Steve Hass: A World of Rhythms
AAJ: Coming up in the era you came up in, jazz wasn’t the thing. The radio is filled with the same stuff, yet you were able to pick this up. Were you into rhythms as a child?
SH: I’ve always been into music. The first stuff I was exposed to was Greek music, because my parents are Greek immigrants. That combined with my brothers, who are 12 and 13 years older than me, listening to Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. That was my musical upbringing. I was listening to stuff in 11/8 and listening to John Bonham. I didn’t quite get it at the time. It didn’t really all come out until I was about 15 or 16, when I actually started taking lessons and taking the instrument seriously, [laughs] which really scared my parents.
AAJ: Did you play prior to formal lessons?
SH: I was setting up pots and pans and borrowing drums sets from people, but around that age is when I finally got a kit. Once they saw I was serious about it, through the college years, then they got a little piece of mind. But earlier on, I constantly got the ‘Yes, it’s a nice hobby’ thing.
AAJ: Did you take training in high school?
SH: Yeah, I was in school band and marching band. I did all that stuff.
AAJ: And you ended up at Berklee.
SH: I took a year at a community college to see if there was anything else I was interested in – my parents’ influence there. I didn’t really do very well. I ended up hanging out in the music department. This whole time in I was playing weddings in order to make money. I ended up moving to LA to check out the studio scene. I spent a year out there.
I went out there to get my chops together, like drummers like Carlos Vega or Jeff Porcaro, session guys. I ended up meeting Jeff Watts, because he was with the “Tonight Show.” I would go to see him and Kenny Kirkland play every Wednesday night [at an LA club] and it completely inspired me to come back to New York and play jazz. But what ended up happening is I got a scholarship to Berklee, so I went to Boston right after that.
AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz drummer, a jazz musician?
SH: It’s hard to say. Wouldn’t say I’m strictly a jazz drummer, but I’ve spent a lot of my life learning that music and listening to it and loving it. It’s one of my favorite American musics. I can still put on Kind of Blue and get deep into that ride cymbal. Jazz today has got that copycat thing going on a lot, and I can’t get with that so much. Even though I’m probably guilty of it myself. I’d rather put on the records that the younger people are copying. Listen to the source. So I’m always impressed when I hear something that’s a little fresh.
SH: I remember the first time I heard Tony Williams. That may have been my very first jazz experience, putting on [Miles Davis’] Four and More a friend of mine made a copy on tape for me. It was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s beautiful. But I had to go back and check out the simpler, cool jazz stuff. Birth of the Cool stuff. That hipped me to simpler stuff. Because when you’re listening to the other stuff and you’re inexperienced as a listener and a musician, you don’t even realize there is form, because they’re screwing it up so much, you know? They’re just going for it, constantly. I had to go back into the simpler stuff.
Even the stuff on Kind of Blue, where you hear the form of the song and it’s about the melody and all that, it was like, ‘Oh. That’s what they’re playing over.’ It can be mistaken as being free.
AAJ: Who were some of your drum influences?
SH: Max Roach for his phrasing. He just blows me away. I hear in Max’s drum solos that hip-hop swing that guys like Amir Thompson play today. Definitely Tony Williams. And Philly Joe for all that snare stuff. He was swinging so hard and playing the rudiments, kind of the same way that Buddy Rich was doing it. Roy Haynes. Art Blakey. Elvin Jones is a big one for me. I spent a long time on Elvin. He just drove me crazy, the liquid in his playing. Oh my lord.
Then the natural progression from Elvin into DeJohnette. It took me a long time to get to Jack, because my first couple years at Berklee I was a total traditionalist. I had my little bebop kit with the snare tilted and I was transcribing Philly Joe and Max constantly. But it’s a natural progression when you get into all the guys that break all the rules.
For the backbeat guys, Jeff Porcaro. Levon Helm from The Band. His groove is unbelievable. Jim Keltner. Vinnie Colaiuta, Mr. All around rhythmic genius. Not necessarily a swinger, but he’s a huge influence. Especially the stuff he did with Sting and Zappa. More recently, Abe Laboriel Jr. sounds great. I’ve been checking a lot of pop records he’s on. He’s got a nice fat sound.
John Bonham, is a huge influence on me. On “Skylark” the drum sound to me is a Bonham kind of sound. I was kind of going for that, but I played it with hotrods, in between brushes and sticks, and I told Janice (Siegel) and Ron (Affif, guitarist) and (bassist) James Genus to play as if they were playing a little cocktail gig. And underneath all that there was a drum loop. And Ben Butler was playing volume swells on the electric guitar. So it was a marriage of all these different styles. I’m glad that actually came together the way it did.