In America, the 1960s were a time when the jazz age made a sincere, although tentative, attempt to establish relations with the up-and-coming members of the R&B and rock generations. Evolutionary pressures in jazz made it seem as if the music had renounced the swing and bebop eras, leading to a style with the rather unfortunate label, free jazz.
It was a time of such transitional bebop figures as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter, as well as such barricade-burners as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler. Drumming-wise, trap players were at the forefront of this musical advance. Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey continued to refine their revolutionary developments in swing and independence from the ’40s and ’50s. (Kenny Clarke was out there as well, but less visible due to his residency in Europe). Meanwhile, players like Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette negotiated the terrain between swing time and no time, while Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, Beaver Harris and Clifford Jarvis pushed beyond into a realm of free pulse time and explosive new colorations.
But in addition to all this, the 1960s were also the time of Motown and the Beatles; of James Brown and Stax-Volt; of Jimi Hendrix and jazz-rock fusion; of drummers like Benny Benjamin, Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson and Bernard Purdie; of Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Dino Danelli (followed shortly thereafter by the likes of Al Mouzon, Billy Cobham and Lenny White). Stylistic distinctions became more and more meaningless (even as commercial categories prevailed). For a musician coming of age during this time, the number of potential role models was staggering, and the possibilities of new musical combinations were limitless.
Drummer Pheeroan ak Laff is a child of the ’60s—a free spirit with an approach to the trap kit that’s impressionistic, yet grooves hard. Since arriving on the New York scene in the late ’70s, ak Laff has invariably popped up on recordings and at concerts with new music figures like Oliver Lake, Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, Michael Gregory (Jackson), Bakida Carroll, Jay Hoggard, James Newton, George Lewis, Amina Claudine Myers, Muhal Richard Abrams and Julius Hemphill. Why? Because ak Laff is a great method actor and quick-change artist. He is not simply a drummer, but a choreographer—a painter in sounds. Where some drummers in a free (well, let’s say open-ended) musical setting flail away aimlessly to create the illusion of energy and emotional involvement, ak Laff is no hydraulic banger. His drumming floats, breathes and hesitates ever so slightly, punctuating the pulse as much with silence as with rolls. He has a real soft touch, very much in the Jo Jones tradition, although he’s not a swinger like that. No, it’s more like a parody of swing. The bass drum is used to punctuate the strong pulse, in odd syncopations that never tie a soloist down, but still retain a sense of the one, while his airy, innovative cymbal work provides a sense of color, contrast and motion that is unparalleled.
But the main thing that contributes to his popularity among bandleaders is his total musical sensitivity. Sitting up behind his rosewood set of Sonors and assorted Paistes in a sleeveless blue jumpsuit, ak Laff “plays the music like he wrote it,” Julius Hemphill points out admiringly. Hemphill goes on to add that “he can play in any time signature you throw at him, without getting flustered or losing the feel of the composition.”
Certainly it is this complete involvement in the creative process that animates akLaff’s best work. With Henry Threadgill’s Sextet, he and fellow drummer John Betsch combine to form a graceful, jubilantly swinging percussion section that is the modernist’s equivalent of a New Orleans parade band. Rarely, if ever, have two drummers complemented each other so well. Oftentimes they sound more dynamically controlled and contained than one drummer. In pianist Anthony Davis’ shifting neoclassical/third world ensembles, ak Laff makes the composer’s fragmented polyrhythmic cycles cohere as if they were dance tunes (and I don’t mean ballet, either). And with Oliver Lake’s Jump Up, ak Laff synthesizes the expansive looseness of a jazz approach with the earthy, inthe- pocket punch of funk and reggae. Yet whatever the setting, ak Laff’s signature sound remains the same: loose, tonal and responsive to every little pause and agitation.
In conversation, ak Laff is very much like his music: amiable, open, pointed, thoughtful (without being self-serious) and, upon occasion, purposefully vague . . . as when I inquired what the name ak Laff meant. “It’s from a West African tribe called the Wolof, which is a Muslim-influenced section of what was once known as Senegambia,” ak Laff offers, but demurs, when pressed for details. “I’m not really prepared to explain what it means, because I haven’t attained that level yet. I have a lot more practice and growing to do before it’ll really make sense. But I can tell you this: Everybody in my family is an ak Laff.”
Born January 27, 1955, Pheeroan ak Laff grew up in Detroit, Michigan, at the peak of that town’s musical and economic boom. “My pop worked at Chrysler,” Pheeroan recalls, “but because he’d been to college, he didn’t have to always work heavy on the line; he got to push a pencil sometimes as well, and I can see now how that contributed to the healthiness of our family. There’s so much tension and pressure in an urban community because of that drain on your energies. And it was a very, very close-knit family, even though my two brothers, three sisters and I used to fight all the time, but now that we’re all separated, we miss each other.
“I didn’t even realize I was a drummer until around 1976, because music was probably the last thing I expected to be involved in, but it was a very musical family; everybody played an instrument, and my parents put a high premium on it because my brother Eric is a very gifted classical pianist. So I rat-a-tat-tatted through junior high school, and it was something I always had a knack for, but when I got to senior high school I decided I wanted to play trumpet. Why did I want to play trumpet? I have no idea,” he laughs, “but it’s probably because I was so impressed by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band, which was one of my father’s favorite groups. I progressed really fast, and later on, after the teacher realized I was Eric’s brother, I got to the drums too.”
But like so many young men, Pheeroan was sidetracked from drumming by his love of sports. “When I got to high school, I figured that football was more important than the band, because the personalities involved in the music scene bored me; everybody involved in teaching was like a wimp or a weirdo. And I’d gone from the beginner’s drum class to the A band in one semester, but football was the main goal in my life. I started off playing middle linebacker, which I loved, and then ended up at flanker. That shaped a lot of my attitudes about things—that aggressiveness which makes up a linebacker’s personality, and the fact that you had to be versatile and open to change in that position, because you had to move in a lot of directions to cover the run or the pass.”
Pheeroan did, however, continue his snare drum studies and kept up with his music through the school bands and orchestras. “Oddly enough, I wasn’t bored with it, because there were a few pieces we’d do that required the snare drum to play a major part. We did some Neal Hefti and Duke Ellington things too; with the dance band, we’d assemble a great big marching bass drum and field drums into a kit and do our imitation of whatever we thought trap drums were. But in orchestral music, I loved what the snare drum did and what the cymbals did. I could see that the power in symphonic music really came from the percussion section.”
Given Detroit’s volatile R&B environment, it was only a matter of time before Pheeroan was drawn into the dance aspects of the drums—particularly the backbeat of Motown. “To this day,” Pheeroan asserts, “I like to hang on that rim all the time, probably more than I should, because that’s the first thing that really struck me about the traps. You know the way those funk drummers will crack that backbeat off of the rim? When I got to hang around my neighborhood with these R&B cats, what turned me on was all this new stuff they were doing on the snare. These guys’d be hitting the rim and the center at the same time and getting this great big thwack. There were these cats who had a successful band called Al Hudson and the Partners. From hearing them I got excited enough to want to pursue drumming more seriously.
“By the time I was finishing up high school, my father finally decided to get me a drumset, after my Uncle Harry and I got on his case enough. My Uncle Harry knew John Lee Hooker, and he told my father he could get me a gig with him,” he laughs. “I’d never heard of John Lee Hooker or the term ‘gig,’ but I knew that was for me.
“So I got a four-piece Ludwig set which I had for years and years. Finally, when I got to visit Africa with Oliver Lake, I wanted to save myself some air freight home, so I sold it to some friends I was playing with over there because it’s so hard to get equipment. I feel good that the drums have a nice home. I can go back and play ’em whenever I’m in Ghana. Anyway, I saved up my money for a while and finally could afford my first Zildjian. I went to the drum shop to pick it out, and took a real long time doing it, because I’d read in the drum magazines that you were supposed to take a long time. The guy behind the counter told me, ‘The pros just come in here, play it for a second and know what they want.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t care. I want a good cymbal.’ And you know, that turned out to be one of the greatest cymbals I ever had. The A. Zildjian Rock rides had just come out, and I loved them. I especially loved that big, bright bell and the tight balanced sound. The sound of that cymbal stayed with me for a long time, and I think that I still search for that sound today in my selection of Paiste cymbals.”
Drums and cymbals in hand, Pheeroan set about channeling his interests and inspirations into a concept. “My influences ranged from my church-going family, the emphasis put on unity and community development, the riots in ’67, and Angela Davis. All that played a big part in my mind in high school and contributed to a very strong political stance when I was 15. Today I can see how that point of view influenced my musical directions as far as the spiritual liberation aspect of music is concerned. It’s like John Coltrane was a liberator, James Brown was a liberator, and Jimi Hendrix was a liberator. Everyone who took a particular stance during that period was important in inspiring people and making them aware of their condition.
“But again, getting back to my inspirations, my biggest inspiration comes from the sea—water and waves—particularly the Atlantic. I was fortunate to be on the coast of Liberia, on the Gulf of Guinea. I recorded those sounds, watched some people pray there, and got so much from that. I get a lot of inspiration from water; I’m an Aquarian and there’s a lot of water in my chart. I imagine that the rushing, surging, cresting feel that people get from my drumming and cymbal work has a great deal to do with that.”
But Pheeroan ak Laff at 15 was more caught up in the sensual aspects of R&B balladeer Roberta Flack and the inescapable influence of the Motown sound. “I was irrepressibly in love with Roberta Flack, so I put on my little suit, fixed myself up and took the bus to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, hoping they’d think I was an adult so that I could get in. Seeing music l i ke that was a major part of wanting to be a musician.
“Then there was Motown, of course, and the whole local blossoming of talent that distinguished Detroit in that period. It was very exciting, and so many of the musicians who came out of Detroit at that time were very versatile. That was one of the strengths of that musical environment. So I never made any qualitative distinction between musical styles. I could see the value in everything. That was one of the beautiful things about Motown. They incorporated everything in their sound. They had the orchestras and the strings, as well as the vibes and flutes. They were one of the first to bring the conga drums into the mainstream. They had that tambourine doubling the hi-hat beat. It all made for a popular sound that could be digested by anybody.
“Other than that, I don’t think Detroit was peculiar for its approach to R&B. Any differences you’d hear between Detroit and other urban centers would be real subtle. Detroit and Chicago are pretty similar in their approaches, which involve the blues and the church to a great extent. You know, they’re really one and the same in a lot of instances. The big difference I noticed about most musicians who played in Detroit was that they were very influenced by the music itself, by the craft, and by the ability to do a lot of the great things that were happening in jazz, R&B, and rock, too. Oddly enough, there was a very strong black rock scene happening in Detroit all during that period when I was growing up, but that’s always been squashed.”
Coming of age during this time, Pheeroan was caught up in many areas of self-expression besides music, all of which shared a certain element of striving and spirit. “That common denominator in all of the representations of life has always been very important to me. I was always aware of some otherness. How do all of these things fit together? Why do certain things reach me in one way, and some things in another? And how is it that I can accept all of them? I can always find something.
“Like I could hear similarities between Coltrane and Hendrix; I became aware of them around the same time. I was aware of the kind of experience their music created in me, so I knew that it must have created a similar experience in the artists.
“Now I understand many of those feelings as the artistic process—the creative process I should say, as opposed to artistic, which I had been involved in all along. One thing I should point out is that I’ve acted ever since I was very young—much longer than I’ve played music. So my interaction with an audience is something I understand as a creative process, just like the painter and the canvas.
“All the while I was being so impressed by all these musicians (L to R) Billy Hart, Don Alias, Pheeroan ak Laff, Bob Moses and art forms, I wasn’t aware that I was involved in the creative process by the nature of my personality. Once I understood that it was something I’d been doing all my life, I realized I was a musician. It’s so funny, because I could always function as a communicator, more so than as a musician. In many ways there are a lot of things I don’t want to be associated with according to the strict definition of a musician. Like where musicians decide to study what has been done before, and to apply that information in commercial ways that will bring other people to them. It’s like this ongoing process where you only exist in relation to somebody else’s concepts, and somebody else’s definitions of what the refined state of that process is.
“I’m a rule-breaking kind of person. That’s an outlook I’ve had for a real long time, which is what brought me into music that hardly anybody listened to,” he laughed. “So you have rulebreaking musicians and rule-breaking audiences. How many people are going to break the rules tonight? Twelve? Then that’s how many people we’ll play for. I mean I have a lot of fun playing certain kinds of music that people call commercial, and I love entertainment from the actor’s point of view, but I love the creative process more.
“As a result, I’m real self-inspired and self-taught. To me, music had always meant something you dedicated your life to and developed all these skills in; perhaps that’s why I never really studied seriously. I taught myself to read music, but it was just a matter of doing it enough. I had a few lessons when I was 15, but other than that it was just a matter of watching other people who played and thinking of how I could take it somewhere else. That was the most important thing at that time.”
But Pheeroan still needed direction—a context in which to apply his sensitivity—and he found it in a local multi-instrumentalist and bandleader by the name of Travis Biggs. ”Travis Biggs taught me a lot, and he was a major inspiration as far as telling me that I could do it. I didn’t even think of myself as a drummer, but he made me bring my drums to his place and play. He helped me figure out that I had an approach, because I didn’t play like anybody else, but I could play well enough to perform on drums successfully.
“My first professional gig was with Travis Biggs as part of a company that traveled all around Michigan. It was a revue—a whole show. We backed up singers in a whole lot of styles. First, there was one singer who sang alone, then five singers who sang like the Fifth Dimension, followed by male duets. Next, there was a man and woman who sang like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrel, then three singers, and then the group would play. Being aware of all those approaches was very important to my musical development.
“I saw my role as being an accompanying musician. Besides, I was still in high school; I wasn’t working regularly so I was satisfied just to hold my own and help the singers get their shit together, and understand what part fit . . . when. Sometimes the singers would notice something I did and compliment me on it, but that didn’t happen very often. So I was playing a part—not necessarily interacting with the singer like you would with another player in the rhythm section. That’s taking the thing a step further into the area of specialization, like an Aretha Franklin wanting a particular drummer like Bernard Purdie, because she knows how he’ll react to the rhythm section and to her. But first, you have to interact with the rhythm section, and getting to that next step can take a while, believe me.”
Before leaving Detroit in 1975, Pheeroan did a stint at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti where he majored in speech and drama and pursued music on the side, all the while cutting an imposing figure in the Black Student Union—the prototypical blippie of the early ’70s. “Cat’s would look at me and couldn’t figure out what I was doing, listening to Jimi Hendrix and wearing weird clothes that looked like Peter Max had drawn all over my body. They didn’t know what to do with me; they didn’t understand how all of these things met. But all that time I was taking in information, and my formal studies didn’t move me, at least the way they were going about it. So I finally decided that I wanted to be a musician, or at least do something where I could have fun and make money too. It was fun to be around all these people who had this great talent because, of course, I never thought I had any. I figured that maybe I could pick something up.”
Passing through various R&B bands around Detroit, Pheeroan finally took the plunge and moved east, settling in the New Haven area, where his friend, tenorist Dwight Andrews, was a divinity student at Yale. Eventually they formed an R&B band called Deja Vu with keyboardist Nat Adderley, Jr., singer Phillipa Overstreet and vibist Jay Hoggard—a group ak Laff characterizes as “a great lounge band doing hip covers, which had the potential of being a good original band.” As fate would have it, Deja Vu was performing on the Yale campus, doing their funk thing, while a trio led by the innovative trumpeter Leo Smith was on the same bill. “I was the only one in Deja Vu who had all these weird records,” Pheeroan explains, “and everyone thought that I was crazy, but that music was important to me even though I was playing R&B. Leo was surprised that I enjoyed it, but not shocked, because he’s from the Mississippi delta and he spent a lot of his life playing blues gigs. So he invited me to a concert for solo trumpet with gongs and percussion, and it was beautiful; it really pulled on my romantic sensibility—just the sheer courageousness of him standing up there alone. So we began doing gigs together as a trio and in larger ensembles, playing with dancers and all. Through Leo I met up with all the New York cats and began performing there. And I was able to feel out what I could really do in this arena of playing music that you felt. His courage sort of rubbed off on me and he showed me that I could do it.
“As a result, I came to New York playing that kind of music, not standing in line to imitate others and get studio gigs. I didn’t come to New York to out swing the swingers. I came in like me, and I feel very blessed to have had that opportunity. It was funny. On those occasions when Eddie Blackwell couldn’t make it, tenorist Bill Barron would call me to do gigs with Barry Harris on piano and Vishnu Wood on bass. And it was like, ‘Whoa, how’d I get up here with these bebop cats? Hope you’re satisfied.’ I wanted to sound as good as what I was hearing them doing, but they were very supportive, even though that wasn’t my thing.”
Given the privilege of performing in New York during the height of the loft jazz revival (when the so-called avant-garde musicians began to build an audience for the new jazz), Pheeroan ak Laff developed an “impressionistic” style of drumming that was all light and air. Given the intensity of the free blowing ensembles he played in, his delicacy was all the more remarkable. “It’s funny,” he laughs shyly, “because when I first got to New York, cats would say, ‘Well he’s the softest playing drummer in town. Listen to him.’ I used to play with Q-tips and chopsticks and things for effects. People would hire me and say, ‘I like the way you play. You don’t have to play loud to play interesting.’ Then again, other cats would just sort of look at me funny and say, ‘Boy, you sure do play soft,’ you know, as in, ‘What s’matter ak Laff, dontcha like girls?’
“But I’d been hearing cats like Sunny Murray, and Rashied Ali with Coltrane, so I was able to hear how all those waves, crests and colors were possible, and how they were cool in context. I’d also been hearing Mr. Connie Kay, who was probably my biggest influence on drums. Maybe that’s why people hear a sense of crispness in my playing, even when I’m taking it out. Even though Connie Kay wasn’t of that ‘impressionistic’ school, everything he played was important and it was there. It’s funny that a lot of Art Blakey’s vocabulary, his way of viewing the world through rhythm, his ways of tuning the bass drum and all had snuck in and influenced me, even though I wasn’t conscious of it while growing up. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even know who Art Blakey was until I began playing around seriously. And you know, after I’d made a few records and began to think, ‘Well maybe I am a musician,’ I heard this drummer on the radio and thought, ‘Damn, that sounds like me, but I don’t remember playing that composition; I don’t remember sounding that good.’ But it was the way I played and it turned out to be Art Blakey. It was hilarious; there are so many influences you take in without even knowing it. So when I heard that, I said, ‘Okay, I guess it’s time to start hitting the drums, playing loud and using more dynamics like Art.’ I got into this whole thing where I was twisting up my face into funny contortions. I’ve never been one to play with the cool, detached ap proach. The music excites me, and that’s something Art always communicated. Man, he was feeling it.
“Anyway, after Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali, I came to Andrew Cyrille, who could do everything they did, plus he had a sense of crispness, swing and precision. That’s something critics compliment me on, which is funny because, being self-taught, I was always very self-conscious about not being crisp enough. Maybe I listened so hard to Andrew, because when he played something, he hit it. He wasn’t just thinking of playing a rhythm; he reached out there and got it. Andrew could support what Cecil Taylor was doing with all this power and finesse, and still find a place to do his own thing, too.
“Andrew was very supportive of my playing when I first arrived, as was Beaver Harris. That freaked me out, because I’d been listening to them for years, and here they were telling me they enjoyed what I was doing. I was so surprised. Maybe they heard a bit of themselves in me, but more likely it was just my being courageous enough to take on that kind of spot at my age, play that music and bring what I had to it. I was taking on a big challenge.”
Part of the challenge implicit in playing “free” music was to retain perspective—not to become so infatuated with the sheer artiness of it that every little belch and twitch became fraught with deep meaning. “Sometimes we can be more self-indulgent than anything else, and think that’s hip, but being self-indulgent isn’t always being creative. I don’t play my instrument just to make money; by the same token, I don’t play my instrument merely to do something that’s different. I have to feel that there’s some encounter there—that I’m involved in a process where there’s some exchange and sharing between people.
“You have to play with people. You have to make each other sound good. See, that’s something bass players can do that no other instrumentalist can do. A bass player can make anyone sound great or totally foolish. I’ve played with some bass players who were so into their own trip that they’d never hook up with you. Meanwhile, your thing suffers because you’re trying to sync up with them and they won’t give you any slack. But on the other hand, I’ll never forget the first time I played with Buster Williams. We were making a record and Buster began walking. It was so easy—like he’d put his arm around me and said, ‘Let’s go strollin”, baby.’ Or like with Jerry Harris’ electric bass and the way we play in Jump Up and Julius Hemphill’s Jahband. He’s always listening to you and supporting you, so that you could mess up but it would sound as if you were right all the time. Or Dave Holland—I played with him for the first time on Bakida Carroll’s Shadows And Reflections, and I said ‘WOW!’ I’d forgotten what it was to play like that. Dave Holland did some stuff that was so fantastic that I found myself just listening to him. I forgot to play!”
One of the reasons all these master bass players and composers of the modern jazz movement warmed up to Pheeroan ak Laff is that he shared their painterly approach to sound. His groove had more to do with space and motion than with the overbearing tick of a clock—an airborne, unfettered approach in which the cymbals set the pulse (and the bass drum locks it, when necessary).
“I love cymbals,” Pheeroan enthuses, “because they’re such conductors of light. Cymbals are really a special invention. Gongs, bells, chimes, glockenspiel—that whole family of instruments has always been special to me. I could play a whole solo on cymbals. In fact, I like the cymbals too much, and it took me a while to realize it. I found I was playing on the cymbals more than I should and that I wasn’t giving the bands enough kick, so I began coming down to the bass and snare more. Whenever people think of a strong drum and cymbal approach, Tony Williams comes to mind. But I always come back to Jack DeJohnette, and the way he gets the ongoing cymbal effect and drum drive happening at the same time—pauses and commas, but no real stops and crashes. Now that I’m trying to develop more interesting drum solos, I’m less concerned with that approach and more with punctuation and dynamics, as opposed to just waves and pauses.
“I was always more impressed by the ping of a ride than the overall roar, although eventually I wanted cymbals for crash/ride effects, too. Mostly I always liked Zildjian Pings and Rock Rides for stick patterns, yet I was always impressed by the old-fashioned sound of cymbals—by which I mean, ‘ShhhShhhShhh’—because basically you couldn’t hear what the drummer was playing. It’s like the Elvin Jones rivet sound. To me, those cymbals represent older sounds, whereas the Ping represents a newer sound, like the ECM cymbal sound, which was usually Paiste cymbals. I’ve been using Paiste for a long time now, and they’re a very bright, musical cymbal. I was initially impressed by their recorded sound on those ECM records. DeJohnette would play his set of Paistes so evenly. Also [producer] Manfred Eicher was a big overtone man, so they’d capture this beautifully pitched, open sound. That’s where my head was at the time, because I was into picking cymbals for specific pitches. I have this 20” Paiste 2002 crash that rings in E natural, and to this day that’s the greatest crash I’ve ever owned. Guitarists love that pitch, because that’s the sound of their top and bottom open strings.
“In choosing cymbals I wanted to have a real nice color for each, particularly for doing things in an ‘impressionistic’ bag, so I’ve experimented extensively with the pitches and timbres of the 2002, 602, Sound Creation and Rude lines. What I use all depends on context, and I want to be able to match the moment. In the trio Air, when every note means so much, I don’t want to overpower the bass and saxophone, so I’ll use an 18” 602 Medium Flat Ride with two rivets, and some smaller crash sounds. With Air, and with Henry Threadgill’s Sextet, how long a cymbal rings is a big consideration. I prefer small crash cymbals. People figure, ‘big crash, big sound,’ but it doesn’t work that way. If you want a powerful crash, you’re better off with smaller, lighter cymbals, because they’re faster, they cut like glass breaking and then they’re gone. Big crashes tend to be lower pitched, which means most of the sound is going to get lost in the low frequencies of the electric guitar and bass, while in acoustic music it’ll be too overpowering. But big crashes can be very effective in a controlled environment like the recording studio.
“Right now I’m using a pair of 14″ Rude Sound Edge hi-hats, which can really cut, but aren’t so sensitive. It took me a while to pick out a pair that were warm enough to get a soft ‘ching-ching’ when I control them with my foot. I’m also using a 21″ Rude ride/ crash, a 16″ 2002 China, a 15″ 2002 Medium crash, an 18″ 2002 Heavy crash, a 22″ 2002 China for recording, a 20″ Rude China and that 20″ 2002 crash I told you about. I’m still looking for more sensitive cymbals, with a wider dynamic range, more tonality and greater sonority, so I’m not sure what I’ll be using months from now. I’m still listening to a lot of different instruments and experimenting. The problem is, everyone seems to be solving the problem of breakage by making the cymbals too heavy. It’s not as if cymbals were something that couldn’t be destroyed, but now cats make them so indestructible that you can forget about all the good qualities of sound.”
The extent to which drummers can control their quality of sound is usually a product of ear sensitivity relative to a specific situation, and the tuning techniques involved. Here, too, Pheeroan has given things a great deal of thought. “I’m very conscious of tuning on the tom-toms, and generally I’ll go for melodic frequencies. But lately I’ve been getting away from that—just finding the best resonant range for the drum itself. When I play with the Threadgill Sextet or Air, they both require that the drums be tuned to specific pitches. When you tune the drums to other instruments and then play together, everything sounds bigger and more present, because the notes all reinforce each other, so you get more of a sense of ensemble playing. John [Betsch] will tune his drums to the open fourths of the bass violin, which is E-A-D-G, and I’ll tune to the open strings of the cello, which are in fifths, so the bass drum is C, then G-D-A. Sometimes the snare drum tunings are optional. It can be difficult to get the drums that tightly pitched, because drums have an optimum tuning range, above or below which they won’t sing.
“I’ve experimented a lot with heads, particularly for snare drums. I’ve found that, if your top head is too dead, you choke the sound when you over-tighten it, although you can get a nice, low, raunchy tuning when you tune those thick, thuddy heads real loose. Right now I’m using a regular coated Remo CS head on my 6 1/2 X 14 metal Sonor. On wooden snare drums I use a regular frosted Ambassador and tune it accordingly, with tissue and tape on the outside. In the studio you can make drums too dead, but now that sounds are beginning to open up a bit again, I’ll either put a 2″ x 3” piece of paper towel under two pieces of gaffer’s tape out by the edge, or take masking tape and lightly shove it up around the perimeter of the hoop. See, Pinstripes are nice heads, but they’re a double layer in the middle and a single layer on the hoop. I go for just the opposite. Often I’ll just take a clear Emperor and cut away the inside so that it’s lively in the middle and muted around the hoop. Lately I’ve been using clear Emperors all around, because the coating tends to damp the head’s response. And I’ve been using clear CS heads on the bottoms so that the resonating heads don’t carry the sound. I want to keep that sound in the drum so that it’s lively but not ringing.
“My Sonors are 9 x 13, 10 x 14 and 16 x 16, with a 14 x 22 bass drum. And man, those drums are seriously heavy, but I love ’em. They’re real solid sounding, and you can tune them way up high like Jack DeJohnette does, or way down low like Bernard Purdie. The first time I played Sonors was on Bernard’s kit at a triple bill Deja Vu appeared on in New Haven. The heads were so slack I couldn’t believe it—a real tight funk sound. But later I heard a playback of our band and the drums sounded so great. That convinced me that Sonors were happening. The best sound I get from them is when I tune the resonating heads relatively tight with a nice tone, and the top heads real loose.
“Now bass drums are funny things, man. Betsch and I just copped a couple of old calf-head bass drums from Charlie Donnelly, who has this great drum shop and all this vintage equipment up in Newington, Connecticut. One is like an 8 x 24, and the other’s real small; both have wooden hoops from the days during the war when you couldn’t get metal. We use them along with some gongs in Henry’s Sextet for orchestral effects, and those calf heads really make the drums sing, like from back in the days when cats used to really stylize on their bass drums. When I play my Sonor bass drum in contemporary situations, I generally have the front head off, or at least cut out. You need to get the muffling as low in the bass drum as possible so that the beater isn’t striking in the same general area. That way, the drum has room to breathe and has its full resonance. By the same token, you don’t want too many overtones, so it’s a delicate balance. And if you want that round sound—that African sound that Blakey was talking about with Art Taylor in his book Notes & Tones—you should keep the batter side really loose and the resonating side kind of tight. That way you can really stick that beater in and play more heel than toe, because with a one-head drum, the sound goes right out, so you have to have the head loose enough to vibrate. You have to have a head heavy enough to go way down in tuning without flabbing out and losing all pitch, which generally means Pinstripes or CS heads. Just to keep things reasonably tight, I find the best muffling is an external device like they used on those old-time bass drums, or a bit of paper towel and gaffer’s tape in the upper left-hand corner of the batter head, about eleven o’clock high.”
As 1984 reaches the halfway point, Pheeroan ak Laff’s drum sound and musical concept have come full circle. Like many of his progressive colleagues on the New York scene, he’s attempting to have his cake and eat it too, juggling his attention between free form and funk/reggae inflected commercial aspirations, even splitting the distance occasionally, as his work with John Betsch in the Threadgill Sextet attests. Quite an artistic leap in faith from his first date as a leader, the solo drum album House Of Spirit Mirth (Passing Thru Records). “That record was very important for me, because up until then everyone assumed that I was nothing but a ‘blip bleeper.’ New Yorkers had heard me in the context of what might be termed avant-garde, although I’d never tried to be ‘avant’ per se. I just wanted to be me, even if all I was saying was that the drums don’t always have to sound like that. They can also sound like this. I certainly did a ‘blip bleep’ song on House Of Spirit Mirth, because it was important to me to try to display just exactly where ‘blip bleep’ comes from, which I did on the adaptation of the old spiritual ‘Freedom.’ You know: ‘Oh, freedom/Oh, freedom/ Oh, freedom over me/Before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave’; then I leave the lyrics and play it on the drums, and then I take off and go all the way out. The whole point was to establish the depth of the context. What people call ‘modern’ is actually knee deep in the tradition. But I don’t want to fixate on one aspect; I want to play it all because it all has artistic and cultural validity.”
The main adjustments Pheeroan had to make in trying to develop his pop/R&B idiom were in the areas of restraint, control and lyric content. “You can see clearly now that the pop, funk, calypso and Afro-beat music of Fits Like A Glove is something I’ve been working towards for a long time,” Pheeroan concludes. “This is a period for me to write, sing, produce and play songs—as Jerome Harris puts it, ‘little pieces of drama.’ Being self-taught, I need help in areas of writing and arranging, and while I can’t exactly play piano, I do know how to write from it. The hardest thing for me to achieve in this project was to get back into playing all that silly, simple stuff again, because it works. It really works.
“When I worked on my record with [guitarist] Michael Gregory, he kept saying, ‘No fills—no fills. Forget them accents and just play everything straight.’ I thought it’d sound dry, but it sounded great. Jay Hoggard laughed when he heard it. He said he didn’t know I could play that way. It was just like going back to grade school in a way, but if you listen to the African pop musicians, even though there’s a lot going on, everyone’s really playing sort of simply. The idea is to focus things for the dancers.”
And certainly in most “third world” music, the patterns the drummer plays are really incomplete without the input of the dancers; in a sense, they conclude the drummers’ phrase. “Absolutely,” Pheeroan enthuses, “and when I conceive of my music, it isn’t necessarily just in terms of party dancing. It’s in terms of movement in general; it really animates the music and makes it richer—gives it more of a context. So for me, dance means so much more than just some Hoochie-Coochie kind of consciousness, which, unfortunately, people feel guilty about and try to banish. People tend to dance based on their own rhythm and the way they experience life. I mean, there are sacred dancing traditions that have kept us alive for thousands of years. So on Fits Like A Glove, I tried to incorporate all sorts of ideas about the dance from the American and African experience, and put them in some sort of song context.”
Pheeroan’s progress as a vocalist has been a source of some pride to him, and is an ongoing process involving a lot of study. The actual lyric content, however, represents an even greater challenge (and traditionally, this has been the weakest link in the work of progressive jazzmen trying to pursue pop). “There is a craft involved,” Pheeroan concurs. “I’m very interested in learning the craft of writing and not just writing about what I feel. You have to be more subtle than that, and I’m not sure I’m at that level yet. I do know that I want there to be some wholesome ideas in this context. I respect the power of words, and when you get into connecting words to flow with rhythm, it has to rhyme with the way we actually speak or it can throw us off. Of all the things I’ve tried to do in a musical/multi-media type of environment, writing good songs is the toughest nut to crack.”
Perhaps, but not half as tough as maintaining his artistic integrity, his sense of curiosity and the respect of his peers as he tries to stretch the limits of what a so-called jazz musician can and cannot do. But here, above all else, Pheeroan ak Laff is sure of his direction—unthreatened by cursory judgments, and secure in his own self-esteem and respect for others. To ak Laff, it’s all part of a continuity; it’s all his music. “I find that it’s a very moving, gratifying experience to write and perform popular songs in the tradition of the Afro/American church—what came to be known as soul music and rock ‘n’ roll. In a way I’m sort of outside the whole thing, because I never made any separation between artistic approaches; they all seem valid to me. My point of reference has never been jazz or funk or rock, but a neutral place—the human place. I guess I never paid much attention to what people call ‘talking shop.’ I think many times artists develop attitudes because they’ve had to function so defensively in this society. But anytime I’ve heard cats judging someone else’s talent or integrity based on their concept of what’s hip, it didn’t compute. I couldn’t use it. They wouldn’t say it to your face, so what’s the point? It’s just a hip thing to run people down within your own subculture. I used to want to lash out against that type of evil, but now I just laugh at it. The point is, it’s hard for artists in America, but it’s always been hard for artists in Western civilization. And as an artist, I recognize that the most terrible critic I’m going to have to deal with is me. If I can satisfy myself, live up to my potential, and help bring somethings of beauty back to the people, then I’ll be fulfilled.”