If Peter Donald seems a bit cocky, lashing out at his drums with a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, you must remember—he has a right to be. He’s played with pop acts like Olivia Newton-John, Peter Allen, and Helen Reddy. He brings home the bacon with television and film work, notably Grease, Xanadu, The Merv Griffin Show, and Fridays. After sitting in the drum chair of the acclaimed Akiyoshi-Ta backin Big Band through eight albums, he joined up with one of modern time’s more eclectic guitarists, Berklee colleague John Abercrombie, in 1978.
Donald grew up in Woodside, California, and moved to Boston al the age of 14. When we talked, he was enjoying being back in the San Francisco area, stretching his limits in a series of dates with the Abercrombie group. Leaning back and squinting as he bashes his Yamahas, or playing a feather-light roll on a cymbal, Donald exudes confidence. Some might think he’s flaunting it. But the drummer’s swagger is a personable one, both on stage and off. His unaffected grin bursts with the enthusiasm of the moment.
RT: Had you started playing drums before you moved to Boston?
PD: Very little. Actually, I first owned a drum when I was ten. And then I got a funny little Woolworth’s drumset when I was 12. I studied locally here with a guy named Bob Goodrow, for about a year. Then I really didn’t do much with it after that formally until I started studying with Alan Dawson when I was 17, which basically lasted for five years. I went to Berklee for two years full time as a composition major. And I studied privately on piano, theory, harmony, and stuff like that at different points.
RT: Did Alan Dawson teach you a rudimental approach to playing?
PD: At first it was rudimental. He worked a lot from the George Stone book, Stick Control, and he put me through the whole Carl Gardner series of books, which was legitimate snare drum reading. Then at some point, because I did have a fair amount of drumset facility from informal playing that I had done, he used Stick Control for a coordination book. We would just substitute the limbs—the right foot might play the left-hand parts—and get them used to different ways of playing. Then I went through a lot of other more conventional books—the Wilcoxon books, and the Ted Reed book. There are a lot of different ways to do that Syncopation book, and other more advanced reading stuff. So it was a real good, firm basis for playing the instrument. Plus, even though I never really took the writing thing to any professional conclusion, it was a great help to go to school and study arranging. As a player, it just makes you a lot more aware of how things are fitting together. The drums can be pretty destructive if they’re not played musically. Also, most arrangers really don’t know how to write for drums, so you have to use your ears a lot more. A lot of people do, in order to interpret the music.
RT: Figuring out what the arranger meant.
PD: Right. Anyhow, during the last two years I was studying with Alan, he started doing the Elliot Fine-Marvin Dahlgren book, Four-Way Coordination For The Drum Set, which is the best drum book of the ’80s for coordination. It’s just rudiments, but using all four limbs. You feel like a total beginner when you start playing it. I got all the way through the book, very slowly, and it comes out in my playing more and more, but it’s really not conscious. One of my big thrills was that I finally met Marvin Dahlgren in Minneapolis a few years ago when I was in Toshiko’s band. He flies planes, owns a drum shop, plays shows and the symphony, and writes all these books. He’s a great guy—an unusual human being.
RT: When you’re playing now, do you think in terms of the rudiments, or do you just play? Is it a subconscious thing?
PD: No, I don’t think in terms of playing rudiments. There are patterns that I play that are built on rudiments, which have become part of a sort of constant flow. They can be shifted around to sound different all the time. But I’m not as rudimental as some drummers are. There are drummers of my generation who are more aware of what they are playing on the instrument, technically. The beauty of Alan was that he didn’t try to produce junior Alan Dawsons. He’s quite rudimentally oriented, because of the era that he comes from, but he didn’t try to force you to do anything that was musically against your principles. So that was really nice.
RT: Your rock and funk playing seems very together.
PD: I’ve played a lot of it over the years. When I first moved to L.A., I played with Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy—mostly MOR acts. I also played with Peter Allen a lot. And I always enjoy doing it. Abercrombie and I started out playing in blues bands—like Ray Charles-type bands—and funk bands.
RT: In Boston?
PD: Yeah. So I’ve always liked doing it. I reached a point, though, where I realized that you can’t stylize yourself in two completely different kinds of music that way. And I realized that I was basically a jazz musician. As I started to do some pop record dates in L.A., I realized that my creativity had been lying in that area. But I still play other kinds of music. The studio work I do in Los Angeles is mostly for television— the all-around variety stuff, which is a dwindling situation now. But the last half-dozen years, that’s how I’ve paid the bills.
RT: You seem to have a lot of fun playing around with polyrhythms. I catch a playful look in your eyes when you start to play something “offbeat.”
PD: Yeah, I feel there should be a playfulness in music, without it being silly. It doesn’t have to be totally playful; it can still be serious and playful. Also there’s a certain energy coming from that. Everything doesn’t have to be epic and morose, or important. I mean, this should be fun, but not fun in a superficial sense. It should be deeply gratifying also. So there is that element of why I do stuff sometimes. At times I just do things and I screw up. I laugh instead of getting upset about it, unless it’s some huge, horrible mistake, like the end of some cut at a recording session that blows it for 20 people, and they’ve got to play it again. When you’re playing this kind of music in this kind of environment, you’re taking more chances. That’s one of the reasons you’re doing it—to take chances. Abercrombie can be very intense, very musical, very creative, and playful at times. Music should express all those things.
RT: Are you conscious of not coming in on the 1 beat after a fill? I’ve noticed that you stay off the 1.
PD: No, not anymore. I’m conscious if it needs to be done. I work in enough situations now where that’s what you’ve got to do, but it’s predictable if you keep doing it. I find that’s the one thing I don’t want to happen in the jazz situation—predictability. You have to have a form and you have to have a setup. Within that structure you try different things, and make it somewhat unpredictable—musical and thoughtful at the same time, and, of course, always swinging. So I always know where 1 is, obviously, but sometimes I’m just not going to play it. I know that the other band members know where it is too, and they don’t need it. There are lots of different ways to play things—lots of different requirements. When I worked with Toshiko’s big band, we would have five, six, or seven horn solos, and everybody wanted a different drummer—a different approach. That was a great learning experience for me. Basically it was giving four or five important soloists different things that they each required, and then the big band required something else. One soloist was very loose, another wanted it more structured, and I was happy to do it, as long as it would lead to the most effective music. So, yeah, I’m basically very conscious of it, but in a situation like this I feel very free. Whatever I do is going to be appropriate to the other people.
RT: It’s like a stream-of-consciousness approach. It’s a flow.
PD: Yeah, it flows. Well, I think very melodically, and I think in terms of the harmonic structures of all the tunes. In fact, I don’t even like to do drum solos unless I know the structure of the song, and have the changes in my head as well as the basic melody. Otherwise I can’t think of things to play. That gives me a form to play with. There are free solos that I’ve done, a couple of which have been recorded, that I really like too. The drums become more coloristic. That’s another area that’s nice to do, but to do it all the time . . . The thing that drives me crazy is to hear drummers who, no matter what tune they’re playing, end up playing the same drum solo. I’m always thinking in terms of the mood of the song and how the drums can alter it, change it, enhance it and color it.
RT: I noticed the dynamics in your solo last night. You started very forcefully and ended almost breathless.
PD: Well, dynamics are another tool you use for improvising, and they’re especially important to drums. It’s one of the few tools you have, because harmonically you have nothing to work with, and melodically you’re very limited. What you do have are a lot of colors, textures, and given intervals between the drums. And dynamics is one of the ways that you can shape things. The predictable technique is to always start soft and end loud, but when I hear that a lot of times I say, “Well, why not start off soft, get loud, and then get not as loud.” You can even be somewhat arbitrary, just to keep it interesting and not be predictable. So I like using dynamics a lot. Any one thing, after a while, becomes too much. If something is too soft you’ll fall asleep. If something is too loud you get an earache. In music there should be a dynamic range in a presentation of any kind, to keep peoples’ interest, and put them through different emotional trips. I think that John and I have found a volume level that’s good for us. It’s a base from which we can go either way. He can play extremely soft, but he likes to punch out too. I’m the same way. I don’t want to be a slave to either end of the dynamic range. There’s an old expression, “Dynamics? What do you mean? I’m playing as loud as I can.”
RT: What are some of the differences between playing in a big band as compared to a combo situation?
PD: In a big band, you have to consider the function of the instrument in the group, before you even start to think about being creative or flashy, or whatever it is you want to be, because you have 16 people who have different time conceptions and this and that. Basically you’re responsible for putting all that together—you and the lead players, the bass player, and the rhythm section in general. But the drummer is certainly one of the key elements. Small group drummers have the freedom to play very hip creative fills and stuff. Big band drummers are sort of dealing with a dumb animal that’s got to be banged over the head a little bit, and you’ve got to deliver 1 via Federal Express, right there on time. That takes some getting used to. I have played a lot of big bands over the years, but I’ve never lost my true small group feel, which a lot of people like. A lot of musicians and bandleaders have dug the fact that they didn’t have that sort of more obvious, flashy, big band thing. Other people didn’t; they wanted it real obvious. Toshiko’s band was very different, because it was a lot of different things. At times it was like a small group. At other times, she wanted to sound like Duke Ellington’s band, and sometimes she wanted me to play like Elvin Jones. We had a real good working relationship about that; we could get together, discuss it, and work stuff out. But it wasn’t like Basie’s band where there is a specific sound, and a thing you do, which I would love. I’d love to play with his band for a while. It’d be great. But Basie’s drummer has to play the obvious, big band style, because it’s such a highly stylized form of music. You are dealing with a much larger group of people who are trying to play these parts, and they need help. Part of your job as drummer is to help out when the time gets weird, in any situation.
RT: Was going with Toshiko’s band your first big break?
PD: Yeah, I had done a lot of playing in Boston, but Toshiko’s band was the first organized band I’d been with of national and international note. And I was with it almost from the beginning. They asked me to come on about a year after it started. I stayed about five years, and that was the best big band that I’ve ever worked with, as far as musicianship and playing are concerned. It was an honor and a privilege to play with people like that. And her writing was really interesting. They’re real good friends—real good people. I have a lot of good feelings about them, and a lot of respect for their talents. We all learned a great deal in that band because it was difficult music—stuff that seemed impossible when we first started to play it. Toshiko, to her credit, knew it wasn’t. She just kept rehearsing it and kept playing it on gigs. So finally we’d think, “Well, this is impossible,” and roar through it.
RT: Do you find drummers today breaking away from traditional roles of the cymbals and drums? Like keeping time more with toms and getting away from the ride cymbal?
PD: I’ve noticed a little of that. I saw King Crimson a little while ago, and Bill Bruford wasn’t playing any cymbals. But apparently that was because Robert Fripp doesn’t like cymbals because the overtones get mixed with the guitars. I kind of missed the cymbals. They could have used them a little bit more, but it was interesting. I think a lot of people were influenced by Steve Gadd because he got such a great sound recording his drums. He did a lot of snare drum things, and the overall sound in your memory from him is his drum sound. I would think he is one of the people of that influence. And then maybe the Carribean and reggae things have helped people get away from that whole bebop cymbal sound, which I like to get away from. When I work with Latin percussionists and Brazilian musicians they love it when you play time on the drums, and just bash a cymbal every once in a while. Whereas with jazzers, if you start doing that too much they start to get nervous. They want to hear the higher sound of the cymbal. So I get away with what I can get away with. Once again, I want to try to make it as unpredictable as possible, without being mysterious.
RT: Ronald Shannon Jackson is another person who uses the drums a lot.
PD: Yeah, I’ve never heard him play, but I know he’s a force to be dealt with. There’s a lot to be said for that. It’s just another way of playing the instrument which could be used very effectively. I like to use brushes as a change in color. It brings everything down.
RT: Do drummers have to learn more styles these days?
PD: It’s definitely a more eclectic age for everyone—audiences as well as musicians. There are a few people who sort of say, “To hell with it, I’m going to play this way, and if it’s 30 years old, I don’t care.” I kind of respect that, but on the other hand, I feel like this is a modern age and you could be a little more open. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything and try to be trendy.
RT: Are you happy with your Yamaha drums?
PD: That’s a great set of drums. They gave me several sets years ago when I was in Japan with Toshiko and John. They made four or five of these sets. I think they are made out of birch that’s been cured for pianos—very expensive wood. They gave them to a few people with the possibility of marketing them, but they’re very high priced. So I just happened to be over there. I’ve used them a lot for bebop playing, and with a little tuning I’ve gotten them so they’ll fit more with the electric bass and guitar. They’re capable of a lot of power and a lot of subtlety. They’re built like an instrument. These things came out of the box sounding real good. And I use their other drums too for studio stuff in L.A.
RT: What size are your rack toms?
PD: 10″ and 12″, with a 14″ floor tom, an 18″ bass drum and a 5 1/2″ snare drum. They also sent me a 22″ bass drum, two other mount toms and a big floor tom. So I can turn it into a big rock ‘n’ roll set if I want to. As for cymbals—which I’m sure is going to be one of your next questions—it’s a United Nations up there. Nobody’s asked for my endorsement, and I probably wouldn’t do it anyway. I have a Paiste ride cymbal, a Paiste flat cymbal, an old K. Zildjian on one side, with an A. Zildjian band cymbal on the bottom of the hi-hats, and a K. on the top. The band cymbal still has the grommet in it. It’s real thick and heavy, and clear. I’ve had those cymbals for 18 years. I had a set of each. The band cymbals I bought from the Zildjian factory, and the K.s I bought somewhere else. The K.s were too dark and mushy, and the band cymbals were too heavy and clanky, but using them together has worked out very well.
RT: Do you use Fiberskyn heads?
PD: Only on the front of the bass drum. I use regular Ambassadors. They’re the best. The Fiberskyns sound good, while they last. They get a nice mellow, dark sound, soft and kind of warm, but they go too fast. So I have the good old Remo Ambassadors.
RT: How about sticks?
PD: Made by Cappella. He makes all the sticks for the different drum shops. I use a stick that’s sort of in between. I used to go back and forth; when I played louder things I used a bigger stick, and for soft stuff I used smaller sticks. It got to be a pain after a while, so these are kind of in between for me. They’re the Shelly Manne model, and in New York they’re called the Mel Lewis model. I love that. It’s the same stick.
RT: You use your hi-hat in different ways, sometimes in non-time ways.
PD: I accent with it and stuff. That came mainly from studying with Alan, because he uses it somewhat that way. And when I started playing with some of my mentors, people like Herb Pomeroy and Charlie Mariano, they hated the hi-hat cymbal on 2 and 4 as a constant. It drove them bananas. They wanted to hear something looser. They loved Pete LaRocca; at the time he played with Herb’s band a lot. So I started doing it because of all these people I respected. I can use it either way now. There are times for doing that—breaking it up—and there are times to stamp on it and lay the time out. You have to know when to do certain things. If you do too much of any one thing it becomes predictable. Once again we get back to that word.
RT: You have a real free approach to the snare too.
PD: A lot of that is Alan. I have heard things I have recorded that sound sort of similar to Tony Williams, and that’s Alan’s influence—the touch and the rudimentary approach to playing the snare drum. I hear similarities between Tony and myself in that way, although I don’t compare myself with him in any way, shape, or form in terms of a drummer. I think he’s the last great jazz drummer of our generation. After that came Gadd and fusion. Tony was the last real innovator for pure jazz drumming. I don’t like to classify drummers, but it’s obvious Elvin Jones is a jazz drummer, Jeff Porcaro is a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, and they’re both great drummers. They’re both extraordinarily talented people, and the elements that have to be there for any drummer are there. They are just different styles of music.
RT: You were talking about tuning your drums to go into the studio. Do you tune them down in pitch?
PD: The drums that I use to record commercial music sound more like rock ‘n’ roll drums. On one of the records I did with John, I had them tuned very high. I used to tune my drums a lot lower. They’re sort of lower now because I find that, in order to play with an electric bass, you have to change the sound of the bass drum and the overall approach. There has to be more punch because the electric bass has a lot of sound to it, and you’re accenting the sound. With the upright bass it sounds kind of insensitive. I noticed that on certain records when drummers use studio drums with an upright bass, it sounds kind of clunky. Even though what they play may be great, it’s not airy enough. Then I started tuning them higher too. I heard DeJohnette live with John a few years back, and he had them tuned really high. I remember talking with him about it, and he said, “Well, it’s where you hear it.” So I decided to tune them up just to see what it sounded like. And I like it.
RT: Is your snare head pretty tight?
PD: Yeah, because I can play rolls on it, and be pretty subtle on it. On a real rock ‘n’ roll snare drum, you can’t do anything. In my cartage case I’ve got four snare drums for different situations, and some of them you can’t do anything on except hit them. There’s no way you can play rolls on those drums. They get that thuddy, deep-throated sound. It’s a great sound, but it’s not good for all around. That’s why Gadd has always amazed me. He’s got that snare that he can do all of that on—make it sound real big and powerful, then play it real delicate. I’d like to know how he does it. I think one reason is that he’s got incredible technique.
RT: Do you leave your bottom heads on for recording?
PD: Oh definitely. My feeling always has been that, if people know what they’re doing when recording, a drum that sounds good to the ear will sound good recorded. The problem is, room acoustics change so much and drums can sound radically different in different rooms. They’ll sound great in this room, but the next hour you’ll take them to some other place and they’ll sound horrible. However, if you have a basically good-sounding set, then I think the alterations for recording should be minimal. I mean, the bottom heads should be taken off sometimes in certain studios, and they can EQ it to sound more airy. But the drums I use for recording sound good to the ear. They have been dampened down a little, and they all have the heads on the bottom. I used to use the singleheaded concert toms, which sounded great recorded, and actually sounded really good live too, but they’re very limiting drums, because you can’t really do anything on them. You can just play single stroke, because there’s no response—no air chamber. Of course, engineers love them because there are no overtones. But that varies from situation to situation, from room to room, and from person to person.
RT: What’s your practice schedule like?
PD: I do it in spurts here and there when I haven’t played for a while, or when I have something special that I want to work out. But I don’t have a regular routine. I have a routine that I use to warm up whenever I practice, and I always practice with a metronome. I have a little rhythm machine that has a metronome attachment and earphones. That makes it seem like playing with a click track. I think that’s real good. It seems to free me up a little more. I’ve got a little something there to guide me. And it makes me realize, “Oh yeah, I speed up there when I try that.” But I don’t believe in being a slave to it either. I know musicians who’ve done a lot of studio work, and who, if something isn’t grooving, will say, “Turn the click on.” Wait a minute, man. I mean they’re right in a certain sense. But they get so used to playing with it that it becomes the answer to all the problems.
RT: Do you have any advice for a drummer who’s just starting out?
PD: I would say get as much musical education as you can. Just be a good craftsman. I think musicians in general should be more aware of the business of music. I mean they don’t have to do it, but they have to know what they are dealing with to make a living in the business because it’s getting harder. There are more and more well-trained young musicians coming out of these schools, because music education is big business now. Also, due to technology and the times we’re in, there are fewer jobs. That’s going to make it harder for musicians to work, even though there are more musicians coming out who are qualified to do so. I think, for musicians in general, there are going to be major changes in the foreseeable future in terms of how we operate and make a living. So I’m just saying, prepare yourself in that way—academically in music, and academically in general.