Playing with unbridled freedom and being a faithful servant to the groove might seem like two opposing goals. But for this long-revered multi-genre monster, it’s all about the same thing—putting in the time, and acquiring the tools.
Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Alex Solca
At a recent Blue Note NYC performance with renowned jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, Oscar Seaton rewrote the rules of groove, the rules of roaming freely over the barline, of interpreting ahead-of-the-beat and behind-the-beat drumming, while always playing for the music.
Seaton is perhaps best known for his decades-long touring experiences with George Benson, Lionel Richie, and Boz Scaggs. He’s a groove king who also plays with stupendous freedom when the music allows. Performing music from Blanchard’s latest release, Breathless, Seaton’s main mission at the Blue Note was his uniformly deep pocket, his 2-and-4 placement a ceaseless wellspring of forward-motion energy that was mysterious in its silken feel, perpetual motion, and unerring tone. His pocket was a thing of beauty.
And when Blanchard and the E Collective—keyboard player Fabian Almazan, electric bassist Donald Ramsey, guitarist Charles Altura, and Seaton—played such incendiary Breathless tracks as “Tom & Jerry,” “Breathless,” “Everglades,” and “I Ain’t Got Nothing but Time,” the forty-six-year-old drummer, generally mild by nature, became a fire-breathing beast. Over his ceaseless groove, Seaton performed amazing subdivisions, stretching his ideas to the edge of the songs’ limits but never losing the feel. His drumming was a whirling vision of complexity, imagination, freedom, subdivision and flow, groove and feeling.
Seaton plays with similar openness on the studio recording of Breathless, but the groove is paramount. And so it would be, coming from the drummer’s history of playing in church and gospel-chops settings. A self-taught musician, Seaton grew up playing for the Lord, and when Lionel Richie and George Benson called, his friendly personality and professional demeanor gained him endless touring work, which continues to this day. (He’s been with Richie for seventeen years and with Benson for twelve and counting.) Seaton has also toured with Queen Latifah, the Winans, Yolanda Adams, Bruce Hornsby, and Ramsey Lewis.
“I played in church from when I was ten to twenty years old,” Oscar recalls. “Then I worked with international artists like the Winans and Yolanda Adams. The Soul Children of Chicago too. And Ramsey Lewis for four years in the mid-’90s, including three records. I toured with Boz Scaggs for two years, then Lionel called, and now Terence Blanchard.”
Seaton shows that perseverance, innate talent, and knowing your path are as important on the road to success as technique, networking, and timing.
MD: You’re one of the few drummers I’ve seen who plays with so much freedom and over-the-barline energy yet has such a seriously deep pocket. What’s the essence of handling those two things simultaneously?
Oscar: It’s really important that everything begins with the pocket and the groove. The foundation has to be about groove. When you’re young it might take a while to understand that. The guys in the band can help you out sometimes. But I was also intrigued with playing bebop and jazz. I wanted to understand that authentic feel. That opened me up. I had the concept of groove, but I was fascinated with other types of music, especially jazz, and that world is different from the pocket world. It’s a creative world. To create, you have to have the tools to create. So when I was young I learned all my rudiments. And I really began vibing with different combinations of stickings from listening to bebop.
MD: How did growing up in Chicago influence your drumming?
Oscar: When I came up in Chicago, myself and Gerald Heyward and a few other guys, we started gospel chops. We began playing over the barline. I got a feeling of different time signatures, but bebop really got me, because it’s so free. So I would deal with Elvin Jones every day for a month to understand his concept. I did the same with Tony Williams and Roy Haynes. But I like to be mysterious so that people don’t know everything about my playing.
MD: Tell us more about playing freely.
Oscar: To be able to play freely around the groove is just knowing how much space there is between 1, 2, 3, and 4. No matter how you subdivide it, it’s still 1, 2, 3, 4. The downbeat is still 1. So how do you interpret the groove—the most important thing—but still play freely around it? You have to understand the value of 1, 2, 3, and 4. I never compromise the groove. If I let any openness or feel compromise the groove, it’s lost. I can play a groove in any time signature, within the concept of 4/4. It’s not free to me. As long as the 1 is returning, I can come up with concepts within the groove.
MD: How did you apply Elvin to your drumming?
Oscar: Elvin played a lot of triplets. So I found every way possible to play triplets, which opened my vocabulary. I played triplets around the hi-hat to the bass drum to the snare. But just because I could play triplets didn’t mean I should play triplets. That doesn’t help the music if you just play something because you can. Even though I understood Elvin’s triplet thing, I still had to know where it made sense to apply it. I did the same thing with Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Roy Haynes. I tried to understand their concept. But the music is the spotlight, not the drummer.
MD: You’re self-taught. Did you work with a metronome or counting systems?
Oscar: That’s all I did. I started playing with the original Dr. Boss metronome. I played a gospel gig in my early twenties where I thought I had killed it. Then a guy came up and said I needed to work with a metronome. And I was crushed. So I began practicing day and night with a metronome. I told Teddy Campbell to do the same; he used to come to my house after school when he was thirteen.
My goal was that when I played with it I never heard the metronome. If I can hear it, I’m not on it. I would practice hi-hat, snare, and bass drum with the metronome for hours, until I never heard the metronome. Until I was so locked with it that it became invisible. I’d seen an Omar Hakim video where he talked about stripping your set down to the basics. I did that with a metronome, and it just opened me up. I would practice with it to the point where I would forget it was on. So I told all the other guys who followed my playing to play with a metronome.
MD: Did you play more freely over the metronome?
Oscar: Years later. The metronome was about everything I played being in time and being even. All about 2 and 4. I didn’t start learning to play more freely until 2000.
MD: So what went into your freer playing? I hear Omar’s bell work, and Manu Katché, Dennis Chambers, and Vinnie Colaiuta in your style.
Oscar: I loved Vinnie’s phrasing, but I wasn’t a Vinnie fanatic. His phrasing on Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets was too much too soon for me. I enjoyed his concepts more when he really began to groove. But people thought I sounded like Omar, and I loved the way he grooves. He would hit a ride cymbal bell as a fill. His time feel was amazing. And Harvey Mason. I saw him with Herbie Hancock; he did one fill I play to this day. Those guys grooved.
So I would play jazz, play groove, practice rudiments—I had to get all of it. And now most people don’t even know who I am. They don’t know my essence, because I do different things.
MD: In your videos online it appears that you use a lot of finger technique more than wrists. If true, how did you develop that? I’m wondering if the finger technique enabled the great detail in your playing.
Oscar: The older guys I studied use a lot of grace notes. Omar, Harvey, they played tons of grace notes, just to make the groove even more round. You can play a one-shot on a snare and some grace notes underneath it that really make it. It’s like a bus that keeps rolling. Their time was impeccable then, but it was more about how their groove felt. Steve Gadd was the same way. He played a lot of grace notes.
MD: How do you develop the low dynamic level required of a grace note so it doesn’t sound like a marching-band exercise?
Oscar: It can’t interrupt the groove. The 2 and 4 is still the heartbeat of the groove. After one strike most people just lay the stick on the head, waiting for the next strike. I put the stick on the head and it will bounce anyway. So I began using it in the pocket. It can’t be too loud or too dynamic. It has to be underneath, and then it feels so good. George Benson hated drummers that felt like they were “chopping wood,” he would say. He wanted the groove to be round.
MD: On some songs on Terence Blanchard’s Breathless, your beat is broad, like you’re intentionally laying behind.
Oscar: Definitely. Anytime you do a recording, everything is to a click. But I learned that the more you lay back on the click, the better it will sound. It goes back to practicing to a click. I got this from the older guys. Practice different ways with the click: on top where you can’t hear it, then on the backside of it, then on the topside of it. So you understand what songs need. Then you’ll understand when guys ask, “Can you play that on top?” There are fine gradations to be on top or slightly behind the beat.
MD: How did you learn that?
Oscar: I learned to lay back on the groove. I would write on my snare drum: “lay back, relax.” Actually, in the studio, if you’re right on the click, you’re probably a little ahead. You can hear it during playback. It’s milliseconds’ difference. So you have to lay back a little bit, so when you hear it back it’s right there. The songs on Terence’s record were all about pocket and grooving. But I laid back a millisecond, and that gave the songs air between the notes. It’s not the downbeats you play, it’s the in-between-the-notes stuff you don’t play that makes it funky.
MD: There’s a lot of space in the title track of Breathless. How do you decide whether to play in that space or just leave it open?
Oscar: That’s just instinct at this point. You can teach that, but back in the day guys would watch Weckl and Vinnie record, just to understand what they did. You have to put in the time. When Terence gave us those songs, there were no demos; we heard the song and came up with the groove. You know when it feels good to add grace notes or fill the space. It’s instinct and experience.
MD: As “Everglades” unfolds you play tremendous staggered fills around the kit. It’s almost like slow-motion drumming. Is it three over two?
Oscar: It’s a feeling. What’s different with me from some other guys is that I don’t look it as numbers, because I’m from church. I didn’t go to music college, and I taught myself how to read music. I don’t know the mathematics, and it doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a feeling that you get. There is so much space in “Everglades,” so it wouldn’t make sense to play everything on the downbeats, because they’re so far apart. I’m doing everything from grace notes, speeding it up, slowing it down—expressing myself.
MD: When you first began stretching, did you count it out or sing to yourself?
Oscar: All feel. I learned how to count and read music as I went along. To me feeling it is the most honest expression. I learned to play odd times when I was seventeen. And I just felt it. My body can feel how much space I have until the next 1 comes. Your heartbeat will never lie. Everything you do is to your heartbeat, so use that. Now I can count it, but I don’t like counting. It’s not real to me.
MD: “Tom & Jerry” is like a drum-solo track. Tons of great ideas, over-the-barline fills, the Omar bell accents, and what sounds like a snare sample at one point.
Oscar: That was called “Oscar’s Groove” at first. I played a weird groove pattern and Terence couldn’t find the downbeat. It was 4/4, but it felt different. He added a bass line and everything around it, then it opened up to being “Tom & Jerry.” Everything is chasing one feel to the next. It’s a short track with a lot of chaos.
MD: Can you break down the pattern in “I Ain’t Got Nothing but Time”? It sounds like 16th-note triplets within the groove.
Oscar: There is so much space there—what would you do? Most people would follow their instincts. You got a long downbeat before the next downbeat. When you talk about people buying a record, you got to keep them interested. When you add some grace notes, it makes the next downbeat really interesting. Jazz is expression. You get the expression from learning, listening…there’s nothing new. I learned from other players, who would come up with this great shit at the club. They just felt it. Jazz is a feeling and an instinct. And when it’s authentic and not from your ego, your honest instincts will tell you what works for the song.
MD: Can you recommend some chops-builders?
Oscar: A simple thing I always do…I got it from Simon Phillips. Singles, doubles, and paradiddles before you play a gig or before you do a record. Everything you can play is from those three rudiments.
MD: What do you practice now?
Oscar: When you’re younger you have more time. I would practice seven hours a day. And I would examine what and how the drummers played what they did. Now I’m older and I don’t have all that time. Now I have two hours. I practice development. I practice what I’m playing with Terence, and to be more open. I don’t want to be the guy who just has a ton of chops. I want people to hear my drumming as thoughtful and tasty. Placement is what I practice now.
We all know what we need to practice. It’s where you are now that counts. Don’t live in the past. How can you better yourself now? The only way to get better is to know where you are now.
MD: What is your goal at this point?
Oscar: To be in tune with the universe. Pay attention. It will come. When someone calls with a gig I consult the universe and ask if this is something I should do, if it’s my path. When you follow your path, things go easy. Things go the way they’re supposed to go. You are following your path. I just want to be in tune.
Tools of the Trade
Seaton plays a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute kit with Terence Blanchard, including a 5.5×14 main snare; a 6.5×14 auxiliary snare; 8×8, 9×10, and 10×12 toms; 14×14 and 16×18 floor toms; and an 18×22 bass drum. His Zildjian cymbals include 15″ A Custom Mastersound hi-hats, a 22″ Medium Thin Low Sound Lab prototype, 13″ A Light auxiliary hi-hats, a 21″ K Custom Dark Complex ride, and a 20″ A Custom EFX. His Remo heads include Coated Ambassador snare batters and Ambassador snare-sides, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and a Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter. He plays Vic Firth brushes and 5A sticks and uses an LP Mambo cowbell.
Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Jimmy Cobb) /// Branford Marsalis Crazy People Music (Jeff “Tain” Watts) /// Ambrose Akinmusire When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Justin Brown) /// Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder, Raymond Pounds, Greg Brown) /// Sly and the Family Stone Fresh (Andy Newmark) /// D’Angelo Voodoo (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson) /// Donny Hathaway Live (Fred White) /// Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall (James Gadson)
Yolanda Adams Live in Washington, Save the World /// Ramsey Lewis Dance of the Soul, Between the Keys /// Lee Ritenour Overtime, Smoke ’n’ Mirrors, Rhythm Sessions /// Lionel Richie Live in Paris, Encore /// George Benson Guitar Man /// Dianne Reeves When You Know /// Will Downing Euphoria /// Terence Blanchard and the E Collective Breathless /// David Garfield The Retro Jazz Quintet /// Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago This Is the Day