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Jeff Hamilton: Sound Painter

By Published: May 9, 2006
AAJ: You might've been a dork if you hadn't been a drummer.

JH: Yeah, but I dressed nice... (We laugh. And note: he still does.)

AAJ: Given that you played with so many of the biggest big bands, it must be amazing to have your own big band now [Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra]. Was that your ultimate goal?

JH: It was a goal, but it wasn't amazing when it happened.

AAJ: OK, pick your own adjective. Wondrous? Spectacular?

JH: I want to come off right on this, and Clayton's the same way: if you want something, and you love it, and you know how to nurture your talents, and you're smart enough in your homework, and that's your goal in life—to get to this spot—then you're gonna get there. Because people are going to start talking about you working hard on stuff.

AAJ: And how much of a place does talent have?

JH: You've got to be able to deliver when you do get the opportunity. Somebody says all right, we need an alto player—and you go up, and if you can't hit your butt with your hand, you're in trouble.

At the same time, all this emphasis on technique is stupid, because technique is what you have to get your music out: your technique is your technique, my technique is mine. Buddy Rich can't touch my technique because he can't hear it, and I can't do what Buddy does. So technique is not this one thing that we're all aspiring to.

AAJ: It's more like a well that everybody goes to...

JH: That's it. It's not a competition for who has the best technique. I have the best technique for me, to get my music out. Forget about trying to cut somebody.

AAJ: I know you're a tired person, and I'll try to have mercy on you. But it's a good thing you mentioned technique, because I'm always so delighted when you do that hand drumming thing—which other people do, and have done—but it seems that the way you do it is unique.

JH: Using the hands is just another tool for me to get the music out. I've spent a lot of time getting a lot of sounds, experimenting—there are always more. And you have to be open to surprises.

AAJ: Like the other night, when your cufflink got stuck?

JH: Right. If I'm using my hands and it's dragging across the rim, I'm gonna make that work, make it a part of the next phrase.

AAJ: Do you know how you look when you do all this?

JH: Kind of. I had a day with Philly Joe Jones in '75. We did brushes for three hours, then we did sticks for three hours. He was so gracious, and I'm still thinking about things we talked about that day that were just priceless tidbits of information. One of the things he said was that 'you had to be pretty to play the brushes.'

He showed me a motion that was—the motion you see me do all the time—when you cross the right hand over the left. It's like cross, open, cross, open, and you're open on one, cross on two, come around three, four, one, cross, open. Well that's called the 'palm up,' because when you finish this stroke on one, your palm is facing the ceiling.

After he snapped his hand, though, he'd come up like he was combing the left side of his hair, then down his arm with the brush and onto the head again, so it was this really regal looking, I-own-the-world kind of move. But I thought, these guys are going to laugh me out of the room—plus, I had an Afro out to here.

AAJ: I remember that from the 'Montreux Alexander' days.

JH: Well, this was bigger. It kept growing.

AAJ: Like a chia pet?

JH: (Laughs.) Yeah. Right. I didn't want to get my brush caught on it. But he made me put my hand up there, and the sound was better.

My concept is, always stay in motion. Be on your way to someone else. Don't hit a drum and stop, don't hit a cymbal and stop in midair and then start your groove again, because your motion is going to keep your groove going and help create the smoothness of your groove and your phrasing.

And the dance-like moves that you were talking about? If you think of playing brushes, think of the greatest tap and soft-shoe dancers—it's not just visual, it's musical. Now I think I'm one of the few drummers who thinks like this. Mel Lewis was certainly one, John von Ohlen, and Shelly [Manne]; on certain things it was very noticeable. Adam Nussbaum has this going, and others I'm leaving out, but the majority of drummers don't think like this. I actually let the brush's motion get into the stick motion, so when I'm playing sticks it's the same technique. Those are little drums and I get a big sound out of them and I don't work that hard at it.

L-R: Lonnie Liston Smith, Red Holloway, Dick Morgan, Jeff Hamilton

The reason that most people don't let the brushes influence their sticks is that they don't have a brush concept strong enough to spill over into their stick concept. â??ËœCause everybody starts out with sticks, and goes to brushes later. It's such a different animal that they can't wait to get back to sticks; most drummers just tolerate brushes. They just play them; they don't really love them. I'd rather play brushes than sticks all night.

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