Basically a self-made recording artist, Roland Vazquez, fuses successfully the areas of performing, writing and producing in a very charismatic and philosophical approach. With four albums to his credit, he has come a long way from the difficult times of his rock & roll days in East L.A.
A lot of invaluable concepts and suggestions spring out of this extremely dedicated musician who has become one of the better percussionist/composers this country has produced in a while.
I caught up with Roland and his music in New York (where he was performing and receiving a great deal of acceptance) and was able to get some insight into the discipline and will power involved in developing his writing and playing skills.
Editor’s Note: Since the completion of this interview, Roland Vazquez, has had his fourth album released on Headfirst Records. Feel Your Dream (HF-9710) features Alex Acuna, Clare Fischer, Abe Laboriel, Ronnie Foster, and Bennie Maupin.
RP: When I saw you perform live recently, I noticed that the structure of your music was very sophisticated and yet not too far out. Even though I could detect some Tower of Power and some Brecker Brothers influence, it retained a very original form and style. What struck me was that, regardless of the intricacy of some of the passages and structures, you were able to communicate fairly strong melodies, and that is something seldom heard from a drummer. Your drumming, on the other hand, was very polished, powerful and tasty. You projected well and were very much in context with the music. I would like to know how you started out and how you acquired those writing and playing concepts.
RV: When I was twelve, I saw Mongo Santamaria’s band with Carmelo Garcia on drums and that made me decide to become a drummer. But it wasn’t until 1974 that I decided to become a writer. I got my first drums when I was fifteen, but didn’t start studying until my first year in college. It came on pretty fast, but the teacher I was taking from was very suppressive and old school and didn’t even want me to ask questions about any other aspects of music except rudiments. He believed that you had to practice six hours a day if you wanted to play at all. I don’t believe in that. You practice as much as you need to be able to make your statement, whatever that may take. 1 couldn’t stand it: it was a real tough interpersonal conflict that never worked out.
My first professional gig was on percussion. I played timbales and congas in a rock band. I did that for a while, until they fired the drummer. So I went back to playing drums, and worked a lot around East L.A., where the atmosphere wasn’t too healthy. I got depressed, sold my drums, went back to school and started studying harmony and music in general. I wasn’t happy with that environment. Nobody wanted to talk about anything except 18th-century music. There wasn’t any feedback about anything new, so 1 left and went on the road with a group of guys I had met previously. We were in the Sacramento/San Francisco area when they turned me on to Weather Report. They were playing the Berkeley festival with Miles Davis. I went to the concert and it blew me completely away. Eric Gravatt was playing drums. I was so excited I snuck my way back stage into their dressing room. I got to talk to Eric and that was a major turnaround in my life. At that time I was into Mongo Santamaria (I had all his albums), James Brown, Tower of Power, naturally, Santana, Herbie Hancock, Gil Evans and also into Brahms, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bartok.
So, for a while, I listened to Weather Report and Herbie Hancock pretty much every day. I started writing and that’s when my energy shifted. I wrote the first piece for the Urban Ensemble in 1974, when I went up to Utah to study. I had tried to write in L.A. but it didn’t work out. There was a band that came to L.A. on tour from Westminister College in Salt Lake and they sounded great. Stu Goldberg and the Fowler brothers were playing in it. I decided to go there myself, so I got on a plane and moved there.
Everything started the night I got to Salt Lake. I got a concept in my mind as I was sleeping on my roommate’s floor. I thought: “What if I had a band that had horns and sounded like Mongo, Tower of Power, Weather Report and Herbie at the same time?” I figured out that the compositions had to combine all the hip elements to be something special, whether it was going to be funk, Latin or swing, or even classical, if I could get it to work. I started writing up there and it was real nice because the environment was right for me.
When I went back to L.A., I had a tough time finding guys to play with. The musicians I had known before were mostly rock players. On the other hand the jazz players, because they were only into bebop, were never able to get into my music. Anyway, I started getting the idea of doing a tour of schools and to take my music around. Someone told me of the National Endowment so, in a day, I wrote out this proposal saying that the environment in this country was not conducive to new American writers; people that are writing music that is not tailored for the commercial market, be that a club or a record company. We deserve a chance to present our art form and schools have the natural environment for people that are ready to hear something new. I thanked them very much for accepting my application and told them that, whether I got the endowment or not, I was going to continue writing and affecting the social-evolutionary process of my country anyway. On February 25, 1977, I got a letter saying that they were going to give me $3000 to do some concerts. So I went out: from L.A. to Nevada, into Salt Lake and back around to Oakland. We did eleven shows with that amount of money. The whole thing, all expenses included, cost me only $35 more than I got from the government.
I had made a little demo tape, but I was getting discouraged because I wasn’t running into a lot of success. I was working a lot of rooms in L.A., but I wasn’t getting any response from anybody that was with a label, so I decided to go to Europe and see what was happening there. People in Europe, though, seemed to be more interested in bebop or avant-garde, not in fusion. I got so much anyway from the experience of being there and checking out so many different cultures. I was writing a lot there; in fact, I wrote nine tunes in six days, and almost all of them have been recorded.
RP: You said that you had a hard time finding musicians to play with, but, as far as I know, you had some pretty heavy players record your music. How did you manage that?
RV: Well, when I came back to Europe in ’77, I decided I was going to record. I was able to get in touch with some investors and get the money together to approach all those players: Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Patrice Rushen, Benny Maupin, Abraham Laboriel, Manolo Badrena and Clare Fischer. None of these people knew who I was, but I got lucky. I met Herbie and Chick in the street in the span of two days. I was standing next to Herbie at a Jack DeJohnette concert, and I said, “Here is a tape. Would you listen to it?” and he called me back and said he wanted to play the music. But, as it turned out, he was in the same studio doing Flora Purim and Airto’s project in the day, and we were in at night, recording the tunes that came out on the G.R.P. album. He said he loved the stuff. I met Chick the next night in the club I was playing, but I never got any feedback from him at all.
RP: It’s interesting that Herbie would call you back.
RV: He is a neat person. He called me back and said: “Did you write this? Are you the keyboard player?” “No,” I said, “I am the drummer.” With Patrice, I brought her some charts and showed her the music. I did the same thing with Benny Maupin. Benny, unfortunately, didn’t come out on the G.R.P. album. The stuff he played on is on two albums that are called the L.A. Jazz Ensemble. The guys in Sea Wind were also very helpful. They introduced me to their engineer, Peter Chaikin, and hooked me up with the studio.
RP: Tell me about the recording sessions.
RV: Well, we went in from November 7th to December 16th, 1977, and we recorded twenty-five tunes, about four albums’ worth of music. I am real proud of that experience in the studio; my first time in fact. I really didn’t have much experience, but everybody contributed so much with their energy and support that the project turned out fine.
RP: Was the project self-produced?
RV: Well, I don’t know if we can say that. I produced it with the help of Larry Williams from Sea Wind, Shirley Walker, a lady that is now writing for films, and Peter Chaikin, the engineer. But I was the one that coordinated the whole thing.
RP: What did you do to get a recording contract?
RV: I spent the next year trying to find a label to buy my recordings. I didn’t want to sell to small investors, and, as it was, I hooked up with Grusin-Rosen Productions. The Urban Ensemble album came out in February ’79. Actually, two more albums are out by the L.A. Jazz Ensemble: In The Life Before and Urantia. They received almost no distribution at all, even though some radio stations still play them and Billboard picked up one.
G.R.P. had the priority to look through all my tunes and pick out the ones that it was interested in releasing. Only after that I was able to sell the remaining material and had to do it under a different name. The G.R.P. album was number five in the country in airplay for a while. We were on KKGO and KJLH eight times a day in L.A., but when I went to thirty of the biggest record stores, only five of them knew what the record was. No distribution at all. The label was not prepared to promote in large scale. I think my kind of music wasn’t really identified. My point, and this is really important to me, is that there is room in the world for all kinds of music, all kinds of art, and I feel there is a very special purpose behind my music, behind communicating with people. I know that I am not going to move as many units as Elton John. But, hey, that’s cool. That doesn’t mean that I am not going to move some units.
RP: The three released albums were recorded all at once. Do they have a similarity in style?
RV: What I thought of, when I did it, was three different styles: I wanted to do two albums of Latin music, one of funk, and one of more ethereal material. Now, on the G.R.P. album, the tune “Soul Force” is obviously of a Latin vein. The funk tunes on that album are “Long Gone Bird” and “Flowered Pig,” while “The Visitor” is the one that would be more on the esoteric mood. The music I have written since then cannot be so easily categorized.
RP: It sounds like you had a hard time looking for success. Did you encounter the same degree of difficulty convincing yourself and others that you could write?
RV: I spent years playing rock and roll. I would hear great guys play and I knew I would never play like that, and, at that point, it stopped me from improving. I would think: “I can’t do that; I’ll just be a rock drummer.” But there is no such thing as just. You do what’s there, and do it’. I was really afraid to start writing because I didn’t understand the people that I liked to listen to, like Stravinsky and Bartok. I used to think you had to be a special person to be creative. I still believe that, but to be creative is not as hard as I originally thought. You just have to work at it, just like playing. You can’t play a paradiddle real fast the first day you sit down with a pair of sticks. It takes time. Every day you have to do something to progress, even if it has nothing to do with music as far as you see it. It might be the way you deal with people or anything related to life. It sounds cliché, but life is music, and music, to be of value, will have to be a harmonization or resolution of living elements coming together and functioning together. It’s not this element or that one, but the relation of all the elements that will make it. It’s very much like three over four. Neither one, by itself, means much, but, when you put them together, boy, they produce tremendous energy. Your attitude about everything around you helps you to be a total musician. I like to think of us more as “channels”: Channels of love, energy, mentality and chops. All those things will have to come together and fuse on the downbeat, when it’s time to play. There are so many good players that never practice, but they have that feeling, that energy that’s always there.
RP: It’s true; it sounds easy, and yet it is so hard to be able to play simple and be in context with the music being played.
RV: It’s the concept that’s important. They play the way they feel, and the way they believe, not necessarily the way they think, because some guys sit around and think all kinds of neat things to play, but they don’t feel them, so they are not convinced, therefore it doesn’t come out. The reality is not your technique, but your soul. And don’t forget the audience. Every person that’s there when the music is being played is participating either in a positive overt way or as a receiver. Now, there is a line that will have to be joined between the heart, the mind and the body. We have melodies for the heart, form and complexity of structure for the mind, and rhythm, time and feel for the body. All those things will have to be there and, if you can put them there equally, you reach the people. Some might walk out on your music, but then they grow on it and finally appreciate it. I went to see Cecil Taylor one time and he made me furious because I thought he was really indulgent and wasting people’s time. But then later I heard a record of his and I was shocked because I had changed and had come to a place where I was able to appreciate and assimilate what he was doing. That music is very cerebral in a lot of ways. There isn’t necessarily a melody that people can identify with.
But, again, you can write anything you want (I am learning this the hard way), and it won’t mean anything unless you find guys that can feel your music besides reading it. People have said, “Hey, Roland, you write too many notes; your music is too busy.” I say that they won’t know until they hear it performed correctly. I have gone through a lot of emotional stages because I thought I should write simpler stuff, go a little more commercial, but I don’t know how to, even though recently I have started writing some pop tunes with a singer I work with.
RP: As an accomplished drummer and composer/arranger, what kind of direction would you give a drummer that has an urge to express himself through writ ing, but who can’t write at all? How can someone deal with learning a new skill when he is still concerned with practicing his major outlet? Wouldn’t the process of learning how to write and arrange take away from practicing the drums?
RV: It takes away from practicing the drums, but not learning the drums, be cause time remains time, whether it is on a horn, on a piano, or on the drums. Learning to play piano, which is really how a drummer would be able to develop his writing skills, is part of musical development and growth. Drummers also can be into orchestration and pitches. If you play set, you are into orchestration at a certain level anyway.
RP: Don’t you think that most drummers play the set without thinking about orchestrating because they have been taught to think rhythmically as opposed to melodically?
RV: True; that’s why I think drummers should learn how to play a melodic instrument. They should learn how to play the piano and spend some time in developing at least harmonic technique, to know about chords and progressions. Unfortunately, a lot of times drummers that are trying to write actually limit themselves by being more concerned with technique than other things. A drummer who would be at a good level of technique most times doesn’t have the humility to start out at a much simpler level as a composer and be able to persevere and put in the right amount of energy to develop that skill. It’s difficult to be successful and accomplished as a drummer and then feel like a child as a writer. There is also a lot of prejudice among other musicians when the drummer comes in and says: “Hey, would you guys play this chart for me?” There is a lot of embarrassment that you have to be willing to bite through.
My suggestion to drummers that want to expand as writers is to pay attention and listen to the kind of music they like, eventually expanding into every area, but really start out and spend a lot of time with the music they identify with. There is really so much to listen to and to play, but we can’t do it all. We have only so many years to spend on this planet and we should pursue the things that move us and that we could put movement into.
Another suggestion is to try to eliminate fear, and the first step to take toward achieving that is to not compare other than to learn. Emotional comparison is bad. Intellectual comparison for getting a perspective on a style of playing or writing is what we need to exercise. If you are emotional about comparing your music to others, then fear of failing will take over; once fear exists, you stop growing. I know I will never write like Stravinsky or Bartok, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t write like Roland Vazquez. It’s like you said earlier: a person’s musicianship is very much defined by the way he or she was brought up and by the kind of environment he or she has lived in. What you believe in is what you are going to play; what you come up accepting about yourself is what you will express.
RP: I suppose that a music school’s environment would be the best place for a drummer who wants to develop writing and arranging skills, because he would get a lot of input from other players and have his charts played regularly.
RV: Well, he would have more of a chance to have that happening, but still a lot of teachers will have the tendency to expect quality from the piano players and not from the drummers. I agree though that the environment would be very conducive to improving fast. It took me seven years to get my degree, and the best part was during the last few years being in the environment where what I wanted to write could be played.
RP: Let’s talk about your drumming. I consider it at the same level as your writing. It’s skilled, polished, it fits the music and it’s not up front. You didn’t even take a solo when I saw your band live. It sounded like you were there not to promote your drumming, but to enhance the music. Basically you have a natural instinct to play the drums the correct way. A lot of drummers don’t think that way. It takes them years to realize that being in context with the music is the most important thing. What’s your concept behind your playing?
RV: The key is to have enough power to control the energy that is necessary to execute the music with maximum effect. A drummer has to have enough power and emotional strength to lay down something that’s convincing to the rest of the band. Basically, he has to put his cards on the table in a clear way so that everybody understands where the time is, and who is in control. It’s like coming to a place where you know what you are there to do and you are not going to be distracted by yourself or by anybody else and get into “chatter.”
RP: What kind of studies did you do and who were you influenced by?
RV: You know, only recently have I started studying with a teacher: Richard Wilson. He is getting me to use my hands correctly. I’d like to study more and develop more discipline and control to have more facility on the set. There will be a time when I will solo. That is something that I haven’t been doing much of. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I am at a point where my left-hand grip is changing completely and I am starting to play with a completely different technique from the one I used before. My chops feel funny to me, but I am not worried. It will come. The main objec tive to me is to serve the music. I have an image of the drums and their function: drums are like a wave that pushes forward, carrying the rest of the music.
I spent a year or so playing with Clare Fischer’s Salsa Picante and Alex Acuna was playing timbales and Poncho Sanchez was playing congas. Playing with those guys got me to think simple; I was learning patterns from them that were allowing the drums to fit with the type of Latin feel they were playing. I had to lay there and keep time. I also used to listen to players like Bernard Purdie, David Garibaldi, Tony Williams, and Eric Gravatt. Eric is the greatest.
RP: I don’t really hear any Gravatt in your playing at all.
RV: I don’t play those things in my music. I try to fit the music. My playing is going toward simplification. I want to be conscious of the groove. I try to follow the concept of having a commercial sounding rhythm section and still retain my freedom in the horns and harmonic structure.
RP: Is there anything that you feel you haven’t dedicated enough time to?
RV: My reading. I don’t sight-read very well, even though I can follow up a bass or piano part and know exactly where I am because I can hear those chord changes, therefore I know where I am in the music. My sight-reading is something that I didn’t take time to develop, because I was learning about chords and how to write for other instruments.
RP: So, in order to develop writing skills, something had to suffer, and in your case that was sight-reading technique.
RV: Absolutely true. If I can hear something, I can read it, but if I don’t hear i t , I can look at it for a long time and still not be able to execute it. Then again, most of the music I am playing is by feeling, whether it is a chord, a melody or a rhythmic passage. There was a magazine out called Drum Charts where they wrote out and printed some stuff from the Urban Ensemble album. I couldn’t believe the rhythms that were there and I had played them! You see, when I play, I don’t use preconceived ideas, but rhythms that will fit and be supportive to the music. Talking about real sight-reading skills, Vinnie Colaiuta is a reader. He sight-read “The Black Page,” that drum solo that Frank Zappa wrote for Terry Bozzio. Now, that’s incredible. I could never be able to do that, and I don’t know anybody that could really do it. Carlos Vega is another excellent reader. Peter Erskine is an excellent drummer and reader. I saw the stuff he had to read for John Serry and that was scary.
RP: We have been talking about a lot of West Coast musicians; what is your reaction in coming to New York?
RV: Well, I feel a different energy and strength here in New York that I didn’t know I had when I was in L.A. Probably I was dealing with some musicians that weren’t ready to get emotional about this music; they played the notes, but they didn’t play with commitment.
RP: This brings us to the “L.A. versus New York” factor. Obviously two distinctive concepts exist: the “West Coast sound” and the “East Coast sound.” There are basic differences in the way of playing, learning, teaching and writing, and there is a question that springs out of this conflict: “Will I move to L.A. or to New York to make it?”
RV: The right thing is always going to be determined by the personal needs and by the level of musicianship. For anybody that’s finishing school or wants to go to school and know about music, the best thing to do would be to go to New York because there is more music in a much closer area. There is a community of musicians here that feels completely different from the L.A. environment. At this point it feels a lot better to me, but maybe that is because it’s kind of fresh to me, having just arrived here.
RP: Peter Erskine once told me that the difference between L.A. and New York is indeed comparable to a small apple and a big apple. How true is that statement?
RV: It’s hard to answer that one. L.A. has a lot of great players, but the orientation is more towards the recording studio rather than putting bands together just to play music. Here in New York there is an understanding that guys want to play and want to be seen playing. There is a commitment to music. In L.A. there is more commitment to commercial playing. It’s not who you are working with and the music you are playing, but how many sessions you are doing a week. That’s okay, there is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t see all those studio players perform live the way it happens in New York. Maybe they go out for major tours, but still don’t play out as much locally. In L.A. the focus, whether for a geographical reason or other, is not on the live performance. Also people are not into going to see so-and-so play. You go to a club where some great players are performing and there would be five people listening to them.
RP: Did you have a hard time then getting out to perform?
RV: I can play in L.A., but it is hard. I woke up one day and I realized there were more people that I knew in New York that were direct and serious in saying “Roland, we will help you to do what you need to do” then there were in L.A. I have been playing L.A. for some time now, and they still mess up the advertising and the booking of my band. I come to New York, I put a whole new band together, we go in and play, and the place is packed. You saw the crowd: they yelled and screamed; they were into the music.
RP: One last question: if you decided to relocate to New York City, what would your priority be: your writing or session work as a drummer?
RV: Well, my number one priority is to express this kind of music, to continue to grow, probably through this kind of band. I would like to be able to do some writing for other people. I have a lot more music than I can play with my band; I would like for other people to start playing things that I have already written. In L.A., I was being hired to do horn arrangements for a while. I’d be glad to do that here too. But at the same time I would like to play drums, and not only for my band, but for others as well. I actually considered playing for someone that is established and letting my writing accumulate, so that I wouldn’t have to struggle with my band for a while, but that thought changed here because there are so many guys willing to play that I would like to keep the momentum that was apparent the other night, and hang on to it for a little while.