Japan’s Stomu Yamash’ta
By Stanley Hall
The stage of the small Georgetown club is crowded with equipment and players. Near the far corner, with a look of intense concentration on his face, Mike Shrieve provides locomotion behind his white Hayman kit. The entire back wall is covered by Patrick Gleeson’s synthesizer. Patch cords run wild over the flashing, blinking banks like electronic ivy. Second keyboardist Peter Robinson is elbow-to-elbow with the guitarist and bassist while stage right is occupied by two black percussionists, one on congas, the other covering timbales and hand percussion. The front line is taken up by another guitarist and vocalist Ava Cherry and Jesse Rodin and someone else. And this someone else is the focal point of the whole extravaganza. He’s Stomu Yamash’ta, a wild-haired percussionist who’s in constant motion, dashing around behind a set of clear, plexiglass Octobans and a serpentine array of concert toms, gongs, sound plates, metal pipes, synthesizers and miscellaneous instruments. His punctuations spark the band as they burn through the frenzied riffs that have the whole place sweating, tense and excited.
They say, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,” but Yamash’ta has successfully bridged the gap several times before with such works as Red Buddah Theatre, East Wind and GO. But he’s disappeared from sight for four years, only recently emerging with the score to Paul Mazursky’s film The Tempest. Modern Drummer went to Tokyo to find out what Yamash’ta’s been up to.
SH: Most American drummers know you through the Go project, the first Go and Go Too. Originally Go was supposed to be a three-record project. The third Go record was a live recording in Paris, but it wasn’t new material. Wasn’t there supposed to be a following record?
SY: It’s not finished yet. It’s still in the works.
SH: What’s it about?
SY: Generally, it’s about optimism and positive thinking. To be positive, you have to be aggressive in your feelings. If you are pessimistic, you don’t do anything, you’re passive. But if you do something quite often, you face some kind of trouble. So you have to overcome it. That is also an Eastern strategy. You need a goal.
SH: Before we get too deep into the Go story, can you illuminate your background a little? Is it essentially classical?
SY: Yes. I started off on piano at the age of six or seven. Then I switched to percussion at the age of 10 because I’m too active for the piano. It was a natural thing to change to percussion. Even in childhood, every individual person has a different energy. Some people are very aggressive, movable; some kids are very stable. For a stable person, I think it’s easier to go through with the piano, violin, or a melodic instrument. But if you are active, it is much easier to start off with percussion. So that’s why I chose it.
From there I went to a conservatory in Kyoto. It’s a national music school. I went there for three years and then had three years of junior high school. Afterwards I was going to go to a university conservatory in Tokyo, but I met Saul Goodman, timpanist from the New York Philharmonic. He recommended that I come to Julliard. That was the original plan. I went there and I took lessons from him. I only stayed about five or six months because I didn’t like it.
SH: Were you going to Julliard or were you just taking private lessons from Mr. Goodman?
SY: I was in a diploma course, but the main thing I was concerned about was taking lessons from him because everything else—theory, method, everything—I had already learned. So I wasn’t too interested in attending normal classes.
I had difficulty practicing because the school was too small and had only two study rooms. There were too many students so I couldn’t get in enough practice time. You can’t practice much in the apartment either—especially timpani! I was very depressed. Summer was coming and I was looking for a better environment. New York was too hectic for me. I was looking for a school, but every music school in America was in a city. I found only one outside a city, at Interlochen, Michigan. So that’s where I went. I got a full scholarship from them and I stayed two years for special courses. I majored in percussion and orchestral scoring and composition. I was also taking music education courses, to learn about other instruments. It was good for me because I had an opportunity to study every instrument. It helps in orchestrating to know what the ranges are and what techniques are involved. Then I joined the Chicago Chamber Orchestra. I toured throughout America with conductor Thor Johnson. He’s the one who gave me encouragement when I was developing my musical direction. I stayed only one season with the orchestra. I wanted to study some other things like jazz and other different kinds of music. The only school I could find that offered it was Berklee. They had all the jazz courses. I went there and stayed a little over a year.
SH: What did you study?
SY: I studied drumset and improvisation with Alan Dawson, which later became very good for my musical foundation, because in classical forms you don’t have much improvisation.
SH: What happened after Berklee?
SY: My musical conception got wider because of studying improvisation. Soon after that I became a solo percussionist. Without one or the other I couldn’t do it, but with both I became a guest solo percussionist with symphony orchestras. I started with the Chicago Symphony. We did other composers’ material; concertos for solo percussion with orchestra.
A couple of years later I was invited to Europe. I had a great career as a solo percussionist in what was essentially a classical situation. I was doing recitals at the same time. I was going back and forth, doing these recitals and concerts in Europe and America. Somehow I should have been satisfied, because I had a great career recording with Deutsche Grammophon and playing with the greatest composers who dedicated many pieces to me, but I had to go forward because I’m still young. I couldn’t be a master of percussion because I was too young, so I began to get interested in theatrical form. That’s when I started the musical theater company. It started off all Japanese, but later we went to many countries, and so many people wanted to join that we had auditions and we eventually became an international cast.
SH: You also started in Japan as a composer of film soundtracks?
SY: Yeah. I was a sort of special studio musician and many composers asked me to do special musical effects. A lot of film scoring cannot be written down in musical notation, so they needed special musicians to do it, to watch the screen and to come up with these effects. I was somehow able to do that for them. That was my speciality.
SH: So you worked through Man From the East and East Wind. After East Wind came what, the Go project?
SY: Same time.
SH: How did you get in touch with Michael Shrieve and Steve Winwood?
SY: Michael was looking for me. He was still with Santana. I didn’t know him, but his musical passion got through to me. My theater company was very sensational throughout Europe. Almost every rock musician, painter and actor was very shocked. It was a very big influence on theater and musical forms. By that time almost everybody in Europe knew who I was. That’s why I had an easy time finding musicians. Michael had heard my solo percussion album and he wanted to meet me. He wanted to play with me and do something very experimental.
SH: How did Steve Winwood come into the picture?
SY: Steve and I were both with Island records, and they mentioned that he was interested in playing, so he came along.
SH: After you recorded the first Go, did you tour in Europe?
SY: Only Paris and London. It was too difficult to keep that band together. Everybody was a soloist, so there were many, many problems.
SH: Following that short tour, you recorded the second part of Go and then toured it in America with different people. That’s the last anybody in America has heard from you. What have you been doing for four years?
SY: American audiences can hear my music in Paul Mazursky’s film, The Tempest. I did the soundtrack for that. Paul already had a soundtrack in mind because he was listening to my music when he was shooting.
SH: Your music was written before the film was made?
SY: Yeah, some of it. He used some pieces that I’d already done and I added some other new material.
SH: Did you perform any of this or did you just write it and conduct it?
SY: Just wrote it and conducted it, that’s all. It was done here in Tokyo. Michael Shrieve came over to do some of it.
SH: Have you been performing?
SY: Only once I performed outside Japan. It was in London last year. It was a new theatre work called Iroha. The piece is based on a poem written down by a famous Buddhist priest. It deals with a change of life.
SH: So you’ve been going through a change of life for four years, mainly concentrating on composing?
SY: Well, I compose and perform. I have to perform music that I write.
Iroha has taken me a long time to write. It has a five part conception. It’s about energy: fire, water, wind, earth and cosmic fire.
SH: After you finish the last part of Iroha, are you going to complete Go?
SY: I don’t know. I have other things I want to do. Go is not complete yet. There is still another part left, but I have some thing else I want to do. It’s called Shikisokuzeku. It’s complicated, but it’s composed of three basic symbols. The first part means “conscience.” The second one means “understanding” and the last means “then what should one do?” That’s basically it, but it gets long and involved. I don’t know when I can finish it. To me, writing music is almost like doing research and reporting your findings. It’s a constant day-to-day thing.
At the same time I’m discovering my own style of music—my art form—which every artist has to find in his lifetime. Like a painter. Every painter has his own style. Most music forms are not for me. I can’t copy other people. Copying is most difficult for me, because I have my own character.
SH: So when you are playing classical music, that’s difficult? I don’t mean to physically play it, but just the fact that the form is usually very restricted to what’s on the page. When you play Prokofiev, for example, you have to play what he’s written.
SY: Yes, but not the note, not the note. You play what’s behind the note. Most musicians only play the note. But music is not just playing a note. What’s behind it—that is the most important.
Notation is only a technique. It’s a sig nal to other people. But what’s behind it is most important. Like a child, when babies cannot speak language, they get through to mothers without words what they want, whether they’re hungry or whatever. That is like a music form.
Today’s music, especially rock, becomes too realistic—too real. For me, the biggest freedom is not in reality. I get most freedom in creative work, because if I put down some note, then I can put any note down after that. That’s freedom. No one says anything about it. That for me is the biggest freedom I can get in life.
Before, when I was deliberately looking for freedom, I could never get it. But now I’ve found it. That’s why I’ve enjoyed the last four years. But young people don’t know about that. They haven’t got through that experience. No matter how much you get rich or famous, you don’t get freedom. You can’t get free.
The only freedom I get is by working. I can write anything I want. My actions are dictated only by my feelings, not by rules or what anybody else says. To find that out took me 35 years.
And I’m very grateful to be a musician, so I can be free. I think people like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach found freedom in that. That’s why they wrote such great music. That’s why it’s still good 300 years later. Society changes, the system changes, but the arts remain. That’s the greatness of it.
England’s Ronnie Verrell
By Simon Goodwin
The few musicians who manage to remain “at the top” for 30 years usually do so by becoming household names as bandleaders or leading stylists in a particular type of music, ft is rare indeed to find someone who reached the peak of his profession 30 years ago at the age of 26, and has re mained close to that peak ever since, by absorbing new styles as they came along, without losing the enthusiasm and musical values which put him there in the first place. Ronnie Verrell is just such a man. From playing in a top British big band in the 1950s, he went on to work with a formi dable array of top names including Tom Jones, Barbra Streisand, Burl Bacharach, Tony Bennett, and jazz talents like Al Cohn, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Flip Phillips. Recently his playing has excited millions of TV viewers of all ages, because Ronnie is the human drummer behind the legendary “Animal” of The Muppet Show.
If you ignore a few wrinkles on his face, it would be easy to imagine that you were talking to an energetic 26 year old. At 56, Ronnie looks as fit as ever, his conversa tion is lively and witty, and he displays a rare talent for mimicry which unfortunately cannot be reproduced on the printed page.
RV: I was always looking at drums in shops and wanting to go in and tap them. I kept on and on until finally my mother bought me a snare drum for Christmas. But within five minutes I was through the skin. That’s the truth! She came in and said, “How’s it going?” and I turned the drum over so that she couldn’t see, I was so broken hearted.
Later, a record I heard on the radio featured some drums. It was an English drummer named Joe Daniels. I started collecting pictures of Joe and then I started failing in my lessons at school. To top it all, my mother took me to see a film called Hollywood Hotel. It was Dick Powell and the Benny Goodman Orchestra with Gene Krupa and he did this “Sing, Sing, Sing” number. My God, I nearly passed out with excitement. We had to sit ’round and see the film again. And that was it—completely hooked. I went out and bought Gene Krupa records, and he was my original inspiration.
Then one day I heard a record and there was a short drum break on it. I said, “What’s that?”, it was so clear and clean; so tasty you could eat it. I’d never heard anything like it. And do you know who it was?
SG: Buddy Rich?
RV: Right, it was Buddy, and it has been ever since. All these years later it’s still Buddy Rich. There never has been a player like him and there never will be.
SG: How did the transition from keen youngster to professional drummer occur?
RV: Somehow, a fellow called Claude Giddens heard about me and asked if I would like to play in his band at the Gillingham Pavilion. That was really how it all started.
SG: That was a professional band?
RV: That’s right. My first professional band, and it was heaven. Later, I got an offer to join Cyril Stapleton. I went on the road with his band, did loads of broadcasts, that sort of thing. I was with him for three years and I got the confidence and experience that way. Then I got the offer from Ted Heath. I joined Ted and never looked back.
SG: So you had reached the necessary standard through experience. But weren’t the educational opportunities in music in England very limited, particularly for somebody playing drumkit?
RV: You’re absolutely right. You see, now the standard has gotten very high in this country. We have American players coming over and we see how the best play. We learn from them. In those days, there was nobody. If you were playing drums, you didn’t see many other drummers. Today, there are some good teachers around. It still doesn’t rate with America though. I mean there are some wonderful colleges in America. We’re still struggling a bit over here, but there is more of an opportunity these days. In those days, everybody here was self taught.
SG: What about the reading though?
RV: It was hard going, but I gradually learned so that now I can be given a drum part to read, and I’m so familiar with all the different things on arrangements, that there’s no problem. You know what to leave out. Some arrangers get so busy with the drum part that if you tried to play it, you’d get a leg wrapped ’round your neck; you wouldn’t know what to do. They think we’ve got eight pairs of hands, you know! They haven’t got a clue. You learn what to leave out and what to put in.
I can go into any session now and nothing frightens me. I sometimes don’t know who I’m accompanying, or what the part is on a TV show, but it doesn’t worry me. They put the part up and you know what to do. It takes years and years of experience of course.
SG: When you joined the Ted Heath band, it was the top band in the country.
RV: Right. Everybody wanted to join Ted Heath because it was such a great band. Once I had done that, I thought I had achieved everything I’d ever wanted. “I’m in the best band in the country.” It was the greatest thing ever. I just couldn’t wait to get on that stand at night. Once I got used to the band, I couldn’t wait. We used to pack them in everywhere we went.
SG: Presumably you were playing the style of music you liked best?
RV: That’s right, big band stuff with plenty of beef to it. We played a few commercial numbers, ballads, things like that, but they were such good arrangements that I didn’t mind playing them. I enjoyed the ballads just as much as the beefy things.
SG: What about the impact on the Heath band in the States? It was very successful, wasn’t it?
RV: Unbelievable, yes! We didn’t know what to expect, but it was really great. Mind you we couldn’t miss with the tour bill we had: Nat King Cole, The Four Freshmen, June Christie. We packed them in everywhere. We played the first half, and the other people would come on after the intermission.
Our last job on the first tour was Carnegie Hall, the home of all the big band concerts. There were quite a few musicians there, and I was very nervous for the first couple of numbers. But once we heard the reception we got, it really inspired us. I think the band gave one of its best performances ever at that concert in Carnegie Hall. When it was all over we got an ovation for three or four minutes. And when we came off our heads were light as feathers. We felt we had conquered America. We realized we could hold our own against any big band in the world. I’m only glad I was around to be in it at the time. I’ve got memories to last me the rest of my life from that band.
SG: Do you have a particular approach to playing time?
RV: Yes. Sit down, enjoy it and relax. Time is time. I can’t really explain it. When I first started playing I didn’t have good time. I was so bent on trying to knock hell out of the drums, I didn’t think too much about time. I tended to race a lot in the faster numbers and drag in the slower ones, until I became aware of this time factor. What makes these American bands sound so good? It’s the time. They work hard on it. They practice with metronomes and things like that. They’re meticulous about time. A front line player, particularly in the jazz field, is happiest when the drummer has good time. He’s not so worried about the technique and fills. As long as the time is good and he has something to sit on, that’s it.
SG: Do you find yourself consciously hav ing to feel the time in a different way for different types of music? I’m thinking, for instance, of laid-back things.
RV: You sometimes get players who will phrase things slightly behind the beat, and so the drummer does too. But stuff that is all laid back? Yes. I did a record with Burt Bacharach called “The Look of Love.” That was the most laid-back thing I’ve ever done. We had all the time in the world just to sit on it and relax. Burt made us aware of this. When we heard the finished prod uct, it was great.
Ray Charles is another one who can do that. How about Erroll Garner? His left hand was always behind the beat.
SG: You played on a lot of the rock sessions during the ’60s.
RV: My daughter was interested in the pop music of the time, but the better stuff, the more funky sort.
SG: But you had been involved in pop sessions before that?
RV: Yes, but that was the simple rock ‘n’ roll rubbish. Anyone could play it. It became more interesting when the Motown stuff started coming through; funky stuff with a lovely bass guitar sound. My daughter would have this music on quite loudly in her room and I’d hear it and say to myself, “Hey, that sounds good.” And I became interested in it, so much so, that when I was called on to do it in the studio, I knew what it was all about. So I made the change along with the fashion.
SG: Which means you kept working.
RV: Right. I kept working. Some people scoffed at it. Can’t blame them really because the original rock stuff was just soul destroying, absolute rubbish. But I wanted to work so I had to go along and play it. I used to sit in studios and have a pop group looking on. I’d sit in there with session musicians and play some terrible number while the group whose name it came under stood there and watched. Then they’d get the credit for it, have a hit record and make a fortune.
SG: Do you think these pop musicians deserved to be replaced by session players, or was it that the producers felt more comfortable with experienced people like yourself?
RV: Well, you see they were not capable of going into a studio for a three-hour session and completing two titles in three hours. Some of them were so bad, it would take them nearer two weeks. It was simple recording in those days, not much overdubbing. We would go in and do it without any messing about. Studio time was valuable. Sure the producers were behind it. They wanted to make money, have hits. So they’d get us to make the records, then get these young cats with good looks and give them lots of publicity. When you see them on television they’re only miming to the music. They’re not really playing it.
SG: What about your live playing during this period? Did it more or less cease?
RV: Completely ceased. Everything was pre-recorded. We never did anything live at all. Talking about television shows, they were all pre-recorded as well. Except later on when I joined Jack Parnell at A.T.V. studios where we did all the big shows. The concert spot for the Jack Parnell band in The Tom Jones Show, that was live. The show was recorded to be broadcast later, but we played live in front of the studio audience. We didn’t get a second shot at it.
SG: When did you join Jack Parnell at A.T.V.?
RV: About 14 or 15 years ago. I had been recording with Tom Jones and he was due to do a TV series. His manager insisted that I play drums with the orchestra at A.T.V., and that Jim Sullivan play guitar. I thought I was just going along to do the Tom Jones series, but as it turned out, I stayed on with Jack Parnell and did all his work after that.
SG: Which led to some very interesting things.
RV: I should say so. We had some marvelous guest artists along, like Stevie Wonder. Did you know he’s a fantastic drummer? He was trying to explain to me what he wanted on a number called “For Once in My Life.” We were pre-recording the track and he was going to sing on it later. I couldn’t quite get what he wanted, so I asked him to do it. I watched him and he was fantastic, the bass drum particularly. He’s got a boogaloo style with a fantastic right foot. Completely new approach at the time.
SG: Was it the technique or the timing which impressed you?
RV: The timing; the placement of it. I couldn’t explain it, it was just natural. I learned a lot by watching him there. He was terrific. Those were the sort of guests we would get at A.T.V. You never knew what was coming next, until eventually, we had this Muppet Show turn up.
SG: How did that all come about?
RV: Well, we were told that we start a new series on Monday called The Muppets, a puppet show. I thought, “Oh, Christ, this is going to be a bore, but it’s a job.” So we turned up on Monday morning and the first thing we heard when we put the headphones on was the leader of the Muppets, Jim Henson. He was singing that thing, “Mna-na-na-na”! And it was quite hilarious, you know. But we still didn’t realize what was in store for us—what The Muppets would turn into. We had every guest artist you could name—a different one each week. We would spend about three hours doing the recording on a Monday and they’d spend the rest of the week putting it all together. It wasn’t until I saw the first show that I realized how terrific it was. It started getting a lot of publicity and it built into a monster show. We were looking forward to doing it every week.
SG: What about the “Animal” drum sound? Was it the Ronnie Verrell sound, or did you tune the drums to be in character?
RV: They showed me this ugly little puppet with the staring eyes and screwed up face, and asked me to sound the way I could imagine him sounding. I didn’t change the drums much. I slackened off the tom-toms to get a more thuddy tone. The snare drum was as usual. It was more in the playing. Animal was really mad and way out.
SG: What about the legendary drum battle between Animal and Buddy Rich?
RV: One day they said, “Hey, we’ve got Buddy Rich coming in a few weeks.” I couldn’t believe it. Buddy Rich! He’s my idol. I said, “I hope I won’t have to do a drum battle or anything like that with him,” which, of course, I did.
I said, “What am I going to do? He’s the absolute master. I can’t add much to what Buddy does.” They said, “It’s not you, it’s Animal. Animal will just be his natural self.” Frank Oz, who works Animal, had to get the hand movements right, so we worked out a routine together. Buddy would do four bars or eight bars, and Animal would answer him. To get the movement synchronized, we worked his bits out in advance. Frank asked me not to use the cymbals too often because it was difficult for him. So I kept it fairly simple. We went over it again and again. Frank got it off perfectly; he was simply fantastic. Buddy was delighted with the whole thing. I was a bit nervous, but it was great. Buddy enjoyed every minute of it.
We were under a bit of a handicap, because Buddy’s drums were quite a long way from mine. I was behind a curtain watching Animal. Buddy would do eight, then I’d do it with Animal. But Buddy was such a long way off, that I had to be careful to come in accurately after his eight bars, and he couldn’t hear me that well. Anyway it seemed to work out all right.
SG: I find it fascinating that you, Animal, and Buddy were all in the studio doing it simultaneously. I always imagined the visual bit with the puppet was edited on afterwards.
RV: No, not edited at all. One take and it worked out fine. Anyway, you couldn’t ask Buddy to keep doing it. It’s very exhausting doing those drum duets, and he had to go into a long solo after that, until Animal broke the snare drum over his head, admitting that Buddy had won.
SG: Which you didn’t mind doing?
RV: Had nothing to do with me, it was Animal, not Ronnie Verrell. I was glad I was working for Animal and not for myself. Buddy’s got quite a few tricks. I wouldn’t fancy myself in a heavyweight bout with him. I don’t think any drummer would.
SG: Animal has got a good reputation among musicians for good, exciting playing.
RV: Really? Well if he has, then that’s a feather in my cap I suppose.
SG: Exactly. So how do you feel about being anonymous? When people hear Animal and say, “We like that,” they’re listening to Ronnie Verrell.
RV: That’s a difficult question. Animal has meant a lot to me financially. The Muppet Show was so popular that we get a lot of repeats. These shows are played all over the world. It’s more profitable than any show I’ve been in before. So I love Animal for that.
SG: You’re doing some more live playing now. But what about the studio work? Is the drum computer making things difficult?
RV: Very much so. It doesn’t matter what you do, or how good you are, along comes this Linn drum machine which can give them any sound they want, volume they want, tempo they want, at the push of a button. You don’t have to be a drummer to use it. It’s not very healthy for the business. It’s making things hard for a lot of drummers. There just isn’t the studio work around now. Thank goodness for television, live work and jazz clubs. Whereas I used to do three or four sessions a day, these days I’m lucky if I get three a week. The machine has taken over. It’s more economical to use the machine, and they can probably do it in their front room. They don’t have to pay for studio time. It’s not only the drums. There are machines now which can produce the sounds of all the instruments in the orchestra. Sad isn’t it? You’re just listening to microchips really.
SG: Do you think this is going to last, or are people going to get fed up with it and want to listen to real musicians again?
RV: Do they really know they’re not listening to real musicians? I ask you.
SG: And if they did, would they care?
RV: Would they care? Exactly. As long as there’s a beat going, they don’t care if it’s a machine or a man. I’ve watched them at discos. They don’t care what’s going on as long as there’s this thumping noise. So what price quality these days? The craftsmanship and artistry have gone out of it. The machine has taken over.
But, as I say, I shall keep playing live. It’s one thing a machine can’t do. You can’t have a machine on stage playing to an audience, can you? They want to see something. And there’s nothing better than a live big band, eight brass, five saxes, four rhythm. There’s no substitute for it. There will always be a market for it.
You just can’t fight what’s going on at the moment. Some of the stuff I see on television, that passes for music; guys parading about with tattoos, stripped to the waist. They can’t really play their instruments at all. They don’t play in tune, they don’t play anything. They just mouth a lot of obscenities. It’s aggression. But the people who follow this sort of thing seem to understand it. It’s an aggressive age we live in, and they want to be part of something aggressive. I can’t understand it.
I came into this business because of people like Buddy Rich. I was brought up on the bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Harry James. Since then, I’ve gone through the whole bit. And now the thing has gone full circle for me. Because of the lack of sessions, perhaps, there’s the opportunity for me to go back to doing what I came into the business for in the first place. Don’t get me wrong; I always do my best, but a lot of what I have to do is rubbish. It’s been a means of earning a living. I made a lot of money, but at times it was soul destroying. But now I’ve gotten back into live playing with a big band, and playing one or two jazz clubs with some great players. I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m really enjoying it.
Brazil’s Ivan Conti
By Robin Tolleson
As the Brazilian trio Azymuth finishes its first song at a rare U.S. concert, the audience breaks into enthusiastic applause. The drummer rises quickly and begins clapping back at the crowd, an infectious smile on his face.
Ivan Conti, also known by his nickname Mamao, is one of the most highly regarded drummers in Brazil. His band, Azymuth, is known throughout South America. Azymuth bridges the gap between Weather Report and Bob James with a slick, rhythmic and catchy instrumental sound.
All three members of Azymuth play percussion, and there’s quite a bit of it sprinkled through, filling spaces and adding texture to the sound. Mamao impresses with his ability to lay back and not overcomplicate the rhythm, and his ability to propel a simple beat in an interesting way.
The 36-year-old Conti lives in Rio with his wife and family, and is active in the studios there, having recorded with Deodato, Milton Nascimento, on the CBS debut of trumpeter Marcio Montarroyos, and with international singing star Gal Costa, among others. Conti is also a popular choice for movie and TV soundtracks in Brazil. “Where I feel good playing is with Azymuth, “he says. “But as a professional I have to be open enough to play all kinds of music. “
RT: Are people very percussion-conscious in Brazil?
IC: Yes, especially now, they are focusing a lot on percussion. Many songs are using a lot of percussion.
RT: What was your first experience in music?
IC: My first instrument was guitar, then I switched to drums. I’ve been playing for 20 years. I think every person who wants to be a musician should start by learning harmony.
RT: What made you switch from guitar to drums?
IC: There is more room and mobility with the drums than the guitar. The guitar helped me in writing songs, but I don’t play guitar anymore.
RT: Did you start playing the drumset or percussion instruments?
IC: Drumset, and after that percussion. I think you should learn the drums first. The two are very closely related. They are almost the same in my opinion.
RT: What was your first drumset like?
IC: It was a four-piece instrument, with cowhide skins. There is no such thing anymore.
RT: I understand that you do a lot of studio work in Brazil, besides playing with Azymuth.
IC: I’ve played with almost everybody down there. Gal Costa, who is very well known. Milton Nascimento. Simone; she’s probably not known here, but is well known there. I play with orchestras too, on TV. I worked a couple years back with Paul Mauriat. I really enjoy his music from a technical standpoint. It’s very correct. I am a great admirer of his.
RT: So you do know how to read music.
IC: Yeah, the industry has forced me to. I like the idea of the conditioning of reading. Just the fact that if you see “da do da” written, then you have to do “da do da.”
RT: Did you go to school to learn to read?
IC: I studied with two private teachers, and also took a correspondence course from Berklee School of Music. I wanted to get a scholarship to Berklee, but it just didn’t work out. I think I learned the most just working with music.
RT: Are you comfortable in the studio reading music?
IC: I feel somehow better when I don’t have to read. When I’m involved in the music a lot, then I like to read it. But when it’s something I’m not really part of, then I’d rather just play by ear. It depends on how creative the music is. I definitely enjoy it more when I’ve got room to put myself out naturally instead of having to read. But if the music is good, if there’s room, if it feels good, it really doesn’t matter to me. I get into it just as easy.
RT: Did you study the rudiments?
IC: I did study some and sometimes still do. I think one should keep on studying, especially to improve technique.
RT: Do you still practice a lot?
IC: I have a little studio outside my house, and every time I feel like playing, I lock myself in and play.
RT: You are basically a right-handed drummer, aren’t you?
IC: At home I play with the left hand, but out in the world I play with the right. I am always trying to get the left hand to play as well as the right. If you can improve the left hand it makes the whole thing much easier, but I don’t think I’m ever going to get them even.
RT: I understand you have quite a collection of Gene Krupa albums.
IC: I am a Krupa freak. I have almost all his records. He was a big influence on my career. Also Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Joe Morello, Steve Gadd, and Billy Cobham. There are so many.
RT: Are you still being influenced?
IC: It’s possible that I am being influenced by someone, but at this point in my experience, I’ve got my own personality, musically speaking. But there are idols all the time. There are a lot of Brazilian drummers that I really like. Bituca, who plays on TV Globo in Brazil. Wilson Das Neves, who plays with Elizeth Cardozo. Roberto Silva, who played with Milton Nascimento. Elcio Milito has fantastic brushwork.
RT: There is a drummer with the band Viva Brazil who is very good.
IC: I know Rubinho, and I identify myself with that kind of playing. Rubinho grooves.
RT: How much do you work with Gal Costa?
IC: I’ve worked with her a lot onstage, this last year. Probably three months. I went with her to Israel, too. That’s a totally different type of work from Azymuth. I’ve recorded with her also. It’s good practice playing with a big band like that. There’s a lot of punch, and rhythmic certainty playing in that context. Lincoln Olivetti does the arranging, and I like his concepts very much.
RT: Isn’t it true that most all the different parts of Latin America have their own rhythms?
IC: Yeah, there are totally different folklores from area to area, even within a country. Especially right now, there are a lot of musicians out in the country. There’s a lot happening out in the sticks in Brazil. It’s always a pair of musicians. Quinteto Violado is a northeastern group from Brazil that’s extremely well known and extremely good. They are all acoustic. There’s an accordionist named Sivuca. Tonico & Tinoco. There’s Sergio Reis, and a flutist named Altamiro Carrillto. There are so many people. Hermeto Pascoal is one of the best examples of Brazilian folklore.
RT: People associate the samba with Brazil. Did it originate there?
IC: The traditional samba beat is definitely Brazilian. There are peculiarities though. Especially the beat that comes out of the slums and hills. That’s the real thing.
RT: What other rhythms come from Brazil?
IC: There are a lot of other kinds of rhythms, and most of them come from the samba. Maracatu, frevo, acajere, maraceje, agorere, samba from Bahia, samba from Rio, boi-bumba, rancheira. The reason I am here, is because I came up with a different kind of samba. A certain type of my own.
RT: Did it have more of a rock influence?
IC: There is definitely an influence of the rock ‘n’ roll beat there, as there is the influence of free jazz. But the beat of the samba is the beat of the samba, and it’s got to be Brazilian to have that beat.
RT: The music of Azymuth covers a lot of styles.
IC: I like to play a variety, and that’s why I fit into Azymuth real well.
RT: Have you listened to American funk music?
IC: There’s a lot of American funk in Brazil. Funk has got a lot of taste to it. Flavor. I like that flavor.
RT: Do you get a lot of records from America and elsewhere in Brazil?
IC: There’s no problem getting records. It is hard to hear live music, though. To hear good people playing. In drumming, you learn from the visual. It’s better to go see people play.
RT: How much touring does Azymuth do?
IC: We do tours, in Brazil. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it, because it’s hard to get people to appreciate instrumental mu sic. It’s hard to set up situations where we can play to people. We are quite well known in South America right now, and it came as quite a surprise to find that we are well known in Japan. That makes me very happy. I’m not really concerned with the fame, but I want to play and be appreciated by people who know how to appreciate it. That’s my concern for now. When you realize your work is being respected abroad somewhere, that’s a great feeling. It creates new energy.
RT: Would you play any differently on an album for U.S. release, than one for Brazilian release?
IC: I would play the same. It’s unfortunate that an engineer or producer will try to change the sounds to fit a format that’s in his mind, and not in the mind of the drummer or the group. I think that’s a great mistake.
RT: Have you done any recording with a click track?
IC: I have recorded some disco in Brazil. The new drum machines are being used a lot, especially the Linn. I think it takes away a lot of emotion. I have used a metronome for study, but I would rather follow along with a record. It’s good to condition yourself into the timing, but I don’t think the metronome is that great. It doesn’t allow you to flow. You’re always concerned with following that thing. In Brazil, there is a drum machine they call “George.” You can never get away from “George.” He always follows you around.
RT: When Azymuth goes into the studio to do an album, do you look over charts or rehearse all the material beforehand?
IC: We work out the basic skeleton of a song before we go in. It’s not a stiff situation. We have a sketch, and we go in and do it live. I like the energy of recording together without a whole lot of overdubs. We’ve been playing together for ten years, so it’s very easy for us to just walk into the studio and connect.
RT: Do you have any ideas about drum solos?
IC: The moment of the solo is when I bring out a lot of what I’ve learned, and at the same time, I face a lot of what I still have to learn. There is a tradition of soloing, a school of soloing, that you could learn in a way. People do that. They learn a group of things that other people have done in the past. I can appreciate that, but personally, I feel solos should be more spontaneous and not rely on things that have been done before. Billy Cobham is someone with remarkable technique. I saw Buddy Rich keep a coin on a wall with his drumsticks in a hotel in Sao Paulo. That’s beautiful, but I think a solo should be a freer thing, not a demonstration of a certain technique. Put yourself out there.
RT: Do you teach in Brazil?
IC: No, not now, but in the future. I still want to learn a lot more. It’s very hard to learn the drums in Brazil. In the U.S., there’s a lot to learn from, even if you’re not going to school. There are so many bands and orchestras, and drummers that you can sit down and listen to and learn from. In Brazil, you don’t have as many local musicians where you can relate to it closely. Sao Paulo is the best place in Brazil for learning, seeing somebody play live. Rio is quite poor, still. One of my goals is to have a school for drummers in Brazil. I would like to have more time to learn from other drummers; to look around and listen to drummers and see them play. It seems I don’t have enough time. But my dream is to have a drummers’ school in Brazil, because there is none.
Canada’s Steve Negus
By John Dranchak
JD: What type of music were you listening to growing up?
SN: Top-40 and rock ‘n’ roll.
JD: More Canadian artists, I assume?
SN: Actually, it was mainly British artists. It was the time of the early Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, and the whole British invasion.
JD: Did you consciously decide you were going to make music your career?
SN: I think I made a mental commitment. I was playing in a ’50s rock ‘n’ roll band. We played very authentic ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, so it was straight fours on the bass drum. Very simple stuff. I was with that band for two years. It was a very good show band, almost like a Las Vegas show band; visuals and all sorts of show sets. It was toward the end of that, that I realized I really wanted to get more into playing. I wanted to be a good player instead of just in a band. I left that band, and decided to put an r&b band together. That was a big turning point.
JD: Who were your influences?
SN: I’d say Garibaldi was definitely an influence on me. And to some extent, Bonham. I think listening to Bernard Purdie was a bit of an influence too, because he’s the master of the “pocket.” He can put a groove in a pocket and leave it there all day and it just bubbles and bounces. But, it stays right in the slot.
JD: What do you see your role in Saga as?
SN: I look at the structure of the bottom end being body music. The bass and the drums, almost in a disco kind of thing. Something that makes you want to move your body. I think kids today want to hear something they can bounce to, and that’s why we’ve always sort of stayed away from the progressive rock category, though we like to think of ourselves as a “progressive band.”
I approach it almost like an orchestra, where there are definite parts that you play. With all of the little intricate melodies and counter-melodies, and all the things that are going on, each one is dependent on the other. If you take one away, it destroys the other.
JD: What is your current equipment setup?
SN: Well, I’ve used the double bass for seven or eight years. I find I’m using it less these days, but I still like it for little shots and things. It’s an all-Ludwig kit. There are 8″, 10″, 12″ 13″ and 14″ toms, a 16″ floor tom and two 22″ bass drums. There’s a brand new snare drum that I’m using that I really like. It’s the new Ludwig 8″ deep, slotted snare drum which has a slot all the way around the middle. When I went in to get my kit built by Ludwig, they showed me this snare drum. I liked the initial sound of it, but I found it didn’t have quite enough snap from the snares. So, I got them to take off the regular strainer and to put on a Super-Sensitive strainer, and now it really kicks.
JD: Are you using wire snares on the bottom?
SN: Yes, it’s the whole standard Ludwig Super-Sensitive mechanism. A big problem when you get into bigger sized snare drums is you get the depth, but you lose a bit of definition. So long as you’re laying into it, it’s there, but as soon as you do anything double strokish, it gets mushy. This drum doesn’t.
JD: Your drums are wide open, aren’t they?
SN: Yeah, I’m a believer in that. For years I liked that big, open sound, and when I’d go into the studio, the engineers would stick gaffers tape over the drums. It used to drive me nuts, because it sounded like a cardboard box. I’ve never liked that kind of drum sound.
I like a lot of crack and even more so these days. I’m definitely tuning my drums slightly higher than I used to, as well. I mean, a drum should be open. If you’ve got to start sticking tape on it, I think there’s something wrong.
JD: Exactly what cymbals are you using?
SN: Paiste. They are almost all 2002’s. A 22″ heavy ride, 20″ rock, and a 20″ concert crash which I really like. It’s on my left side, and normally there’s a 16″ on the front, but there’s a 15″ now because I cracked the 16″.
JD: Have you had any problems cracking cymbals in the past?
SN: No. Actually, that’s the first cymbal I’ve cracked in two years. I was on the Jethro Tull tour and they didn’t have a 16″ for me at the time, so I took a 15″. I also have 2002 14″ rock hi-hats. On the Simmons kit I’m using a 20″ China type, and I love that because it works beautifully with the actual Simmons sounds.
JD: You were one of the first people in North America to use the Simmons kit.
SN: That’s true. I’d been into electronic drums for a while, but nobody had really built anything up until that point that really did what I wanted it to do. So, I went to see the people from Simmons and they were just in the initial stages of putting the company together. I sat down with them, and even though they didn’t know anything about me, we talked for a while. I bought a kit and I used it in rehearsal for three months, and in the studio. Then, I started touring Europe with it, so they were using me as a testing ground through Europe, just to see how it was going to hold up on the road, and they made some slight changes in the design.
JD: How do you adjust to the change of going from the give of a plastic drum head to the hard playing surface of the Simmons?
SN: It takes a little getting used to. Also, the Simmons kit is set up really different because it has to fit under my riser, which means nothing can be over four feet high. With the Simmons, I have to play everything really low, but it doesn’t take a lot of adjustment. As for the feel, well, obviously you can’t play them as hard because it’s a surface that doesn’t give. So, if you really lay into them, there are two things that are going to give: the stick is one, and your hand is the other. Other than that, I still do lay into them, but you don’t have to punch the sound out, because it’s being created electronically. So, they’re actually easier to play.
They respond really quick, but the big difference is when you get down to the low tom sounds. On an acoustic kit, you’ve got to punch a bigger drum, like a floor tom, harder to get the sound out of it. Harder than you do, say, a little rack tom. A smaller head will respond quicker than a big one. On the Simmons kit, you don’t have that problem. Basically, you’ve got the floor tom, the lower section, responding just as fast as the top.
JD: How does the bass drum feel?
SN: The bass drum is probably the main thing that takes getting used to, because it’s a hard surface that doesn’t give. A lot of players play into the head and the pedal stops. I do that to a certain extent on my acoustic kit, but with the Simmons you’ve got to play more, bringing the pedal back. You’ve got to play a bit lighter on the bass drum, because the Simmons bass drum will not break, but your pedal will. I think if you really kick it, you’re going to bend beaters, and eventually break pedals. I’m also getting into drum machines. I find them invaluable for playing along with. They’re definitely good for making you play good time, which is important. You can also play off of it as opposed to on it.
JD: When you talk about drum machines, are you talking about the higher end of the market, such as the Linn and the Oberheim?
SN: Actually, the band has three drum machines. They’re actually all Roland. I have the 808; two of the guys have the little Drumatix, the 606’s. They’re great for writing. I can set up things on my 808 that are fun to play with. It teaches you more about time, too. You start learning how to program in time signatures, and breaking things down that you might not necessarily have thought of before.
JD: Have you ever worked with a Linn?
SN: I’ve spent a little bit of time figuring it out. I think electronics are the way of the future for drummers and percussionists. It’s very important to be open to all that stuff, so sitting down with the Oberheim or the Linn machine, or the Roland machine and obviously the new Simmons, makes a lot of sense. I think drummers are sometimes too closed minded. They think, “Here I am with my 20-year-old Gretsch snare drum, so don’t give me anything else.” I don’t see things like that. I’m always looking for new avenues, and electronics is definitely something that we’ve always been into.
JD: Do you ever foresee the day when an electronic kit might replace your acoustic kit?
SN: No. It’s like having two different guitars: an acoustic and an electric. I don’t think one replaces the other.
JD: Do you use any effects in the studio on your acoustic drums?
SN: Occasionally. Nothing very complex. Obviously we use reverb and a bit of Lexicon (DDL). Echoes on occasion. In the middle section of “Wind Him Up” we sound-processed the Simmons kit through a pitch to a voltage regulator. That’s what actually gave the white noise sound that’s on there. On stage, I just have the white noise setting on the actual rails themselves. We did actually do it differently in the studio. Also, we set up a gate to trigger a keyboard off of the hi-hat in “Wind Him Up.” In the quiet middle section, there’s a part that’s actually triggered off of the hi-hat, and then we pulled the hi-hat out of the mix. We just faded in, but the hi-hat signal is actually fed through a gate, with the keyboard just sustaining. The gate makes it trigger only when the hi-hat is hit, and that’s what gives it that rhythmic structure. One of the nice things about electronics is that you can trigger things, so it opens up that whole area. Now I can play chords.
I did a clinic in Toronto and I talked about applications of drum machines. One of the things I did is I hooked up the briefcase to a Fostex. The right way to do it is to hook it into a keyboard through a gate, but instead of having somebody hold down a chord, I just taped four different chords on a Fostex four track. Then I had one pad to trigger each chord. So here I am sitting with this little briefcase and my little pads, and I have four fully polyphonic chords and I got this other drummer friend of mine to do it with me. So, we had a drum machine, a sequencer and polyphonic chords off of the briefcase, and two, double Simmons kits. My friend played one double Simmons kit; at times I played the briefcase, and then both of us played a double Simmons kit.
JD: Would you explain what the briefcase is?
SN: The briefcase is just a smaller version of the full Simmons kit. Basically, it’s a briefcase with seven little pressure pads in it. We just multi-pin right into the same electronics that triggers the other kit. It’s handy in the studio. You can sit in the control room and put stuff down with the briefcase.
JD: Do you prefer the studio more than live performance, or vice versa?
SN: I like both. I don’t think I would be happy just being a studio musician, because as well as being a player, I’m an entertainer. I think that’s important. I think a big mistake a lot of drummers make when they play is they bury themselves. They play with their head down and look at their drums and there’s no personality, no visual contact with the audience. One of the things I’ve always made a point to do, is very seldom look at what I play, but look at the audience, look at the other guys in the band, and relate to heads up playing. When you’re playing for an audience, they see you, and they want to feel some sort of buzz from you, as a personality.
JD: You play your drums low. Is that to be seen?
SN: I don’t want to be buried behind drums. Also, I’m not a big guy. If I used big drums, they’d be really far away, and I like everything in really tight. My kit is worked out now so that everything is spaced as tight as I can get it, and still feel comfortable.
JD: What are your feelings toward drum solos?
SN: I didn’t do a drum solo in this band until we came up with the briefcase thing, mainly because drum solos have a tendency to bore audiences. Even when you see the best players up there, and they’re playing all of their best chops, it gets into frenzied madness that doesn’t do anything. There’s this huge barrage of sound coming off the stage, but what is it? I always thought of drum solos as being a little bit self-indulgent, unless you can find a way to put it across that’s a lot more entertaining. I just find most audiences get bored when you get really fast. I’m playing enough interesting stuff in a night, and that to me is better than trying to blow my brains out during a drum solo.
JD: What are your goals for the future, for yourself and for the band?
SN: Well, I think basically when we started this project, we looked at it as being extremely long term. I think the key to achieving and maintaining success is keeping fresh ideas happening. That’s why I’m always looking for new things that excite me. A lot of bands, when they achieve it, seem to drift apart. They’re so comfortable; they’ve got nice homes, all these things. They can take off to the Caribbean if they feel like it. They lose the desire to create interesting music. I see it happening to a lot of bands. They achieve the success, fame, and money, and then it just sounds like they’ve done everything they want to do, so they’re just sort of, “Well, let’s put out another album and make some money.” I think that would really bother us, because we’ve always tried to achieve a high level of integrity in the music. If it started to go in that direction, I’d have to look at other possibilities.
Israel’s Aron Kaminski
By Joseph Ben-Dor
Aron Kaminski has been Israel’s number one drummer for more than 25 years. He is popular with all generations due to the variety of shows he has appeared on, and his extensive work as a studio drummer. His work has included backing many of Israel’s top singers and jazz artists. Like many drummers, he started at an early age playing pots and pans.
“I got into drums when I was 19. While I was in the army somebody recommended me to a guy who was looking for a drummer. Because the salary was twice as high as that in the army, I immediately borrowed money from my father, bought a very cheap set of drums and set out to work.”
Although he took a few lessons from Mr. Burla, who at the time, was the most prominent drummer around, Aron is basically a self-taught drummer. “The truth is that I didn’t learn much from him because I already knew so much that I had learned by myself. He just showed me how to hold the sticks and a few beats, but most of my drumming skill came to me naturally.”
Kaminski’s introduction to jazz was through pianist Zigi Scarbnik, who he met in a night club where Zigi’s trio played. “If I ever had a teacher, it was him. I’ve learned so much just from playing in a piano and drum situation. There are a lot of things Zigi taught me which I accepted and understood only many years later. He was younger than me, a gifted musician, and our musical friendship continued until he died at the age of 24.”
After service with the Military Entertainment Band, Aron had to devote his time to the family factory. Six years later he decided to become a professional musician. At the age of 26 he was a member of a few jazz bands.
“The Mel Keller Quartet in which I played was also a great experience for me. Saxophonist Mel Keller is known as the ‘father’ of jazz in Israel. At that time we used to play half the show and the other half was dedicated to a lecture Mel gave on the history and meaning of jazz. During that period I became very popular and in demand for various recordings. Because I had very little choice, I learned to read music by myself and with some help from other musicians. In 1970 I toured Latin America. I got to know the typical Latin instruments and their different rhythms. Up until that time, no one in Israel used them and I started to use them on recordings. Later I came to the USA with recommendation letters from CBS in Israel, and I learned a lot just from visiting studios. I met Hal Blaine, who at the time, was the most in-demand studio drummer and I simply went with him to all kinds of recording sessions. In New York I met Mel Lewis and saw some of his recording dates. A very educational experience for me was seeing live jazz in New York. At that time there still weren’t any jazz groups visiting Israel. Seeing others play is a must for your learning experience.”
The ’60s were frustrating for Kaminski because although he was known as the “Israeli Ringo Starr,” Aron always preferred the jazz drummers. “I have respect for Ringo, but during that period, I listened to Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and later to Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. I thought they all did better things than Ringo.”
At the end of 1970, saxophonist Roman Konzman came to Israel from the USSR. Later, the two formed The Platina which soon became Israel’s number-one jazz band and the only one to appear at Avery Fisher Hall in New York during the Newport Jazz Festival.
“The reactions to our band were good, especially from musicians. The arrangements were all originals by Konzman. Since then I’ve played with many great jazz players who came to Israel, like Chick Corea, Stan Getz and Joanne Brackeen.”
The highlight of his career came in 1979 when he was asked by the musical manager of the Manhattan Transfer to join them on two tours. “I got a call from him and three days later I was in London. Playing in that kind of a professional show was a lot different from anything I’d ever done in a small place like Israel. I was sure I was supposed to play everything very quiet, almost like in a night club, but suddenly it was big stages and I had to play very loud with a lot of energy. This really was a great professional experience for me.”
Today, Aron concentrates mainly on teaching in his new School for Drummers. “Through the years I’ve developed a certain way in which I give my students all I learned without having to repeat my own mistakes. I teach groups of five, and every student has his own set. At first, I was afraid of teaching groups, but now I find it very successful because it creates a healthy, competitive atmosphere among the students. They all learn to work as a team when keeping time, or as individuals when everyone has his own part to read.”
As for equipment, Aron uses Rogers Drums and Halilit, made in Israel. “I do all kinds of jobs so I have many combinations of sets and cymbals. I find it interesting to change set-ups due to the musical situation, or to my mood that day.”
How does Aron Kaminski see his future? “I’m dedicating most of my time to the school. I work less in the studios, except for special recordings with a more jazzy feel or Latin American flavor. I play jazz twice a week and I hope to go on doing exactly that.
Denmark’s Alex Kiel
By David Samuels
DS: What kind of exposure did you have to jazz growing up in Denmark right after World War II?
AK: My father had jazz records, especially Fats Waller with Zutty Singleton on drums. I was listening to those from a very early age and I liked them a lot.
DS: Did you study formally with anyone?
AK: Yes, with Borg Rits Anderson, a timpani player in Copenhagen’s Radio Symphony Orchestra.
DS: How old were you when you got your first drumset?
AK: I was 14 years old. It was a Danish built snare drum and a big bass drum, which I filled up with paper, and a cymbal. The hi-hat cymbals, if I hit them too hard with my foot, would go backwards and bend. It was rather difficult, but my parents didn’t have much money after the war.
DS: Were there many people, as you were growing up, that were also into jazz?
AK: One of the top policemen in Denmark was playing drums and he told me about this teacher who I’m very glad I went to. I didn’t get to hear a lot of jazz when I was starting out because I wasn’t allowed, though I did hear Krupa. And I’d hear rumors about the big dance halls in Copenhagen, especially the Tivoli Gardens. Right after the war there was a lot of big band influence from the United States. But there were age limits, and there was no television. I listened to a lot of records and radio.
Copenhagen was always a stop for a lot of the great jazz players. The Club Monmartre has been there for a long time. The first time I actually got into Monmartre, and got to hear some real good music, was because I donated my first, fairly good drumset to the club for the drummer who was coming in to play. Because of that, I was allowed to sit and listen for the first set every night. Eventually, as time went on, I more or less became the house drummer at Monmartre.
After a while, I was playing with two different swing bands and doing a lot of work around Denmark. Finally, I met Niels Orsted Pederson while I was at his parents’ house playing with one of his older brothers who played trumpet. We had this half bebop, half swing band. This little kid would come over and ask me if I would like to play with him. I was really shocked, because he was playing like Art Blakey records; the melody line on bass, which was unheard of at that point. Even Oscar Pettiford, who was living in Copenhagen, had a hard time playing all those melody lines. But this little kid was just incredible. That was Niels Orsted.
Actually, there was a lot of jazz going on. There was no pop or rock ‘n’ roll. It simply didn’t exist. And there were a lot of jazz clubs, though none were supported, of course. They were all private.
DS: Aside from Krupa and Zutty Singleton, what other drummers did you listen to?
AK: Well, there was William Shipford, a Danish drummer who Getz had around in Europe. He was the only one. There was really no jazz education going on. There still isn’t, actually. You’ve got to get a private teacher and that’s very difficult. But they are working on getting jazz into the Copenhagen Conservatory. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about the U.S. I’ve seen in Boston, when Elvin Jones showed up, the classical professors came down and were really digging Elvin.
DS: Were there American musicians that you listened to that you really liked?
AK: Of course, there was Louis Armstrong, and that was with a German drummer that I’ve never heard about since. And then there were the films; The Gene Krupa Story, and The Benny Goodman Story.
My classical teacher loved a lot of Shelly Manne’s drumming so he was completely in agreement with me becoming a jazz drummer, which was very good, otherwise, it could have turned out differently. Later on, I heard Roy Haynes playing with Gary Burton and I must admit that was to my taste. The best rock ‘n’ roll drummer.
DS: Rock ‘n’ roll drummer?
AK: His jazz is outstanding; that we all know. But he was sitting there playing his own rock ‘n’ roll and a lot of the drummers in Copenhagen said, “What is this?” It wasn’t stiff at all. It was great. One nice, big painting.
DS: There was a period where you did a lot of playing with Americans who came to Europe. What was that period like and who were some of the players you worked with?
AK: Ben Webster had been living there and I worked a lot with him. Dexter Gordon would come in every summer and play for three months at Monmartre. And Archie Shepp; he was there a lot. Johnny Griffin was living in Europe at that time, but he mostly used Art Taylor. He preferred him all the time.
DS: You played with Getz as well .
AK: Stan Getz, yeah. Also, recently in Europe—Germany especially. Roland Kirk would be there many times for a long period and I would play with him.
I’ve played with Bill Evans, Eddie Gomez, Yusef Lateef, Wayne Shorter and Freddie Hubbard. That was really a kick. He’s a very strong player so there would be no limits, you know.
Then there was a period where I got a little tired of playing jazz. It had become very complex, especially when Tony Williams came on the scene. He was more or less straight ahead, but very fast and very competent. So I formed a rock group. I started listening to The Who and a lot of the English groups. But I started to find out that I couldn’t play it because phrasing jazz and phrasing completely straight is very different. I hear jazz musicians that want to play straight rock, but they really can’t.
DS: You also went to Berklee at one point.
AK: Yeah, that was in ’65. I studied for three months with Alan Dawson. I didn’t like Boston as a city. I like New York. I still like it very much. There was so much going on. There were a lot of clubs. You walked around and there would be jazz clubs all over the place.
I was there again in the early ’70s, but there was very little jazz activity going on. We went to Washington, D.C. and the people were shocked that we were playing jazz. They were saying, “We love jazz so much and there isn’t that much jazz around. How come you play so good?” We’d say, “Well, we learned it from over here; from your own countrymen. We worked with them and adored them and, you know, what is this?”
By the way, jazz is on its way up now in Europe, especially the more modern jazz; the type of jazz that Jack DeJohnette is playing and all the type that ECM is re cording. Germany, especially, seems to grasp a lot of the very modern jazz.
DS: Are you doing much studio work in Denmark right now?
AK: Yeah, I am. There are rock ‘n’ roll recordings and jazz recordings, but every thing has gone down a little. I’ve been doing a lot of TV and radio work. At the moment, there is only the big band and the radio jazz group. It seems like they’re cutting down on a lot of the live things on the radio and TV stations for economic reasons. They’re being careful, you know.
DS: How is jazz supported differently between the U.S. and Europe?
AK: From what I understand, jazz is not supported at all in the States. In Europe, it is, and a lot in Denmark. Now there are cut-backs of course, because many people are unemployed. But recently the new Monmartre received a check for $1000. The owner is running it very proper and is really making money there. So, he returned the check to the government office and said, “Hey, I don’t need this. This is great, but use it for somebody that might need it. But if I should ever need it, please answer when I knock on the door.” He wouldn’t take advantage of it.
In Sweden they are giving much more money to the jazz musicians. But they have cliques. One gives it to the other. The clubs are not supported at all in Sweden, because the money is given to the musicians. They share the money. In Denmark, there is like one musician that is involved, of the older ones, and then there might be other younger musicians, but it has to be shared equally. And it has to be that the bands come out and play, so people, even in towns where there are not so many jazz lovers, get jazz now and then.
In Norway they’re getting the lowest amount of money but for some reason, they’re getting the most out of the money. There are so many jazz clubs in Norway.
DS: What are your impressions of western Europe versus eastern Europe, or behind the Iron Curtain?
AK: Poland always had a lot of jazz going on. They all do, actually. I remember many, many years back, in Poland, when this Russian saxophone player would come out and play, there would be a man on each side of him up at the microphone, guarding him so he couldn’t get away. He’d play 24 bars and they’d follow him back again. It was really bad, really terrible.
Another thing that’s very bad, and still is, is that instruments are very difficult to get. And that’s a drag. They come up and ask, “Do you have any used heads?” There was one drummer in Poland once who I gave all my sticks and heads to because I could just buy some other ones when I came home. He was really happy for that. It just doesn’t exist there, and that makes it pretty hard to become good. I mean if your bass drum pedal is terrible, how can you ever become a good player?