Peter Erskine: Drumming Improve Lessons Learned

Drummers learn to play by watching and listening to fellow drummers. But to learn improvisation, drummers should also train their ears on the other musicians onstage.

By David A. Brensilver | Photographs: Courtesy Of Erskine’s Biography, No Beethoven

For nearly 40 years, Peter Erskine has been one of the world’s most admired and sought-after drummers. Since working with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, and the iconic jazz-fusion group Weather Report, Erskine has recorded with and performed alongside a veritable who’s who of artists across musical genres — from Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell to the Brecker Brothers, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny — mining the depths of countless styles and adding generously to the drumming vocabulary. Erskine recently shared lessons he’s learned throughout his remarkable career, from equally legendary artists — most of them nondrummers — about improvisation. What follows are his reflections on those inspiring and thought-provoking moments, as well as the influential colleagues whose advice he’s enthusiastically heeded.

Joe Zawinul and Erskine leaving the stage after a Weather Report concert in Japan in 1980.

Joe Zawinul: Compose When You Play
In 1970, composer and keyboardist Joe Zawinul founded the seminal jazz-fusion group Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Erskine worked with the group from 1978 to 1982, and again in 1985. Around ’78, Zawinul gave Erskine what the latter describes as the “biggest improvisational direction in terms of being a complete, creative musician.”

“Probably the most important thing that Joe said to me while I was working with him in Weather Report was to always compose when I play. And what is improvisation but instant composition? And so the ethos of the band, I think, and what he felt was the most important thing for us to do as contributing members, would be to be in the moment, to be spontaneous, to not play anything that was hackneyed or clichéd. So when I think of improvisation, I’m treating the entire playing process as improvisation, even though I’m adhering to the form of a song or guidelines of a chart and trying to handle whatever ensemble needs are brought about because of the arrangement or the tune. The beautiful thing about playing the drums is that I think more than any other instrument, we’re faced with constant opportunities to make choices, or the constant obligation to make choices.”

George Gaber and Erskine in 1965, during their first meting at the Erskine home in Linwood, New Jersey.

George Gaber: Embrace a Less-Can-Be-More Approach
A percussionist who worked with numerous orchestras, Gaber joined the faculty of Indiana University in 1960, and developed the school’s now-celebrated percussion department. While not a drum set player, per se, Gaber challenged Erskine, who studied at Indiana University during the early- and mid-1970s, to embrace a less-can-be-more approach to his setup.

“Gaber was a wonderful percussionist and a brilliant teacher. He played a little bit of drum set, but not much, and I don’t know kit. But talking to me during a lesson, he said, “What are you doing this weekend? Do you have a gig? Why don’t you try just taking your snare drum and your hi-hat?” And of course [in] this band we were doing kind of fusion stuff, and so I said, “No, I can’t do that” — but also, I can’t do that because I have to impress people when I play. And I realized later, what he was trying to get me to do was, in fact, what some of our favorite drummers did on some of our favorite recordings. The fewer instruments you have, generally, the more creative you need to be. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to be busier or more mischievous, but you do have to be more creative.”

Dan Haerle: Be Active, Not Just Reactive
The pianist and composer taught for many years at the University Of North Texas and remains a highly regarded educator and clinician who, in 2013, was elected to the International Association For Jazz Education Hall Of Fame. At a Stan Kenton Jazz Camp in Sacramento, California, in the early ’70s, Haerle encouraged Erskine to be a more active part of musical conversations.

“Dan Haerle and I played part of a concert in duo. We played two or three free pieces, and I thought I’d done a very good job listening and responding — and Dan was quite charitable and generous afterwards. But he was fairly quick to point out, “You were only reacting to what I did.” He said, “You never gave me any input.” So, I was treating improvisation purely as a response, and I was never issuing the call for the call and response. Improvisation needs to be a two-way street or more when you’re working with other musicians. We try to be polite and we try to be good citizens and what we’re really doing is, oftentimes, really handcuffing the creativity of the other musician, especially if we start echoing back what they played, because then they have no freedom to say anything because it’s going to get spit right back in their face.”

Wayne Shorter and Erskine in Frankfurt, Germany in 1978.

Wayne Shorter: Provide Counterpoint, Avoid Imitation
Shorter, the legendary saxophonist and composer who in 1970 cofounded Weather Report with Joe Zawinul, urged Erskine (as had Zawinul) around 1979 to provide counterpoint during improvisations, not simply to imitate what a soloist does.

“I was playing every night in duet with Wayne as part of the song ‘Black Market.’ And the particular performance that was chosen for this live album that Weather Report released called 8:30, I’m in the studio with Joe Zawinul and the engineer and they’re playing back this duet in

‘Black Market.’ And I stand next to Joe by the big playback speakers and Joe goes, ‘Sounds good.’ That made me feel pretty good. And then at that point of the dotted eighth-note figure or dotted quarter-note, depending on how you’re counting. So he was doing this sequential kind of hemiola over the groove. And I catch the last three or four of those. And at that point of the playback, Zawinul turns to me with a really sour face, almost disgusted looking, and he says, ‘Too bad you had

to do that.’ And then later the band was in rehearsal and Wayne started playing something across the rhythmic grain, and I caught it. And he stopped playing. He turned around and he said, ‘Don’t do that.’ So I realized, eventually, if the rhythm section is creating a brilliant blue back-ground, and the soloist all of a sudden carves a searing white diagonal across it, that’s not our cue to change to white.”

Jaco Pastorius and Erskine at the Yamaha factory in Hamamatsu, Japan in 1978.

Jaco Pastorius: Trust Your Instincts
The eternally influential electric bass player was Erskine’s rhythm-section partner during his tenure in Weather Report. As Erskine developed as an improviser, learning from those with whom he was working at the time, Pastorius advised him to follow his musical instincts.

“In the midst of all this, now, I’m trying to incorporate all this advice, and I’m beginning to get self-conscious, I’m not responding as freely because I’ve got these improvisational rules. And then Jaco was all fed up, because he’d gotten me in the band and he’s sensing and hearing this difference. So he says,

‘Stop thinking so much. Just concentrate.’ And what that meant was listen. Stop over-thinking the thing, just listen, then you’ll know what to play. So, he was trying to get me back to my initial, very fresh state when I joined the band, when I was completely fearless, even though I had a lot to learn. And so when you improvise, you have to give yourself permission to trust your instincts.”

John Abercrombie and Erskine on tour in Helsinki, Finland, circa 1984.

John Abercrombie: Make Good Tonal Choices
Working with the acclaimed jazz guitarist during the mid-to-late ’80s in a trio with bassist Marc Johnson presented Erskine with a new challenge and an opportunity to think about orchestration.

“It wasn’t so much anything that John said to me, but I realized when I was playing with him in this three-way improvisation of the trio that I couldn’t rely on playing devices I had come to rely upon — or playing on certain parts of the kit, because the rack tom, for example, would often be in the same tonal, midrange area as John’s guitar. And then I realized I’m just kind of his notes are wiping out whatever I’m play-ing. So, if I’m improvising with him, I have to be much more aware of my tonal choices — the orchestration.”

Marc Johnson recording Erskine’s album Sweet Soul in 1991.

Marc Johnson: Know When to Stay The Course
Erskine and bassist Marc Johnson, with whom he worked alongside guitarist John Abercrombie and on other projects during the late 1980s, spent a lot of time experimenting with contrapuntal ideas and with timekeeping itself.

“Marc and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t in terms of bass and drums. And again, it was: Are we being empathetic or are we getting in each other’s way? And so if Marc wanted to break away from the time, then that would be the time for me to keep playing the time. So, in a rhythm section, a lot of times the best way to improvise is to stay the course; to know when to intentionally play something that’s different from what you’ve been playing or keep playing what you were playing. And oftentimes we would do this not just in the sort of obvious [way], just start bending the time, he would just start pushing the edge of the beat and start playing a little bit faster. And so sure, I could go with him, but it was always way more interesting when I didn’t.

Eliane Elias: Eschew Interruption
Erskine worked with the Brazilian pianist and vocalist in Steps Ahead, a jazz-fusion group led by vibraphonist Mike Mainieri that released an eponymous album in 1983. When Erskine produced his first instruction book, Drum Concepts And Techniques in 1987, he asked Elias to write a blurb (as it’s known in the trade) to help promote it.

“Eliane said, ‘Don’t play a fill every two bars.’ She may have also said, ‘Don’t play a downbeat every two bars,’ but she definitely didn’t want a fill. So, in terms of improvising, again, it’s knowing kind of when to show your cards or when to keep them a little closer to your chest. So that’s a big part of improvisation. ‘Don’t play a fill every two bars.’ Part of playing a beat is playing a beat.”

Shelly Berg: Give The Soloist Room To Play
In addition to having worked as a pianist with an impressive list of renowned artists and serving as dean of the University Of Miami’s Frost School Of Music, Berg is the music director of The Jazz Cruise, an annual weeklong festival at sea that features a stellar lineup of artists. Erskine participated in February 2015, and, during the cruise, did a presentation with Berg that reminded him of previous lessons learned.

“I was part of a presentation, ‘The Art Of The Trio.’ But the bass player got the wrong message about the presentation, so he wasn’t there. So it became ‘The Art Of The Duo.’ So I just started playing. And then [Berg] started playing a tune and we took it from there, and we tried a couple different grooves to show how drums and piano can function with or without a bass. One thing he said was: ‘As a rhythm section, you don’t want to paint the soloist into a corner, as an improvising accompanist.’”

John Wyre, Newfoundland, circa 2004. Photo taken by Erskine.

John Wyre: Let An Improvisation Be What It Is
An orchestral percussionist, composer, and champion of contemporary music, Wyre was a founding member of the trailblazing Toronto-based percussion ensemble Nexus. At one point, he shared with Erskine the oft-repeated Chinese proverb “The bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.” That stuck with and inspired Erskine who, in 2012, wrote and released a percussion piece called “A Bird Sings” in memory of Wyre, who’d passed away six years earlier. Shortly before Wyre died in 2006, Erskine paid him a visit during which Wyre pointed out that an improvisation doesn’t have to spin heads.

“John — rest in peace — was a founding member of Nexus, and improvisation was a big thing with them. And I noticed when he would improvise, he had a tremendous amount of patience. He was never in a hurry for the improvisation to go any specific place. And I visited him in his home in St. John’s, Newfoundland, not too long before he passed away. And he said, ‘Come on, I want to show you my improvising machine.’ It was a large, marimba-like instrument. You could play it standing on either side of the instrument. And John started playing and I started playing and I was being a little clever and John just smiled. He kept playing this very simple thing. I was being kind of fast and busy. And John wasn’t in any hurry to go anywhere. And so oftentimes the beauty in improvisation is you don’t need to hit a home run. To John’s way of thinking and seeing life and hearing, it exists as it is, and it is what it is.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of DRUM! magazine. This is the first time it has been published online.