Eliot Zigmund

An odd incident of unfairness to lefties suffered by southpaw Eliot Zigmund turned out to be a fortunate twist of fate. The easy-mannered, bearded drummer explains, “When I was younger and first applying to colleges, I applied to Manhattan School of Music. I had an experience there that might have been one of the major things that turned me off to studying classical percussion. I took my audition, and one of the older teachers there at the time told me that, since I played left-handed, there was no way I could ever play snare drum in a symphony orchestra. He went on to say that, if I really wanted to do it, I would have to change and play righty; otherwise, a conductor would look at me and get confused! That was completely ridiculous. At that point, whatever notions I had about studying classical percussion—which were pretty few anyway—went out the window. I decided to study other things at music school and pursue drumming on my own.”

The incident only confirmed what Eliot had already known in his heart. Since his early teens, he had been fascinated by jazz rhythm masters such as Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Pete LaRoca, Sid Catlett, and especially, Philly Joe Jones. “They were my real teachers,” he says. And so, Eliot never entered the Manhattan School, but he did end up touring the globe with several of the jazz world’s finest.

Beginning in the fall of 1975, Eliot gained notice drumming for the Bill Evans Trio. His first big international gig eventually earned him a reputation as a player who could not only cook, but could also swing ever-so-sensitively without stepping on the crystalline fragility of Evans’ introspective piano-trio format. Currently, Eliot is touring and recording with pianist Michel Petrucciani’s trio. The 24-year-old pianist’s European tour received rave reviews, and the trio’s latest Blue Note LP, Pianism, is doing well.

Reflecting back on his drumming style during those Evans years, Eliot says, “If I had played with Bill at a later point in life, I might have done some things with a harder swing. But back then, I was responding to Bill’s moods, and my playing was still developing. One of the Evans albums that influenced me a lot was Montreux I with Jack Dejohnette. Jack played much differently with Bill than any other drummer had before—with so much color and raw energy. He played what he is. It influenced me so much that, when I joined the band, I felt I wanted to promote a similar concept in the trio. So, I got into broken time with lots of colors and textures. Now I feel that half of my playing still involves that element—but I also like to incorporate the harder swing.”

With Petrucciani, Eliot now has the perfect opportunity to express his two sides. At a recent Village Vanguard date, Eliot and bassist Palle Danielsson superbly complemented Michel’s crisp playing—which ranged from moody, shifting harmonies to burning solos that were far more aggressive than Eliot had encountered with Evans. “Bill would play a couple of choruses on a tune at most,” says Eliot, “unless it was a feature tune where he stretched out. The chamber concept was prevalent with Bill. With Michel, however, I sometimes feel almost like I’m playing with a horn player. I can play as hard and forceful as I would with a sax player. He has the incredible endurance to play chorus after chorus, so I get a chance to get that rolling, rhythmic thing going, which I never did with Bill.”

Evans’ trio, which included bassist Eddie Gomez, involved constant coloristic and thematic interplay and response, demanding that each player maintain delicacy without regressing into overcautiousness. “I didn’t consciously think about that balance, because our styles locked in so quickly. Also, I tend to be oversensitive in terms of how I feel musicians will react to my playing, [laughs] I listen to tapes of myself and find that I underplay, or minimize, if anything. That’s a good quality, but it is also important to be aggressive enough to jump on it when it’s your time. That’s something I have been learning from Michel in the last couple of years. His whole gear is “fast-forward”—not tempo-wise, but in doing what he wants to do. He really wants to hear the drums. He told me, ‘Man, I don’t mind if you drown me out, if that’s where you’re coming from on that particular night or on that particular tune or chorus; just go for it!’ With Bill, there were some unspoken restraints. He liked it when you started with brushes and built the energy up, gradually switching to sticks.

“With Michel, anything could happen. He also loves drum solos. That’s not a priority for most bandleaders, including Bill. I solo on almost every tune with Michel in some form or another—either trading fours or extended solos. At least once a set, I take an extended solo. It’s nice to know that there will be that time. For drummers, it’s important to have that time when you’re not playing behind someone else— when you can let everything hang loose for a couple of minutes and try out the ideas that you have been working on at home. It really helps your chops.”

Born a bona fide Bronx boy (April 14, 1945), Eliot was first attracted to music through his Satchmo-worshipping older brother, who also strummed Jelly Roll Morton tunes on guitar. Eliot also remembers watching the Art Ford’s Jazz Party series on television and being mesmerized by the way the drums looked and the way the drummers looked when they played.” Anxious to join in on the fun and play duets with his brother, Eliot decided that “the easiest way to do it seemed to be to buy a snare drum and hi-hat, and start playing.”

All good out-of-the-Bronx success stories involve unpretentious, street-level beginnings, so it was only fitting that Eliot got his first training in a laundromat. “There was a guy in my neighborhood who ran a laundromat, and he was the first person I ever studied with. I used to go to the laundromat and practice with him on practice pads. He never was a professional, but he was a good rudimental drummer and had real good chops.”

By the time he was 16, the lure of bop brought Eliot on religious commutes to Manhattan. “At that time in New York,” he explains, “there were a lot of clubs where you could go even if you were underage. Birdland was one of them. It had a ‘peanut gallery’ for young fans, so I went there a lot. There were other clubs I frequented, including the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place, and the Five Spot. Being a teenager, I often had to borrow my brother’s draft card to get in, or go with him and fake my way in. I heard everybody then. I heard Coltrane a lot, Monk many, many times, and Miles at Vanguard matinees. This gave me the chance to watch drummers like Jimmy Cobb, Roy Haynes, Frankie Dunlop, and many others. In retrospect, that was probably the greatest thing that happened to me at that age.”

After the dubious lefty-audition incident, Eliot attended Mannes College of Music as a theory major, and later received his degree from City College of New York. “I did do some orchestral playing at Mannes and City College, but it was something that never really turned me on. I was interested in classical training in order to learn about the keyboard and to learn to read scores. To this day, the thought of playing percussion in an orchestra leaves me cold. It involves a lot of counting and waiting around, [laughs] I have a lot of respect for classical percussionists, but it’s just something I never felt like I wanted to do. When playing jazz drums, you get to play all the time, from beginning to end—swinging and cooking. It’s just a whole different head.”

Summers between college years were spent gigging and jamming in New York and in the Catskills. Following graduation in 1969, Eliot felt the urge to push westward for a change of scene. “I felt claustrophobic in New York. It was a hard and heavy place to grow up in and musicians didn’t seem to be communicating well. I needed to get out and see New York from a different perspective.

“When I first moved out to California, in the country, I had no professional aspirations at all. After a year of living kind of like a hippie, the desire to play came back stronger and stronger. Eliot s locus on a jazz direction evolved when he started working local gigs with notable players such as Ron McClure, Steve Swallow, Art Lande, Mel Martin, and Mike Nock. Live gigs up and down the coast with pianist Vince Guaraldi gave Eliot further exposure. He also backed Guaraldi’s famous ambling ostinatos on several Peanuts television specials.

After five years of West Coast free-lancing, Eliot returned to New York. While playing shows at the Persian Room in the Plaza Hotel, he heard through the grapevine that Marty Morrell was leaving Bill Evan’s trio. “I had been trying to audition for Bill for a long time,” he recalls. “I took the initiative and called Bill’s manager to set up an audition. The manager liked me, and told me to come down that night and audition during Bill’s performance at the Vanguard—which was pretty amazing. I was shaking, [laughs] The music went well, and I could tell from Bill’s and Eddie’s reactions that they liked it. After the set, Bill said, ‘I liked it, and I will probably give you a call.’ It was not definite; it was ‘probably.’ I hardly slept the next two nights, because getting the gig would be a dream come true. He did call, and the first gig I did with him was a tour of Europe for which we never rehearsed. On the first concert of that tour, the opening tune we played was ‘My Romance,’ and I had the first solo. We played the head, Eddie and Bill dropped out, and there I was on some stage in Germany with the Bill Evans trio, soloing on the form of ‘My Romance’! That wouldn’t throw me now. But back then, on my first major gig—out there, cold—boy, oh, boy! I think I did okay, but it was nerve-wracking. I had no concept of myself as an extended soloist up until I played with Bill.

“In all the time I was with Bill, we may have rehearsed at his house once for an album. Most new tunes were introduced right on the spot. He would make up an arrangement, and we would start playing. Bill never discussed the concepts of the music with us, either. It was pretty much up to instinct. I think Bill felt that, if he had to talk about the music with either of his musicians, then they weren’t the right people.

“That trio, at its best, was really special. I think the qualities in my drumming that clicked with Bill and Eddie were primarily my feel, my touch, and my ability to let the music float. Also, I had played a lot of brushes throughout my life, and Bill really responded to that. I also knew Bill’s repertoire instinctively.”

During his three-year residency with Evans (1975-1978), Eliot experienced a heavy dose of world touring. Albums recorded by the group in those years included Crosscurrents, We Will Meet Again, From The ’70s (a compilation of performances by different Evans groups), and Eliot’s favorite, You Must Believe In Spring, which is often regarded as one of Evans’ finest later-period records. “I am very proud of that record,” says Eliot. “I think it is an incredible album, because it sustains a mood from the first note of the first tune through the last note of the last tune. I am happy that a record captured that, because—conditions being what they are with record companies—you don’t always capture the music at its best.”

Leaving the trio was a tough choice for Eliot. Part of his decision was based on his plans to play with Eon, a trio featuring pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Frank Tusa. But the prime motivation was a commitment to growth. “I left because I felt that I had done what I could do with Bill’s music, as far as being honest with it and not becoming repetitive were concerned. I also left thinking that, after you play with Bill Evans, you just naturally move on to the next gig. [laughs] But the reality is that there is no ‘next gig.’ The jazz scene is such that there never is a guarantee—even for masters.” As it turned out, Eon was very short-lived.

Eliot Zigmund

A period of New York free-lancing followed. Eliot played with artists such as Don Friedman, Bob Kindred, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and Lee Konitz, as well as an on-and-off, year-long stint with the Jim Hall trio (which included bassist Harvie Swartz). Eliot notes, “Jim, like Bill, is another great, subtle player. Because he plays at a soft volume, people often miss the intensity of his music. That’s because they’re so used to being battered over the head.”

In 1979, Eliot returned to the Evans trio (with Marc Johnson now on bass) for a few months. During that time, the album, Affinity,  featuring guest artist Toots Thielemans, was recorded. Eliot departed from Evans again to pursue other musical projects, including a summer tour of Japan with pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Red Mitchell. (In 1980, Bill Evans died, leaving behind a prolific body of work marking him as one of the all-time greats of the jazz keyboard.)

Most listeners associate Eliot only with his light-touched, Evans-era playing. But he has also backed pop performers, such as Stephanie Mills and Dionne Warwick, and in the pre-Evans days, he toured the world with Neil Sedaka. When the Sedaka troupe pulled into a theater with a house orchestra, Eliot sometimes handled conducting chores. “Conducting and playing drums are not all that dissimilar, actually,” he points out. Other facets of Eliot’s drum ming outside of his work with Evans can be heard on such albums as Gary Peacock’s Shift In The Wind, Keith Greko’s Last Train Outta Flagstaff, Michel Petrucciani’s Live At The Village Vanguard, guitarist Carl Barry’s Holding On, and Eddie Gomez’s Down Stretch.

An endorser of Pearl drums, Sabian cymbals, and Vic Firth sticks, Eliot currently uses the Pearl MX Series of maple shell drums. “I even have to lighten up on my light touch with the Pearl maple drums because they project so well,” he says. “It seems I need to use only half of the energy in my stroke that I previously had to use with other drums.” The choices of drum sizes he uses with Michel’s trio are an 18×14 bass, 8×10 and 10 x 12 rack toms, 14 x 14 floor tom, and a 6 1/2″ deep snare. The heads are all Remo Ambassadors  with varying small amounts of tape on the toms and snare for dampening. His Sabian hand-hammered cymbals are a 22″ minibell ride with rivets, an 18″ mini-bell ride used as a crash/ride, 14″ hi-hats, and a 22″ China-type. “In the past, I have been really conservative about setups,” he says. “I normally have used only four drums. Adding a fifth drum has been a big consideration for me. [laughs] But actually, just that one extra drum does make a great difference for technique and considerations of melodic possibilities.”

Being a lefty does change the physical way Eliot approaches the drums: He plays with his left foot on the bass drum and with his right on the hi-hat. Although he has never been concerned that this would “confuse conductors,” it has caused other problems. “My first drum teacher’s first question to me was, ‘Are you right- or left-handed?’ Then he set up the drums in reverse. Now, I believe that that was a mistake, because it has made it really hard for me to sit in. In the jazz scene, it is important to sit in, because that is how you get heard as a jazz musician. If I had left-handed students today, I would either start them righty—or perhaps lefty if it seemed like they really needed to play lefty—but definitely right-footed so that they could sit in on anyone’s drums.”

Since Eliot joined Michel’s trio in 1984, the group has tracked several European tours and a Japan tour. The modest budgeting of jazz tours and the current high costs of the road present special problems for the drummer who is trekking through long strings of one-nighters. “Getting the drums to sound right on tour is hard, because it’s not economically practical to use your own drums in Europe,” says Eliot. “In Europe or Japan, they measure every kilo that goes on the plane, and a small set could cost you $200 a day. I often had to deal with a different rented or borrowed set every night. Sometimes it got pretty funny in Europe. I would show up and find huge, deep rock drums with single heads. Usually, if I at least got a major brand of drums with double heads, I could  get some kind of a sound—no matter what the size. When Pearl provides the sets on tour, I don’t have to worry about this.”

Although he hopes to spend less time on the road in the future, Eliot—like all jazz musicians—is faced with the problem of few steady jazz gigs available in New York. “Ninety-five percent of my creative playing is on the road, and I’m not in that boat alone. Most jazz players I know make their living on the road now. It would be nice to feel like a functioning artist in my hometown but where can you play? Bill Evans used to tell me about playing at the Vanguard and Village Gate for six months out of the year. Now, you’re lucky to get one straight week.”

Teaching between tours at William Paterson College (Wayne, New Jersey) and New York University gives Eliot a chance to be at home in Brooklyn with his wife, Toba, and their two children. “Teaching college students keeps me on my toes. I give them what I have to offer in my field, but I’ll often stop and say to them, ‘What is that you’re doing? Can I hear that again?’ [laughs] I’m not embarrassed to do that, because I am one guy from one generation and I try to keep my ears open to others.

“Some of my students can play rings around me in terms of coordination and certain techniques. It’s great to have that facility, but the bottom line is the honesty and spirit of the music—how your music affects people—not how your chops are. So, my advice to younger drummers is to get depth and validity in playing—beyond your technique.”

When performing with Petrucciani, long-legged Eliot sits low behind his set and rides the kit with the kind of subtle wrist action that makes fast bopping look effortless. Michel often performs the most standard of standards: “Autumn Leaves,” “My Romance,” “My Funny Valentine.” Yet, the direction the tunes take is hardly predictable.

“One of the things that makes it so exciting to play with Michel is his spontaneity,” says Eliot. “He will do things like going completely out of the form if he feels it moving in that direction—maybe play an interlude for 24 bars or completely change the tune harmonically—and I don’t mean just with substitutions! It adds a surreal quality and depth to playing music that is essentially bebop.”

Stretching out and allowing the music to evolve is a process Eliot values as the “natural tradition” in jazz. But attempting to capture that process on record is another struggle. “I still think there is room for this completely natural tradition in the record industry,” he contends. “The record producers and business people don’t believe it. They often seem to feel that the more natural it is, the less likely it is to succeed.

“Michel’s first record with this trio, Live At The Village Vanguard, is a double album, and it features only six or seven tunes. As a result of that, the music got no airplay because the business people wanted short tunes. But is that what they told Coltrane when he recorded A Love Supreme! I don’t mean to compare our trio to Coltrane, but my point is that it is not good for the record business to always think this way.

“In a sense, I can understand the business point of view, because I road-managed this trio when it first got together. We weren’t making enough to have our own road manager, so I took it upon myself. I was the one collecting money and dealing with club owners. So I started seeing things from the business end—and it’s rough. Jazz is just not a big-money proposition. If you are doing it, it is primarily for the love of it. It’s not about being a star. The reward is to be able to express yourself. I usually just try to be able to pay my bills and keep playing. For me, luxury is a new ten-speed bicycle.” [laughs]

Just as Petrucciani lets his intuition carry the music where it may, Bill Evans was also a player who let his moods speak through the piano. This is ultimately the link between the two pianists, which suggests why Eliot was their choice of drummer. A team player, Eliot has the knack for responding to the ebb and flow of a player’s personality at any given moment. On occasion, Evans was known to ease into entire sets of ballads on a concert stage—a risky feat few performers can sustain. Without Eliot and Gomez behind him, the delicate bubble might have deflated. Recalling the magic touch with which Evans could create intimacy through his instrument, Eliot cites a talent for which he, too, can take a bow: “Performers know that they have really arrived when they can just walk out on stage and not feel the tension of, ‘What does the audience think?’ When you can play as naturally on stage as you play in your own living room, that’s when you start to collect on some of the dues you have been paying all your life.”