The Joy of the Imperfect
It’s tough to know where the MMW drummer’s wide-ranging interests end and his singular rhythmic creations begin. And that is so okay.
MD met with drummer/composer/painter Billy Martin in a small Japanese-style sitting room he built in his backyard. Looking out, you’re surrounded by a green unbounded bamboo forest. It feels more Kyoto than New Jersey. Martin likewise doesn’t care much for boundaries. Ever since his earlier days on New York City’s downtown scene, playing with iconoclasts like the Lounge Lizards and John Zorn, the drummer has committed himself to the rewards of open-mindedness, chance, and risk taking.
“Lots of people think ‘free’ music means avant-garde,” Martin says. “But free means free to play anything: free to play a nursery rhyme, free to rap, free to play a beat. You can combine all these things.”
The probing master of the funky and the free is now celebrating his twenty-first year as a member of the experimental groove-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, which is known to devotees as MMW. Martin, keyboardist John Medeski, and bassist Chris Wood have shaken up the meaning of jazz with their mix of funk, open improv, hip-hop, and world influences, as well as their vigorous embrace of electronics, sampling, and DJ culture.
Martin’s creative energy is never idle. Beyond touring the globe with MMW, Billy is busy with extracurricular activities that include scoring for the upcoming films 7E and Mirage and showcasing a new art exhibit and percussion music at Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab. Amulet Records, Martin’s own label, has released Shimmy, the drummer’s rootsy duet with organist Wil Blades, and Heels Over Head, the sophomore effort by his brass-and-drums unit, Wicked Knee. Upcoming will be a new disc with the Fang Percussion Ensemble, and Martin will be producing a remix record for the Master Musicians of Jajouka featuring guests Ornette Coleman, Flea, Mickey Hart, MMW, and others.
Acting as director and performer, Martin recently released an intriguing DVD, Life on Drums. Eschewing the typical “technique” instructional approach, Billy instead offers philosophies to help each drummer discover his or her own path. Included is plenty of inspired solo footage.
As a drummer, Martin, who has studied extensively, has deep roots and ample technique. Yet cross-legged in his Japanese sitting room, the soft-spoken improviser offers us alternate perspectives, suggesting that the key to attaining artistry is often found well outside the walls of the practice room.
MD: MMW’s latest CD, Free Magic, is a collection of live cuts from 2007 that highlights a particular facet of the group.
Billy: We were doing an acoustic tour. The setup is basically chamber music—or “chamber jazz.” That’s how I look at it. It’s a more intimate setting, and we get into a little more nuance. We play a bit differently, but it’s still us. I thought the record captured us and was recorded nicely.
MD: It allowed you to bring out the percussion aspect even more, most certainly in your eight-minute solo at the end of “Where’s Sly?”
Billy: Yeah, I had initially forgotten that that had happened. That should have been a whole separate track! [laughs]
MD: But amazingly, it really does work as a finale to the long piece.
Billy: That’s something that I’m “allowed” to do with this band; that’s my thing. So I like to have that on the CD. That’s what it was at the moment. Another time, it’s going to be different. It could be shorter or longer; it could be a different kind of solo. That’s our “chamber music.” We’re always trying to get something out there that shows another dimension of what we do.
MD: MMW has explored cutting-edge electronic sounds. How did that inform your return to acoustic playing?
Billy: Everything influences me when I play acoustically. There’s a certain language we have when we play. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing with electronics or not. I pretty much play how I play. My setup doesn’t change much between acoustic and electric settings. But when John’s playing piano, there’s a different sound and approach. Obviously I have to play under the piano. But I can still just play a groove and play it softer. That’s really been my thing: to play a funky groove without having to bash it out. I like to play it subtly—coming more from a percussionist’s point of view.
I’m a drummer who doesn’t want to play loud all the time. I do sometimes. But in general I don’t need to. Certainly not now, with everything miked. Some people have a philosophy that when you hit harder, it sounds different. That’s true, but I feel that when you hit harder it also chokes the sound. When you play lighter, it opens the sound.
MD: With that nice, open, ringing sound, you must sometimes have problems with engineers wanting to “fix” it.
Billy: My whole life! [laughs] “Tape this! Tape that!” I have a lot of respect for engineers, but occasionally there’s someone who’s completely out of touch and doesn’t care about what your sound is. That’s when I have to say, “Do you hear the sound of the drums? Put your ear here. That’s the sound I want. Let me do the mixing with my playing.”
MD: Even in acoustic settings like your duet disc with Medeski, Mago, you still enjoy manipulating sounds—hints of hiphop, even dub.
Billy: Yes, in the mixing process, I’m all for that. But the initial session with John was literally just drumset, organ, and a couple other keyboards.
I’ve been influenced by a lot of hiphop—even before it was called that. Growing up in New York, going to clubs with DJs, I was very in tune with that scene. I picked up on how DJs and producers were dropping bits out, using different beats, crossing them together. All of that influenced my acoustic drumming.
MD: You use the many timbres of the drum to make tiers of sound, creating distinct hills and valleys in the groove.
Billy: And it’s all compositional; it’s my vocabulary. I’m experimenting in making it sound like postproduction—creating that sound live.
MD: MMW has mastered the art of lengthy, open improv. We’ve all been in clubs when musicians unfortunately don’t know how to edit themselves, and it’s brutal. How can an artist become selfaware, to avoid crossing the line from self expression to self-indulgence?
Billy: As soon as someone’s playing clichés or repeating themselves, it’s over. They should be aware of that. There’s a time and a place to know when it’s your liberty to solo. John, Chris, and I have been doing it for over twenty years together, so we’re very much aware when it’s the right time. It’s not always perfect. But the most important thing is listening to what the music needs.
You’ve got to be careful not to play clichés. A lot of players do that to play it safe: “I know what I’m doing because it’s in the book.” Then there are other players who are not listening to the other musicians and miss the overall point of making ensemble music, which is, “We’re all saying something together.”
MD: You’re a visual artist as well as a musician, and you’ve talked about the value of using visualization as a tool when playing.
Billy: It’s not a literal visual thing; it’s more an idea in your head. Give yourself a little seed of an idea. It might be, “I’m going to play the cars whizzing by outside,” or “I’m going to play the kids playing ball outside, or the wind blowing through the leaves, or the ocean. Hey, I’m going to play the weather! Or TV!” [laughs]
It’s a springboard to help you with a creative idea. You can look at a painting and “play” it. You could watch a movie, turn the sound down, and create your own soundtrack. Just a little idea can be very powerful stuff.
MD: Your signature approach to funk is multi-influenced and often complex, but the feel is always fat and slinky.
Billy: It became layered, and it evolved over time. I realized that I loved dance music. Whether it was funk, disco, New Orleans second line, big band jazz, zydeco, soukous—you name it—it all grooved. All of that informed my funk drumming because it all related to a very simple thing: It made me wanna dance. That became my language, being able to mix it up, edit, mix myself in the moment, turn it upside down and around. Also, to be a good drummer, you need to play percussion. You need to get into African, Brazilian, East Indian—whatever you might enjoy playing. But you’ve got to pick up something with your hands and play along with another drummer. You need that perspective, to know what it’s like to add a part to a drummer. You need to know the perspective of being another musician outside of the drum chair. When you get back to the drum chair, you’ll realize what it is that the music needs and what it’s like for other players to play with you. Put your feet in someone else’s shoes. Do it, man!
MD: On your Life on Drums DVD, you recount that you had an embarrassing experience when you were young because you knew nothing about Brazilian rhythms. So you sought out a samba class and eventually taught the class and immersed yourself in the scene. Your cohost and former drum teacher Allen Herman comments, “You made your weakness your strength.” That could very well be the definition of artistic commitment.
Billy: You can run away and hide and not face these moments of falling flat on your face. It’s hard. Once I went to learn about that music, I was captivated by it, obsessed. I fell in love with it. Later I realized it changed my life for the better; it was a turning point.
MD: MMW excels at improvising with sound itself—layers, timbres, shading, and general collective sound shaping. Do musicians limit themselves by thinking improvisation only means “licks”?
Billy: People are playing licks because that’s what they’ve been practicing. They’ve been practicing scales and things they’ve been taught they should learn. They only identify with that as a musical language. They don’t realize that they have to put that aside and find other ways to work with their instrument.
You have to approach your instrument like a child discovering things. Don’t repeat yourself so much, and use that language with your approach to sound shaping. But you have to let go of the licks. That only says, “Here’s something I learned; it’s my recital.” No, it’s not your recital; it’s a deep discovery. You are a composer.
MD: You’ve stressed the importance of applying life experience to your playing. Since MMW’s beginnings, a lot has happened. Fatherhood has changed your life, for instance.
Billy: That changes so much. One interesting thing is that eventually you have your kids saying, “That’s lame! You’re not playing it right!” It’s a perspective from what they’re used to. In their early years, they have no reference to anything—which is the most incredible thing, if you could possibly retain that. Then, when they start to hear their friends’ music, they home in on something compelling to them. Anything outside of that is “wrong.” Or it’s not cool. So that’s how they’re judging you.
But then you realize that’s how everybody is, not just kids! Everybody has their own comfortable way of thinking. But as you grow and hopefully become more worldly and experience more cultural varieties, you start to realize the great qualities in all these cultures and their music and see that there’s less “wrong” about it. And you start to use that.
My dad was a classically trained violinist who played with the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, and the Beaux Arts String Quartet. And we had a classic argument about Brazilian music. I remember throwing on a tape of a Brazilian drum group in the car. I was in my new excitement with Brazilian music. The first thing he said was, “They’re playing it all wrong!” I said, “What are you talking about?” [laughs] “It’s all off,” he said. “They don’t know how to play the correct rhythm.”
That’s where this whole thing started: seeing from my dad’s perspective. To him, the 16th note is played one way. He sees it written on paper, and that’s it. There’s no swing factor in classical music, except perhaps in a cadenza. To him, a 16th note was a 16th note, and it had to be symmetrically perfect.
Eventually, though, he fell in love with Brazilian music. He came to my gigs, and he was blown away, loving it. But it took him a while to realize that this existed—that it was the way they played the rhythm in Brazil, and that’s what made it special.
MD: Bringing into question perceptions of “perfect” subdivisions would also bring up questions of time perception as well.
Billy: In the ’80s, just out of high school, I was constantly told that you’re dead if you can’t keep steady time. There was so much studio work, and I started going for that and playing with people in that world. It was always, “You can’t rush!” “Okay, we’ve gotta play with the click track,” and such.
After all the experience of doing that, cut to thirty years later, and I’ve realized we’re creating new ideas here and it’s an open world. Yeah, the groove is important. I love to groove and I love dance music. But I also realized the most important thing wasn’t staying at 120 beats per minute from beginning to end. That was a waste of energy. What I really needed to think about was creating a compelling thing that made people want to move.
That was the most powerful thing I felt. I didn’t feel any power in saying, “Did you notice how I kept the same time?” It took all that trial and error of saying, “You’re rushing, man!” Some of that I totally, legitimately understand. There are certain people I play with—John Zorn, for instance—who like it on top of the beat. And there are others, like John Scofield, who prefer the more laidback, relaxed New Orleans thing. But I like it all! It all has a point.
What I got out of the deeper folkloric dance music, African in particular, was that their grooving was the most sophisticated, powerful dance drumming I’ve heard on the planet. Yet I heard how they would change tempos. Things would get faster or settle. I hear it with 3,000-year-old Moroccan traditional ritual music. Listening to those tracks from beginning to end, it ramps up.
After all that listening and playing, I realized I was wasting my time. I was never going to keep the beat perfectly like a computer. I can’t do it. There are some people who can, like Steve Gadd. He keeps time and grooves his ass off. That’s “perfect”—but only for certain musicians, like Paul Simon. But I’m not that kind of drummer.
At this point in my life, I can say it’s not about “perfect” time. You have to have an internal sense of pulse and hear it in other people’s playing. And you have to find out where you can fit yourself in the cracks and play around with that. The more you’re aware of the pulse and the time—the relative time that’s happening in the room—the more fun you can have with it. And that’s what I like to do.
MD: In over two decades of performing with MMW, what have you learned is the key to growing as an improviser?
Billy: Learning from your mistakes and overcoming them. I tell my students that I want them to push themselves when they’re in front of me and when they’re alone too, because they’re going to have discoveries about themselves. It’s not about winning or being the “best,” the fastest, or the most know-it-all. It’s about getting to know yourself. And pushing yourself to the point where you’re on the edge and making discoveries.
I do that sometimes in front of an audience, where I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do next. But the pressure’s on and I have no choice. Every once in a while I fall flat on my face. I don’t stop. I take a breath. And I move on. Also, audiences usually don’t know a mistake. It’s a valuable lesson to make a mistake; it’s not the end of the world.
Artists need to recognize their limitations. They have to use everything they can to express an idea, but they don’t have to be technically perfect to make something beautiful. Through our mistakes, we learn, “This is the way I speak. This is the way I play.” The mistakes we make can open up a whole new way of playing. You can use those mistakes.
MD: I had the pleasure of interviewing Roy Haynes for MD. He recalled a studio playback in which an interesting mistake had occurred. Bud Powell said, “Leave that in. They’ll all be trying to figure that out for years!”
Billy: It’s true! All you have to do is change your perspective. If the overall performance works, leave the mistake in. They will be discussing it, and it adds to the dimension of the true meaning of what music and life is.
We start to refine ourselves, and we have to be careful about that. The refinement can lead to a monocultural thing, and then the edge—the beauty in these imperfections— can be lost. That’s why it’s so important to celebrate the individual, the artist. Everyone should bring out their quirks.