Friday, April 17, 2009

My Top 5 Modern Drummers

Inspired by the "Pick Your Top 5" craze on Facebook, I decided to create a list of my own without adding the FB application. I limited myself to my favorite modern drummers, four of which have heavily influenced my own drumming style. So here goes...

"Maestro of magnificence!" That pretty much encapsulates my feelings of this hall of fame jazz drummer. I first heard Dave Weckl in the late 80's while searching the FSU Library for recordings of Will Lee, bassist for Dave Letterman's band. Both Lee and Weckl were session musicians for Chuck Loeb's debut album Magic Fingers released in 1989. I was blown away by his rhythmic prowess, the speed and flurry of his drum fills and how he totally stole the show on this cd. I became an instant fan and began listening to everything I could that featured his percussive talents, recordings by Chick Corea, GRP All-Stars and his solo work.

I had to break down and purchase one of his instructional videos, titled "Back to Basics." It was the best video purchase I've EVER made! Nevermind the excellent instruction in stick and foot control, the drum solos are mindbending and worth every dime I spent!

Weckl is as fast as any death metal drummer, as fluid as the best R&B stickmen and as bold as any drummer I've witnessed. He was influenced by some of jazz's best ever, Buddy Rich tops among those, and it shows. I consider Dave Weckl the best modern jazz drummer in the world, and apparently I'm not alone. Modern Drummer magazine has named Weckl one of their Top 25 of all time.

Not too many fans of rock music would argue if I proclaimed Neil Peart best rock drummer of all time. Maybe you could make a case for John Bonham or some of the other drummers on this list, but even they haven't laid some of their exquisite percussive skills on vinyl like Jedi master Peart!

My uncle played Rush's "2112 Overature" and "Temples of Syrinx" for me in his basement back in the mid-70's. I thought it was the most groundbreaking, hard rock I'd ever heard, not to mention Peart's over-the-top drum fills. I would go on to explore all of Rush's discography, both Peart and Rutsy versions, before naming them my favorite all-time rock band. Neil Peart is the primary reason for that.

Never has a rock drummer had such an influence on his band, partly because Neil serves as Rush's main lyricist as well as their drummer/percussionist. I had to add the latter title thanks to Peart's work on some of Rush's early work which included tympany (kettle) drums, bells, chimes, and gongs...among other things.

When I first heard his drum solo on Exit...Stage Left, I was blown away by his precision rolls, round-the-kit drum fills, use of cowbell and overall drumming mastery. The guy knows how to work every tom, even a thunderous 20" floor tom, into a measure-busting drum fill. He never subscribes to the simple timekeeper roll, even though his timekeeping is impeccable. And Rush changes time signatures A LOT! so that's no easy task. People flock to see Rush in concert for the intricate drum fills that adorn every one of their songs.

A more recent favorite, Carter Beauford provides the percussive base for DMB (Dave Matthews Band). His batter's gloved, match grip style is his trademark. He usually steals the show, which is saying a lot at a DMB concert, since every musician on stage is top caliber.

I became a fan after a friend turned me onto DMB in the late 90's. Since then, I've gobbled up all the video of his playing that I could get my hands on. The guy is phenomenal and never ceases to surprise me. Just when you think he's laying back in the groove, he'll mezmerize you with a flurry of bass drum kicks accompanied by splash cymbal rolls. You've got to pay close attention or you'll miss something incredibly awesome!

Beyond his grooverific percussive style, his excellent pedal work and his high-octain approach to drumming, Beauford actually seems to be enjoying himself more than anyone on stage. Maybe he's just gloating, I don't know, but he's always got a big smile on his face....whenever he's not making a "drummer face," that is.

Number four on my list could share the spotlight with Weckl, only because he's had the biggest influence on my drumming. Yes, even more so than Peart. That's because he and the next drummer were the first ones I really tried to emulate on my uncle's drumset.

Watch the video of Smith's solo while touring with Journey in 1981 and you'll understand part of my fascination. For a rock-n-roll drummer, you cannot do any better than Steve Smith. But what I was surprised to find out is what a world-renown drummer he really is, putting on clinics for Sonor drums, playing studio sessions and even jamming with Buddy Rich's big band. The guy has SERIOUS chops that are not bound by musical genre!

Anyway, my first exposure was Journey's Evolution album and I spent countless hours following his blues beat on "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'." Then my uncle brought home Journey's live album Captured. From the opening number with Smith's pulsating bass drum and furious drum fill intro through the drum solo (similar to the one linked on YouTube) to the one new song that capped the album, I was in complete and utter awe of his drumming. You get a glimpse at his genre-spanning prowess on that one album, from the bluesy shuffle of "Walks Like a Lady" to the ear-thumping of "Dixie Highway," "Line of Fire" or "La Do Da"...take your pick.

I could go on and on about Steve Smith. As I said, he's one of my main drumming influences, but I'll leave it up to you. Go online and check out some of his work on the album highlighted above, on YouTube or on the Burning for Buddy sessions.

If you read the Steve Smith section, above, you already know that Porcaro was a heavy influence on my early drumming style. If Jeff were still alive today, he'd undoubtedly be among the world's best drummers. But Jeff left the world MUCH too soon, and the drumming world still misses his smooth-as-silk shuffle.

Known primarily as the talented drummer for the jazz-fusion-infused rock group Toto, Jeff was previously a much sought after session drummer who played for the likes of Boz Scaggs, Seals & Croft and Steely Dan. He was trained under his father's tuteledge and Joe Porcaro was a great jazz drummer in his day.

The effortless way Jeff played the shuffle beat, demonstrated below on his one and only instructional video, was his trademark. It took me YEARS to learn it and I still struggle with it at times, especially all the ghost notes on the snare drum! Jeff always made it look easy...a surefire mark of a great drummer.

For me, 1992 will always be a dark year because of Jeff's untimely passing. Who knows what he might have achieved by now. Countless albums from the 70's and 80's bear his unmistakeable signature, but I grew up on his work with Toto. "Hold the Line" was one of the first songs I learned to play on the drums.

There is a blog dedicated to everything Jeff Porcaro. And this concludes my dedication to the Top 5 Modern Drummers in my estimation. Tell me what you think by leaving a comment below.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Musical Memories Part Two: Prog Rock to Metal

If it wasn’t apparent in part one of this series, I idolized my uncle Greg. Beyond his musical influences—his record collection, his drumset, his monster stereo system—he had cool cars, pretty girlfriends, basketball skills, pornography, alcohol…What more could a pubescent teenager ask for? He fueled my rock-n-roll fantasies.

I can remember cruising the town square in Princeton, windows down in Greg’s “Smoky and the Bandit” Firebird TransAm, Boston 8-Track blaring through the night sky. It was like having an older brother away at college who’d take me out partying and let me do all the things I wanted to do. It was sex, drugs and rock-n-roll…well, sort of. Substitute pornography for actual sex and liquor for drugs and, well, you get the picture.
We used to wear out the 8-Track player in his TransAm. Boston’s debut album, Styx The Grand Illusion, the Cars’ debut album and various mix tapes were our cruising music. When he traded up for a white TransAm, we added Billy Squier, Sammy Hagar, Loverboy and more Journey and Foreigner to the soundtrack of our teens. Only this time, the 8-Track player had given way to the cassette.

I had another musical mentor, but he was a grade school and high school classmate who lived down the street from me. Steve Mascari had two older siblings. He cut his teeth on his brother and sister’s massive record collection. Steve was also a budding musician who usually had instruments in his basement on Winston Drive. He broadened my musical horizons, introducing me to the music of The Who, The Police, Yes, Genesis and a Canadian trio who was just beginning to get heavy rotation on FM radio. No doubt, there will be an entire entry devoted to my favorite band of all time, Rush. Steve and I met in fifth grade at Saint Matthews. It was the only year I attended that school, but he and I became musical buds. From then on, most of my relationships were dependent upon a mutual love of all things rock. Steve’s influences ran more along the prog-rock vein of the 1970’s. His siblings had the older Styx albums, The Who, Rush, Genesis, Kansas, Yes and the like. I learned to appreciate concept albums, epic songs that could take up an entire side or an entire album, multiple time signature changes, keyboard solos (well, sort of) and sophisticated drum solos. My jaw nearly dropped when I first heard Neil Peart’s solo on the live version of YYZ (Exit…Stage Left)…yes at Steve’s house.

My musical tastes were expanding. I even learned that headbanging would play a part in my future, thanks to Steve’s parents and their introduction of cable TV to my world. In the early 80’s, we could spend mindless hours watching MTV on American Cablevision in the Mascari basement. After granting access to the extensive album collection at their house, the Mascari’s now offered MTV, Little Caesar’s pizza and rides to high school. Yes, those were the good ol’ days.

Prior to my exposure to MTV, the only hard rock/metal I had been exposed to was music by AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne. That reminds me of another darker influence on my life…the high school youth group at Central Baptist Church in Broad Ripple (now Trinity at Westfield and Central). The rabble-rousers there, most of whom were a few years older than me, listened to REO Speedwagon’s Hi-InFidelity, AC/DC’s Back In Black and whatever else would set their parent’s ears ablaze. I befriended one of the few kids my age and Owen introduced me to Ozzy’s Blizzard of Oz album. I was shocked, thrilled and mesmerized by that music. He hung with some hippie wannabe’s who also listened to Hendrix and Black Sabbath. That was my earliest exposure to the darker, heavier side of rock-n-roll, but we’ll explore that some more in part three of this continuing saga.

For now, I’ll leave you with this musical memory. Some of my first actual purchases of rock music came compliments of the Columbia House Record Club. Yes, I licked stamps and taped my penny to the reply card! In return, I received by mail my first three cassette tapes—Genesis Abacab, The Police Synchronicity, and Triumph Allied Forces. After that came many trips to Peaches in Broad Ripple and Karma Records. I don’t know how many albums and mix tapes I amassed during high school, but my job at Little Caesars hardly covered my expensive hobby. And there were concerts, too, but we’ll visit all those memories next time. Until then, keep bangin’ your head and…Rock on!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Musical Memories Part One: The Music That Shaped Me

Recorded music was always a standard at our house and my parents were children of the 50’s and 60’s, so that music was usually Rock ‘n Roll. My parents were fans of three- and four-part harmony, so the Beach Boys and the Beatles were king (no offense Elvis)! Mom also loved the harmonious vocals of the Mamas and Papas, the Carpenters and the smooth crooner Johnny Mathis, to name a few. Those were the records I cut my teeth on, so to speak.

Thankfully, my parents never got into disco, and there is a stretch of the mid-to-late 70’s where we listened to mostly Christian artists, Keith Green, 2nd Chapter of Acts, The Archers and The Imperials…but I digress.

My early childhood was spent listening to Meet the Beatles, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In fact, my neighborhood pal Mike Moffet cut a guitar out of a cardboard box and would jam along to Sgt. Peppers ad nauseum. I often accompanied on air drums, yet even I at 8-years-old was better than Ringo.

As I got older and learned of the “secret death of Paul McCartney,” Mike Myers and I would scour dad’s Beatles collection for “clues,” even attempting to play certain records backwards to find “hidden messages.”

My parents bought me a record player for my 6th birthday. It was my favorite present. The bike they bought me sat unused for many years, but that record player was nearly worn out by my 8th birthday. Some of my first 45” singles included Heart’s “Magic Man,” Boston’s “More Than A Feeling,” Manfred Mann's "Blinded By The Light" and Starlight Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.” The latter is the funniest considering my age and naiveté about anything sexual.

As disco was dying a slow, painful death during my junior high years, I was heavily influenced by an uncle, only four years my senior, who had begun amassing a collection of rock albums by Led Zeppelin, Journey, Foreigner, Toto and Styx. These were the musical influences that shaped me through my adolescence. Ah, the good ol’ days!

Toto, Foreigner and Journey were the bands that provided a soundtrack to my early attempts at drumming. Yes, the uncle who helped shape my musical tastes at decibels unsafe for veteran baggage handlers also had a drumset in his basement. I tried like hell to keep up with drum gods Jeff Porcaro and Steve Smith, but “Hot Blooded” was more my speed in those days.

Steve Smith was the drummer for Journey at the height of their career in the early 80’s. And just when I was getting familiar with FM standards “Wheel In The Sky,” “Anyway You Want It” and “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’,” Journey released a live album that blew me away. It was right about that time I was allowed to go to my first rock concert at IU’s Assembly Hall. You guessed it, Journey was the headliner. They were on tour with a new keyboard player who sported a crimson red baby grand on loan from IU’s School of Music, no doubt. They were playing new songs from their Escape album, like “Stone In Love” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It was a dreamlike experience for a novice rocker and prepubescent 8th grader to be sure.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a bit more about the influence of Keith Green in my musical past. His piano-driven pop/rock was my introduction to “Jesus music” and really was very good. Well, his first two albums produced by Bill Maxwell, who is also an accomplished drummer and added his chops to those albums, were very good. Then, Keith got kinda full of himself and took over and the albums went downhill. That, and his career was cut short by a tragic plane crash in Texas. Still, his first album For Those Who Have Ears To Hear molded my softer side and helped give me an appreciation for piano as a percussive force in rock music.

My next entry on this topic will delve more into my evolving musical tastes through high school and my passion for darker music that aligned well with my testosterone-driven teenage angst. Until then, keep your feet on the ground…just kidding. Rock on!