Playing With Intent
I first met Erskine in 1977, when he was with Ferguson, and over the years we’ve done several interviews and worked on some other projects together. I’ve always found it stimulating to spend time with Peter, because he’s always excited about the new music he’s doing, or the new way he’s approaching music he’s played before, or the new cymbal he’s added to his setup, or the book he’s just read that has offered a new perspective on music—even if the book had nothing to do with music per se. He has the depth that comes only from a wealth of experience and a lifetime of exploration, yet in terms of enthusiasm he’s still the same guy I met in 1977.
MD: Some things seem to be coming full-circle in your life. You recently did a big band album with Patrick Williams called Home Suite Home, and you’ve released a big band app. On your new solo album, Dr. Um, you do a lot of groove playing, which you did plenty of in the past in a variety of settings. And a four-CD set, Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes, which documents much of the time you were in the band, was released recently.
Peter: About three quarters of the Weather Report set came from my own cassette collection, which has been digitized. I used to give our soundman my portable cassette deck and ask him, “How about recording tonight’s concert?” I wanted to document that stuff.
The thing I like about Dr. Um is, I’ve done the funk thing, I’ve done the fusion thing, but never as cool as the way I now seem to be playing. I’ve never had more fun playing than I’m having now. And it’s odd, because, as I talk about in the No Beethoven book, we tend to think of ourselves as our young selves. We’re always in the “now,” and I don’t realize until I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror that I’m not in my twenties. So it’s nice to feel creatively relevant and vital. I’ve been very busy, traveling and recording. It’s as if I’m harvesting all the planting and growing I’ve done over the years. It’s almost overwhelming.
MD: On many of your solo albums over the past few years, you were playing very sparsely; you weren’t necessarily playing “time” in some tunes, yet there was always a sense of a time feel and forward motion.
Peter: That’s playing with intention.
MD: How did the groove stuff that you’d played inform your ability to do that?
Peter: The job of the drummer is to provide rhythmic information to the band and the listener. How we do that is a matter of choice. Sometimes that choice is dictated by the stylistic demands of the music; other times it’s an intuitive response to what you hear from the musicians you’re working with. A musician who spends enough time playing time is then able to play with the time in such a way that forward motion can be clearly felt even if you’re not playing, for example, a steady quarter-note pulse, because each note you play is informed by that experience. If you’re just imitating free playing without understanding it contrapuntally—which is how I used to play free—then the foundation isn’t there, and it doesn’t take much of a breeze to come along and blow the house down, as it were.
So playing with intention became the thing that I needed to learn, and that became the guiding principle of what I called “anti-drumming.” I was inspired by a film documentary called Light & Shadow, which is about directors of photography. At one point they interview the director of photography for the film Rosemary’s Baby. He describes a scene where you’re looking down a hallway into a bedroom, and Mia Farrow is sitting on the bed talking on the phone. The director, Roman Polanski, told him, “I only want to see the back of her head with the phone on her ear; don’t show her face.” During the premiere, that scene came on, and they saw everyone in the audience lean their heads to try to look around the corner to see her face.
To put that in more concrete musical terms, in James Brown’s “Mother Popcorn,” there’s an open beat on 4, and you can’t help but shake your booty to fill that vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, right? So the genius of James Brown, or of filmmakers or poets, is leaving things unsaid. What you don’t play makes it an interactive listening experience for the other musicians and your audience.
That became kind of the cornerstone of my “anti-drumming” thing. It wasn’t really “anti” drumming, but I was trying to figure out how to create those same kinds of moments by not being so implicit to where there is no role for the listener’s imagination. If I do that with a firm grasp of the subdivisions, that stuff is all implied. If things get too explicit, the music loses a lot of charm. That’s why I think space is a dynamic and interesting thing. But you have to respect it and not treat space like it’s something to rush through as quickly as possible.
I don’t know how concerned a lot of fast drumming is with space. And, of course, when you think of fast drumming you think of Buddy Rich. What does everyone still talk about as being his most incredible break? It’s the one on “Love for Sale,” when he plays this startling single-stroke roll on the snare and stops. And then the band comes in. It’s thrilling. You’ve just been taken to the edge of the abyss. You hear the audience react in delight. He took everyone’s breath away for a second.
So that’s the kind of thing that fascinated me. But when you play the drums, people want to hear you play the drums. I explored the “anti-drumming” thing as far as I could figure out how to take it, and I was even beginning to regard myself as less of a drummer. I would listen to Tony Williams or Jack DeJohnette and find myself thinking, THERE’S a drummer. I’m an accompanist. I wouldn’t even dare put myself in the same category as “drummer” with those guys. But now I’m feeling more and more like a drummer.
MD: I remember a John Scofield CD in the ’80s where you played a funk tune, and I was impressed with how flowing it was. The pulse was steady, but there was looseness in the subdivisions. With so many drummers then, every 16th was metronomically perfect, but it often sounded stiff.
Peter: When I was with Steely Dan, the bassist, Tom Barney, once said, “Hey, you’re swinging the 16ths.” I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Guilty as charged,” but for Steely Dan’s music, he was right. I tried to get it more stylistically correct, but swing is pretty hard for me to get away from.
Swing is not so much a triplet feel—it’s more of a legato thing. If we listen to a fast bebop line, like a Charlie Parker melody, it swings, right? But you’d be hard pressed to find a triplet in there. Now think of the Lawrence Welk theme song. That was explicit triplets—and that ain’t jazz; that’s Squaresville. So the phrasing becomes essential, because what we’re really doing is accenting the offbeat, and more importantly the notes are connected in a legato sense. It’s the legato phrasing that really makes something swing.
Now, the ride cymbal pattern is going to be closer to a triplet: ding, ding-a-ding, ding-a-ding. Here’s where everything comes together in this beautiful full-circle moment. The rhythm is from Africa through the Afro-Caribbean portal, where the two and the three start to rub, and that rub is what swings. So the two/three interrelationship is the mystery, the thrill, the excitement, the beauty of this music. It’s what makes anything feel great. That gets us into the areas of intention: how we are conceiving of the music, and then what’s played and what isn’t played.
I’ve been having my students play melodies just on the snare drum, either with brushes or sticks, and make it swing—oftentimes reducing it to one hand on the hi-hat. If you can swing a band with one hand on the hi-hat or with just brushes on the snare drum, you can swing. That takes me back years ago, seeing Jeff Hamilton. The music was swinging like crazy, and Jeff was just playing on a snare drum. We’re the same age; we went to college together, but I remember thinking, I want to be able to do that when I grow up. I could see that this was a very mature way of playing.
MD: The first time I heard Jimmy Cobb live, I’d never heard anything swing so hard, and he was mostly playing quarter notes on the ride with just an occasional “swung” note.
Peter: We did “The Music of Miles” with Gil Evans a number of times at the Hollywood Bowl, and Jimmy Cobb played some of the Porgy and Bess stuff—quarter notes on the ride with that fat cross-stick on beat 4. It blows your mind because it swings so much. About three years later we’re playing it at Disney Hall, but Jimmy Cobb isn’t on that concert. One of the Porgy and Bess things is “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and Terence Blanchard is dealing—he’s playing. It would be very tempting to start tangling with that because it’s so cool, but I only played quarter notes on the cymbal with a cross-stick on the snare. It was a long improvisation; Terence was soaring. We finish the tune, the place goes nuts, and what does Terence do? He walks back to me and pulls my hand up like I’m a champion boxer. I was just doing what Jimmy Cobb did, but it worked so great—that intuitive, magical brilliance of Jimmy Cobb.
I’ve worked a lot with Seth MacFarlane, who everybody knows from Family Guy. But he’s a great singer and puts on a good show, and he always talks about the great arrangers and refers to the time when music was more than someone dicking around on a laptop. I did a record with Seth, Music Is Better Than Words, and we were recording direct to analog tape, so we either got a good take or we did it again. The first take was pretty much for running the tunes down, so I’m just playing quarter notes on the ride cymbal, hi-hat on 2 and 4, and I have a pencil in my left hand so I can mark certain brass figures on the part.
We listen back, and I notice the chart is swinging like crazy. So we do the next take. I had all the rhythms marked, and I was doing my perfect Alvin Stoller imitation with a bit of Shelly Manne, with all the setups and little fills, and we finish the take and everyone’s like, “That’s it—a perfect take!” But then we were listening back, and I turned to the bass player, Chuck Berghofer, and I said, “This doesn’t swing as much as that first run-through,” and he said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
So I went up to Seth and the arranger/producer, Joel McNeely, and I said, “Hey, guys, can we do one more?” Seth was having fun singing with a big band, so he said, “Sure!” Joel said, “Okay, but why?” I said, “I think we can get it to swing more.” The trumpet players were not happy about having to do it again, but we did it, and with the exception of a couple of spots here and there, I just played quarter notes on the ride and hi-hat on 2 and 4. No cross-stick, no setups, and it was that idea of not providing all the information, which invites the listener in and it becomes a participatory experience, as opposed to playing everything. That, to me, is not very interesting. This final result swung like crazy.
MD: There’s a tune on Dr. Um called “Hawaii Bathing Suit” that features a sax-and-drums duet, and your playing in that section reminds me of Elvin Jones. Were you consciously thinking Elvin, or is that just part of your vocabulary that comes out in certain situations?
Peter: I was aware of it as I was playing. Tenor sax and drums—of course you’re going to think of Elvin, and there is some specific Elvin vocabulary. But the beginning of the tune is the way I would play it, albeit you can hear the Tony Williams, Mel Lewis, and Jack DeJohnette influence as well. That’s the fun thing: All those guys are in there. But without denying their influence, it sounds like me at this point. Elvin is going to be part of my drumming no matter what I do—the profound spirit of the man and the impact and influence his drumming had on me since I was eight or nine years old. He’s like a drumming father, and while I can’t claim that we had that close of a relationship, we were good friends, and I adore his drumming. I wish I understood it better, but that’s part of why I like it so much. I’m only willing to study it so far, because I love having the mysterious relationship in terms of having to do it by ear. Nobody will ever play the way he did, but the magic of Elvin is still with us. Even though we can’t hug him and get soaking wet from one of his sweaty embraces…
MD: And come away drenched in the aroma of his aftershave…
Peter: [laughs] But he’s as alive as at any time. He’s always available, thanks to recordings. If there’s a definition of heaven, I think it might be being in the minds, ears, hearts, and thoughts of others.
MD: On the Patrick Williams Home Suite Home album, “That’s Rich” is dedicated to Buddy Rich. You told me that you asked if he could make it a tribute to Mel Lewis instead. Meanwhile, on the third movement of “Home Suite Home” there are a lot of open spots for drums, and your fills are very simple—more in the spirit of Mel than of, say, Buddy or Louie Bellson.
Peter: Playing like Buddy has always been “out of my wheelhouse,” as they say. Every time I hear Buddy I love it, and it’s thrilling, and I appreciate him more and more the older I get. But I was really struggling to figure out how to do “the Buddy thing.” Pat told me to just play what I wanted, but I felt a responsibility to the intent of the piece, so I felt I had to try a little bit of the Buddy-isms. I was kind of smearing lipstick all over myself on that.
But yeah, my general instincts are to play more simply. A couple of years ago Pat’s band played a gig in L.A., and the woman who booked the band kept offering us glasses of wine. I had a bit too much wine and was playing a bit more gregariously than normal. I realized that I had overplayed. The next night I played the way I would normally play. After the first tune, I heard the lead trumpet player say, “Heeee’s back!” The band noticed it. The night before, they had to deal with a drummer who was fighting them and the music. Normally I serve it up on a silver platter and try to make it as easy as possible.
MD: There is an energy on some of the Dr. Um tunes that is comparable to a lot of the tracks on the new live Weather Report set. But with Weather Report, you were beating your brains out, and now you’re playing with much less physical force but still achieving energy and momentum. Did you have to hit the drums that hard with Weather Report to generate that kind of energy, or was it just a matter of matching the volume of the keyboards and bass?
Peter: The stage volume was very loud. But I also played hard with Maynard’s band, and when I look at video from that time period, I was hitting the drums pretty emphatically—and stiffly too. I didn’t realize at the time how much it was preventing me from playing what I was hoping to play. Things were coming out choppier than I was imagining. I went into the Weather Report gig as I’ve gone into a lot of things, with a wide range of combined influences, and I think I was still trying to sort some of them out.
If we compare the recording of “Speechless” on Dr. Um with the one on the album titled Weather Report, which was the last one [bassist] Jaco Pastorius and I made with the band, the drum part on Dr. Um is a little better measured, and there’s only one moment where the drums kind of break out of this stoic quarter-note character. It just seemed the time to play something like that, and it was kind of a magical moment in the Dr. Um version. Because of the time stretching that happens, you almost catch your breath, and then all is well again. But I play those kinds of things differently now from the way I did when I was younger. Back then it was more a flurry of punches, and now the sleight of hand is more subtle.
MD: You’ve been teaching at USC for a while. What do today’s students know that we didn’t know, and vice versa?
Peter: In general, the level of playing ability I see is astonishingly good across all genres and styles. I see drummers doing things that none of us dreamt of doing when we were young, whether it’s gospel or speed metal or whatever. So the boundaries have been pushed, and the equipment is better and helps players do things. For instance, we didn’t have double pedals back then.
The on-demand access that students have to finding just about any recorded performance—audio or video—is beyond Star Trek. When we were young, we had to be lucky enough to be in front of the TV when someone would broadcast jazz. But there were a lot more jazz clubs back in the day. I got to see Art Blakey when I was a kid, as well as just about every drum hero I was hoping to see. Those opportunities are harder for young people to come by.
They also establish a different kind of relationship with the music they listen to than we did. For example, when you and I were growing up and we bought an LP, we bonded with that record. We read the liner notes, we studied the photos, we got to know every note of that album. We had a deeply personal relationship with that recording. That’s not possible when you have an iPod or an iPhone with 10,000 tunes in it. You’ve got so much availability, but some of the intimacy is gone.
MD: So instead of having relationships with albums, kids today are just “hooking up” with songs?
Peter: [laughs] Exactly! I sense that a lot of students haven’t bonded with any particular style. We’re really in mishmosh land right now. So I’m trying to direct their listening. It’s very subjective, but I try to get them turned on to finding specific things and digging deeper and deeper. And the beauty of today is that they can find stuff that we would have had a hard time getting our hands on.
MD: Nancy Zeltsman told me about students who come to Berklee to major in marimba, and they’ve never heard a live marimba concert. They’ve only seen people play on YouTube.
Peter: Today’s students don’t know what it was like to sit in front of Art Blakey’s drumset and hear him do a press roll into a bass-drum/crash-cymbal downbeat. There was something about hearing Blakey do that in person that was life changing. The same with hearing Elvin or Mel Lewis play in person. Today’s students don’t get to hear as much music live as we did—that turn-on of seeing people who did this for a living. Even if you didn’t like something, it helped you form a sense of discrimination: “That’s not as hip as this other thing.” I think young students today are as talented or more talented than we were. But we were lucky that we got to hear so much stuff live. Other than that, we didn’t enjoy any “secrets”; we got to hear the stuff played live and then we tried to get that same effect when we played. And you can’t get that through a computer screen or an iPod.
MD: You’ve done a lot of work with symphony orchestras over the past twenty years. When you went back to Indiana University and studied with George Gaber, did you feel that learning classical percussion would ever become relevant to your career as a jazz drummer?
Peter: I imagined that I might get to use that knowledge in the studio, and in New York that’s what broke me into the jingle scene, because I could play orchestra bells. But when I went to IU, I felt that the primary benefit would have to do with touch. Oftentimes in my lessons, George Gaber would hand me a triangle beater or a bass drum mallet, point to the instrument, and say, “Mezzo-piano. You’ve got one chance. Play the best note you can—the most accurate dynamically, with the best tone.” That was fascinating to me, the idea of being able to know your touch and your instrument so you could get the right sound immediately and it wasn’t left to chance.
For too many years my playing was defined, as far as I was concerned, by a lot of good musical ideas and good intentions that never really saw the light of day because of things that got in the way, like my lack of touch, my lack of understanding the instrument, or my lack of technique. Now I’m feeling a lot closer to the intention being realized. One would hope that by the time you’re sixty you have gotten a little bit closer to that.
I talk about this in No Beethoven: Can we still keep getting better as we get older? I can’t help but look at the careers of many of my drumming heroes and compare which ones managed to stay relevant and grow, which ones stayed on a certain strata, and which ones just signed drumheads after a while. Then you see Steve Gadd, who’s like a young kid again. I’m hearing new stuff coming out of Steve that’s thrilling. He’s playing with that same spark that I associated with him years ago when I first saw him play. I saw Wayne Shorter recently, and it blew my mind how masterfully he commanded the musical moments with his quartet. He’s still evolving.
So it is possible to keep getting better, and there is a responsibility, I think, because we get a lot out of this—a lot of joy, we get to make a living—but art is definitely a two-way street and a commitment, and we have to stay healthy and vital and involved and interested and caring and compassionate and open and all the things that artists are supposed to be: idiotic, selfish, crazy, sane, giving. You can’t just sit back. It’s too boring, and nobody cares.
The Motivation Was Musical
Erskine on his Switch to Tama
Peter Erskine was as surprised as anyone when he switched to Tama drums. “For years, I paid no attention to Tama,” he admits. “Tama drums seemed to be designed for a segment of the drumming population that I felt had no relevance to what I do.”
But a couple of years ago, while attending a NAMM Show, Erskine walked by the Tama booth and saw Terry Bissette, at that time the sales manager for the company, whom he had known for years. “Terry asked if I would like to try out the new Star drums,” Peter recalls, “so I sat down, but with all the noise I didn’t get much of an impression. Then Terry contacted me a few months later and asked if I would like to try out the drums for real. He told me, ‘We respect your relationship. We would just like your feedback on the drums.’ I suggested that if they would pay my cartage guy for the use of his space and his time, we could do it at his warehouse and compare the Tama kit to several other drumsets. Hearing the Tama drums next to all the others, they sounded more musical.”
That night, Erskine took the Tama kit to his gig at a jazz club, and he asked his wife to come by. “She came up to me at intermission and said, ‘I really like the way these drums are making you play.’ So I spent some more time with the Tama kit in various playing situations, and it seemed to bring out something in my playing that had been absent for a while.
“When I was with my previous company, I realized something was missing,” Erskine explains. “I didn’t know what it was, but I bought some vintage Gretsch, Rogers, and Slingerland drumsets, and it was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I remember; this is what I like.’ The Star kit is doing all that, and I don’t seem to have to work as hard with it. Also, when I traveled, it was sometimes difficult to get one of the kits I was endorsing wherever I went, and I was running into some pretty nice drumsets here and there. So I was unfaithful in that relationship. And if you’re unfaithful, relationships are going to change.”
Still, Erskine didn’t take the idea of a new endorsement lightly. “Any switch from one product to another has to be based primarily on sound, playability, and feeling a rapport with that ecosystem a drum brand has in terms of how the hardware works with the drum sound,” he explains. “Along with that is the interpersonal factor and how you get along with everyone at the company. Without going into too much detail, it seemed like everything came together, and combining that with the fact that I was sixty years old, which is a bit of a turning point, my wife and I agreed that I should play what I want to play from here on out. I’d even toyed with the idea of withdrawing from all product relationships and just mixing and matching different brands of cymbals and drums. But I believe I’ve found home in terms of drums. I’m taking chances; I’m playing things I haven’t played in a long, long time, along with things I’ve never played.”
How, specifically, are different drums affecting what Erskine plays? “Drumming is all about making choices,” Peter replies. “So an instrument that is immediately responsive and joyful to play prompts you to play more…er…joyfully. You experiment, your touch changes a bit, you’re exploring. At first it might be the newness, but I’ve been playing Tama drums for over a year now, and every time I play these drums it feels like Christmas morning.
“There’s always a lot of cynicism when you change an endorsement, and I get it. People think there is some sort of compensation when you move to a different company. My only compensation is that I’m getting to play a really remarkable instrument.”
Erskine is also excited about some new Zildjian cymbals. “Paul Francis has come up with this new line that replicates A Zildjian cymbals from the 1950s,” he says. “It’s a mind-blower. It’s like being given the gift of youth and time travel.”
Drums: Tama Star Bubinga
Snares: 6×14 Solid Zebrawood, Solid Mahogany, Solid Maple, and Stave Ash; 6×14 Starphonic Aluminum and Bell Brass; 6×10 Stave Ash auxiliary (prototype)
Toms: 8×10 and 8×12
Floor toms: 14×14 and 16×16
Bass drums: 14×18, 14×20, or 14×22
• 8″ and 10″ A Flash splashes
• 14″ New Beat or Kerope hi-hats
• 19″ Armand Sweet ride with three rivets or Kerope crash/ride
• 22″ K Constantinople Medium or Kerope ride
• 22″ A Swish Knocker
• 18″ K Dark Thin crash
• 16″ K Custom Session crash
Erskine also uses a “two ride cymbal” setup consisting of the new A Avedis ’50s replica cymbals with matching 14″ or 15″ hi-hats.
Hardware: A variety of Tama Star, Roadpro, and Classic series stands depending on the gig and setup, including an Iron Cobra hi-hat stand and Rolling Glide bass drum pedal, a Star series snare stand, two Star combo stands or one Star single-tom stand, three Classic stands (lightweight, flat-base cymbal stands that Erskine helped develop), Cymbal Stacker, and Ergo-Rider Hydraulix throne
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador snare batters and Ambassador snare-sides; Fiberskyn Diplomat tom batters and Clear Ambassador resonants; Coated Ambassador batter on 18″ bass drum with Fiberskyn Diplomat resonant, Coated Ambassador batter on 20″ bass drum with Fiberskyn Diplomat or Tama Star resonant, and Powerstroke 3 batter on 22″ bass drum with Tama Star resonant
Sticks: Vic Firth, including SPE3 Big Band signature model, Heritage brush, Split brush, and T1 General timpani mallets
Percussion: Meinl, including Foot cabasa, Slap-Top cajon, hand-brushed gold 8″ cowbell, Luis Conte shakers, Tampeiro (mounted), handheld tambourines (brass and aluminum jingles), mounted Super Dry tambourine, wood bongos, and various wind chimes
Electronics: Roland V-Drums, Shure microphones, Zoom H5 handheld recorder
Accessories: Protection Racket bags and drum carpet, XL Percussion/Gator hard cases, Auralex HoverMat, Gruv Gear V-Cart Solo