From DRUM! Magazine’s July 2017 Issue| By David Aldridge | Photography By Neil Zlozower/Atlas Archives
The term “progressive rock” implies forward movement, pushing the musical status quo. But limits-challenging Virgil Donati sometimes encounters the exact opposite. “It seems to me there’s a certain demographic of people who push back against that,” he says. “It’s their version of reality. It’s incredibly reductive and simplistic, and predicated on the worst aspects of our nature. Don’t simplify everything to good and bad, and groove or no groove; give me the nuances in this world.
“Our ears are musically developed and evolved to vastly different levels. Some of us have invested a lifetime studying, exploring, scrutinizing every nuance of time, of rhythm, searching between every unit of every micro-beat. And there are, of course, countless perspectives and ways of communicating the information through performance, through composition. Thankfully, there are so many next-generation players who are really pushing hard toward the evolution of music and their instruments, it’s very encouraging.”
The current platform for Donati’s ongoing discoveries, IceFish is a prog rock band with soaring vocals, sizzling musicianship, and a revised take on traditional grooves and feels. The drummer recently revealed the details of the quartet’s conception, composition, recording, and mixing process, and provided critical insight into the core of his rhythmic explorations.
IceFish originated from a previous working relationship with Italian keyboardist Alex Argento, who played on Donati’s 2013 solo album In This Life. “He played on many of the tracks on that record, and also mixed and mastered it,” Donati explains. “I didn’t discover he had those skills until we were well into the recording process. I was searching for someone to mix and master it. Alex put his hand up to have a go at it, and I gave him a track. I was very impressed with the results. Subsequently he ended up doing the whole record.” Argento would also mix and master Donati’s orchestral masterwork The Dawn Of Time, featuring Donati on drums and piano.
“We had a really good synergy there,” Donati continues, “and toward the end of 2013, we started talking about perhaps doing a progressive band with vocals. I’ve been involved in producing so much instrumental music for the last ten, fifteen years, and I thought, ‘I always wanted to get serious about doing a really good rock record with a great vocalist.’ And herein is the problem: it’s very hard to find a vocalist with a special quality; so that’s how it began, in a nutshell.”
With this element being vital to the project’s success, how did he wind up finding the right singer? “I had another friend in mind for the project, someone I’d worked with many years ago, who had great vocals,” he says, “a great guitarist, a guy named Irwin Thomas. But he was off doing his own thing, so that wasn’t going to work out. Alex recommended Andrea Casali, who’s a vocalist from Italy. I listened to his voice, and it reminded me remarkably of Irwin, that very pristine quality about it, that clean vocal sound. We weren’t looking for the generic rock vocal — we wanted something that was kind of unique. This guy had it all: wonderful quality, beautiful range and timbre to his voice. But not only that; the bonus was he also plays great bass! We ideally wanted to stick to a four-piece, and it all worked out.”
Adding guitarist Marco Sfogli, the band arrived at its final lineup, which Donati says, brings “just a wonderful, fresh approach. Obviously, every band wants to find their unique voice, but it’s so difficult to achieve. I think we’re getting close. It’s progressive rock, but from the groove aspect, I don’t think they are typical progressive rock grooves. So right away you’re going to have a foundation that perhaps can steer you in a unique direction. Some of the grooves I’m playing have elements of R&B, of hip-hop, of fusion, but still have the power and drive of rock. And from there, Marco and Alex and Andrea are all exceptional players in their own right, so they bring their own unique voices and personalities to it.”
Donati studied classical piano as a child, and then enhanced this background in his early twenties by taking courses in theory, composition, and arranging at the Dick Grove School Of Music in Los Angeles. His classical piano influences include Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Maurizio Pollini, and Evgeny Kissin, along with such contemporary composers as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg.
Regarding his drumming inspirations, he says: “I had more of a rock background than jazz, but I’d say they evolved simultaneously. I grew up listening and playing all that stuff, so I was never really a purist in any one direction. Maybe that’s part of who I am now, part of my personality, my character as a musician. I was inspired a lot by all those genres, from John Bonham and Ian Paice to Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones, so it was everything, you know? I studied it all intensely.”
And so the IceFish repertoire begins. “Whenever you start a new band like this, the most difficult thing is to really come up with a sound,” Donati says. “We were all on the same page about the direction, so we spoke about that a little, but was the synergy ultimately going to work? You don’t know that until you start writing, so, basically that was our plan: let’s just begin writing and let’s see if the direction is the way we had envisioned it.”
Donati composed “Revolution” first, at his home in Australia. He uploaded WAV files synched to a click track to Dropbox, and then the other musicians in Italy imported the files into their respective recording software tools. “I generally start with the structure of the song — that could be a guitar part, a bass part. I always have a rhythm in my head; that’s innate. Whenever I’m sitting at the keyboard writing, I’m feeling the rhythm — I’m hearing it already, a groove in my head. I write the basic part, and then I’ll go into my drum studio and record some grooves. Then I can work with those [tracks] and elaborate on the writing.”
His drum studio is a turnkey, miked state of affairs: Overhead, two Shure SM27s; a pair of Shure KSM137s on his two hi-hats; a Shure Beta 56A for each mounted tom; and the floor toms and bass drum are each paired with a Shure Beta 52A. A trusty and time-tested Shure Beta 57A captures the snare.
The mikes feed a microphone preamp filled with tremendous signal- processing horsepower. The audio travels through RME Fireface UFX and RME Micstasy interfaces, which provide analog-to-digital conversion, and then to Digital Performer 9. This collective array of gear delivers an incredibly powerful home-recorded sound, eliminating the need to spend thousands of dollars in a full-blown recording studio. It’s how Donati produced his art for his last couple of albums, and the final product is as pure and potent as anything you’ll hear.
You might think the long-distance recording process is a challenge, but it’s become second nature for Donati. “There’s always an ongoing learning curve, because with every project I do I’ll tweak things a little, I’ll discover a new plug-in I like, using a new reverb, rooms — just small details, basically, nothing that’s drastically enhancing my skills.
“However, I do wish it had come to this years ago!” he exclaims. “Trying to record anything was a huge undertaking and huge expense. It’s just wonderful now. Every day I can make it part of my routine to record something. And the quality, if you know what you’re doing, it’s remarkable. But to learn it, you just have to jump in. I was a novice at the beginning, too. I had no idea when all these tools became available. I had to start from scratch: import, output. I didn’t even know what a bus was. How do you route things? I was so confused, so I just dove into it.”
For this project, the most distinctive difference in his drum sound centers around a single adjustment, one with meat on the bone. “The snare is the biggest difference,” he explains. “I got very much into using snare drums that had a lot of attack, and impact a lot of high frequencies, tuned fairly high. It was Alex and Marco who first suggested that we try a fat, low tuned snare. And it just fit, it just sat so well, and I thought, ‘Yep, you guys are right, for these tracks, this is working.’”
Mixing, Rehearsals & Touring
The band used Skype to discuss creative and constructive input, and then the completed songs were ultimately turned over to Argento for the final treatment. “Sonically, he’s got to compile all the parts, and make it gel in the mix.”
As the material took on its final form at each individual workstation, the need for the bandmembers to play together in real time and space increased. This has happened only twice so far, at an Italian villa Donati uses as his European base, where footage of the band playing on IceFish’s fundraising page was shot, using a complete drum set maintained by Donati’s trusty drum tech, Jacopo.
Still, final live rehearsals aren’t scheduled to occur until just before it’s time to take the band on the road, and it’s a little uncertain exactly when that will take place. With the crowd-funding goal reached and exceeded, those sessions symbolize the full realization of the project. But as always, the last ten percent of any effort requires the heaviest lifting.
“Right now, our priority is to finish producing and finish this record,” Donati says. “We’re speaking to some management companies now, and once we get all that sorted out, we will begin making plans to bring music to the people. We’re even talking about doing a fairly small tour later in the year, because, by that time, the record will be out, albeit too late to really book any extensive touring now for this year, because that is already done so far in advance nowadays.”
Let’s Do The Math
Employing odd meters, polyrhythms, and rhythmic modulation is now musical brain candy for Donati, but it’s also the sum of a journey that has lasted more than 40 years — and isn’t likely to stop any time soon. “My very first attempt at polyrhythms was around age 11 or 12, when I bought a copy of Peter Magadini’s [book] Polyrhythms. It took a long time for me to really understand how to make sense of it. The explanations in that first edition were not too clear, and years later, by sheer perseverance, I finally figured out how to accurately analyze and play most combinations of polyrhythms.”
Countless examples are present on Donati’s orchestral album The Dawn Of Time. “I found it was a wonderful way to put rhythmic ideas to the service of music,” he says. “I’ve wanted to express my musical ideas in this way for some time now. To me, orchestral music has other layers to it. It’s so emotive. It’s so rich and layered. There are some moments where different sections of the orchestra are stacked with the various layers I’m playing on the drums. One example of this is the track ‘The Winds Of War.’ After the trades section, it crash-modulates to a new tempo, and the polyrhythmic interplay between the orchestra and drums and bass is very deep. Many examples are also in the ‘Concerto For Drums.’
“My earliest explorations of not only polyrhythms but also rhythmic modulation and playing grooves with odd groupings go back to records dating back to the ’90s, including OTV’s Serious Young Insects, any Planet X tunes, Just Add Water, to name a few. There are some really good examples that are analyzed in my book The Ultimate Play-Along. One track in that book which comes to mind is ‘Pyramids On Mars’ from the OTV [On The Virg] record.”
Deadly chops and deep musicianship combine to place Donati among the top living drummers of the day. So how does he boost standards that already soar above most high bars? “These days, keeping my limbs in shape is a byproduct of the ideas I practice to further develop my rhythmic sense and expression,” he explains. “It’s not isolated hand or foot work, as it was in the past, but more about the creative process. It takes years for the creative process to evolve. Our attention at various times shifts from the physical and mechanical challenges drumming confronts us with, to musical and rhythmical challenges. Eventually we learn to respond and interact with other players. It’s a drawn-out process.
“At this point in time, for me, it’s about trying to find the balance between feelings and ideas. Feelings are the central force in generating great music. By ‘feelings’ I mean not only ‘feel,’ but also spontaneity, improvisation. Ideas are preconceived. The ability of being able to unite these qualities is always a work in progress. I don’t think there is ever an end to that process. That’s why we need that constant contact with our instrument. We need to renew that connection every day. But for the young student, I would strongly advise not to skip the fundamentals. Work on rudiments. These not only condition the hands, but teach us basic coordination, and done with attention to detail, will shape our touch and feel on the instrument.”
So where have four decades of exploration led? Donati singled out “Solitude” as the most challenging and complex tune composed so far for IceFish. Written in 4/4, the underlying groove can best be called math with feel. The verse is a shuffle, with eighth-note triplets for each quarter-note, so that one measure equals 12 eighth-notes. But to give the time a progressive twist, Donati groups those 12 eighth-notes into five-note clusters, or what he refers to as five-note triplets.
“The hands play triplets in groups of five, with the right hand playing the first three triplets and the left hand playing the next two,” he says. “The left hand remains on the snare for the entire cycle of four bars, marking a backbeat on every second group of two, while the right hand alternates between the X-hat, on my right side, and the floor tom. The hi-hat foot plays the four quarter-notes of the pulse while the kick drum plays on 1 and 2. This anchors the groove and links it to the second four measures of the verse, which heads back into the regular shuffle feel for the next four measures of the verse. The eight-bar cycle loops again, and then on to the chorus. It’s that floating backbeat with the left hand, popping out at regular but unconventional intervals, against the foundation of the feet pounding the quarter-notes, which gives this groove such a contemporary feel.”
Now take a deep breath for just a tad more detail. Starting on beat 1 of the first measure, the five-note pattern grouping completes its first cycle on the & of the beat 2 triplet; the second cycle then starts on the ah of the beat 2 triplet, ending on beat 4 of the first measure. The third cycle continues from the & of the beat 4 triplet across to the second measure, ending on the ah of beat 1. The fourth cycle proceeds from beat 2, ending on the & of the beat 3 triplet of the second measure. The fifth cycle begins on the ah of the beat 3 triplet, continuing across the bar to the first beat of the third measure.
The sixth cycle resumes from the & of the beat 1 triplet, ending on the ah of the beat 2 triplet. Cycle seven starts on beat 3, ending on the & of the beat 4 triplet. The eighth cycle proceeds from the ah of the beat 4 triplet, ending across the bar on beat 2 in the fourth measure. The ninth and final cycle starts on the & of the beat 2 triplet, ending on the ah of beat 3. Donati then plays the final triplet on beat 4, which heads back into the regular shuffle feel for the final four measures of the verse.
Moving to the chorus, Donati plays a set-up measure fill of half-note triplets. Their speed then becomes the pulse for the quarter-notes in the next measure, where he plays a door-busting 2 and 4 backbeat, which eventually receives a triplet fill that returns the tempo of the quarter-note back to the original shuffle speed.
Math with feel. Rhythmic nuance with seamless flow. Virgil Donati doing what he does best — playing for the future.
One Final Nudge
Donati offers a simple notion about how to push yourself forward and strive for something beyond the musical status quo: “The one thing that will render any idea you are working on challenging is to really know where the pulse and the meter is. Learn to count. It’s so important. The count is simply a device that helps you to not only feel the pulse, but know your place within it. And beyond that, you can attempt to add layers — in other words, add voices to the rhythms. For example, you may figure out a groove in 11/16. So try adding a hi-hat pattern with the left foot that will spell out the meter. Not only does that give the groove a reference, it will be a challenge to master it. Then practice variations. This is just one example of many possible directions to take.
“But you see, this is how you develop your musical ear, and your sense of rhythm. The more you expand your musical vocabulary, the more freely and creatively you will express your ideas.”
Bunny Brunel: Donati Makes It Easy
By Joe Bosso
Bunny Brunel admits that he’s a little spoiled when it comes to drummers. Over the past four decades, the French-born bass master has performed with the likes of Chad Wackerman, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Simon Phillips, and Dave Weckl, among others. “You listen to the feel they have and the groove they lay down, and it’s mind blowing,” Brunel says. “They can do the most incredible fills, but they’ll always come back.”
Brunel ranks Virgil Donati among the best drummers he’s ever played with. The two met in 2006, when guitarist Tony MacAlpine suggested Donati as a replacement for Dennis Chambers in the rock/jazz fusion band CAB. It took just seconds for Brunel to realize that Donati was all he was looking for and more. “Virgil can play all of these impossible things, but he never loses you,” he raves. “You always know right where you are with him. He’ll play one rhythm with his left hand while playing a totally different rhythm with his right, but there’s a feel to it. I honestly don’t know how he does it.”
In addition to recording and touring with CAB, Brunel and Donati have performed together on a variety of projects, such as Brunel’s 2015 solo album, Invent Your Future. He recalls a 2007 session for French singer Michel Polnareff during which the producer told the band that he wanted to record one rhythm at the beginning of a particular song, and then he would record another rhythm for the main part of the tune as an overdub. “Virgil did it all in one take,” Brunel marvels. “He just went with it, and he didn’t even need to overdub. We were all just blown away.”
Assessing the top drummers he’s played with, Brunel notes that some tend to favor straight-ahead approaches while others lay back a bit. Donati, he stresses, ties both worlds together seamlessly. “Virgil can go in any direction,” he says, “and wherever he goes I can be right there with him, because what he does makes sense. Even when he comes up with crazy stuff, he nails it down. You can dance to it. He plays it all perfectly.”
Brunel cites a recent performance at L.A.’s Baked Potato, one of CAB’s favored jam spots, as one the group’s best ever, and mentions Donati’s solo as a high point. “It was ridiculous,” he says with a laugh. “All of these drummers were in the audience, and I said to myself, ‘Okay, you can either go home and kill yourselves, or you can go practice.’ I mean, Virgil did paradiddles with his feet! You just watch that and go, ‘He’s in a place all his own.’”
Alex Argento: Multitasking IceFish
By Bob Doerschuk
In less than ten years after releasing his first solo album, Ego, Sicilian keyboardist Alex Argento has toured or recorded with some of the world’s most outstanding drummers, including Gregg Bissonette and Simon Phillips.
One of his longest associations has been with Virgil Donati, starting in 2008 with his being called to cut keyboard tracks for a song on Donati’s solo album In This Life. On the new IceFish project, Donati asked him to take the reins in production too.
Or did he? “I’m not a ‘producer’ in the sense that I have the last word on the production side,” Argento emails from his home in Italy. “In IceFish we discuss everything in a very democratic way. I like to put my knowledge at the service of the band. I love to take care of every aspect of the production workflow. Luckily, the other guys trust in my overall musical vision.”
Argento describes his approach to production with IceFish as neither hands-off nor hands-on, but rather hands-on-call when you need them. For example, he sensibly recognizes Donati as the expert in how his drums should sound. “When you play with Virgil, you know that it’s not just about his unbelievable performance, but also his signature sound. I don’t think anyone is better at getting that kind of sound than he is. He has enough knowledge to choose the right microphones and placement. Even so, he is very open-minded and always welcomes suggestions if they can help improve that sound in some way.”
As for arranging the drum parts, Argento got somewhat more involved with Donati. “We did discuss the drum parts, especially for the songs I wrote. Of course, I don’t want him to play those parts exactly like I arranged them originally. I just want him to have an idea about how they should sound on that song. But in the end, it’s up to him. I need his musicality, his interpretation.
“Virgil is a musician’s musician,” he concludes. “Working with him is like working with another producer. That’s why it’s so easy: You don’t have to worry about anything — except when you’re playing with him live. Then you need to be ready to get blown off the stage right after the count-off!”
For more on Donati and a closer look at some of his drum parts on the IceFish album, go to the Groove Analysis that accompanies this story.