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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.


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