Guitar god Jeff Beck didn’t get where he is by keeping his drummers in the shadows. Quite the opposite—few leaders enjoy having a fire lit under them as much as Beck does. Can you say Narada Michael Walden? Simon Phillips? How about Vinnie Colaiuta? Now, can you say Jonathan Joseph?
If anyone knows drummers, it’s Jeff Beck, who made headlines in the mid-’60s alongside Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the first-wave British blues-rock band the Yardbirds, and later helped launch the jazz-rock movement with his own influential mid-’70s albums, including Blow by Blow and Wired. Among those who’ve filled the drum chair for the guitarist: Vinnie Colaiuta, Terry Bozzio, Narada Michael Walden, Simon Phillips, Carmine Appice, Mickey Waller, Tony Newman, Richard Bailey, Bernard Purdie, Aynsley Dunbar, Gerry Brown, and Cozy Powell. So when it’s time to play with Beck, you’d better come prepared.
Clearly Jonathan Joseph did just that; he’s currently in the midst of his second tour with Beck, and a new album featuring the drummer is in the works. (At press time a release date was still unconfirmed. When the album does hit the shelves, look for an exclusive track-by-track rundown with Joseph at moderndrummer.com.) Did it hurt that Joseph’s stepdaughter is R&B superstar Joss Stone, who has performed numerous times with Beck? Of course not. But that didn’t exactly guarantee that Joseph would get hired. Anyway, he needn’t have worried; after their first jam together, there was no question in Beck’s mind that Joseph was more than qualified for the gig.
Jonathan was born on October 25, 1966, and grew up in Miami. At six years old he was playing drums in the church where his mom, Jerlene, was the choir director—an experience, he says, that made it natural for him to later transition to playing jazz, rock, and R&B.
Joseph attended the University of Miami’s music school and soon landed his first real gig—playing with his own band at Dizzy Gillespie’s seventieth birthday party. Early bosses included Stanley Turrentine, Mongo Santamaria, and other jazz greats, but in the ’90s Joseph started playing with more R&B artists, including singer Betty Wright, touring and recording her album B-Attitudes. By 1993 he was back playing jazz with the Zawinul Syndicate, and in 1995 he worked with saxophonist David Sanborn. Other notable jazzers that Joseph performed with include Pat Metheny, Al Jarreau, Mike Stern, Bill Evans, and Randy Brecker; with Brecker Joseph recorded the Grammy-winning 1997 album Into the Sun. In 1999 and 2000 Jonathan was on Latin-pop star Ricky Martin’s Livin’ la Vida Loca promotional tour, and around this time he also performed with the Yellowjackets and bassist Richard Bona.
In 2004 Joseph became the drummer and musical director for Joss Stone’s tour behind The Soul Sessions, which is how he met the singer’s mother, Wendy. Jonathan and Wendy soon married, and after the drummer relocated to the U.K., the couple opened the club Mama Stone’s, which was designed to showcase new talent, in Exeter, England. Joseph first performed live with the Jeff Beck Band at the 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival, after which he joined Beck and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson on their joint North American tour. MD caught up with the busy drummer in Florida while he was on a short break before the U.S. leg of Beck’s current trek.
MD: How did you hook up with Jeff Beck?
Jonathan: My gig with Jeff was completely unexpected. One day in the fall of 2012 I was driving Joss to the airport. While we were making the three-hour journey to Heathrow, I made a comment to her about how I’ve been a fan of Jeff’s music for many years. I asked her to tell Jeff that I would love to audition for his band in the event that Vinnie [Colaiuta] was unable to make any of his gigs. She proceeded to pick up her phone and call him. They spoke for ten minutes, then she said, “Hey, I know this really great drummer that would like to audition for your band if Vinnie is unavailable. Why don’t you come down to Mama Stone’s and play?”
And that was pretty much it. He came and played with me and two other members of Joss’s band. We had a great show, and Jeff seemed to be very happy with my performance. Jeff’s wife, Sandra, came down with him, and they stayed with Wendy and me in our home. The day after the show, while sitting at my breakfast table, Jeff began to tell me about the next project he had in mind. He then said that he would like me to be his new drummer. Obviously I was shocked! So I said, “As far as the new project goes, I’m totally down for whatever you want to do. But please understand that I’m still trying to deal with the fact that you’re sitting here at my breakfast table.” [laughs]
MD: So is playing with Jeff everything you imagined?
Jonathan: Playing with Jeff is incredible. He is very intense, and he loves the drums. It’s important to always be aware of what he wants from minute to minute. He doesn’t like to be locked down, which means that things are subject to change without notice. I enjoy that—it reminds me of playing in church. It keeps things fresh when you don’t know what’s coming next.
MD: You won a Grammy in 2010 for your work as an engineer on Joss’s recording “This Little Light of Mine,” from the compilation album Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration. How did you get started behind the board?
Jonathan: I started engineering in 2000. For years I was frustrated with engineers destroying my sound. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and learn which frequencies were responsible for the various aspects of the sound. I did this via Pro Tools. It is one of the best decisions I ever made. I can now communicate exactly what I want to the engineer, in a language he or she will understand. I no longer have to put up with my toms sounding like boxes. Most people playing acoustic instruments want to hear an accurate reproduction of their sound. Some engineers simply don’t know how to make instruments sound good.
Here’s some useful information if your toms sound like boxes and you want them to sound rich and full. Ask the engineer to reduce the frequencies between 250 and 500 Hz. This frequency range is not good for toms. Reducing the range 6 dB at approximately 350 Hz will get rid of the boxy sound. Boosting the frequencies between 70 and 125 Hz will add warmth and body to your toms. Boosting 3 or 4 dB at 1 kHz will give you more attack. That should go a long way to sorting out problems with your sound.
MD: Take us through your practice routine.
Jonathan: My practice routine changes depending on who I’m working with. For the past two years I’ve been working on my double pedal technique as well as various inverted and displaced paradiddle and triplet ideas with my hands while playing double bass. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this aspect of my playing.
I started playing double pedal thirty years ago. During that time I lacked the discipline to develop it properly. In the beginning I was practicing double pedal like most teenagers do, trying to play as many notes as possible. [laughs] The notes were really uneven, and I didn’t have much of a concept in terms of incorporating the pedals into my style. In those days I was playing a lot of straight-ahead jazz gigs, and most of the guys I worked with couldn’t really hear double pedal being played under their solos. So eventually I decided to put the double pedal away.
Now, thirty years later, this opportunity with Jeff pops up, and one of the first things I thought about was his history with great drummers and the fact that most of them either play double bass drum or double pedal. At that point I decided to pull out the pedals and put myself on a practice schedule that would allow me to develop the skills needed to play the ideas I’d already heard. I searched through a stack of books and found the one that I was looking for, Progressive Double Bass Drumming by Bob Burgett. I immediately started working on the exercises with my feet the same way I worked on rudiments with my hands.
It was through this process that I realized I needed to build confidence in my ability to execute my ideas with the pedals. For me, the confidence comes through repetition. It’s totally psychological. I know that if I simply practice the exercises every day, I’m going to get better; therefore I don’t spend loads of time practicing things I already know. I would rather address my areas of weakness, knowing that the process will make me strong. I am now extremely confident with the pedals. I’ve been able to achieve a level of freedom that I’m very happy with. Needless to say, there’s more work to be done in this area, but I feel pretty good about where I am now.
MD: Do you practice along to recordings?
Jonathan: Yes, I do. I don’t have any limitations with regard to the genre. Again, whatever is next on the gig schedule will determine what I practice. For me, the most important aspect of practicing for gigs is to really understand the feel of the artist I’m working with. In my experience, most artists only have four or five different grooves they use. Everything is derived from those patterns. Once you have that realization, it’s much easier to deal with an artist’s catalog.
MD: What do you still find challenging to play at this point?
Jonathan: The most challenging material for me is found in my upcoming book, Exercises in African American Funk. The book is a series of independence exercises that focus on helping drummers from the Americas understand the true nature of West African drumming. It primarily deals with two rhythms, bikutsi and mangambe. Both rhythms utilize the three-against-four polyrhythm.
My partner Steve Rucker [drumset professor at the University of Miami] and I have designed a sequence of practical application exercises that will teach drummers from the West how to manipulate the triplet with the same feel as players from West Africa, while applying the rhythms to Western music. In the book, particular attention is placed on the second partial of the triplet. When the second partial of the triplet is accented, it can begin to sound like it’s the first partial of each beat, though of course it’s not!
While the book starts with very basic three-against-four grooves, the independence exercises are extremely advanced. That’s the part that stresses me out. The rhythmic concepts discussed in the book will definitely bring you back to a place of inspiration and will challenge your ability on the highest possible level.
I still spend time working on my left hand. No matter how many years I devote to trying to get it to feel like my right hand, somehow it never seems to feel the same. I feel very comfortable with my ability to execute ideas with my left hand, and there are times when my left hand feels stronger than the right, but it’s just not consistent. I think I need to accept that my left hand isn’t supposed to feel like my right hand, which is why it never does.
MD: What areas do you think young drummers should be focusing on?
Jonathan: I’ve always been an advocate of having a good, solid time feel. In general, partially because of the proliferation of “gospel chops,” young people seem to have a much better feel than they used to. For me, it’s very cool to see gospel drumming taking center stage. It’s the foundation of everything I play!
MD: What drummers have particularly inspired you?
Jonathan: Narada Michael Walden played on the first recording of improvisational music that I ever heard, the tune “Sophie” from Jeff Beck’s Wired album. That album transformed my musical career and put me on a trajectory of improvisational music. Narada wrote that track as well.
Billy Cobham is another, because of the clarity and intensity of his rolls. That blows my mind. He possessed a plethora of ideas that I aspired to understand and execute. Elvis Jones was another. There was something about the way he articulated the ride cymbal pattern along with that sea of rolling triplets all over the kit. Tony Williams, with the intensity of his swing and the sound of those Gretsch drums—his musical ideas hit me hard right in the center of my chest.
MD: You recently changed drum companies.
Jonathan: Yes, I’m currently endorsing Sakae drums. Sakae has had a long history of making drums for Yamaha. They are actually the company responsible for the Yamaha sound. I started endorsing them after taking a tour of the company’s facility in Osaka, Japan. The CEO of the company, Eizo Nakata, has designed an outstanding line of drums. I’m playing the Celestial model. It’s a hybrid kit that features a combination of maple and bubinga woods. The sound of this kit is amazing! The toms have a very robust tone but with a very quick stick response. It’s a big, fast sound.
MD: What will you be working on after the tour with Jeff?
Jonathan: I’m really looking forward to releasing Exercises in African American Funk and starting the promotional tour for it. I’m shooting a DVD for it as well, so I’m very excited about the entire project. It’s been about ten years in the making.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Joseph plays Sakae Celestial drums, including 8×10 and 9×12 toms, 13×14 and 15×16 floor toms, and a 16×22 bass drum, with a 6.5×14 brass snare and a 5×10 maple auxiliary snare. His Sabian cymbals include 14″ Evolution hi-hats, 16″ and 17″ AAX X-Plosion crashes, 6″ and 10″ AAX splashes, an 18″ HHX O-Zone crash, and a 22″ Artisan ride. His Evans batter heads include a coated Level 360 G1 on the 14″ snare, a coated G1 on the 10″ snare, clear Level 360 G12s on the toms, and a clear EMAD on the bass drum. He uses Regal Tip 9A sticks, a Porter & Davies BC2 throne, and 2box electronics.