From DRUM! Magazine’s March 2017 Issue | By Bob Doerschuk | Photo by Michael Sheerer
This is not a scientific estimate, but when listening to guitarist John Abercrombie’s latest ECM release, Up And Coming, one becomes aware that maybe 80 percent of the drum parts involve cymbals. Silence comprises another five percent or so. The rest involves soft brush work, a few taps on snare or tom, and a gentle kick now and then.
Yet Joey Baron’s role here is essential. Take him out or pour in a lot more action and the music either evaporates or topples over.
“Well, Manfred [Eicher, producer] has a certain aesthetic,” explains the seasoned drummer, whose list of credits goes as far back as Harry “Sweets” Edison and as forward as musicians who are charting tomorrow’s directions in jazz. “On other records, we’ve done straight-ahead things. But the point is none of us has to prove anything. We aren’t compelled to wear our egos on our sleeves. That’s why what you hear isn’t an articulated groove. You’re sensing a groove. You hear the collective sum of who we are.”
Right off the bat, we’re sensing that Baron isn’t a conventional player or thinker. That impression deepens as the conversation unfolds. It becomes quickly evident that simple questions seldom inspire him to answer with similar brevity. Rather, they cue him to react more analytically, as if thinking out loud.
Take, for example, gear. Ask most drummers what kind of kit or cymbals they like and they’ll count down their list. Not Baron. “I play whatever drums and cymbals happen to be there,” he says. “I do own a 4-piece Sonor drum set, but I play it very seldom. See, a long time ago, in the mid ’70s, when I was living in Los Angeles, my cymbals were stolen. Peter Donald, a wonderful drummer and a really kind friend, loaned me a pair of hi-hats. So I used a pie plate for the bottom, the real bottom cymbal as my ride cymbal, and the top of the hi-hat as the top of the hi-hat. To me, it was what I was playing rather than the instrument. If all I had was a piece of metal, am I going to play or not?”
For years Baron pursued this vision of getting the best out of whatever fate put in front of him. He’d try different grips to draw timbres from cymbals that most modern players never thought to explore, even jabbing them, dagger-like, with the point of his sticks. He’s been known to turn whatever snare he was playing that night upside down. Eventually these efforts led him to a moment of epiphany. He was at a hotel somewhere on a jazz package tour whose participants included Paul Motian, longtime drummer for Bill Evans; Keith Jarrett; and other giants.
“Paul was out in front of the hotel, ready to get on the bus,” Baron recalls. “I said, ‘Hey, Paul, where’s your stuff?’ He waved this little bag and said, ‘Right here, man!’ All he had was a cymbal That got me thinking, because I was schlepping around a big box of electronics and cymbals — I’d already stopped carrying drums. I thought, ‘Okay, he takes one cymbal. How can I extend that? I won’t take anything!”
Aside from the Vic Firth sticks he brings with him to each gig, that’s how Baron rolls to this day.
Sure, this has led to nights where he winds up with some woebegone kit out in the sticks, so to speak. But even this situation can be rewarding in ways that playing the same setup night after night is not. “When I started, the attitude was that drums are a noisemaker. Not much has changed, but I’ve changed. I’ve devoted my life to playing music that allows me to offer another option. I used to wonder what else I could do with a drum. I could play with the snare on or off. What happens if you hit the side? What happens if you miss the side and hit the screw part of the tuning peg? When you drop a stick, you have to play with your hands? Then when I’d practice, I’d check that out further. It never stops.”
He thinks back for a second. “In fact, this goes back to the very beginning for me, in junior high school, when I was involved in All-City Orchestra. Everybody was talking one day when the conductor came up. The first thing he did was to rap his baton on the music stand and say, ‘No drum noises!’ Those were the first words I ever heard from a conductor. At that time, I didn’t take any offense to it. Actually, they kind of focus me even now.”
Bashing The Brush
Born 61 years ago in Richmond, Virginia, Baron got interested in drumming mainly from hearing the same kind of rock music as most kids his age. When his parents gave him a practice kit, he set it up and cranked up the radio. “I hung a brush off one of the tuning lugs and imagined that was my cymbal,” he recalls. “I’d play along with The Kinks doing ‘Louie, Louie.’ Their drummer was smashing a cymbal the whole time, so hitting that brush with a stick was the best I could do. But in my imagination, I heard that sound in real time.”
Other articles about Baron describe him as largely “self-taught” during these early years. He doesn’t disagree, but feels that he needs to clarify. “I never had a teacher like, say, Joe Morello, who could ground you with incredible technical discipline,” he explains. “So I don’t have those kinds of chops, although I’ve got what I need to do with what I’m hearing, for the most part. I actually did have some very good teachers. A guy named Mac McClure in Richmond showed me the rudiments, note values, and how to read rhythms. I had another teacher right after that, named Dick Proctor. He was the local big-band drummer so he took kind of a Buddy Rich approach and taught me about reading big-band charts. But in terms of playing, I don’t think there are teachers for that; that’s what I mean by ‘self-taught.’”
After graduating from high school and enrolling at the Berklee College Of Music, Baron studied with Gene Roma, whose credits include Broadway shows and work with Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Woody Herman, and The Boston Symphony Orchestra. “He was extremely helpful to me just by mentioning some things to study, like Alan Dawson’s method or Ted Reed’s Stick Control. And he said, ‘You might want to listen to these records.’ He didn’t make a big deal out of it; he just tipped me toward Forest Flower by Charles Lloyd. He mentioned Mickey Roker; that was invaluable to me.”
Mostly, though, Baron learned to perform on the job. “You can’t learn that in a book,” he insists. “I was fortunate because there was a lot of live music at the time — not necessarily jazz but there’d be a little piano trio playing in a local restaurant. I’d go there, meet the people, and later get called to sub for the guy. If they don’t like you or don’t want to talk to you, at least you get to hear them play. That’s how you learn, not by an isolated YouTube existence but through real, 3-D relationships.”
Comics And Carmen McRae
After leaving Berklee, Baron moved to Los Angeles – for one reason only. “Carmen McRae lived there,” he notes, as if that’s obviously all the reason one needs to relocate. “If she had lived in Timbuktu I probably would have found my way there. The first time I heard one of her records, in Richmond, I knew I wanted to be a part of that sound. That was my dream for the longest time. She didn’t have a virtuosic voice but man, she had taste! She had soul! And she swung.”
The singer eventually did hire him. So did Hampton Hawes, Stan Getz, and other pillars of mainstream jazz. Working with these masters instilled values that Baron believes are just as important in any genre, including free and avant-garde. “John Abercrombie’s music isn’t the same as Carmen’s, but there’s a similar level of excellence in terms of making music that allows every element to be there — vibrancy, swing, somberness, and silence. It’s all adult music,” he says, with a laugh.
In fact, when he relocated to New York and fell in with the community that called The Knitting Factory its home base, Baron didn’t feel any fundamental difference between what he did there and the playing he did with swing and bebop veterans in California. “They’re really the same,” he declares. “No matter what you’re playing, you can’t really make music unless you listen. That’s not genre-specific. Even if you’re playing alone, you need to listen to the room. You need to listen to the audience. You need to listen to what you yourself are doing. If you’re playing with other people, all you do is add them to the equation.”
Another part of his approach bridges his bicoastal experiences. “I played a lot with [guitarist] Jim Hall during the last part of his life in L.A.,” Baron remembers. “His physical ability was not what it had been earlier. But what fascinated me was his sense of time and placement and sound. Being right next to him in real time, when he put his hands on the strings, that went right into me. Even though he’s gone, I’ve still got that. I carry it to whatever situation I’m playing in, whether it’s John Zorn or Abercrombie or whoever.”
That said, time spent onstage wasn’t Baron’s only source of development. The broader his chronological awareness grew, the more inspiration he found in drummers who came long before him, some of whom are now learning from his thoughts and actions. It might be easier to ask who didn’t influence Baron, since his list runs from Baby Dodds, Nick Fatool, and Sid Catlett; Elvin Jones and Kenny Clarke; Mel Lewis, Gus Johnson, and Donald Bailey; Al Jackson, Bernard Purdie, and bluesman Jimmy Reed’s longtime sidekick Earl Phillips (“an incredible drummer but nobody mentions his name!”); to Han Bennink, Tony Oxley, and Tyshawn Sorey.
Then we get to the comedians. “I have a real fondness for the timing of comedians,” he points out. “Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Nipsey Russell, Flip Wilson -— I just love the way they use time and how they tell a story. Just like in music, there’s a long tradition there of people I’ve drawn from and each one stands on the shoulders of someone else.”
Whether from rhythms or comic riffs, everything Baron absorbed fed into his search for new ways of drumming — or even new insights into what drumming actually meant. “Going back to Carmen, what made me curious was how to generate a feeling that isn’t technically based. It’s not about filling up space or playing this rhythm. It’s something a lot deeper. I’m still working on it.”
Again, Baron believes that capturing that magic isn’t something you learn from a textbook. It may not be something musicians can control at all. But it does happen. “Put on ‘So What’ from Kind Of Blue,” he says. “Right where Jimmy Cobb kicks it in and Miles Davis goes into the trumpet solo, there’s nothing technical going on. There’s no blazing speed. But it’s magic. The space between the notes is just as important as the notes. That’s what drew me. Now, in the mid ’70s, everybody was fusioning out. To me, that music seemed busy and crowded. It wasn’t mysterious. It didn’t touch me that much. I’m not judging it, but when I put on a record of Carmen doing a really slow, walking tempo, and the whole group is right there with her, and she’s listening to them and they’re responding to her within the context of the lyric and the form, that’s the experience I want.”
Way Out East
Baron’s appreciation for more traditional measures of excellence actually motivated him to leave Los Angeles. “I came to New York originally because I thought I could do that post-’50s, straight-ahead thing. So I took that opportunity and wound up at the end of the line like everybody else,” he says, with a laugh. “Reality set in and I had to grow up. I started doing whatever I could. One day it would be playing with [trumpeter] Al Hirt down in New Orleans. The next weekend might be some things with [harmonica player] Toots Thielemans.”
After a while, Baron met guitarist and boundary-pusher Bill Frisell. They played together just for fun a few times. Frisell introduced him to saxophonist Tim Berne, cellist Hank Roberts, trumpeter Herb Robertson, saxophonist John Zorn, and other members of the so-called downtown avant-jazz community. “I was a bit of a jazz snob at that time,” Baron says. “I slowly broke out of that – again, not through reading or taking a course but through actual relationships, getting together with Tim, playing his music, and getting a sense of positive challenge. It was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t “All The Things You Are,” but man, it’s fun!’ I could bring whatever I loved about ‘All The Things You Are’ into his music and he was cool about it. These people were serious about music, whether it was playing standards or their own compositions, but with a fearlessness that I loved.”
The restless inventiveness of these players mirrored Baron’s determination to test his own capabilities rather than rely on high-end gear and conventional techniques. The new Abercrombie Quartet album is but one example of how he pursues this goal while also adapting it to the setting he’s in.
A Somber Joy
As we noted at the top, most of what Baron does throughout Up And Coming happens on his ride and crash — definitely not the way he approaches every session, but in this one he knew what was required. “This band, with Marc Copland on piano and Drew Gress on bass, is very open. I’ve talked with John about this and he said, ‘Yeah, this band is a lot more introspective than previous bands. The volume is quite different.’ So immediately I’m thinking that the midrange is crowded. I’m asking myself, ‘What is the important information there?’ We’re playing mainly songs that John composed with specific harmonic information that’s important to hear. It’s very important not to obscure that. So right away, out of the gate, the sound that’s going to let that exist has to come from metal or something else that’s outside of the midrange spectrum.”
Having decided to emphasize the cymbal on these tracks, Baron mulls over what that means from multiple perspectives related to the set list, jazz performance practice, and even history. “People used to talk about a ‘cymbal beat,’” he elaborates. “It’s like, ‘How’s that bass player?’ ‘Well, he plays a little out of tune but he’s got a great beat.’ Or, ‘What about that drummer?’ ‘No chops, but man, he’s got a great beat.’ So I started thinking about the cymbal beat. It’s as important as the James Brown beat on ‘Cold Sweat.’ It’s a specific thing. All the people I looked up to had that: Louis Hayes, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Ben Riley, Mickey Roker, Donald Bailey. All these guys had incredible cymbal beats. It’s not mechanical. It’s fluid. That’s what makes it unique. That’s what I want to develop, which is why whenever I have down time, if I sit down at the drum set, it’s not unusual for me to just play cymbal for an hour or so.”
Informed by his years of analyzing widespread and less common ways of playing his instrument, Baron settled into tracking Up And Coming. His meditations on what he could bring to the music led him in some cases nearly out of the picture altogether. But even when he’s in, his role has more to do with being felt, integrated into the picture as fully as possible.
You hear this from the first cut, “Joy,” whose title belies the tune’s somber mood. From start to finish, the funereal tempo is articulated by chords from Copland’s piano or isolated plunks from Gress on bass. Baron comes in now and then with a few moments of brush on the snare, but more often he indicates his presence with a quiet cymbal roll, tap, or whisper.
“When we started playing that tune, if I was to just play the pulse as they were doing it, it would be kind of dead,” he says. “They’re already starting it, so what would I really add by doing that? I’d just be adding heaviness — and this tune definitely doesn’t need that. This is where I’m inspired by Paul Motian, the way he can play things that take something that could come across as very straight or dull and add something to lift it a little or give it forward motion or create a narrative that runs parallel.
“To be specific,” he continues, “it’s just about listening to the phrases from the music and making decisions in the moment. Silence or activity? Rhythm or texture? You can’t plan it. You just have to listen: How does John play that last note? What would breathe life into that for the next section? How can that continue? There are times in the music where nothing happens. Most people would feel so nervous about nothing happening that they’d fill up the space while saying nothing. But maybe that’s what the moment requires. Carmen would do the same thing: She’d play the same songs night after night but vary them according to what was going on in the room.
“In short,” Baron says, “I carry all that experience I had with Carmen and Lou Rawls and Jim Hall and Lenny Breau and all the other people I’ve worked with, a lot of whom are gone now. I worked with them to learn. That was my postgraduate study. It still is.”
Infographic: Juan Castillo
Astute Drum readers might already recognize that this isn’t your typical gear sidebar. That’s due to the fact that (as you probably just read) Joey Baron doesn’t actually carry a set of drums with him from gig to gig. Instead, he plays the kit supplied by a given show’s promoter. So sometimes he has a 22″ bass drum while other times he plays an 18″. Or he finds himself sitting behind a 6-piece kit at one gig, then a 4-piece at the next. Sometimes his cymbals are shiny and crisp, other times they show years of grime and speak with a complex voice.
He likes the challenge, and we respect him for it. So, with that in mind, we asked Baron to describe his ideal drum set — what he would play every night if he had his druthers — which is what we reproduced here. The purely imaginary nature of this setup explains why the image above is more of a schematic rather than our usual 3-D illustration, and the descriptions are intentionally vague.
In fact, the only gear he carries with him is his trusty stick bag, which, he says, “contains mostly Vic Firth sticks, American Classic 5Bs, American Jazz 4, American Classic 5As, mallets, Vic’s purple brushes, and various other tools like rattan rods, threaded metal rods, and a drum key!”
While he purposefully eschews a standard setup, and other than Firth — doesn’t endorse any other particular brands, he makes sure to add, “Roberto Spizzichino was a true artist cymbal-smith,” and “Gert Breugelmans — Lingham Drums — of Belgium is also an artist drum maker.”
Nonetheless, Baron wants to make sure we understand that the real magic comes from the drummer, not the drums. “All the above being said, I honestly believe that it is one’s inner musicality, and not the outer equipment, that defines the quality of sound and music being produced.
“In the practical real world, my above preferences are mostly never met,” he continues. “In my personal experience, I have manymemories — from last month all the way back to 1964 — of being part of fantastic musical moments under adverse equipment conditions. Also, many recollections of hearing others making s**t instruments sound like gold.
“That, to me, is a part of our job as being professional musicians.” — Andy Doerschuk
John Abercrombie: A Profound Connection
“That’s an interesting way to put it,” says John Abercrombie, after hearing the part of our Joey Baron interview that explains why he focuses on cymbals through most of Up And Coming. “But to me, what’s more important are the spaces he leaves and how he interacts with the members of the band. That, to me, is the whole trick of it.”
Over these past 40 years, the celebrated guitarist has recorded and performed with virtuoso drummers — Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Peter Erskine, Billy Hart. And yet, he says, “Joey listens and reacts to other musicians more than anyone I’ve ever played with. That includes everybody. His depth of listening and being part of the band is extraordinary.
“Also, I love his spirit,” Abercrombie continues. “The only other drummer I can think of who exuded that much spirit on the bandstand was Billy Higgins. I used to play with Billy in [saxophonist] Charles Lloyd’s band. We’d be playing a tune and I’d look around at Billy and he’s just smiling. Now I look around at Joey and he’s laughing at something I played or Marc [Copland, pianist] played. He’s laughing at the whole thing because he’s having fun.”
This touches on something that might be said of all the greatest jazz artists. “His approach is playful, but not just fun. It’s deep, too. It’s kind of like that line Woody Allen said in Annie Hall after he and a woman have gone to bed together: ‘That’s the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.’ You connect on a deep level, but there’s an element of fun in it that keeps everything from being too serious or dark. Joey brings that out.
“He’s a true original,” Abercrombie sums up. “He’s actually kind of eccentric. If he doesn’t like a bass drum at sound check, he’ll move it out of the way, turn a floor tom on its side and use it as a bass drum. And when you’re playing, you don’t know what he’s bringing around the corner. All of a sudden he’ll play much louder or do something he didn’t do the night before. On other nights he’ll kind of disappear. He surprises me all the time, which is just another reason why I love to play with him.” — Bob Doerschuk
Manfred Eicher: Impressions Of Joey Baron
Joey Baron is a magician, sometimes literally, and has some of the swiftest hands in jazz. He can leave you thinking: how did he do that? He has also been a kind and supportive presence at numerous ECM sessions and a very resourceful player across a broad range of improvised possibilities. He underpins ballad playing with the greatest sensitivity, yet is also always open and enthusiastic for free adventures, committed to the group concept whether playing with established masters like Gary Peacock or Steve Kuhn, or up-and-coming younger players like Jakob Bro. In Bro’s spacious music he creatively explores the tones and textures of the drum kit. When time playing is called for he addresses all of the modern jazz tradition — see the spirited ongoing work with the Abercrombie Quartet, for instance — and even summons up the tidal surge of Elvin Jones and the splintered pulses of Rashied Ali on Steve Kuhn’s Mostly Coltrane, while still sounding entirely like himself. This level of versatility and invention is uncommon, and I’m grateful for the many good things, sounds, and laughter that Joey Baron has brought to our recordings and stages around the world. — Manfred Eicher / Founder and Producer of ECM Records
For more, check out Drum‘s Groove Analysis of Joey Baron’s work on John Abercrombie’s Up And Coming album on ECM Records, with text and music notation by Andy Ziker, and a video lesson by Nate Brown.