BY BOB DOERSCHUK | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Before he picksup a stick or hears even one note, Steve Gadd has a plan.
Every gig has several musicians working together to make the best possible music, and that’s where it all starts — with the people. Gadd connects to the human beings he will be creating with first and foremost. This connection beyond rhythm and chords makes him not just one of the most recognizable drummers of all time on other composers’ tunes, but an effective and prolific bandleader himself.
If we’re talking legacy, then Steve Gadd really doesn’t ever need to lay down another groove or even hit another snare. He’s done it all. He’s recorded and performed with an unrivaled array of artists. He walks that line that divides adapting to the music’s needs and leaving his unmistakable brand on the final mix, probably more than any of his peers — and we’re not just talking drummers.
For decades, James Taylor, Eric Clapton, and Paul Simon have had to wait their turn to take him on the road or into the studio. Going on 50 years now, scores of other musical heavyweights have filled his calendar with session dates. And somehow he’s found time to lead his own projects as well. These have included The Gadd Gang (featuring guitarist Cornell Dupree, the late keyboardist Richard Tee, and bassist Eddie Gomez); The Gaddabouts (guitarist Andy Fairweather Low, bassist Pino Palladino, and singer/songwriter Edie Brickell); Steve Gadd & Friends (Brickell, organist Joey DeFrancesco, saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, and bassist Paul Bollenback); and The Steve Gadd Band, which released a self-titled album earlier this year.
Gadd introduced yet another ensemble in 2017, this time with keyboard wizard Chick Corea, more than half a century after they’d first played together on a Chuck Mangione gig. Recording as The Chick Corea + Steve Gadd Band with guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, saxophonist/flutist Steve Wilson, bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, and percussionist Luisito Quintero, they chose Chinese Butterfly as their title. In its first week of release, it fluttered to the top of the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart.
All of this is to say that Gadd’s accomplishments as a leader rival the ones he has earned as a sideman. Yet there is one area in which he falls a little short. Unlike many who have achieved far less, he is self-effacing and modest to a fault. He has a reputation for putting others at ease in the studio, even for encouraging fans he meets after a show to talk about their ambitions and share who they are. As naturally as this seems to come to him, he is less forthcoming when asked to assess his own accomplishments.
LEADING FROM WITHIN
The Steve Gadd Band offers a good example of how Gadd works as a leader — not so much as the boss, more like the first among equals. He recruited members of the band not only because of how he knew they would work together, but also because each one was a composer as well as a player. Having confirmed trumpeter Walt Fowler, keyboardist Kevin Hays, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, Gadd invited them to bring in some new material that might be considered for the album. Then, about a week before they were scheduled to record, Gadd flew into Los Angeles and got everyone together to review the tunes, select what they wanted to cut, and work out arrangements.
That was just the first step. “When we got to the studio, everything evolved,” Gadd says. “There wasn’t any set way of doing it. We all came up with ideas. Everyone has input. The guys who came in with the idea got the writer credit unless someone else came up with something that created another section. For example, I came up with an idea for one song that Jimmy brought in, so he gave me credit for that. Then I have the final decision on what form everything is going to be.”
The result of their efforts is a solid, player-oriented package of originals plus a couple of covers: Allan Holdsworth’s “Temporary Fault,” brought to the table by Johnson because he’d played it when working with the guitarist; and the Larry Goldings tune “Skulk,” the most rhythmically straight-ahead tune in the bunch. Yet even here — especially here — Gadd finds a way to infuse the 4/4 medium groove with an organic quality, in which nuances add dimension to the steady backbeat.
Still, he protests, “There’s no way that I’m planning the evolution of that song. When you’re working with guys who love to listen and play, it’ll evolve by itself. I mean, I’m always looking for something interesting but not at the expense of the music. No matter how interesting it is, if it doesn’t help the music, it doesn’t belong.”
“It’s never been my goal to develop a distinctive sound,” he continues. “My goal all the time is to try and play something that will help the music, first of all by allowing the music to play me long enough so that I can come up with ideas instead of preconceptions. I wait to hear what’s going on and that determines what I’m going to do.”
This approach is nothing new for Gadd. “When I started doing sessions back in the ’70s, there was a lot of fusion stuff going on,” he says. “So I was playing a lot more than I might have done later. I was doing a variety of things — simple things, some complicated things. Some of it was challenging, technically and reading-wise. Other sessions were very simple and sparse. To me, they were equally challenging. I would play something I thought would sound great because it was technically inspired. But it had nothing to do with the music. But through playing and listening back I started to understand how things that I thought were exciting during the take sounded too busy. I understood the challenge of trying to use space creatively. I began learning how to weed out a lot of stuff because some things that work live aren’t as good when you’re recording. It can be too much.”
Listening to percussionists helped guide Gadd as he pared his parts down. “Of course you’re influenced by everything you’ve heard along the way that makes sense musically, whether it’s rhythm guitar or anything that fills in the spaces and helps the feel,” he says. “I did learn a lot from working with a lot of percussionists along the way, people like Crusher Bennett, Mingo Lewis, and the guys who were on Paul Simon’s Rhythm Of The Saints tour. I especially got a lot from Ralph MacDonald. He was a great percussionist mainly for recording because his playing was simple, he had a great sound, and he always put the music first.”
Those three characteristics evidently passed intact into Gadd’s aesthetic. In much of The Steve Gadd Band his playing is extremely sparse, sometimes nothing more than quarter-notes on a cymbal. Ideally, every instrumentalist passes through an initial phase of over-playing toward more insightful understatement. That seems to have been Gadd’s path if you check out some of his earliest recorded work — say, the roaring groove he maintains throughout “St. Thomas” on the 1972 LP Chuck Mangione Quartet — Alive! The dynamics of his drumming rise and fall but the intensity never lets up.
“I would play that way even now — if the music calls for it,” Gadd says. “The composition lets me know what I’m supposed to do.”
AT THE FEET OF GIANTS
When he was growing up in Rochester, New York, Gadd had plenty of exposure to drummers whose reputations were all about playing fast and driving hard. “I started out listening to John Philip Sousa marches,” he remembers. “My uncle, my dad’s brother, was a drummer. He and I would play along with these 78 RPM records on little pieces of wood.”
Soon his uncle expanded the playlist with recordings of Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson. After letting that sink in, he brought in examples of Max Roach with trumpeter Clifford Brown, Art Blakey with The Jazz Messengers, and other modernists. Then came the main course.
“We started going to this small club in Rochester where a lot of these guys would play,” Gadd says. “There would be Sunday afternoon matinees where the bands would let kids sit in. I grew up with Chuck Mangione and his family, so Chuckie, his brother Gap, and I would all sit in with these guys — Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Art Blakey. That was the best way to clear up a lot of things when it came to playing. Having heard these records and then sitting right next to the bandstand, I could watch how Art Blakey played the bass drum. It was a great way to grow up.”
Few young musicians have that kind of opportunity these days. This, Gadd maintains, makes the role of the teacher more important than ever, if only to replicate the feeling he got by that bandstand in Rochester. “If I was a teacher, I would try to understand first what the student’s inspiration is. What made them want to play drums? One guy might want to start out because he heard some rock ’n’ roll. Another might want to start out because he heard some jazz he likes. How do you get the jazz guy to like rock ’n’ roll? How do you get the rock ’n’ roll guy to like jazz? Maybe you don’t go exactly from one to the other but you try to come up with some intermediate thing that will help each student.
“I would encourage them to listen to as much of that kind of music as they can,” Gadd suggests. “When they’ve got some chops together and feel comfortable in that kind of music, I’d introduce them to and try to inspire them with another type, which would connect to the first type. You don’t make them do what other people have done. You get them to listen to what other people have done.
“That,” he declares, “is what the teacher’s goal should be; to come up with a plan that’s right for them. You keep them motivated.”
LISTENING AND LEARNING
That line that Gadd follows between being recognizable and also adapting to the music applies as much to how he sounds as to what he plays. “It’s not like I’m going for a certain drum sound all the time,” he explains. “I just want them to sound like drums, so I leave it to the engineer to get the drums where they sound like drums and then balance them in the track. But I’m particular about the way I like the cymbals to sound in the mix, because they’re the first thing to get covered up when you add any overdubs with sustain. If I can hear the cymbal when I’m playing the song, that allows me to add more dynamics to what we’re doing. And sometimes I’ll want to tighten them up so they respond more to playing lighter. When you start hitting a drum hard, it closes the overall sound. It gets smaller, more boxed in.”
Gadd has the same concerns when playing live, though he observes, “Everything changes. First of all, I don’t use microphones like I do in the studio. I also don’t use in-ears. I like stage monitors. So I’m trying to get a monitor balance and listen to where the house is without having that affect what I’m hearing in the monitors. It’s tricky. Clubs are different from arenas. Jazz things are different from pop things. The music, the vocalists, everything is new all the time. Yesterday is gone, so you’ve got to deal with today.”
Being aware of this, Gadd makes it a point to check out new trends in drumming. When asked how he feels about what he’s hearing from younger talent, he measures his words a little carefully at first.
“Well, I’d rather be positive than negative,” he begins. “There are some great young guys out there. Technically, they’re off the chart. They’ve taken drumming to another level. I love it when people do that kind of stuff. A lot of times I end up trying to play things I’ve heard these guys play. All along I’ve emulated people. It’s important to keep listening to everybody that comes along.”
Ultimately, Gadd emphasizes, everything one hears — from both old masters and young innovators — should be absorbed and applied with the prime directive in mind. “Now, if you wrote a song with the groove already written out, then you can go in there with a preconceived idea,” he says. “But if you’re gonna go into the studio and play something new, you’ve got to listen to the music. Talk with the writer and the artists who are leading the date about different approaches you can follow. Some music has a strong groove. Some things float more. It’s not the right thing to make something groove if no one wants that.”
That’s been Gadd’s plan from the start; now more so than ever. “There was a benefit recently in New York called Love Rocks NYC. It’s to help feed people in New York who can’t afford to eat. Will Lee was the musical director. About 30 artists came in: Donald Fagen, Ann Wilson, Gary Clark Jr., Trombone Shorty, Jimmie Vaughan, Ziggy Marley. Shawn Pelton was the other drummer; we did the show together. We did ‘Aja,’ so I had to go back to learn what I did on the Steely Dan record.”
He laughs but then adds, “I also had to learn what everybody did. I listened to all of their tracks and tried to copy what their drummers did because that had worked perfectly for them. To make the artists feel as comfortable as I can, I want to know what their guys did, which is probably something they worked out together. That’s why they called us: We won’t just go in and do our thing.”
The lesson here is really quite simple. In Gadd’s words: “The music should always dictate what you do. Just play the music.”
EDIE BRICKELL: ‘He Makes Everything Sound and Feel Good‘
Not many singer/songwriters have had the privilege of recording with Steve Gadd, and of that select few only Edie Brickell took it a step further and actually helped him form a band.
The project began when Brickell and Gadd happened to cross paths one day. “My kids were still very young and I hadn’t made a record in seven years,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You should make another record.’ He offered to go into the studio with me to run through my demos. Then we went to the old Hit Factory and recorded. It was the most fun I’d ever had in a recording studio.”
After they’d finished, they discussed putting a band together. “He called Pino (Palladino, bassist/guitarist) and Andy (Fairweather Low),” she says. “We gave it a test run for a week in the studio. The guys were phenomenal. We got gorgeous tracks live in one take, time and time again.”
The musicians honored their leader by naming themselves The Gaddabouts. “We recorded three albums. And we played a sold-out show at Zankel Hall in New York City,” Brickell says. “We never toured or put our records out with a company because I wouldn’t commit to a tour with my young kids at home. But boy oh boy, it’s a dream band. Steve kept us laughing and inspired every day, every session, every song.”
“Steve is the most laid-back, fun-loving, masterful musician I have ever known,” Brickell says. “He makes everything sound and feel good. It’s all about good energy with Steve. He’s aware of it and knows how to inspire it in others. I’m beyond grateful to have him in my life.”
WILL LEE: ‘His Soul and His Heart Are Unique‘
In more than 30 years as one of the top session players in America, Grammy-winning bassist Will Lee has tracked with some amazing drummers: Dennis Chambers, Billy Cobham, Ringo Starr, and Buddy Rich, to name a few. Yet even among this percussive pantheon, one stands out for reasons both musical and personal.
“Steve Gadd is unique,” Lee testifies. “His soul and his heart are unique. I remember a long time ago we were in the studio. Everyone was at his station, waiting for the click track to count off so they could dive into the song. But Steve wanted to get to know the song first: ‘What is it we’re trying to say here?’ People normally jump right in and start whacking away at their instruments. Not Steve.”
This brings to mind another session. “Steve hadn’t shown up yet so the rest of us were working on the arrangement. But for the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything to play. I was blanking. Nothing sounded right. Then Steve walked in, went over to the kit, and my part came to me immediately just because of what he was playing.”
How can this be explained? It’s not just what Gadd plays, Lee attests. “You know, Steve said something really profound to me decades ago,” he says. “He doesn’t remember saying it now but it shook me to my core. At the time I was focused only on trying to get the music right. But then he told me, ‘People are more important than music.’ When you notice his everyday dealings with people, you see that that’s exactly where he’s coming from. If he didn’t have a set of drums nearby or a pair of sticks in his hand, to hang with him would feel exactly the same as if you were playing with him.”
CHICK COREA: ‘Show Him the Score and Let Him Create His Drum Part‘
For all the bands he has led and the great players with whom he has collaborated, Chick Corea has a special place in his heart for Steve Gadd. The two first played together at a jam session 53 years ago and then worked together shortly afterward in Chuck Mangione’s group. Gadd was also recruited for Corea’s groundbreaking fusion outfit Return To Forever, though he ceded the drum gig to Lenny White when their touring schedule demanded more time than he could afford.
They’ve crossed paths repeatedly since then, each drawn by the other’s love for musical adventure. Gadd recorded on Corea’s landmark albums The Leprechaun (1976), My Spanish Heart (1976), The Mad Hatter (1978), Friends (1978), and Three Quartets (1981). During his three-week run at The Blue Note in 2016, Corea brought his friend in for “Steve Gadd Week,” for which they recreated highlights of their history together. And this year they teamed up as The Chick Corea + Steve Gadd Band to release Chinese Butterfly.
What makes their connection unique? Corea answers without hesitation: “I know that drummers love to learn some of the specific beats and rhythms he concocts. They should — it’s a great way to learn. Transcribe Steve’s drumming. But Steve’s musical sense — the way he interprets the compositions he puts his rhythms to — is the essence. That can be observed and learned from, of course. But that’s Steve as a fine arts interpreter — a kind of composer and arranger, really.”
And for anyone who plans to track with Gadd in the months to come, Corea offers some advice: “Composers and arrangers should never write a drum part for Steve. They should just show him the score and let him create his drum part. That’s his unique skill and amazing offering.”
JANIS IAN: Plenty of Terrific Drummers Listen. He Hears‘
Looking back on her very first take in the studio with Steve Gadd, Janis Ian knew she had found the perfect drummer for her music. “The minute he started playing, I knew he was the best drummer for a songwriter I had ever heard,” Ian recalls. “Those feelings haven’t changed. If I had to choose any drummer in the world, I’d still grab Stephen.”
That was in 1978, during sessions for Ian’s self-titled second album. On that project, and again while cutting Night Rains in 1979 and Revenge in 1995, both with Gadd, her appreciation for him only deepened.
“When I first met Steve, he hadn’t been out of Berklee that long,” she says. “He was still at that age where he was flexing his muscles. By the time we did Revenge we had both decided that playing fast was a whole lot easier than playing slow. I had asked him for a drum fill on this song ‘Ruby.’ He said, ‘It just doesn’t feel like a fill to me.’ I said, ‘Steve, it’s a bar and a half or two bars. I want a fill.’ So he took his brushes and made one long stroke. That was his fill. I laugh every time I hear it because it’s just perfect.”
Gadd’s contributions aren’t always related to drums. “On our first album we did one long, complicated piece, ‘Hotels And One-Night Stands,’” Ian remembers. “We were listening back. Steve had fallen asleep on the floor — he was doing four or five sessions a day at that time. We finished the playback and this little voice says, ‘Bar 143. Somebody’s playing an F-sharp that ought to be an F-natural.’ Of course it was Steve.”
So it’s about listening? Ian shakes her head. “No. Plenty of really terrific drummers listen. He hears.”
ALISON BROWN: ’Such Delicacy in His Playing‘
As of a couple of years ago, Steve Gadd had played in pretty much every genre with every type of performer you could imagine, including big bands, balladeers, blues belters, Bee Gees, even Back Door Slam. But banjo? That was a recent alliterative addition.
“Yes, I am his first banjo player,” says Alison Brown, whose expeditions across stylistic lines have earned her a Grammy Award and helped free her instrument from its bluegrass straitjacket.
When she brought Gadd to Nashville to play drums for The Song Of The Banjo, her 2015 album, he was uncharacteristically uncertain. “He kept asking me, ‘Is this okay? Is this what it’s supposed to sound like?’” she recalls. “I had to tell him not to worry, that we’re kind of blazing our own path.”
He found his way into Brown’s music quickly. “One of the first things Steve noticed was that the banjo plays on sixteenth-notes,” Brown says. “A lot of drummers would listen to the music as if it were a click track and just play a train beat. Steve understood that this would get in the way. In the wrong hands, drums can so easily cover up the beauty of any acoustic instrument. But Steve has such delicacy in his playing that this was never an issue at all.”
SCOTT HOFFMAN: ‘The Most Musical Drummer I’ve Ever Heard‘
For drummers, the best seat in the house at a James Taylor concert is where Scott Hoffman has sat since 2003, within reach of Steve Gadd onstage.
With lots of miles clocked together, along with Gadd’s inclination to not change his setup too much over time, the two have developed a smooth, near-intuitive communication.
For example, Gadd doesn’t like to change his heads too often — so Hoffman takes it into his own hands. “I’d say, ‘Steve, it’s time to change the snare head.’ And he’d go, ‘Nah, it’s still good.’ But because he uses brushes so much with James Taylor, he wears the coating off and the sound gets diminished. So I’ve learned to not even ask anymore. I used to change the snare heads every two months; now I change them every five or six shows.”
Though he prefers tech work to playing these days, Hoffman has learned immeasurably from being so close to Gadd for so long. “His ability to play simply and leave so much space for other musicians is incredible,” he insists. “When I started with him there were times I thought it sounded empty because he was playing so little. I was like, ‘Why didn’t he hit a cymbal crash after that fill? Why didn’t he play a fill that went into the bridge?’
“Then, the first time I heard the whole mix on the board tape in the back of the bus, I go, ‘Now I know why he doesn’t play a fill there. Somebody else — the keyboard player or guitar player — is playing something rhythmic and he doesn’t want to get in the way. Or he doesn’t hit a cymbal crash because it’s not necessary. It comes down to one thing: Steve is the most musical drummer I’ve ever heard.”
JOEY DEFRANCESCO: ‘Listen to What he Doesn’t Play‘
Of course there’s only one Steve Gadd. But a key question remains: How many Steve Gadds does he file away inside? It seems as though he can conjure an infinite number, depending on what the session requires.
On first listen, the Gadd who records and performs with jazz organ monster Joey DeFrancesco is often a full-steam-ahead groove machine. The proof is all over YouTube, especially on their performance of “Caravan,” captured live at the Tokyo Blue Note in 2007, with saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and guitarist Paul Bollenback.
Pay more attention, though, and similarities surface. As DeFrancesco puts it, “Listen to what he doesn’t play. Don’t think about the solos; think about how he lays it down behind everybody else. When a solo happens, he’ll express himself as he sees fit. But then drummers are essentially soloing all the time while feeding off what other people are doing. That’s what drummers should pay attention and listen to in how Steve plays.”
DeFrancesco, who is a solid drummer himself, elaborates. “He’ll do stuff sometimes that makes me go, ‘That’s kind of weird. I don’t know if that’s happening.’ We were playing ‘Sister Sadie’ one time and he was playing brushes, almost with a country music kind of feel. Then the more he did it, the more it made perfect sense because it created this beautiful cushion for the band to lie on. It’s 100 percent groove. That’s where he comes from.”
And when Gadd does solo, DeFrancesco adds, “He comes out of that Philly Joe Jones thing. His roots are definitely in that straight-ahead stuff. He’ll come out of a solo playing a backbeat. Then he’ll do a really simple fill. That’s totally Philly Joe. There’s a lot of that in his playing — but he applies it in his own way. There’s nothing the guy can’t do.”