing bebop. There are some groove-oriented tunes. But I’ve always loved the style. This is the band I’ve always wanted to have.
MD: How’d the Acoustic Band come together?
Dave: It had to. Tom and I were playing with Mike Stern in Japan, and on the gig was piano and B3 player Makoto Ozone, who’s a megastar in Japan. We were all having a great time, and the rhythm section had such an incredible chemistry. We were all just like high school kids, laughing. It hit us all, like, this is why we do this. This is why we practice all these hours to develop a facility, to be able to get into a situation where you’re all speaking the same language and it’s a beautiful relationship that happens incredibly fast—spontaneously.
After every set we were telling each other that we had to do something. I grabbed the bull by the horns and forced the issue. I called Gary Meek and asked him to join us in writing and playing the music, and we booked a show at Catalina’s in L.A. during NAMM week so some people could come by. We booked studio time and made the record. We rehearsed for two days, played gigs for two days, and recorded for two days. All the stars aligned.
MD: What’s your approach to swinging and acoustic music now, compared to the ’80s/’90s Chick Corea Akoustic Band era? Though it was a more athletic group sound, you were swinging your butt off on that stuff too.
Dave: Thank you. But especially on the live Akoustic Band record [1991’s Alive], it was my first experience with in-ear headphones, and it was just so much fun to play—and boy, was I playing.
MD: Yes, you were! It’s the sound of youth.
Dave: Well, it was borderline overplaying, in my opinion, and if I had it to do over again I certainly wouldn’t do it with that drumset. I don’t know where my mind was then, but it certainly wasn’t in an acoustic band setting, even though I was using a 20″ bass drum. I was using coated heads, but they were tuned fairly low. And I’m not approaching it like that with this new band. I’m using an 18″ bass drum with a Remo Coated Ambassador batter head, wide open, with only slight external muffling on it. But I don’t tune it as high as an authentic jazz tuning would be. It’s kind of low and funky, à la Keith Carlock’s sound.
I’ve always kind of dug that sound when I use an 18″, but I’m not known for it. It’s very airy and cool sounding. And I’m only using one 12″ rack tom, a 14″ floor, a 16″ on my left, and a timbale behind the 14″ on the right. And the two rides are Sabian Legacy—a 22″ and a 20″. So it’s more bebop looking and sounding than my fusion kit. I never liked tuning my toms high, but these are higher. And the record is pretty open and natural sounding, not a whole lot of reverb. I’m very happy with it.
MD: Your duet with Chris Coleman on Convergence’s “Higher Ground” is a sort of nod to when you played double drums with Steve Gadd on Master Plan. Did you guys work out parts in advance?
Dave: I had the concepts worked out for the approach, and then Chris and I went over things, throwing some ideas around. I thought it worked out very well. Chris is a phenomenal player, and we had a chemistry that I got to experience at the Drum Fantasy Camp, so he was the obvious choice. He is so strong.
MD: That’s also the sound of youth I was referring to.
Dave: I learned from Chick Corea a long time ago, when he would always surround himself with young players. It keeps you young and inspired, pushing the envelope of your own abilities and your own voice and what you want to say. Not that that was the intention of our duet. For me, it’s not about a competition anyway, and it shouldn’t be for anyone else. Hopefully no one is looking at it that way. It’s inevitable, in any kind of trading situation, that it will be looked at as a competition, but that wasn’t the spirit behind what we were doing.
MD: How do you keep yourself challenged to progress beyond such an already high level?
Dave: I don’t look at it as a challenge. My biggest incentive is to stay physically fit and able to do what I want to do at the kit. Besides that, it’s to experience every moment with the people I play with and whatever I’m doing.
MD: How do you stay physically fit and avoid those drummer pitfalls and ailments?
Dave: A lot of it has to do with how you approach playing the instrument. It’s one of the reasons why today I don’t have an interest in playing really loud, physical-input-type music anymore—not that I ever really did that with the fusion stuff. But I think we all have that dream of being a rock ’n’ roll player, and we play a little more physical than is necessary. It can cause injury. You know, beating the hell out of your left hand for forty-six years with traditional grip is going to take a toll on the thumb eventually. Thousands and thousands of hours. And most of us who have done that are experiencing trouble with our thumbs. Thumbs and shoulders—it’s just repetitive stress on the body.
First of all, nutrition is key. I cut out red meat and chicken about two years ago. I try to keep my weight down, because everything is harder with extra weight. In terms of exercise, I work out the tendons and small muscles with light weight on cable machines—no free weights at all. I’m also getting into some of the things that Virgil Donati is doing with nutrients. Magnesium is especially good for us drummers to take.
You have to have an awareness of what you’re doing physically at the drumset—and away from the set, like sitting in chairs at computers—and take care of your neck. At the drums, the physical aspect is about the ergonomics of not reaching. With just a little bit of reaching in an unnatural way, you’re jacking up your shoulders and putting your neck in a position that causes stress on things, clamping down on nerves. The neck is the central nervous system, basically, for the arms and the hands. Sometimes people with hand issues automatically think it’s tendinitis, but it’s possibly being caused by pinched nerves in the neck. And tendinitis is just from overuse and abuse. Just hitting way too hard and gripping way too tight and not letting the energy of the stick work for you.
MD: Does this all stem from Freddie Gruber’s concepts that have stayed with you?
Dave: Yes. It’s the whole natural energy aspect concerning the laws of physics and energy flow. If you’re gripping the stick tightly, especially from the front of the hand, pounding down into the drum, stopping that energy with a tight grip after the stroke, then having to pick up and do it all over again, that’s a lot of work. At this stage I’m not interested in working that hard.
One of the things Freddie taught me was to really understand how the continuum of energy can happen—
if you get out of the way and let it. This means you have to have a looser grip on the stick and you have to balance it more from the center of the hand. It’s nothing new; it goes back to Gladstone. Of course if you play lighter you need more control, from the front of the hand as well. But there’s a difference between control and grip focus, and for me, coming strictly from the Freddie camp, it’s about the focus of control or the leverage point from the middle finger and thumb, and more actual control coming from the back of the hand to the front.
I’m certainly not the only one who plays this way. When you look at Steve Gadd, the front of his hand is pretty loose on the stick. Vinnie [Colaiuta] is the same way a lot of the time. For me, it’s the way that I have to play. Otherwise I’d be in pain and things would not go well. In fact, I’m in better playing condition with my body than I was fifteen years ago, when I was having lots of problems that had to be corrected with therapy.
MD: Are you using an in-ear system for the Acoustic Band?
Dave: I actually am. It is an acoustic band, but by no means are we tiptoeing around and playing lightly. There are those moments, but it’s still a pretty bashing acoustic group and the drums are wide open, so it can get loud. I don’t want to subject my ears to that, so I’m very conscious of preserving my hearing as well as my body.
The other issue is clearly hearing everyone. I’m there to converse and make music with everybody, and I want to hear what they’re doing. And I don’t want to throw it in a monitor and then have that add to the ear fatigue.
I have a formula for making the in-ears work. I’ll do a song during the soundcheck without in-ears, which allows me to get the stage level and understand what the appropriate pressure is, physically, on the kit to be in the mix. This goes back to the Chick Corea Akoustic Band live record. I made the mistake of putting the in-ears in and started playing, thinking, Ah, this is great!, without any consideration to what the actual stage balance was, or the actual touch that I should have been playing with.
So now, even in a louder fusion thing, I’ll still make sure my touch and the balance is working acoustically, and then I’ll get a little drums in my monitors for the heft of the drumkit on stage. If it’s a louder group, I’ll have a subwoofer and speakers on stage too, so that I can compete with the guitars and basses. Even in the acoustic band, I may have a speaker on stage in the back to help out with the low end.
MD: And you’re avoiding those seat thumpers to help with low end?
Dave: I’m not looking for sensation—I’m looking for sonic appeal. I don’t put anyone else in my QSC monitors, just drums. And I have a volume knob just like everyone else. I’ll turn up my speakers to give the drums the heft from a fidelity sense, so it matches the other instruments on stage. You just can’t expect an acoustic drumset to compete with amplifiers. Then, after the non-in-ear check, I’ll stick the ears in and duplicate that mix, which is always drum heavy.
That’s another mistake some drummers make. They turn everything else up too loud, which makes them play too loud. I want to have the same presence as when I play acoustically, which is I’m the loudest thing I hear, so when I plug in the ears, it’s just 70 percent less volume. But I’m trying to duplicate the same mix so that I have the same touch.
MD: Your live sound has always been impressive, as is the sound on your records.
Dave: Your sound is your presentation. This is what we do. We can always respond to amazing playing, but sound is important too. Ever since Steve Gadd appeared with the real in-your-face, clear sounds that he was able to produce, it set the whole drum world on its ear. I was attracted to that, so it became experimental for me, tuning-wise and drum-wise. But I was interested in the technical aspect of reproducing the sound, both live and in the studio. So what was always a hobby has now become a sideline career as far as recording and mixing drums and bands in my home studio, the Garage.
MD: Times have changed. “First-call guy” doesn’t mean the same thing that it did in 1987.
Dave: It’s a very changed and continually changing landscape, for sure. Personal studios started to happen with a fervor in the mid to late ’90s, and I have to say, I was one of the early ones who couldn’t wait for the technology to get there. A long time ago I had this vision of doing drum tracks for people at home. Now, with boutique mic preamps and faster file transfers, it’s possible. You can’t duplicate the really good rooms and gear, though—the Neve consoles and the old C12 microphones that are $10,000 to $15,000 apiece. Not everybody can own those.
Most of the recording I do these days is in my own room, and I think the quality is very good. I’ve always tried to teach students to think about this as a business, not just the drumming business per se. You have to think not only about being a drummer but about doing anything that you possibly can. Learn to play other instruments. Learn to write music. Learn what it is to make sound. Learn to do sound. Learn how to engineer. I learned half of what I know by watching great engineers and getting on the Internet and studying and reading books and then experimenting.
It’s not enough these days to be a categorized instrumentalist: “Hey, I’m a jazz drummer,” or “I’m a rock drummer.” Maybe it’s old-school thinking, but in my opinion you need the ability to understand the history of the instrument, music, where it all came from, understanding all the great players of the past who laid the authentic groundwork of styles, and having the ability to at least know what those styles are and how to play them, and to understand what the sound of the drums is supposed to be in those situations. To give a tip of the hat to the history of it. The more you can do, the more chance you have to do more things. Be responsible. Show up on time. Don’t be an ass. [laughs]
MD: That one’s important!
Dave: We all have our moments of not wanting to deal with the social aspect of the business. It doesn’t mean you have to kiss everybody’s ass, but it also doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk. Doing what we do takes a lot of personal investment time-wise, and it takes a little bit of an effort sometimes to understand what to do in social circles. Think about what you say, and treat people how you want to be treated.
Nowadays it’s very easy to respond on the Internet in writing, email, and texts. Be careful. That causes problems. Take a breath before you send that pissed-off email. Take
a day and go back and read it the next morning. Because once you send something, it’s out there forever.
MD: You’ve mentioned your renewed focus on sideman work. We all win because we get to hear you more. But is it to pay the bills, or another reason?
Dave: Thanks. I enjoy playing other people’s music. One of the reasons I stopped leading my own band back in 2007 is that I enjoy the diversity and fitting into situations that make me think and play differently. And, of course, we all have to survive. That’s part of it—paying the bills, as you said. I’m getting back into the leader thing a little bit now with the Acoustic Band, but it’s not going to be full-time.
MD: What’s the Drum Fantasy Camp experience like for you? Are you finding that students want to rub shoulders with their heroes, or are they looking for serious tips and practical things to help them improve?
Dave: For the past year or two I’ve also been doing my own one-day drum intensives while on my Yamaha thirtieth-anniversary clinic tour. To answer your question, it’s a little bit of both. There is the weekend warrior who comes out and then says, “Yeah, I took a lesson and hung out with this guy,” and then there are young players who really want to do what we’re doing as a career. I recognize that same gleam in their eye that I had when I was seventeen, eighteen. It’s inspiring to see such passion and desire to play the instrument.
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Alex Solca