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Gregg Keplinger: Drum Fight at the GK Corral

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Imagine the sound of John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Gene Krupa, and the St. Patricks Church Choir... all blowing at once, and youre in the ballpark.
Gregg Keplinger is on a roll. The Seattle drummer has recorded more in the last six years than he has during any period throughout his 40-plus year career. His latest release, Absurd World Country, which he co-produced with saxophonist Mike Monhart, features over 20 local musicians playing without reference to time or pitch—a colossal free jazz/improvisation project—and all it took was a call from Kep to his friends and fellow musicians, suggesting they "show up and blow.

Twenty some years ago I got a job making pizza, nights, down on Northlake Way in Seattle. The job was just a block from where I lived in the upstairs third of a house-turned-triplex on 7th Ave NE. During the day I'd sit on the couch and watch weed-pullers in the Pea Patch community garden across the street. Next to the Pea Patch was a city sewage treatment plant - on hot days its funky aroma permeated the neighborhood - and to the south stood the University Bridge like an old priest, steel arms drawn skyward, blessing sea-bound vessels. Its much younger, much larger cousin loomed overhead like an alien spacecraft as strands of ant-size cars scurried back and forth across the length of its massive, elongated hull. Traffic on the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge produced a constant whoosh of displaced air that mixed with a cyclical, mantra-like rumbling from the house next door—a thunderstorm that would last for hours each day.

The thunder was my neighbor Gregg Keplinger playing his drums. Standing six feet tall, built like a truck, with hands the size of hubcaps, Kep reminded me of the classic Western hero: rough around the edges, reticent, intense. Throughout the fall and winter months he played duets with the driving rain that pelted his shed. In spring and summer, on breaks from practicing, he would stand in the frame of his open front door—stylin' in a wool coat, collar up, jeans, leather shoes—phone to his ear, while the neighborhood cat napped on his porch, curled up in the sun.

Musicians flocked to Gregg's pad, especially drummers. Cymbals and drums hung from the ceiling and walls like icons. Among them was a vintage Rogers Holiday 4-piece, Gregg's first kit, and his first drum: a Ludwig WFL Transition Badge, blue mother-of-pearl 5-inch shell, 8-lug snare—a present from his folks. He kept it dark in there, kept the windows covered. Once your eyes adjusted, it felt like being in a mystical, drummer sanctuary. Somehow he found space for a drill press and materials to make drums, custom jobs for guys who came through town and knew enough to stop by. Coltrane's drummer, the great Elvin Jones had one of Kep's drums: the Keplinger Snare. Word got around.

I found all this fascinating, since I was a drummer, too, as a kid. I'd listened to Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa records. I'd taken lessons for a minute in high school. Marched with the marching band. I'd brought my drum kit with me to college and pissed off a few people with some thunder of my own. They pounded on my door and made ugly faces through the window one afternoon as I beat those drums as hard as I could, locked in my campus dorm room. A few years later I ended up loaning them to a guy who lost the cymbals and half the drums. He said they fell out the back of his van going 70 mph on the way up from a gig in Portland. Right. Thanks, man.

So I asked Gregg to sell what was left of my kit. He did, with a hint of a smile, without making me feel more foolish than I already did. I knew he dug Coltrane, and I started looking for Coltrane's records, if I could find them second-hand. Sometimes, when his door was open, we'd hang out and I'd hit him with all these questions about music, growing up in Seattle, visiting other cities—life, I guess—and just listen to his stories.

Gregg's parents were rounders. They made the rounds of Seattle's dance halls and nightclubs. His dad was a popular guy, a news announcer for a bunch of local radio stations, and he often took the missus out on the town. Gregg soon adopted his parents' lifestyle, attending teen dances at area schools and churches. He paid close attention to the drummers. Ron Woods of The Dynamics. The drummer with the Frantics. The Viceroys. Tiny Tony and the Statics with Marelee. In '65, the year he graduated from Lincoln High, Gregg saw Elvin Jones play with Coltrane's sextet at the Penthouse (then located on First and Cherry).

"When I got into playing at 14, I got into Coltrane. That wasn't an easy thing to do. I had to really work at it. When I first started listening to 'Ascension' I could get into it for maybe fifteen minutes, and then I'd have to go have a brain enigma. The funny thing to me is the heaviest album on earth ('Live in Seattle') was recorded in this sleepy little burg.

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