Hutch might just be the jazz drummer’s jazz drummer—historically astute and futuristically minded, with the kind of technique, soul, and sophistication that today’s most important artists treasure.
Hands On With Hutch is Gregory Hutchinson’s DVD treatise on everything required to make a good jazz drummer a great jazz drummer. On his first-ever instructional video, the forty-one-year-old Brooklyn native covers such important principles as drawing tone out of the drums, feathering the bass drum, metronomic and non-metronomic drumming, playing the ride cymbal, and understanding the function of each piece in the conceptual drum orchestra.
“I also stress not worrying about getting around the drums as fast as you can,” Hutchinson says by phone while on vacation in Virginia. “That’s really irrelevant. I’d rather take someone who can’t get around as fast but who gets a good sound and who has a really good beat and a good groove. I’m not really into chops. If you go back in drumming history, all the baddest cats had great chops, but their feel was incredible too.”
A veteran of bands led by Ray Brown, Betty Carter, Eric Reed, Dianne Reeves, Joshua Redman, Joe Henderson, Roy Hargrove, and John Scofield, Hutchinson extends the tradition of the greats of the ’50s and ’60s, with remarkable clarity, hard-charging swing, and a massive brush sound. And he has an energy level so high that he can drive a big band, a trio, and a simmering ballads-only ensemble to equal, storm-swelling heights.
On any given night with any given set of musicians, Hutchinson performs solos with multiple layers, as if he’s telling more than one story at a time. And he has a deep understanding of tradition, drilled into him by the jazz masters Ray Brown and Betty Carter and also by his drumset teachers, Kenny Washington, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Justin DiCioccio, and Wade Barnes. Substantial energy reserves aid and abet his extreme articulation on the drums, but Hutch also plays with subtlety, finesse, and sensitivity as needed. (Working with female jazz vocalists is one of his specialties.) Gregory Hutchinson is a superbly hands-on musician, and his generous spirit matches his God-given talents
MD: Hands On With Hutch covers swinging, articulation, feel, and tuning, among other topics. Can you talk further about how to bring the sound out of the drum?
Gregory: Wrist snaps. Do them in the air, then practice them on the drums. That’s how you get the sound out of the drum. A lot of guys pound into the drum. But the actual stroke should be…as you’re going down you’re coming up. As opposed to pounding into the drum, as soon as you initiate that downstroke, you’re thinking about the upstroke. Practicing wrist snaps will allow you to play that way when you’re not simply practicing. That gives you a bigger sound, a fatter sound, a clearer sound that has more center to it. If you take the stick and just hit into the drum, you’re dampening the sound. But when you lift it off the head, you’re letting the sound vibrate and come out. It’s like, if you put a towel over the tom and hit it, it sounds one way; remove the towel and the tom will ring. Same concept.
MD: Awareness of the motion helps achieve the upstroke?
Gregory: Yes. Playing the drums involves muscle memory. We practice rudiments and we train our muscles. So once your muscles are trained that way and they understand what to do, it becomes second nature.
MD: Do you suggest doing wrist snaps primarily on the pad or snare drum? Will that translate to the other drums?
Gregory: It’s the drums, period. You can do foot snaps on the bass drum too. You have to know how to bring the sound out of the bass drum. Most guys play into the bass drum. That’s why companies make bridges to lift the drum off the floor so it will project more. If you play the bass drum [correctly] you can get that same sound without using a bridge. As you’re applying the stroke downward on the bass drum, don’t think about laying into the drum. It’s like bouncing your hand off the bass drum instead of slapping into it—that’s the same motion you want to use with the foot. As you’re going into the head, think about coming off the head and letting the sound ring out.
MD: That must be part of feathering the bass drum.
Gregory: When music sounds good, the first thing you do is tap your foot, right? Feathering is essentially the same thing. You can do that away from the bass drum. Just practice lightly on the floor, four to the bar. Get used to that motion so that when you play the bass drum pedal, it’s not a drastic change. I always feather, though you don’t always hear it. It helps the bass player; it helps keep the bottom end in the music; it helps make your sound fuller. At all tempos. It’s felt more than heard.
MD: What’s the distance between the beater and the head when you’re feathering?
Gregory: Not too far. Perhaps a finger width between the bass drum head and the beater. Practice feathering at faster tempos without a metronome. Metronomes give you metronomic playing. I always played with records. For jazz, you have to be able to bend and go with the music; you have to be flexible. If you’re playing with a metronome, you’re thinking that [on-the-beat] way. For rudiments, yes, you practice with a metronome. But for actually playing I transcribe solos from records or play time. But it’s all done by ear. Then you can play good human time.
I like Miles Davis’s “Blues No. 2” from Circle in the Round, with Philly Joe Jones. They’re trading fours, and they really set each other up. I also played along with Tony Williams on Sam Rivers’ Fuchsia Swing Song, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Max Roach’s Deeds, Not Words, and any Art Blakey record.
MD: How do you tune your drums?
Gregory: Each drum has a specific zone it likes. So if you’re dealing with smaller drums, they like to be tuned higher. Middle drums like to be tuned mid to lower, and floor toms like to be tuned lower. You can tune a floor tom up higher, as I do a lot of times. You just have to know the range you’re dealing with. Some people tune to specific notes. I tune each drum for the best way it will sound. I’ve gotten it to a point where it’s generally in the higher-pitched range; the bass drum is medium to lower.
MD: Do you keep a similar tension on each tom head?
Gregory: For toms I tune the bottom a little tighter, but not super-tight. I’m tuning for tone, and to do that I tune the bottom head first and then adjust the top for tone and feel. I do each drum that way. Sometimes, depending on the type of drum or the type of music, I’ll tune the bottom head a little looser. When you tune the bottom head too tight, it can choke the sound. If the sound is choked, you know the bottom head is too tight. Then you have to adjust the top head to make up the difference.
If you can tune the drums and get a sound, the kind of heads you use is irrelevant. I tune the bass drum wide open, with nothing on the inside. You should control that sound, then deal with damping the bass drum.
MD: You play with so much clarity and energy on your ride cymbal. Energy might be your trademark.
Gregory: Three simple words: walk the dog. You say it and you play it on the ride cymbal. Play and sing that at all tempos, and you’ll have the same ride cymbal beat that I have. The ride cymbal is the key to it all. If that ain’t happening, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing—it’s not going to swing. The ride cymbal is your canvas. If that’s a weak point, everything will be weak, no matter how well you play the drums. Don’t be just another chops cat. There are very few people who can really play the ride cymbal.
MD: Did you purposely set out to find your own voice?
Gregory: When I joined Betty Carter’s band in 1990, I was at rehearsal playing all this Philly Joe and Max stuff. She said, “I played with those guys, and I don’t want to hear that from you. What do you have to offer?” She was absolutely right. So I did the work. I have my influences, but you can’t say I sound exactly like some other drummer. I did the work to develop my own sound, and I’m still developing. Roy Haynes is still playing and still evolving. If he’s still evolving, I have a long way to go.
MD: Betty Carter often opened a performance with a song at a breakneck tempo. How did you prepare for that?
Gregory: I had already played with Red Rodney and “C” Sharpe; the first tempo of the night with Sharpe was so fast, I thought he was counting 16ths when he was really counting quarter notes. At first I could only hang for a chorus, but eventually it got better and better. Then it was no problem at all. I don’t move left to right on the cymbal, and I don’t bounce. I stick everything.
MD: You don’t use the rebound?
Gregory: Tony Williams would tell you to stick every stroke. That’s why you can hear every stroke of his. Every note is clean. Bounce muddles your sound, especially if you’re going that fast and you’re bouncing off the ride cymbal the whole time. Do the work to build up to a fast tempo. You don’t want that drag effect on the ride cymbal.
MD: What did Ray Brown have to say regarding swing and groove and the old master drummers?
Gregory: He said that Art Blakey had the best hi-hat foot of anybody. You could hear that foot across the room, and that’s how he drove a big band. Ray was all about the groove. His beat was so strong, you had to learn to play with him. Ray played really on top, and he wanted the music to move. Keep it moving and it will sound good. I talked to Jeff Hamilton and Lewis Nash to get different tips on playing with Ray. Once I got my strategy together, I knew how to pull it back or make it go forward. Ray practiced every day, up until the day he died. That inspired me to practice.
MD: How did Ray verbalize the drummer/bassist swing relationship?
Gregory: He didn’t. He expected you to know. I had played with all these people, so I was fine-tuning my playing to fit Ray’s playing. He would exhort you while playing, but he never directed what to play. Swing, to him, was making sure it felt good. His thing was that people should be dancing. Even if we played a fast tempo, it still felt good. Back in the day the drummers made the music swing. Now we’ve been conditioned to music that’s programmed. It has four bars and that’s it—everybody sounds the same.
MD: You play great brushes. You recall Kenny Washington.
Gregory: Kenny was my teacher, and he taught me how to get a big sound. Before, I was going clockwise; now I go counterclockwise with the left hand from 11 o’clock to 5 o’clock, then back up using the space to make a semicircle. And I watched the Jo Jones videos. For brushes, check out Jo Jones, Vernel Fournier, Specs Wright, Sid Catlett. Then get the mechanics together. You want to be articulate with the brushes. It’s like a conga drum. [sings pattern] Listen to the Jo Jones Trio record where he plays “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and you’ll learn how to play the brushes. That’s everything in one.
MD: Your drumming also has a lot of forward motion.
Gregory: You play your environment. You can’t play that way if you’ve been living in the country and practicing in your room all your life. I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn. The city has a pace of its own. That naturally gets into your playing. The other side of it is that my family comes from Trinidad. Your upbringing influences you and what you listen to. The first jazz record I heard was Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Run Down with Elvin Jones. To get that forward motion, you have to listen to the right things and have an inner drive. I can’t teach students to have an inner drive. They either have it or they don’t. I can teach them, but some drummers will always have this playing-on-theback- end-of-the-beat thing.
MD: How do you create layers or themes within a solo?
Gregory: Knowing the melody is essential. You can’t really solo if you don’t know the melody. And phrasing, and developing motifs and ideas. You don’t have to rush into things and play everything you know at once. As drummers we tend to do that because we usually end up soloing last. By the time we’ve heard everyone else’s solo, our energy level is so high. As soon as we get that first lick in, we start playing fast and loud. But you have to develop patience. And you have to know form. Then you have to know the ideas that you’re trying to develop. Before I solo I listen as everyone plays their solo, and those solos stick in my head. So when I solo I can conjure up anyone’s solo and develop my ideas from that. You have to listen and retain everything that happens in the song while you’re playing. Then you can develop themes for your solo from what everyone else played. Take your time.
MD: What do you practice to maintain your technique?
Gregory: Rudiments. Before you sit down to play, run through five rudiments. Then work on your books, whether that’s Stick Control or Ted Reed’s Syncopation. Then apply those rudiments to what you’re playing that you’ve learned from listening to the greats. Then run the next five rudiments. So every day you’re doing ten rudiments. In a week you’ll cycle through all the rudiments. After a month you should become a super-badass dude!
Drums: Yamaha PHX in textured black sunburst with gold hardware
A. 5 1/2×14 snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom (16×16 alternate)
D. 14×18 bass drum (16×22 alternate)<
1. 14″ old Constantinople hi-hats
2. 21″ prototype ride based on the Bounce model
3. 21″ prototype rivet ride based on the Bounce model
4. 22″ old A rivet ride
Gregory, who also uses a flat ride, thanks Paul Francis at Zildjian for help with the special models.
Sticks: Vic Firth sticks and brushes
Heads: Remo Coated Vintage Ambassador snare batter and Clear Ambassador bottom, and Coated Vintage Ambassador or Coated Vintage Emperor on both sides of toms and bass drum
Ray Brown Live at Scullers /// Joe Henderson Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn /// Joshua Redman Compass, Passage of Time /// 3 Cohens Family /// Dr. Lonnie Smith Too Damn Hot! /// Ron Blake Lest We Forget /// Eric Reed Musicale /// Roy Hargrove Approaching Standards
Sonny Rollins East Broadway Run Down (Elvin Jones) /// Jo Jones Trio self-titled on Everest Records (Jo Jones) /// Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers The Big Beat (Art Blakey) /// Max Roach Deeds, Not Words (Max Roach) /// Miles Davis The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (Tony Williams), In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk (Jimmy Cobb), Circle in the Round (Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Tony Williams) /// Roy Haynes Quartet Out of the Afternoon (Roy Haynes) /// John Coltrane The Mastery of John Coltrane Vol. II: To the Beat of a Different Drum (Roy Haynes) /// Jon Gordon The Things We Need (Kenny Washington, Eddie Locke) /// Tony Williams Lifetime Ego (Tony Williams) /// Lewis Nash Rhythm Is My Business (Lewis Nash) /// plus anything with Elvin Jones, Sid Catlett, or Philly Joe Jones