Thirty-two-year-old Steve Hass has been a professional drummer for about a dozen years, adding touches of style and class to music by the likes of The Manhattan Transfer, Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Christian McBride, John Benitez, Ravi Coltrane and many others, from pop to hard core jazz and from hip-hop to Latin beats. He’s a percussionist with a smooth style and his pulsating conversations with fellow musicians are interesting and seamless. But it didn’t come just from just formal lessons as a youngster, nor his tenure at the renowned Berklee College of Music. Hass is a natural, and sits among the group of outstanding drummers to come on the scene in recent years.
As a child, Hass played the rhythms in his head on pots and pans, digging music, digging drummers, digging the pulse. The pull was already strong for this son of Greek immigrants. “They have photos of me as a baby, sitting by the stereo, spending all day listening to the stuff. Then my parents would go out to Astoria [Queens, NYC] and go to the Greek nightclubs. Sometimes they would take me. I would take a seat by the drummer.”
To this day, the NYC-based Hass absorbs every kind of music and rhythm he can, part of the journey this artist has been on for many years. His thirst for knowledge and his open mind are serving him well, having created a style that can handle any musical situation. If evidence is needed, there’s his debut CD, released in June. Traveler is a blend of different songs and styles, chosen by Hass, driven by his percussion and arranged by his vision.
Evidence of this fine talent can also be seen on Ravi Coltrane’s newest CD, Mad 6 , which is propelled by Hass, who gets a chance to display his strong jazz chops and the influences of folks like Elvin Jones. The backbone of Coltrane’s strong musical statement comes from Hass and his beats.
“For me, it’s all under the American music umbrella, except for the Latin stuff, which is now also becoming pretty much a standard style in jazz for the past 10 years or more,” said Hass.
The concept for the debut CD started out as a jazz trio, but Hass decided he didn’t want to get stuck by listeners and critics into one bag – at least not on this first outing. The result is a stimulating album that takes the listener to different places, and covers tunes by people as diverse as Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits. It has the standards “Skylark” (sung by Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel) and “The Song Is You,” each with fresh and innovative arrangements. Sarah McLachlan’s “Do What You Have to Do” is a sultry ballad and Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is at once rocky, folky, funky and fun. Interestingly, Hass, wearing the multiple hats of producer, arranger, executive producer, and musician, feels he didn’t get the best of himself on the disc. Whatever the case, it’s plenty good, and the versatility of the drummer comes shining through. Whether it’s jazzy (“Seventh Heaven,” “718”) or world music (“Groove Me,” “African Desert”).
“I was actually pretty nervous about it being too eclectic and sounding like a compilation. But when I put the tunes back to back, it had a really nice feel to it. You can listen to the record front to back and it kind of tells a story and you don’t really get bored. It just came out like that,” he said. “I wasn’t sure having Janice Siegel on “People Get Ready,” if it would come out jazzy or funky. The Hammond B3 came in little later and a lot of the slide guitar stuff came in later, so I wasn’t sure what it would sound like. It was kind of fun like that. We didn’t know what to expect.”
“And I’m glad it doesn’t come off like a drummer’s album. Regular people can just pick it up and listen to it and dig it without getting too involved in having to think about who’s playing what and how hard it is.”
The CD is a strong debut. It invites the listener in subtly, not with drum pyrotechnics, and the production values are first-rate.
Speak with the drummer and one finds he is generous of spirit and gentle of soul. In his easy way, he describes his musical expedition, which includes performing with singer/songwriter Joe Brack, more of The Manhattan Transfer, pianist Yaron Gershovsky, Manhattan Vibes, Janis Siegel, Meg Flather, and Neshama Carlebach.
Highlights of his conversation with All About Jazz follows:
All About Jazz: The new CD has a broad spectrum of styles. Were you trying to present your varied influences?
Steve Hass: Not consciously. I didn’t do it with that as the goal. My initial goal was to do a trio recording. It was going to just be a piano trio, basically inspired by a Jeff Watts record that I have – I’m not even sure it was released in the States – with Kenny Kirkland and Charles Famborough. Just standards and some drum solos and some nice blowing, live in the studio. One day, in and out. But then I thought about all the rest of the work that I’m doing, drum-wise, in my career as a session player and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to have this album under my name – the debut – and have people assume that I’m a jazz drummer, when meanwhile I play all these other things.
Plus I wanted to involved more of my friends, like Ben Butler, for example, who co-produced with me. He’s done some jazz stuff, like Special EFX, fusiony kind of bands like that, but more of the singer/songwriter stuff, and I love that as well. So I wanted to include some of that. We just started recording tunes. I didn’t really know where it was going to go until it was finished., and I was like – wow.