A New Horizon
by Gary Farmer
For those few who haven’t heard. Erskine has indeed found a new home, playing with the jazz-rock quartet Weather Report. The group members include Josef Zawinul. keyboards: Wayne Shorter, saxophone and Jaco Pastorius, electric bass.
The move came suddenly when, according to Erskine, “I was in Miami and Jaco and Joe played some of the Heavy Weather tapes. The music was fantastic. They were looking for a drummer and after hearing me play only once, I was invited to join the group. It was a gamble on their part but my musical style and personality appealed to them.” Erskine has already done some work on Weather Report’s latest album, Mr. Gone. Currently. The group is preparing for their US tour which will commence in Washington D.C.
The format of Weather Report is a drastic change for Erskine, whose previous experience included three years with the Stan Kenton Orchestra and two years with Maynard Ferguson’s 18 piece band. Though Erskine says his work with Weather Report will keep him “very busy.” he anticipates a less grueling schedule than the constant one-nighters he experienced with the Ferguson band.
GF: How about starting off with some details of your childhood.
PE: I was born in 1954, in Somers Point, New Jersey. My father was a musician. I was exposed to music at an early age. My mother always appreciated music, and her interest grew along with mine. Now she can tell me who’s playing drums on certain records. She recognizes Billy Cobham’s drumming from Elvin Jones, which is hip because she never liked drummers. She never liked Kenton either, which is funny because I ended up working for him.
I started drum lessons when I was five years old. My first teacher was Johnny Civera, who played drums for Patti Page and Billy May. He was a patient man and gave me a solid musical foundation. He also introduced me to the Stan Kenton clinics, and with some additional prodding from my father, it was the start of a long association. I went to his clinic for several years. I got exposed to some very talented musicians like Ron Carter, Alan Dawson, Charley Perry, Ed Soph, Dee Barton and the Kenton bands. It was a tremendous experience. During the school year I’d play along with a lot of records and try to hear as many different groups as possible.
GF: What type of groups?
PE: I listened to a lot of big bands. Art Blakey was one of the first drummers I listened to, although he worked mostly with smaller groups. I was listening to people like Grady Tate and Elvin. My sister used to date jazz musicians and a lot of records would end up at the house. I was lucky to be able to hear all those things. I went to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for three years. It’s a high school with an emphasis on the arts. I met a lot of good people there. Later, I studied classical percussion with Billy Dorn, who was the mallet player for Toscannini and the NBC Symphony. But I really learned a lot from Dave Sporny. He used to sing drum licks and fills. Hearing that was good for basic big band playing. I also went to Indiana University for one year and studied with George Gaber. That summer, I worked some clubs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, playing timpani for the Ice Capades. I got a call from Stan Kenton, who wanted me to play with the band at the Newport Festival in Lincoln Center. I sat in during a rehearsal. June Christy was singing with the band that evening and they thought I was her drummer. I went in and sight read some of her charts. Later, Stan came up to me, gave me a couple of albums and told me to meet him in Ohio in a week. I didn’t go back to school. Just picked up my suitcase and drums, travelled with the band for two days and studied the albums.
GF: What kind of drums did you start out with?
PE: I had this little set with a Chinese tom-tom and a funky old cymbal. Later, I graduated to a Gretsch set, a red sparkle that had two bunny rabbit decals on the bass drum head. The set had a snare drum, small tom, bass, and a couple of cymbals. I added a floor tom that was actually a Slingerland marching drum that someone had attached legs to. I had those drums for quite awhile. In high school, I bought a blond, wood Ludwig set. I had a very bastardized set when I joined the Kenton band. A Roger’s snare, Ludwig set, Sonor pedals and Slingerland stands. One time, I was with Stan in Chicago and the damn pedal I was using literally exploded. Springs were flying out of it and everything fell apart. Brad Morey of Slingerland was there and told me that would never happen if I played Slingerland. The folks from Slingerland came out and brought me a hi-hat stand. Slingerland and I were touch and go for awhile, but after the European tour with the Kenton band, my drums were beat up, and they were nice enough to give me a new set. That was the beginning of my association with Slingerland.
GF: What are you currently using?
PE: I’ve experimented with a lot of different sizes, from a relatively small kit with a 20″ bass, up to a 24.” Now, with Weather Report, my set consists of a 22″ bass, 8 X 1 2 and 9 X 1 3 mounted toms, a 16 X 16 floor tom, a 10″ Roto-tom and a 5 1/2 X 14 brass shell snare. The snare is a combination gut and wire and produces a fantastic sound! I use CS Black Dot heads except on the snare which has an Ambassador head.
GF: Any special considerations regarding your set-up?
PE: I kind of evolved since the Kenton band, putting the swish cymbal down by the tom-toms. I used to play it up higher, and play the ride cymbal lower and flatter. My cymbal set-up includes a 14″ Rock hihat, 22″ ride crash on the left, 22″ Ping ride, 22″ Swish, 20″ crash and a 13″ crash that’s paper thin. All my cymbals are Zildjian. I’m also getting into wind chimes, wood blocks and gongs. I also use a small triangle.
GF: Have you played left-handed cymbal?
PE: A little bit. If you have the right frame of mind you can master anything in drumming quite easily. There’s no magic to learning the instrument. There are some endowed people and that is what makes artists out of musicians. If someone has the desire, puts in the time, and listens, he can groove. It’s a matter of what you’re exposed to and when you get a chance to play.
GF: You use a wooden tip 5A stick?
PE: Yes, and Slingerland has just put my name on them. I think they get a nicer sound from a cymbal. I used the plastic tipped sticks on a couple of things but I much prefer the sound obtained with the wood tip.
GF: How do you feel about multiple drum set-ups?
PE: A lot of drums are nice. On the New Vintage album I did with Maynard I used my standard set-up, plus I rented a couple of small concert toms. An 8″ and 10″. It was fun to play but I think I sounded like a kid. Whenever I got an opportunity to do a fill, I did. It was like a new toy. I guess it depends on where your head is at musically.
“IF YOU HAVE THE RIGHT FRAME OF MIND YOU CAN
MASTER ANYTHING IN DRUMMING QUITE
EASILY. THERE’S NO MAGIC TO LEARNING THE
INSTRUMENT…. IF SOMEONE HAS THE
DESIRE, PUTS IN THE TIME, AND LISTENS, HE
GF: Have you done any double bass drum work?
PE: No, but I’d like to try it someday. I’ve seen Jack DeJonette with a fairly large set as well as a small one, and he sounds great on both. I’ve also seen a lot of kids with multiple drum set-ups that didn’t know beans about playing the ride cymbal. The fact that you have all those drums doesn’t do much musically.
GF: Any concepts on tuning drums?
PE: I used single heads for awhile but I prefer the sound of the drum with two heads. It has some tone to it. Mel Lewis gave me a hard time once when I was with Kenton. He said, “You should be using both heads on those drums.” With that influence and the advice of my teacher, I started thinking about it. I started to really listen to the drums and the two-headed drum sounds terrific. I use a 5-ply Slingerland with no mufflers. I don’t like to muffle the drums at all. I try to get as much of the tone as I can. Muffling is like playing a violin with a mute on it all the time. You can always muffle a drum if you want to, but in most playing situations, if you’re dealing with volumes, you don’t want too much muffling.
GF: Are you interested in electronic drumming?
PE: A little bit. I was very impressed with the Syndrum that Joe Pollard makes. The Moog drum seems interesting too. I’d like to work with a drum through an Echo-Plex someday. I think that would be interesting. I have no experience working with electronic drums, though in college we did experiment with phase shifting.
GF: Do you feel reading is important?
PE: I did a lot of reading in school, and I like to read. I would encourage any drummer to read as much as he can. If you’re serious about playing professionally, you’ve got to read. You can get anything thrown at you. Reading should be like reading a book. You don’t have to stop and spell the word and in music you shouldn’t have to stop and count by using your fingers. Eventually, it should become automatic.
GF: Do you still practice?
PE: When I get the chance. I try to practice when I’m home on vacation. Practicing is important. It’s something that takes great discipline. I did a lot of it when I was younger.
GF: Do you enjoy it?
“A SOLO SHOULD BE A MUSICAL EXTENSION
OF WHAT’S COME BEFORE IN THE MUSIC,
AND A PREVIEW OF WHAT WILL COME NEXT.
YOU SHOULD TRY TO TELL A STORY. A MERE
DISPLAY OF CHOPS IS FINE, BUT MUSIC IS MUSIC,
AND A SOLO SHOULD TELL A STORY, AND BE
PE: Yes, but you get into a lot of bad habits on the road. It’s easy to get out of the routine of practicing. When I left Kenton I went back to school to study with George Gaber. He was alarmed at what my hands were doing. I put a lot of effort into the drum rather than bringing the sound out of the drum. I play very hard and I think I could work on lightening up a bit. That’s what I’m trying to do.
GF: Though you don’t practice as often as you’d like, what would an ideal practice routine consist of?
PE: When I work on the snare drum, I try to get my hands in good shape. When I was working on the matched grip I concentrated on stick height, angle and feel. When I’m practicing on the set, I try to practice basic timekeeping. Every so often I’ll play around the drums.
GF: Would you suggest practicing on the pads, or a set?
PE: Both. I think practicing on a pad is good because you can work on wrists and hands. You’re not driving everybody nuts with the loud, distracting sound of the drum. On a pad, you can get a very objective look at how you sound and how you’re playing. But I like practicing on a drum set, getting a cymbal feel going. Part of playing on a drum set is getting a sound out of it.
GF: Have you ever tried a practice pad set?
PE: Yes. They’re pretty good, but I like to see a drummer practice as much as he can on a drum set. I never had a practice set, but I’ve always meant to buy one. I think they’d be good for working on independence. What’s more important is the sound you get out of your instrument. The music you make. The feeling, the groove that happens. The mere technical end of drumming doesn’t interest me that much.
GF: You’re more into the sound aspect?
PE: I’m technically oriented to some degree. I’ve got a fair amount of speed, but that’s just like a trumpet player trying to play high, or a drummer trying to play fast. Buddy can play more than just fast — and swing. Maynard can do more than just play high. It’s something they’re noted for, but it doesn’t nearly do them justice as musicians. Young musicians get seduced by the extravagance available on an instrument.
GF: Do you teach at all?
PE: Yes, when I’m in one place. I like teaching very much. I did a lot of teaching when I was with the Kenton band, doing the clinics. I find it rewarding. People were generous with their time with me when I was younger and I like returning that. I try to stress to a player that he may practice all over his drums for three hours, but might accomplish more working on his ride cymbal for ten minutes. You can play all day on the drum set if you want to, but you can accomplish more in ten minutes of good practice as opposed to two hours of wasteful practice. The amount of time isn’t necessarily important.
GF: What are your thoughts regarding drum soloing?
PE: A solo should be a musical extension of what’s come before in the music and a preview of what will come next. You should try to tell a story. A mere display of chops is fine, but music is music and a solo should tell a story, and be well constructed. We all fall into the trap of trying to play fast and amazing. But I try to keep it musical. The success of that lies with the listener.
GF: Do you have any favorite soloists?
PE: I love Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette. Billy did some exciting drumming on Crosswinds. I dig Roy Haynes a lot. I listen to a lot of bop and horn players too. Sometimes when I’m soloing, I’ll even pull a cheap trick and play a bop head, like Billy’s Bounce or Duke’s Place. Music is melody, harmony and most important, rhythm.
GF: Of all the people you worked with, do you have any favorites?
PE: Stan was like my musical father. I learned a lot with that band, playing every night. That’s a very maturing kind of thing, working every night with other musicians. You’ve got audiences to deal with and your own conception of what music is. When I joined Stan, I was heading in a different direction musically; the Mahavishnu Orchestra had just appeared on the scene and I started to listen to all those things. I had to get more jazz roots together. It was a blessing I was put out there, to learn slowly what jazz drumming was about. I learned the importance of a ride cymbal and getting a groove going. When I was with Maynard, Gordon Johnson and Biff Hannon taught me so much in regards to playing and preparation. I valued their help immensely. Of course, working with Weather Report is fantastic. It’s a very creative environment. The work is demanding and if I’m not playing it, then I’ll accept the challenge and learn. I know with this group it’s going to get better and better.
GF: Is there one individual you would credit as being the most influential drummer over the past twenty years?
PE: I’d have to name a few. Max Roach was very important and Philly Jo was a great bop drummer. Jo Jones did so much. Tony Williams has given a great deal to drumming. Listen to some of the playing he did with Miles. They fed off each other. Drummers gain from each other and from other musicians. It’s a revolving kind of thing.
GF: Do you feel you’re still growing musically? What are your goals for the future?
PE: I hope I’m still growing. Just playing new things, listening to tapes and records, or talking to people. I’d like to get into writing. There’s a lot more to music that I’d like to explore. I know with Weather Report I’ll have that freedom. I think this is what I’ll be doing for a long time.
GF: Any words of advice to offer an aspiring drummer?
PE: Yes, don’t be late to your gig. Keep your ears open. Enjoy the music and have fun when you play. Be versatile. My experience in big band prepared me for different musical situations. And, give it everything you have because music is a groovy thing. If one person walks away happy from what you’ve played, it’s a great thing. You can’t do that selling shoes.