Fearlessly Creative Drummer Paul Wertico: ‘I Feel Like a Percussion Ensemble When I Play’


The incredibly versatile Paul Wertico has won seven Grammys in categories including jazz fusion, contemporary jazz, and instrumental rock. Though he is probably best known for his work with progressive jazz-fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, his other musical projects also include experimental and improvisational groups like the jazz trio Wertico, Cain & Gray, as well as the genre-defying art-music group Earwax Control. Throughout his career, Wertico has continuously pushed the boundaries of his music and his instrument. We caught up with him to tour the Rhythm Discovery Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, just after his clinic at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in November, where he spoke about improvisation and the concepts in his new book, Turn The Beat Around: A Drummer’s Guide To Playing Backbeats On The 1 And 3.

When you’re trying out new things musically, do you just get an idea and run with it? Do you ever try to make it as weird as you can?
I don’t do weird for the sake of weirdness. Everything is sound, so it’s just different sounds. And as far as my rhythmic conception, I often feel like a percussion ensemble when I play. Sometimes it can be like an African percussion ensemble, or it can be classical, like something by 20th-century composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It’s as if I’m channeling things. I believe that when we practice, we open up channels to what the universe has to offer and we let various things come through us. That’s why you should never run out of ideas, because the universe is obviously well beyond our imagination. But if it’s just us repeating what we’ve learned or what we’ve practiced, it’s limited.

Where did you start for Turn The Beat Around? Did you go all the way back to African drumming?
Well, I started by pointing out that so many drum beats and grooves focus on beats 2 and 4, and I talk about, for instance, in classical music, the strong beats are the 1 and 3. I talk about how James Brown focused on the 1. And about Roy Haynes—when I saw him play he sometimes put the hi-hat on the 1 and 3. I also came up with the term “frontbeats.” Luckily, I was able to get that term included in the text right before the book went to print. I mean, my whole life is like that—letting in new ideas, opportunities, and experiences as they come. You also wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve done—like driving trains and flying planes—by staying open to life’s possibilities.

Before your music career?
No, often while on tour. I’ve driven several trains now, like when I was playing with SBB, the legendary Polish rock band. One time we had a day off in, I believe, Croatia, and we went to see these beautiful natural rock formations. When we were about to leave, I saw a passenger train pull in and I asked my drum tech—who spoke the language—to ask the engineer if I could ride up front, which he did. After about 20 minutes the engineer realized I knew a lot about trains and he goes, “You want? Here, take over.” And I did! I made the all stops—and this was through the mountains.

And the pilot thing is really incredible too. One time I was playing the Pantages Theatre in LA with the Pat Metheny Group and a guy came up to me by the stage door.  We started talking a little bit and he goes, “Hey the show’s sold out, is there any way you can get me a ticket?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” Then he said, “Hey, if you come out to Long Beach airport tomorrow, I’m an emergency flight instructor, I’ll take you up.” So, I took a taxi out there the next day and the first thing he showed me was how to use a parachute, just in case the plane bends or he passes out or whatever. Then we took off in a two-seater plane called a Robin Sport, and right after we got into the air he gave me the controls and soon he had me doing all kinds of aerobatic maneuvers like dives, rolls, and loops—it was unbelievable. The next day, Pat was never so happy to see me. I think he was afraid I was going to get killed.

You’d never flown before?
Sure, but not like that. I’ve done that about a half dozen times now and the pilot and I are still in touch.

That’s pretty fearless. Is that how you approach playing too?
Absolutely. I really love new adventures, experiences, and challenges, so I don’t let anything scare me.

Since we’re here looking at their drum sets at the Rhythm Discovery Center, who’s your guy between Krupa, Bellson, and Rich?
Well, it would either be Rich or Krupa. Buddy had that amazing sound, you know, and Krupa just for the sheer joy of playing. Louie was great too, though. I played opposite Buddy Rich and he was a really nice guy. One time I played before him when Buddy and his band were running late because of a snowstorm and then I made sure I played a drum solo when he finally arrived. Like I said, I’m really not afraid of anything.

Creative Drummer

I would imagine most people would be terrified to do a drum solo before Buddy Rich came out onstage.
I think he respected it. He respected people who played the way they played. He was one of those musicians who pretty much felt that if you have to be told if you’re any good or not, that’s not good. You have to have a certain amount of confidence when you play; you throw it out there and whatever happens, happens.

You made your own electronic kit before that was a thing. How did that come to you?
That was in the ’70s and ’80s. I electrified my drum set using Barcus Berry pickups made for violins, and I ran them through different processors and effects. I just love making up sounds.

How did that work? Did you physically tape the pickups to your drums?
Yes, on certain ones. Some cymbals too. You can hear some of those sounds on Earwax Control’s two recordings, especially on the album 2 Live.

Do you feel a recording comes out better if you can get everybody together?
Not necessarily. It depends on the music. Some people also say you can’t swing with a click. I love playing with a click. I never get off with a click, it’s weird. So when I’m playing—even jazz—with a click, it’s just there. I’m not relying on it; it’s just there and I’m in time with it. But if you’re playing music like with Wertico, Cain & Gray, that’s a little different since we just make it up on the spot. We don’t even talk about what we’re going to do. It’s 100 percent improvised.