A veteran jazzer proves that you can make a mark outside New York City—if you retain your intensity and keep yourself open to change.
David Calarco has played with an impressive list of jazz artists, including Randy Brecker, George Garzone, Jerry Bergonzi, Kenny Werner, and Joe Lovano. He also recorded and toured with the renowned baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola for over twenty-five years. Yet to many on the scene he’s almost unknown.
I first learned of David from bassist John Menegon, a longtime member of the bands of Dewey Redman and David “Fathead” Newman. Menegon told me after a gig, “Man, you gotta play with David Calarco—he really swings hard.” We eventually did play together at Justin’s in Albany, New York, and I was immediately taken in. Calarco indeed swings very hard, and he’s able to accomplish this at any dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream. Moreover, his interaction and inventiveness within the ensemble, from call and response to rhythmic counterpoint, are always pushing the boundaries. His solos are very exciting as well—in fact, they’re nothing short of jaw dropping. By the end of our first night playing together, I could only keep asking myself, Why haven’t I ever heard of him before?
The answer lies in part in Calarco’s choice to live near Albany, a couple hours north of Manhattan. David claims this was a quality-of-life decision. Upstate he’s been able to have a home, raise a family, and be close to the outdoor settings that, as an avid fisherman, he holds dear. But Calarco is hardly a country bumpkin. Possessing an intense personality that could be summed up as “New York”—a 1986 Modern Drummer article on him was titled “The Upstate Burn”—David is uncompromising in his art and strong in his belief in himself and his musical direction. Upon spending time with him, I was impressed by his depth and well-roundedness. Calarco comes to the drums not only from a jazz perspective—Tony Williams was a big early influence—but from a background that also includes a serious study of classical percussion, which fed his knowledge and appreciation of twentieth-century art music. This diversity is evident in the rich interplay he fosters in whatever ensemble he’s playing with.
MD: Is it true that you began playing drums at five years old?
David: Yes. My grandfather was an amateur rudimental snare drummer. My mom gave him a drum as a present, and I wasn’t allowed to touch it. On my birthday, though, he let me try to play it, and I did something that resembled real playing, which shocked everyone. So my parents went to the band teacher in my grade school and paid her to stay after and give me lessons.
My first drumset lessons began when I was eight, with a frustrated big band drummer who used to play on The Arthur Godfrey Show. He was a really good teacher; at eight years old, for example, I knew how to play a rumba. In school I was trying to learn as much as I could. I was also playing percussion, which created a conflict, because there’s not enough time in life to do everything well. That conflict lasted through my studies at Berklee.
MD: Were there many opportunities to hear jazz while growing up in upstate New York?
David: My father would take me places to hear music. When I was ten, he took me to hear Gene Krupa at the Lion’s Den in Troy, New York. We sat about ten feet from Gene…he must have been around sixty-five at the time. I will never forget how gracious he was. I told him that I was having trouble with my snare drum, which was a 1948 Slingerland Radio King. He sat down with us, took out a piece of paper, and wrote a letter for me to send to Slingerland, which he was an endorser of. He said, “You send them this letter with your drum.” The letter basically said, “I want you to fix the drum for this kid.” I mean, they completely reconditioned the drum for me, free. I wish I still had that drum—even more, I wish I had the letter!
MD: Could you reflect on your association with Nick Brignola?
David: There are only a few people that come along in life that you have a special musical connection with. I mean, I owe everything to this guy. He opened all these doors for me—guys like Chet Baker, Dave Holland…the list is so long.
Nick and I began playing together in 1976, and he passed away in 2002, so that’s a musical relationship spanning twenty-five years. We had a really close personal relationship too—he was the best man at my wedding. When he passed away, it was like losing my father. It’s painful to this day, and it’s hard for me not to choke up when I listen to our records. He was an incredible player, and we fit together so well that people used to call us Batman and Robin. This closeness is quite obvious if you listen to us playing as a duo on his album Signals…In From Somewhere.
MD: Since that time, what have you been up to?
David: There was a period where I promoted my own band, but I prefer being a sideman because of all the headaches that come with being a leader. I had a band with Jerry Bergonzi, Tom Harrell, Fred Hersch, and John Lockwood, and other permutations of it featured Danilo Perez, Randy Brecker, and Kenny Werner. But because everyone was busy doing their own thing, booking the band became problematic. I’d have to book so far ahead, it just got crazy.
MD: How has your approach to playing changed through the years?
David: I look at music less from the microcosmic angle of the drums. Now it’s more about how everything I play relates to what everyone else does. This was more difficult when I was younger. I didn’t have the experience of playing with a lot of different people yet—people who play differently from each other— and [when you’re young] you aren’t yet able to change your playing to relate to what the other person is doing. Of course I still have to take care of business—the function of the drums within the band and all that.
MD: Has your soloing concept evolved as well?
David: Most definitely. I’ve broadened technically and musically. And stylistically, I’ve got a lot of other influences.
MD: Have you experienced any loss in terms of what you’re able to do on the drums physically?
David: Actually, right now I think I can do more, because I’ve changed my approach to that as well. When I was twenty-five or thirty, I could just muscle my way through things because of being a better physical specimen. Therefore I was able to pull things off athletically that I really should not have been able to. As I grew older, I saw the need to change the way I approached things technically.
MD: How did you come to that decision?
David: Around twelve years ago the great drum mentor Jim Chapin and I got together when I was performing at an IAJE [International Association for Jazz Education] convention. Jim asked me to play a particular thing on the drum pad that he always carried around with him. He watched me play for a second and said, “That’s incredible what you’re doing. You have hands like Louie Bellson. I wish I could do what you do. You have a lot of finger stuff together. But that’s not what I asked you to do.”
He’d asked me about playing an open stroke as you might come to it from the Moeller technique, and I didn’t play it at all. Then he showed me what he was looking for. And then he played the same thing on my sweater—no bounce. This was a revelation to me. It made me go back and analyze what I was doing and see if there might be a better way.
MD: What changes did you make?
David: My grip on the stick was good for what I was doing, but it didn’t allow me to do other things. So I changed my grip, particularly in the right hand. I changed my fulcrum into more of a second-finger fulcrum, a triangle kind of thing, and it loosened everything up completely. I rediscovered the full stroke, which allowed me to explore the correct way of learning the Moeller technique. See, it was all about making things easier, smarter—not harder. This in turn changed the way I approached all of my playing, which became much looser, allowing me to concentrate more on musical matters and less on the whole drumming thing. I began looking at my balance and stool height too; I wanted everything done the best possible way for my body and what I do.
MD: Could you shed some light on the diverse influences you referred to earlier?
David: The generation of jazz musicians from the 1970s that I grew up with was influenced by all those different kinds of music that were new at the time—more than the generation that preceded us, and more than those that followed, because of the birth of the retro movement in the ’80s. The early-’70s era was an incredible melting pot of different music from all over the world that had never been explored before; it was thrown at us, and we embraced it. I grew up not only listening to jazz but to Mahavishnu Orchestra and fusion, and it had a definite influence on my approach. Also, the big push from true Brazilian and Latin music came in the early ’70s. So by the mid-’70s there were guys who could play all different kinds of stuff authentically—and play the hell out of it.
However, as an individual you still arrive at a certain way of playing, and you understand: This is what I do. You see, if everybody could do everything, there would really only be one guy, and everybody would be a copy of that one drummer. What’s really great about music is that everybody’s got a little thing that they do that nobody else can do.
MD: So, is “the upstate burn” still alive?
David: Yeah, the upstate burn is still alive and well. I play every gig, no matter how big or small, with intensity and emotion, as if it were the most important gig on the face of the earth. Guitarist/composer Ron Petrides teaches at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He has performed with Walter Bishop Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Hart, Tony Bennett, and Lena Horne.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Calarco plays Mapex Orion drums, including a 20″ bass drum. “I believe it gives me more versatility over the customary 18″ bass drum,” he says, “and I like the voice that it provides. Plus there’s not much tuning range in an 18.” As opposed to the popular convention of tom sizes progressing in increments of 2″, Calarco plays 12″ and 13″ rack toms and a 14″ floor tom, and sometimes an additional 15″. His snare is either a 61/2×14 Black Panther bird’s-eye maple or a 61/2×14 Deep Forest cherry, both with gold hardware. David plays Sabian cymbals, including a 22″ HHX Manhattan ride, a 22″ AA Raw ride, a 22″ Encore Mini Bell ride, an 18″ Legacy crash, a 15″ Sound Control crash, 14″ Encore hi-hats, and occasionally a 20″ Chinese. He uses Vic Firth SD10 American Custom maple sticks and Aquarian heads.
Guitarist/composer Ron Petrides teaches at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He has performed with Walter Bishop Jr., Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Hart, Tony Bennett, and Lena Horne.