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Anton Fig: Behind the Band Stand, Part 1

Ben Scholz By

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He said to me 'You've got a good feel for them drums.' So, now whenever I’m having problems I think to myself, 'Well, if Miles said the feel was good then it’s fine.' —Anton Fig
Part 1 | Part 2

It's around 3 o'clock in early January, that melancholy time of year where the day perpetually feels like 7 pm. We're standing on West 53rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue around the corner from the entrance to The Ed Sullivan Theater. A light haze of snow is falling around the huddled masses waiting in line. Five or six paparazzo are standing behind a gate, cameras in hand. We knock on the door marked Backstage Entrance and are greeted by a perky twenty-something-year old intern dressed in black cords and a Letterman jacket. "So, who are you with?" she asks with a smile. Flustered, Ben barely audibly mumbles "Anton." She flashes another eager smile and replies, "Ok, I'll take you up to his dressing room." We begin to follow her as she says into her headset, "Let Ethan Hawke know they're here for the interview."

For one moment, I'm tempted to take advantage of her plucky misperception. Why not indulge a '90s fantasy of my own? However, Ben shatters my teenage dream and abruptly interjects, "No, we're here to see Anton Fig."

For nearly 30 years, Anton Fig has been TV's go-to drummer/percussionist. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Fig relocated to Boston to study both jazz and classical music at New England Conservatory. After graduating and moving to New York, he found work as a freelance musician backing up artists such as Ace Frehley, Link Wray, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Mick Jagger, and Cyndi Lauper. In 1986, Fig joined with Paul Shaffer to form "The World's Most Dangerous Band" for NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman." In 1992, Letterman moved to CBS and the band became known as "The CBS Orchestra."

Not content to limit himself to his day gig, Fig has been an integral part of the Greenwich Village creative music scene for decades. Joe Bonamassa, Booker T., Wayne Krantz, Mike Stern, and Oz Noy all regularly call upon Fig's talents to help them realize their musical goals. We sat down with Anton in The Ed Sullivan Theater green room after taping one of the final episodes of "The Late Show" to discuss his upbringing, creative process, gear, and a memorable performance with Miles Davis.

All About Jazz: Watching you above the band stand, as opposed to the times I've see you perform on TV and in clubs, I was really knocked out by the ghost notes, your linear figures, and your overall subtlety. Do you work out of the Garibaldi book frequently?

Anton Fig: No, not really. Lately now, with YouTube and all that stuff, I've spent a lot of time looking up all these videos that focus on techniques. I tend to type in subjects and see where that leads me. On the show I sometimes just try stuff I've been practicing. I figure I have a 65 per cent chance of pulling it off (laughs). We get a chance to play a lot and we play pretty improvisationally. I mean, we stay in the style of the song, but we get a chance to really play during the commercial breaks.

AAJ: That really moved me—to see how much you guys jam. That does not come across on the broadcast.

AF: Yeah, we get to play a lot.

AAJ: After leaving South Africa, why did you chose to attend NEC as opposed to just moving to New York?

AF: Well, I was pretty young. Coming from South Africa, the world wasn't as small as it is now with the internet and flight travel. I mean, there were flights here and there but apartheid was in place and the country was really cut off. For example, David Oyelowo was on the show yesterday. He plays Martin Luther King in the movie Selma. He said "I'm English, and you come to America and think, 'well I speak English,' but it's a completely different country." I'm from South Africa and my first year here was insane. I'd watch TV and I wouldn't get any jokes. Jokes tend to reference something before them, so I would watch a sitcom and not understand anything because I had no reference to American culture.

But, I haven't answered your question—the reason I came here. I had a friend who went to NEC. I told my folks I wanted to come over and play and they said "ok, if you go to America you have to get a degree." So, I went to school at NEC because I knew someone who attended. I got a degree and then I moved to New York.

AAJ: I'm a huge fan of the work you've done with Oz Noy. Your playing on "Oz live" really inspired me, in part, to bring him out to Chicago last year to do some recording. Do you have plans to do any more recording or performing with him?

AF: Well that's up to him. I'm on a song or two of every record he's done, and we used to play at The Bitter End every Monday for years, though he changes up his rhythm section all the time. We do have a gig out near Poughkeepsie in February and something else in Toronto in May for a weekend, but that's all so far. It tends to go through cycles. We also did a bunch of double drum gigs with Keith Carlock and myself, and that was... a learning experience. (laughs)

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