Catching Up With…Jae Sinnett
by Ken Micallef
He has recorded more than ten albums as a leader, but he’s equally well known for his nationally syndicated NPR jazz program, Sinnett in Session.
Jae Sinnett’s drumming style is visceral and streamlined—think Jimmy Cobb, Billy Higgins, Joe Farnsworth. The resident of Norfolk, Virginia, has worked in funk and pop situations, but his first love is classic jazz, as heard on such albums as It’s Telling…a Drummer’s Perspective, Subject to Change, and The Sinnett Hearings. Sinnett typically surrounds himself with first-rate accompaniment, with past albums including ringers like alto saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Wallace Roney. Sinnett’s latest release, Zero to 60, features saxophonist Ralph Bowen, pianist Allen Farnham, and bassist Hans Glawischnig.
Though he’s had success as both a musician and broadcaster—he composes all the music he performs and records—Sinnett cites 2005’s The Sinnett Hearings as perhaps his most important release, both personally and commercially. “The music was prompted by a scary hospital visit,” Jae recalls. “That’s why the first song is called ‘Palpitations.’ Seven days of being in the hospital produced ‘Bedrock.’ That album was a real turning point for me in how I was able to merge rhythm with melody and harmony. And it was my first record to debut at number one on the national JazzWeek radio charts.”
As MD is a chronicle of all things drums, It’s Telling…a Drummer’s Perspective piqued our curiosity. “That’s the first record where I wrote from rhythm to melody,” Sinnett says. “Most composers have a theme in their melody first, then down to rhythm. I wanted to write music specifically from drumming concepts. I created a series of rhythmic layers or beats, then worked through them as though I was playing a composition. I played the beat for a certain number of bars, which would lead to the next section, similar to a verse or chorus. I’d shift and alter the rhythm, but there was still continuity.
I worked through entire form structures with these rhythms. Then I overdubbed the other parts.”
Sinnett extends his musicality-within-drumming approach to his teaching practice. “Instead of patterns, beats, and licks, I teach concepts,” he says. “I want my students to understand why a particular drummer plays what he plays. One thing I will do is ask the student to hum a bass part, in time. Then I’ll ask the student to create the drum part to go with the bass line. That forces drummers to think about harmony and sound resolution, and it enables them to understand form and hear how chords resolve. They can see the bigger picture.”
Though Sinnett’s busy schedule includes performing with his trio, teaching, broadcasting Sinnett in Session, and even producing a cooking show, his success started with a setback. A star drummer in high school, he failed the audition for the U.S. Navy Band because he couldn’t sight-read. “The instructor laughed at me and kicked me out,” Sinnett recalls. “My friends in high school told me I was such a great drummer, and that went to my head. I thought I could whiz through any audition. But the instructor thoroughly demoralized me. I left the room crying. That was the catalyst to get my act together. The feeling of how the instructor talked to me, it touched a nerve and made me angry at myself. Afterwards I thought to myself, That will never happen again. And it didn’t.
“I see that happening today with some of the kids I teach,” Sinnett adds. “Mom and Dad tell their young musician kids how great they are, and the kids believe it. I tell kids out of the gate, ‘If your time is sad, I will tell you.’ It’s good to be positive, but being positive isn’t always being realistic.”