Will LeeThere’s an old joke about the four-piece band that says, “We’ve got three musicians and a drummer,” but the joke would never have started if the band had Will Lee in its rhythm section. The former drummer turned studio bassist “wanted to be a musician, so I became a drummer. Drums are a natural instrument for a kid to bang on.” Though he traded in his kit for a bass, Will Lee never stopped banging. Despite his reputation as a first-call studio bassist (and vocalist), there are rhythmic elements in Lee’s style that come straight from his boom-tap background. “I’m like a Great Dane that was once a puppy and doesn’t realize he’s grown up. I still think I’m a drummer when I play bass,” says Lee, who can pound out a percussive riff with enough crash to make you wonder when his bass sprouted Zildjians. “I’d call the rapport between the drummer and bassist a marriage,” he adds. “When those two people are listening to each other, they can make the whole groove swing.”

If there had been more bassists in Lee’s native Miami, Florida, in the early ’60s, he might still be playing drums. “No one played bass then,” he explains. “All the bands were just guitar, drums, and vocals. Young kids then had no concept of the foundation that bass gives you. I switched to satisfy a harmonic need. I wanted to bang, and I also wanted to play notes. The band I was in needed a bassist, so I got someone else to play drums, and I picked up a bass.”

Ever since Lee was literally called out of class to join the Brecker Brothers’ band Dreams, he’s had a kinetic rapport with drummers. “I’ve played with a lot of people, and I’ve never disliked any of them.” Right now, he’s in three bands, plus his regular gig in Paul Shaffer’s band on the David Letterman show. None of the drummers he works with are alike, which gives Lee fresh sources of creative inspiration in each session.

Who It Is, rapidly becoming one of New York’s best offers in the way of R&B funk, features Lee on bass, David Sanborn (sometimes) on sax, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Richard Tee on piano, and Dave Weckl on drums. “Dave Weckl is a heavy technician. He’s got a rock-solid feel,” Lee reveals. “He’s real crisp. He’s only 27 years old, but he plays like he’s been playing drums for 20 years. Chris Parker, from Joe Cool, has got a great, rolling kind of feel. His groove is kind of round. Peter Erskine, from the Don Grolnick Band, plays with a happy feeling. It’s impossible to describe or write down in words. Then there’s Steve Jordan, who was in Paul Shaffer’s band, and who plays with unbelievable confidence what an amazingly precise drummer. Each one is easy to play with for different reasons. There are a couple of people I haven’t played with yet, like Fred White from Earth, Wind & Fire, and Steve Smith, but I’d like to play with those guys sometime.”

You’d think Will Lee would miss drums and wish he were a drummer again, with his old attachments to the percussive beat coming across so strongly on bass. “I don’t miss playing professionally,” he says, “because there are so many people who can do it better than I can. I m just happy to play when I feel like sitting down and banging. My left foot my hi-hat foot isn’t too great, but the other three limbs are killers. I just like to have a lot of fun. My biggest challenge is playing simple; that’s what I really like. My favorite drumbeat is just boom-tap, boom-tap, boom-tap. On top of that, you can play and sing anything.”

When he feels like sitting down and banging, Lee has a lot of equipment to bang on. “My collection is almost entirely gifts from friends,” he explains. And with friends like his, who are constantly upgrading and experimenting with new pieces, he is heir to a virtual museum of drums, cymbals, and toms. “I got a Simmons SDS8 for Christmas from my girlfriend. It sounds really great. Chris Parker gave me a hi-hat, a bass drum, and a bass drum pedal, and Steve Jordan gave me a tom-tom and a floor tom. Chris Butler just recently gave me two more tom-toms, and Peter Erskine gave me a cymbal. Steve Ferrone gave me some old Zildjians, and Ronnie Zito gave me four singleheaded tom-toms. I’ve got everything set up in my house, and I’ve also got a Roland TR-707 machine that I haven’t mounted yet. I’m still reading the manual.”

When he wants to use his hands, Lee has a collection of bongos, shakers, and toys. “Triangles are my favorite,” he adds. “I don’t play mallets or congas though. I used to hang out at Frank Ippolito’s Professional Percussion Center and look at every new thing that came in. That was a while ago.” His collection sounds more than complete, but Lee thinks he’s due for a new set of double-headed tom-toms, “and I might also get a second snare drum so I can do fills on it. Then I might get a set of timbales to add to the kit. “

Maybe one reason Will Lee doesn’t miss his drum playing days is because he gets a chance to pick up the sticks every now and then. Back when Steve Jordan was the drummer on the Letterman show, he and Will would sometimes switch places. “Sometimes I’d switch with Steve or Charlie Drayton, and have more fun playing drums than most drummers. They’d have more fun playing bass, too. I think it’s because I don’t have to play; it’s just for fun. Drummers are great listeners, too. They’ll listen carefully to what a non-drummer will play. They can get a lot of ideas from that. Likewise, drummers notice that I listen intensely to them, and that makes for a good relationship. We’re always playing and talking to each other giving out ideas and playing off those ideas.”

Another factor in the drummer-bassist relationship comes from the “bass being the step between guitar and drums,” according to Lee. “It’s the most natural thing for the two to be so closely connected. Just the time feel is enough to unite them. I think the bass drum and the bass are music’s common denominator, helping you feel the groove. And once you can feel the groove, you’ve got a good foundation for entering any genre of music. “A bassist should trust the drummer let his or her groove take you where it wants to go,” Lee urges. “If that’s not the destination you had in mind, either the drummer’s having a bad day or your in the wrong place.”

Several of Will’s preferred drummers Peter Erskine, Charlie Drayton, and Dave Weckl, to name a few agree that the close connection between drummer and bass is an important one. “Will and I get things from each other,” explains Drayton, who plays with Lee in Hiram Bullock’s Band Of Doom. “Will tends to play to make somebody else look really good. Most people don’t extend themselves to that extent. We had a friendship long before we had a musical relationship, so when we finally played, it was more of a spontaneous feeling. We both strive to build a song without getting in each other’s way and make something happen together. There are times when one of us has a bad day and might have to give a little more for the other one. If I’m feeling down and Will plays something extra-special, he can get me to play at that level of emotion, too.”

Playing with Will is different from playing with other bassists, according to Drayton. “Will knows what makes a drummer lock into a groove really fast, because he has a sense of what a drummer would do, He’s the best at sounding like anyone he wants to sound like. He can capture any style, too. But it’s easy to slack off because he’s such an amazing guy, and he makes it seem like you sound great. He’s the only bass player I know that I’ll never have any problems with. One thing that makes him play so great is the feedback he gets from everybody. He picks up from what other people are playing around him. Every time he plays with someone different, he executes a different feel.”

When Peter Erskine hears that he’s going to be playing with Will, he can relax. “Will’s about the greatest bass player in the world to play with. He finds the best and simplest groove, and then builds on that, which is the most musical and logical kind of thing. When he starts playing, you’re right there with him. When I find out I’m going to be playing with Will, I can’t wait until we hit it. It’s important for a bassist not to play too busy. A beat has to have a lot of transparency, as if air and sunlight could come through it. You want strong pillars, but you don’t want to dominate all the time. It’s like conversation. You have to make a statement and let someone digest it. Will has that ability to support without dominating.”

Dave Weckl agrees that, if the rhythm support isn’t there, drummers and bassists can have problems. “I never have a problem with Will, but some bass players have a difficult time adjusting to where the feel lies. If the bassist and the drummer don’t agree, it can really throw the whole thing off. If a bass player has a concept of the time being behind the beat, while the drummer’s concept is on top of the beat, then there’s a problem. If neither person is willing to compromise, it’s a real battle. Will and I never had any question as to where that feel was, whether it was a straight-ahead tune or a funk tune. We’ve never had a concept problem. He’s very conscious of every note he plays. It’s always in the right place in the beat, without inconsistencies. Will always comes up with something different – something that makes a lot of sense and that really grooves. He never has to search for anything. We always seem to be on the same wavelength in terms of locking in on the same time and groove. When I play bass, I get to see what a bass player has to go through if the drummer isn’t laying it down right. I can hear what should be going on in the drum part, and that perspective is valuable.”

Weckl not only agrees with Lee that a bassist should have a sense of what the drummer is doing, but he thinks that anyone with “some knowledge of the drumset is a real plus in terms of rhythm concept and time feel. There’s something so precise about hitting a drum note. A lot of people don’t pay attention to the exactness of getting every note down perfectly, but with Will, every note he plays is usually perfect. He plays like he’s thought about it. We work together a lot on jingles and record dates, and even with a click track, there’s no problem. It’s always fun to play with Will. You never have to wonder if the bass player’s going to make it.”

For Lee, getting to work with the finest drummers in the business is a constant joy. “I’ve played with a lot of great people, including Omar Hakim, Vinnie Colaiuta, Jeff Porcaro, Carlos Vega, Yogi Horton, and Harvey Mason, who’s played on practically every record cut in L.A. Those are some of my favorite drummers, but there are still a lot I haven’t played with yet that I’d like to work with sometime, like Kenny Aronoff, Dave Garibaldi, Jonathan Moffett, Tony Thompson, and Chad Wacker man.”

It isn’t only drummers that Will Lee is emulating these days. “I wanted to get happening expand my style,” Lee explains. So during a recent vacation, he picked up some keyboards. “No one that I know of so far makes a great trigger for a synthesizer that feels like a bass, so I’ve had to play keyboard to get those sounds. I still have a long way to go, though. So far, I’ve been happy just to play some bass parts on the keyboard. I’ve got to get my dexterity together before I can play fancy chord parts. I’ve got a lot to learn. What I aim for is that the note will come out somewhere in the vicinity of what I hear. That’s what I’m working on.”

If Will Lee is working on it, chances are good he’ll more than master the technique. As he says, “I’m a competitive guy. I’m always competing with the drummer.”