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Brian Adler: A World of Percussion

Dave Wayne By

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It's like making friends. There are some people you enjoy spending time with, communicating and developing a relationship with. Everyone is unique in that we've had different life experiences that we bring to the table. We're just exploring that in music.
Brian Adler is truly both a drummer and a percussionist—in his world, the drum set coexists peacefully with a dizzying array of ethnic percussion instruments as equal partners in a myriad of musical possibilities. His work with vocalist Sunny Kim in the Prana Trio—which also includes a rotating cast of guest artists such as Frank Carlberg, Stomu Takeshi, Carmen Staaf, and Jeremy Udden—is a case in point. His nimble, sensitive approach to the drum set is matched only by his similarly accomplished work on cajon, tablas, and a host of other ethnic percussion instruments. Never getting lost in his own chops, always totally plugged in to his surroundings in the moment, Adler is the sort of player who always makes the musicians he's playing with sound better. As a composer, he exhibits many of the same characteristics—his writing is consistently intriguing but not overly elaborate. His music is not simple, but there's an economy and a sparseness to it that invites listeners in.

Brian's latest project is something of an anomaly in the jazz world. The Helium Music Project (Circavision Productions, 2011) is an ongoing, download-only compendium of music created with different musicians in different locations all over the globe. So far, just three tracks have been released, with two more to come in October, 2011. As with all of Brian's other projects, the music is soulful, incredibly diverse, and played with passion and virtuosity.

All About Jazz: Tell us how you got interested in music, and how you decided to make it your profession.

Brian Adler: I became interested in music at a young age through kirtans, and began taking drum lessons on an Indian drum called a mridung. As far as making it a profession, I am not sure if I had a moment when I decided; it has always been a big part of my life. And I have a very supportive mother who taught me to reach for the stars. When I was a sophomore in high school, my drum teacher asked me if I wanted to pursue music as a career, and I remember being surprised by the question. I guess I thought it was so obvious that I did.

AAJ: Your early involvement in non-Western music is not a typical pathway to the drum kit—though it provides insight into your uncanny mastery of all sorts of hand percussion. So tell us about kirtans, the mridung, and how you came in contact with them as a youngster?

BA: Kirtans are Indian devotional chants or mantras that are sung in a call-and-response fashion. They can be performed with several chanters or sometimes with several thousands of people chanting, and there is typically one or two drummers, a harmonium player, and a cymbal player accompanying them.

I grew up in and around a meditation retreat center where chants like these were performed regularly. It was not uncommon for the kids there to learn how to play the mridung or one of the other instruments.

The mridung is a hybrid drum, a barrel drum like the mrindangam, or kind of like a tabla-style pakawaj. I studied the mridung from the age of 5, off and on.

AAJ: Did this lead to lessons on other Indian hand drums, such as the tablas?

BA: Yes, later on I picked up the tablas and studied them as well.

AAJ: What, then, led you to the western drum kit?

BA: When I was ten years old, I received a drum set as a gift. One thing led to another.

AAJ: Which Western drummers really inspired you as a beginner?

BA: Besides my teachers who were very influential and inspiring, my first heroes were in the jam band scene: Jon Fishman and Billy Martin, and later I was inspired by jazz drummers such as Jack DeJohnette and Elvin Jones.

AAJ: This is decidedly a non-standard path to jazz drum kit mastery! Besides private lessons, did you also attend an arts-focused high school such as Interlochen? That often has a huge positive impact on one's ability to become a professional musician, and not for the most obvious reasons.

BA: Yeah, I suppose my entry into the music was a bit unusual. I didn't go to an arts high school. I went to public school in a small town just outside of NYC called Hastings-on-Hudson, which in my mind was the perfect place for an aspiring musician to grow up, primarily because it's a rich jazz community. Masters such as John Patitucci, Michael Brecker, Tim Ries, Jay Azzolina, Marc Copland, Harvie S and many others lived in the neighborhood.

After school, I worked at local photocopy store in town where all of these guys would come in regularly. So I was the 16-year-old kid making copies for them, and sometimes an extra for myself. Often, I would strike up conversation and ask where they were playing, with whom, and what they were working on. That's where I got to know who was who in the New York scene. Then I would go home and practice for hours on end, hoping that I would be like them one day. I think it was somewhere in that routine where the whole idea of music as a profession became tangible. I saw these guys working a lot and having families. I thought that if they can do it, I could to do it, and that it actually was possible to make a living playing music or jazz, despite what my guidance counselor at school told me.

They were hugely supportive, interested and possibly even amused that some kid in their town looked up to them so much. One year, I applied to a summer music program at the Berklee College of Music, and the requirements said to send in a demo recording with a jazz group. I was stumped as to who to play with, because my high school jazz ensemble was mediocre, and my friends that played music were not that good. I knew all of these guys from working at the copy store, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to reach out.

Somehow I gathered up the nerve to ask Michael Brecker if he would play on the demo! I sent him a very respectful letter saying that I understood how busy he was, but just wanted to reach out and see if he might have a day off and would want to come to my basement to record two Coltrane songs with me. The request sounds really funny to me in hindsight, but at the time it didn't seem strange. I think it was a day or two later that he called me back and left a message on my answering machine! I wish that I saved it. He was laughing hysterically, and said how cool it was that I asked him to play and how he has never gotten a request like that. He said he would love to do it, but he was leaving for a tour with Herbie Hancock. He said to call him an a few months and that we would set up a time to play together. We saw each other many other times afterward, and the session was close to happening a few times, but unfortunately it never happened.

But I was very fortunate to play with many of the other guys in town, most notably Tim Ries, Jay Azzolina and Erik Lawrence, who lived a few towns up the river. Sometimes we would get together and play standards, or sometimes we'd play through new tunes that they were writing before they brought them to their bands. So I got to work a lot of things out in really good company. Then, on the weekends, I would go into the city and hear them play these pieces with their drummers and have my mind blown.

AAJ: Let's fast-forward to your current musical endeavors. It's getting more and more common in the pop and rock realms for artists to explore alternate modes of delivery—direct downloads and such. It's still a pretty rare thing in the jazz realm, however. What made you take the leap?

BA: I think it is a matter of timing. I toyed with the idea in 2006 with Prana Trio's second album, Pranam (Circavision Productions, 2006). At first we released it as a digital download to test the marketplace, but the press and fans did not embrace it; everyone wanted a physical copy, so we had it duplicated.

I think that this is the right time for this leap to be taken into the digital world. People want to go green and create forward-thinking products. The old mold of physical media is on the decline, and fans are supporting this change now. I saw that Bill Frisell began a series of digital downloads of selected songs recorded live, as well.

That being said, there is still pressure from labels, reviewers and fans to continue to produce CDs, and some musicians like them because it gives their music a tangible form.

AAJ: The tracks are being released one or two at a time. That's a luxury you certainly don't have when dealing with physical media. What's the advantage to this? Are the tracks being released in any particular order? If so, how did you come up with the release schedule for the tracks that make up The Helium Music Project?

BA: I believe that people are more prone to listen when the music is presented in small portions. This is why I am releasing a song here and two songs there, rather than a whole bundle all at once. It leaves them wanting more, and hopefully they will be curious about what will come next. Also, the background story of each song can be shared and the different musicians that play on each track can be featured. My hope is that by spreading out the releases, The Helium Music Project will generate momentum and reach a larger audience.

As an artist, there is a refreshing flexibility in this structure. I am stretching out the process, taking my time with the writing and recording, allowing the music to grow and find a personality of its own. The time between each release is not set, and the exact number of songs is not set either. The master plan can change if it needs to, continuing as long as it seems fit rather than on a deadline.

As for a particular order, I am going with what feels right. I am particularly excited about the Phase 3 release coming up. In it, there is a song recorded with Four Across, a band that I played with for quite a few years. The group dissolved, unfortunately, and this is the last unreleased recording that we made. There's also a tune with an incredible singer named Heather Masse that you may have heard on A Prairie Home Companion.

AAJ: So far, the Helium Music Project is quite successful, from an artistic point of view. The Hermeto piece you chose gets a particularly inspired performance. It's also one of those pieces that's been done but not done to death. Do you have any particular connection to Hermeto Pascoal's music?

BA: I really love Hermeto's music for its sense of adventure. The album Seeds on the Ground (One Way, 1971) with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, and particularly the tune "Andei," is one of my favorites. I like how the melody and the tune are so simple yet so evocative. It grooves so much that people are able to connect with it too, which is important to me.

"Andei" translates to "I walked," and that is the only lyric in the song. The idea of walking connects with what I am doing with The Helium Music Project, as there is a subtext of moving forward, or exploration. I thought an interpretation of this song would be a nice way to start off the Helium series. It is also a nod to Airto, who is very influential to me as a drummer.
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