DON’T LET THE BLUES FOOL YOU—GUITAR SLINGER JOE BONAMASSA’S DRUMMER OF CHOICE CAN TACKLE JUST ABOUT ANY STYLE YOU THROW HIS WAY.
Tal Bergman’s dad isn’t a drum teacher, but the advice he gave his son about music was invaluable nonetheless. “He used to tell me that I have to talk with my instrument,” Bergman recalls, “and that if I have nothing to say, I shouldn’t play. Music is like conversation—to say something, a lot of times with drums it comes from your attitude and energy. It can be more abstract. I never studied drummers in the way of learning all their licks, but I listened and learned their attitude.”
Bergman has been seen on PBS with world music star Loreena McKennitt and on MTV Unplugged with rap icon LL Cool J. He’s recorded with fusion legend Joe Zawinul, Turkish multi-instrumentalist Omar Faruk Tekbilek, and Italian operatic pop trio Il Volo, toured with new-wave hitmaker Billy Idol, and played and done production work on classic-rock crooner Rod Stewart’s It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook. For several years the drummer has been visible with bluesman Joe Bonamassa, appearing on the guitarist’s Tour de Force DVD and CD box sets. Bergman’s own band, Rock Candy Funk Party, is making noise as well, most recently with the CD/DVD package Live at the Iridium.
Bergman, who was born and raised in Israel and is now based in Los Angeles, studied classical snare and mallets with the percussionist of the Israel Philharmonic—but was simultaneously listening to anything and everything else he could get his hands on. It’s a worldview that has served him well….
Tal: I grew up thinking that the drummer needs to know how to play everything, not just one kind of music but whatever they throw at you, from funk to jazz to pop to bebop to vintage hard rock. I like all kinds of music, when it’s good. I found out when I moved to the States that they like to put people in a frame, like this guy’s a jazz guy, this guy’s a rock guy, this guy’s a funk guy.
Sometimes people think that if you play all styles, you’re not really good at all of them. Especially today, though, there are no rules, and I love to incorporate different things. In Rock Candy, for instance, the intro [to opening track “Octopus-E” on Live at the Iridium] has got a second-line thing, but it also builds like a rave buildup. I learned a lot of stuff from dance music and raves. I find it interesting the way they build tension with dynamics, not just with tonality but with rhythm. I like to listen to all of that stuff, and as long as you listen while you’re playing, you can go anywhere you want.
MD: Do you ever incorporate Middle Eastern rhythms into your playing?
Tal: I always incorporate them, because they’re very funky. They are North African, so the influence is from Africa. The accent a lot of times is on the 1 with the Arabic stuff. I believe it’s very good to always go to the basics, and then you make your own thing out of it. So I do incorporate a lot of that when I play, as long as it’s good for the music. I’m not going to do it just because I want to. It has to serve the song.
MD: What were some of the important things you learned in your early studies?
Tal: It’s important to have the right technique, because then you don’t have problems with your wrists, your back. Really try to minimize your energy and use it for what you need to. I think reading is extremely important, because knowledge is power. And when I know what I play, the execution is much better, and your time is also much better. It helps me to know how it looks on paper. So if I know that the next phrase is 16th notes, or triplets, or quintuplets, or whatever, it comes with a lot of authority. Because the drummer needs to be the driver.
MD: How old were you when you first started playing?
Tal: Since I was six years old it’s all I wanted to do. I always wanted to be the best drummer for myself, to know that I’m always striving to be better. That’s my challenge, because every time you play something, you know you could do better. There’s no end to it. That’s all I’ve done all my life. I’ve never had any other job.
MD: Who were the drummers you heard that could really put it all together?
Tal: All the great ones, from Gene Krupa to Buddy Rich to Tony Williams. Max Roach, Roy Haynes. I could go on and on—Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham. James Levi.
MD: Speaking of James Levi, Rock Candy Funk Party covers a couple of Herbie Hancock tunes.
Tal: I like a lot of the Herbie Hancock stuff from the ’70s. I love the interplay that went down there, and then I love all the session drummers, like when you play just the right stuff. I think that’s very important. I don’t know if Rock Candy is the perfect example of that, because it’s where we go to have fun, so we allow ourselves to be a little more elaborate than I would do playing behind somebody else. But, you know, we gotta have an outlet.
MD: Did you move to the United States with a particular gig?
Tal: No. I came to the States for the first time when I was sixteen. I made enough money doing gigs in Israel already, and my parents were good enough and crazy enough to let me go to the States for a year by myself. My mother’s cousin was a viola player in the Toronto Philharmonic, so she hooked me up to learn with a group called Nexus, which was made up of the percussionists from the Toronto Symphony and Philharmonic. They were great percussionists and masters in African music too. Some of them studied in Africa for a long time. They were very adventurous, and she hooked me up to study with them privately.
I met Chick Corea when I was a kid in Israel, probably when I was sixteen. I sat in with him playing bongos, because that was the only thing they would let me sit in with. No way I could get the drummer out of the chair. But Chick really liked what I played, because I played more Middle Eastern kind of stuff . We stayed in touch, and then I saw him play in Toronto. I was waiting for him in the snow at soundcheck, and he remembered me and said, “Why don’t you come and sit in with us?” I was like, “Okay.” I probably overplayed like I don’t know, but he invited me for another show. Then he said, “Why don’t you come to L.A., and I’ll get you a teacher.” He hooked me up with Mike Garson, a great piano player, and he worked with me through all the styles of jazz. That was my first time in America.
MD: When did you move to the States for good?
Tal: When I was twenty I moved to New York. I studied some at Drummers Collective with Robbie Gonzalez, Kim Plainfield, Michael Carvin, Frankie Malabe. It took me, I would say, six years to get my first real gig, which was touring with Blood, Sweat & Tears. I was in New York for a long time, playing the jazz circuit, and then I got a gig with Billy Idol, which was totally different. Everybody thought it was a heavy metal gig, but to me it was like disco-pop. It was very tight, a lot of drum machines. So I learned to play all the parts, including all the electronics, and then I moved to L.A. and started doing sessions.
MD: When and how did you meet up with Joe Bonamassa?
Tal: I think I’m on my fourth year with Joe. I was introduced to him by his bass player, Carmine Rojas, who I’ve known and played with for a long time. I said, “Listen, I’m going to come only for three weeks because I don’t really tour as much.” I’ve got twins—they are thirteen years old now, a boy and a girl—and I try to work as much as possible in town. But I had met Joe before, and he’s a good, honest guy. So I started playing, and we had so much fun. Joe’s an amazing player and a great guy. I can be with my friends, and I don’t think I’ve ever been on a tour that was so relaxed, without any politics. So I’m still doing it.
The show is really open. We get to jam, and he gives me drum solos. And now we’ve got [percussionist] Lenny Castro in the band, and it’s actually getting funkier. It’s got more groove. I fly my family [out] every two or three weeks when I’m on the road.
MD: Bonamassa always seems to have a new project going.
Tal: He works very hard. I find that people who don’t sleep a lot make it big-time. [laughs] They just have more hours in the day. I personally like to rest before a concert. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour show, and you really have to be on top of your game the whole time. You can’t relax for a second; you need to direct traffic. You really have to have your eyes and ears open the whole time. It’s fun and it keeps my chops up. And I still manage to do all of my sessions in L.A. They either wait for me or I program some stuff on the road when I need to. So I must admit that I didn’t really lose much work in L.A. doing that. And also the session scene is not what it used to be, so you can’t count on that.
MD: What kinds of sessions are you doing these days?
Tal: I work with [producer/engineer] Humberto Gatica, including Il Volo’s last few albums. They’ve got huge budgets for their recordings, so he will wait for me. Now I’m working on an English singer he’s producing; he got me the tracks so I could do drum sessions for that one when I get back.
I have my own studio as well—a really big space, 2,500 square feet. It was a very famous studio called Lion Share. Kenny Rogers owned it, and it has a great drum room. I’m not talking about those [expensive rooms], but for a working drummer, it’s amazing. It used to be ABC Dunhill—a lot of big records and a lot of history, like Michael Jackson, Aja by Steely Dan…. I cut the first Rock Candy Funk Party album there.
MD: It seems like all the players on that album are having so much fun.
Tal: It’s something that I’m very proud of, because I actually have a vehicle to really play what I love to play, with the people that I love to play with, with nobody telling us what to do, and put it out worldwide. We’re getting rave reviews about it, maybe because not too many people do that kind of music today.
It’s more like jazz-rock. It’s not that fusiony, because we’re trying simple heads. It doesn’t have many unisons or odd times, and it’s not about people showing their chops. It’s about really laying down a groove and doing it in a jazz way where you can break it down when everybody takes a solo and take it somewhere and not be afraid to be really delicate, and at the same time not be afraid to rock hard. It’s exciting, because we like to keep the music simple, but the interplay is where it’s happening. That’s more like the music of the ’60s and ’70s—Miles, Herbie, Cobham, all that stuff , even some Jeff Beck. I try to come up with simple grooves that people can understand, then we can mess around with it. But if people are not bobbing their heads, then they’re going to get lost; it’s going to be too sophisticated for them and not as much fun. The thing is to be a party, so we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
MD: Rock Candy Funk Party does a nice cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Heartbeat.”
Tal: I’m pretty much copying the drum groove on the original record, but playing it like you would play it in 2014. When you listen you don’t notice it, but when you try to learn it, you know Herbie put some land mines there. You’ve got a 3/8 bar—he throws in this odd stuff where it’s like, What? The parts that they came up with, all the counterpoint is so happening. There is no way that we can do it better than they did. I love that stuff, so we sort of stay true to the main parts. Jazzmen, everybody plays the way they play, but that tune plays itself.
A lot of times instead of a drum fill I’ll just turn the beat around. It creates a lot of tension. You can displace the kick and snare in different places. I love moving stuff around. You can’t always do that. It depends on who you’re playing with.
MD: Ron DeJesus plays some great guitar on that.
Tal: He’s one of the funkiest guys, man. He’s originally from the Bronx, and he knows funk inside and out. Ronnie and I used to go and play the Baked Potato for fun when I was in town. One time, Joe came and sat in with us, and we had such a ball. Ron’s one of those guys who really has the right feel, a natural player. Between him and Joe it’s such a beautiful interaction, so much respect.
And Joe’s killing on the stuff. When we did some stuff in the studio, in one day he played the rhythm parts, his solo, and everything, and I couldn’t say a word. It was so on the money. And he loves to take risks, that guy. It’s a project where he can really play what he likes as well. He doesn’t have to sing, he doesn’t have to wear a suit, he gets to stretch and be challenged, and he loves a challenge. Joe can take a ten-minute solo and you won’t get bored.
MD: Your cover of Herbie’s “Steppin’ in It” is really about breaking it down.
Tal: You have to be with the right musicians. You need to be with people who know where the time is without leaning on the drummer. Everybody should be thinking about the time. Sometimes stuff rushes a little, sometimes it will slow, but that’s natural. It also depends on the music and the intensity, but as long as everybody’s together and the energy’s there and the vibe is there, then it’s fine.
MD: You can hear that sort of implied time in the careful build on “Ode to Gee.”
Tal: It really started like that, with us just creeping in, and I love that in music. You don’t have to play it—you can just hint at it, and the listener does the rest.
Dynamics are really important in music. I will create dynamics by taking parts out. I’ll play a groove and then take the bass drum out, like a DJ will mute a channel. I like to do that—just play a groove and then eliminate one of the parts, or take the ghost notes out. I like to play with the hi-hats really dirty, then the only thing I change when I go to the verse is to tighten the hi-hat, and suddenly everything is clean.
It’s a lot of reacting—that’s something I learned from Zawinul. I was in the studio with him and he gave me these tracks to play that unless you’re listening from the beginning, you don’t know where 1 is. And I said to him, “When do you want me to do a drum fill to lead into another section?” He says, “Why do you need to do a fill? Listen and react.” How nice is that? So instead of doing a fill, I’ll do a break. Or instead of changing the beat I’ll just change the tonality or energy.
MD: There’s such a chill vibe on “Best Ten Minutes of Your Life.”
Tal: I totally took that beat from [the Temptations’] “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” I love the drumming on that. All the guy was playing was the hi-hat all the way through. When I was a kid I used to play that forever and just play the hi-hat, and the bass drum and the snare whenever it came up. It’s very minimal, and then when you need to go out you can go out. You gotta love to do it. It’s easier to do a fancy drum fill than to keep a groove.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Bergman plays Sonor drums and Sabian cymbals. He uses Remo heads, a Sonor Giant Step bass drum pedal, a Porter & Davies BC Gigster round throne and BC2 engine, an LP percussion tray and Black Beauty cowbell, Vater Tal Bergman signature sticks, a Yamaha ClickStation, a 2box DrumIt Five electronic drumkit, and Lewitt mics.