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Damión Reid: On Drum Artistry, The Robert Glasper Trio, and Beyond

K. Shackelford By

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When you’re uncomfortable, that is probably the most magical, unique or perhaps progressive musical situation that can occur. Great things can happen when you are uncomfortable or when you have taken a chance. —Damión Reid
International drummer Damión Reid has crafted a style that is inimitable without sacrificing the ardor of modern jazz and its traditional stylistic approaches to drumming. Listening to Reid is like a history lesson on the drum—he can play everything with artful dexterity from Be-Bop to Hip Hop.

Adrian Kirchler, owner of AK drums, was so impressed by Reid's performance at a concert that it inspired him to create a snare drum entitled, "The Damión Reid Signature Model." However, his sound didn't come without paying his dues. During high school, while most teenagers would spend time at the mall or playing video games, Reid spent his weekends with legendary drummer Billy Higgins, a long-time family friend. From there, he refined his artistry at three of America's most rigorous music schools which include, The New England Conservatory, The New School in New York, and The Thelonious Monk Institute at the University of Southern California.

While at The New School in New York, he met pianist/composer/producer Robert Glasper and they quickly became friends, playing together often at different gigs. Eventually, The Robert Glasper Trio was formed and Reid became Glasper's drummer. Last year, their fourth album Covered, (Blue Note, 2015), received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. Reid's entrancing technical style infuses postmodern music's digital sensibilities and fragmentation on the drums—in ways that are unobtrusive—and has made him a strong testament to Glasper's trio sound. In his performances, it is clear that he respects the millennial's ear. In the past 15 years, Reid has also played on albums with a variety of jazz musicians with powerful styles including Laurent Coq, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman, Liberty Ellman, Jonathan Finlayson, and the list is growing.

In this interview, Reid discusses cultural influences on his sound, the groups he has played with, The Robert Glasper Trio, and more.

All About Jazz: AK drums created the Damión Reid Signature model, which was inspired by your "unmistakable sound." How did this come about?

Damión Reid: I acquired a drum from Adrian Kirchler, who owns AK drums, and he came to a show when I was in Italy and he heard me play. He was very complimentary and appreciative of my performance, and one of the things he noticed is that I used orchestral snare drums. He said, "Man, you actually use orchestral snare drums with a drum kit?" And I responded, "Yeah, I do." He thought that was unique and a good idea, because he hadn't seen that at all. He liked the way it sounded. He specializes in alloy and he knows that I like the copper sound, because that is what I acquired from him in the past.

So we began a conversation about my complaint about staying in the pianissimo range while playing fast ideas around the drum kit. When you play over the snares, there are different areas that you may play for certain dynamics. So the snare drum that he created for me combines elements that he thought would enhance the pianissimo range attack area, while playing the drum set. When you play a traditional snare drum, the snares are not fanned. So my snare drum fans the snares so that you broaden the attack area. He took the sensitivity of the orchestral sound and allowed me to utilize it more efficiently while playing the drum set. Obviously, you can still concentrate and still hit the sweet spot. I was just telling him that when I am playing in the pianissimo range, it would be optimum to have certain kind of sounds. We were talking and "nerding out" about the snare. To me, it wasn't that much of a problem but Kirchler said he had an idea that would optimize playing the drum set while using an orchestral snare drum. He said my playing and watching me play inspired him to create this particular kind of snare drum. He told me that if I appreciated the snare drum he would attach my name to it. If I didn't like it, he said he still wanted to call it the DR model. He sent me the drum, and I liked it. We also talked about different specs and different snare specifications. I agreed to sign on to his project and the rest is history.

AAJ: What a kind gesture, and also gift to jazz drummers who struggle with that problem.

DR: It's an honor to have anything made for you. But it's also an honor when someone is inspired to make something because of how you play. I felt like it was a great honor to have a drum maker enhance what I'm doing and give me a unique sound that would help me to do all the things that I want to do with the snare drum— while I played the drum kit. It was very nice and considerate.

AAJ: I have heard of drum companies endorsing an artist, but for someone to craft an instrument inspired by the way a person plays is spectacular.

DR: Yeah it is. The biggest thing that impressed me was that he was inspired to make new technology and play with the limitations of the snare drum and where it has been for decades. And he essentially decided to create a whole new way of mounting snares so that it could create a different sound. When someone is inspired by your drumming to push the boundaries of the way an instrument is made because they see your exploration of the snare—that's an honor most definitely.

AAJ: You hail from West Covina, California and you are the offspring of two musicians, and by the age of twelve you were a mentee of the legendary Billy Higgins. How did your parents and Higgins influence and groom you as a young drummer?

DR: My parents were very hands on with me because they are both musicians. They did all they could to expose me to as much music as possible. Being an acoustic and electric bassist, my dad exposed me to obviously more than just one genre of music. My mother did the same, she is an operatic singer and pianist, and led a lot of chorales and choirs in church. So I grew up playing all types of genres and also playing in the church. Through that experience, I was exposed to more music and it also became a training ground for me as a toddler, because I started playing in the church at three.

AAJ: So many drummers have their foundation in the church. And how about your relationship with Billy Higgins?

DR: Billy Higgins was always in my life. He and my father played a lot together, and with a lot of artists. Specifically, they did a lot of playing with Harold Land, George Bohanon, Oscar Brashear, Kevin Eubanks, and many more. So Billy Higgins was always ever present in my life, and I looked to him more as an uncle than someone looking outside in who was enamored with his legacy. I just looked at him as a musician that my father played with that was affable and an important part of our family. So that's how I got exposed to him. So I basically grew up around him my whole life but when I got to high school is when I started to spend more time with him. Once you get a driver's license at 16, it's one of the biggest things you can do in California right? When you turn 16, you go to the DMV and get your license and I guess that experience gave me the freedom to do things, and one of the things I chose to do was to go hang out with Higgins every weekend.

AAJ: Billy Higgins has a discography that is exhaustive. His work and interviews are recorded in multiple jazz books today. He was a sideman for Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane— and a bandleader in his own right. What was studying with Higgins like? What were some of the most important things he taught you?

DR: Conceptually, the mentorship was more about him being an influence and a guide. He was a generous and humble man, who was very methodical and completely honest. Those aspects of his personality resonated with me, because that is how many people in my family are. I always saw him as being genuine. One of the main things that he told me, that was a consistent mantra, was to be dedicated and diligent to learning your craft. I interpreted this as being diligent in learning how to play the drums and music. He taught me to always strive to express your innermost thoughts which I interpreted as being committed to originality—which is to be yourself while serving the music. He also relentlessly critiqued my technical flaws in order to help me express myself clearly.

AAJ: Some of the groups you have worked with are being held as the future of modern/experimental jazz that tend to push musical boundaries. Steve Lehman, Liberty Ellman, Jonathan Finlayson, Greg Ward, Laurent Coq, Rudresh Mahanthappa, for example. I'm curious, why are you attracted to each other musically?

DR: I think the main objective with a lot of these groups, is just to somehow stay progressive and postmodern, creating as many musical ideas as possible. It's more about the exploration of the music, the possibilities within the format that we've been given and the instruments that we play. I think it's more about that, and I think it is what attracted us to each other. It's something that all of us are concerned about, which is, finding a way to incorporate ideas we've learned, thought about and utilize them in a musical setting.

AAJ: I looked at some of the albums you've played on and many are progressive post-bop groups—some invested into a postmodern sound? Is that intentional?

DR: Yeah. I am definitely concerned about the true meaning of avant-garde, which means progressive. Sometimes in music, we get caught up in what is genre, what is jazz, or all these titles—and titles mean absolutely nothing. Titles are given to the music in order to sell it and market it for whatever reasons. However, I'm concerned with who is existing in the present. That is, who is dealing with today and who is trying to impact the future musically.

So whoever comes to me with those ideas or whoever I seek out—my goal, as an artist, is to be engaged in music partnerships that are totally entrenched in the meaning of the term avant-garde. However, I feel like the term avant-garde gets misused too often by journalists and musicians because it just means progressive, not anything else. In my mind, avant-garde means exploration, so anybody who is pushing themselves, or trying new things musically, and willing to fail—that's who I want to be around. I want to be around those guys or gals.

AAJ: The contributions women are making to the genre of modern jazz is noteworthy. Could you name some of the female band leaders you have worked with?

DR: Yes. I've worked with Lauryn Hill, Courtney Bryan, Matana Roberts and MeShell NdegeOcello. What I appreciate most about them is that they are looking to push the boundaries, skew the line, and do what they feel is creative. I am glad I have had the opportunity to create music with them.

AAJ: When you speak of pushing musical boundaries, what does that mean to you? Could you provide some specifics?

DR: Whatever you think you know, you must realize that there is more information out there. As an artist, you have to realize that you don't know everything. No one knows everything. So musical knowledge is an endless search that you must embark upon, and get there however you must. In terms of musical expression, that is what I feel like pushing the boundaries mean.

For example, every day you wake up and you think you might have it together, but you might be given a new book or a new plate of food, etc. Someone attempted to give you something different, and you have to process this new data. That in itself, causes you to push your own boundaries. This idea is true in a performance setting, that is, you can force yourself to leave the traditional musical mindset that you are in at that moment. In this way, I feel like you're pushing yourself to be uncomfortable. When you're uncomfortable, that is probably the most magical, unique or perhaps progressive musical situation that can occur. Great things can happen when you are uncomfortable or when you have taken a chance.

AAJ: In reflection, when did you start pushing yourself out of the boundaries of traditional drumming. Was there a certain time or experience in your career where you said, "Wow, I'm playing around with this lick and this is uncomfortable."?

DR: I think since I started playing music, my father and all of his colleagues always kept me humble. They always wanted me to realize as good as you get, you know nothing. Because there is so much music out there, nothing that you play is completely original. But if you humble yourself, you will access originality because no one will be able to put it together like you. And I have always kept that mindset by continually asking, "How do I humble myself so that I can serve whatever music that I'm being asked to play?" So, I keep myself open to any form of music and that is the way that you stay progressive. To be progressive, is to not be close minded.

AAJ: And one of the things that I noticed too is that many of the groups or band leaders you have recorded and play with are international jazz groups such as Jure Pukl and Igor Bezget who are Slovenian, Michal Bugala who is Slovakian and Laurent Coq who is French. Is there a nationalism element to their sound or put differently, are there any nuances that are different than American jazz music that may come from their cultural experience? If so, how do you organize your sounds?

DR: That's an interesting question. Well, it's all music. So that goes back to the technical part of keeping yourself prepared for whatever that is thrown your way. Many foreign musicians are fans of American culture and they want to somehow contribute and participate. Yet they also have their culture that they were raised in and are committed to taking some of those melodies and rhythmic ideas into the improvisational setting. Same thing with Laurent Coq, who is a great pianist from France. He uses all of the ideas he has obtained through his knowledge of composition and the piano to add to his writing. But he is also still a fan of African- American culture.

So I feel like geographic origins have an influence over a musician's sound. If they make a decision to participate, then they have to pay homage to the history and tradition of African-American culture. Once they have participated and proven that they can operate within the confines of African-American music as an art form, then they feel like it's appropriate for them to start adding their own cultural influences from their country or surroundings within their compositions.

AAJ: I'm curious, what is the narrative behind your connection? It's interesting that many of the artists you've worked with are Eastern European.

DR: They just approached me while I was there in New York. They made their way to New York City and they came to gigs that I was doing with other artists. We exchanged information and they reached out, and asked if I wouldn't mind doing some gigs with them. I checked out their work, and the rest is history.

AAJ: Congratulations on your recent Grammy nomination for Covered. The Robert Glasper Trio has become one of the most influential jazz groups in contemporary/modern jazz for its ability to merge diverse genres into a sonically riveting listening experience. Your drumming is an important part of that sound. How did the trio meet?

DR: I met Vicente Archer in Boston when I was at the New England Conservatory. I met Robert when I decided to go to the New School in New York. I moved to New York in 2000, and from that moment Robert and I were inseparable as comrades. We played often, and through our explorations Vicente became a perfect fit for what we were doing. From that moment on, all three of us were dedicated to pushing Robert's vision forward.

AAJ: So you and Robert have done four albums together which include: Mood (Fresh Sound, 2002), Canvas (Blue Note, 2005) In My Element (Blue Note, 2007), and Covered (Blue Note, 2015), correct? How has your drumming evolved from the first album?

DR: Yes, I have played on four of Robert's albums. Hopefully, you push each other; you challenge each other to do what you do best musically and also stylistically. I feel like that's what all three of us have done for each other. We most certainly appreciate our individual contributions and we enjoy making music together. Through that, we are open to experiencing diverse situations with each other musically. We definitely have learned a lot because we've been on the road with each other and recorded albums together. So I guess time is the ultimate teacher right?

AAJ: Well, I told you that I listened to several versions of "Stella by Starlight" and the way drummers treated the piece, which include versions from Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Charlie Rouse, and Bill Evans, etc. You make a lot of usage of 32nd notes with a wire brush undergirded with Hip Hop's "boom kat" sound. It gave the 1944 piece a more urban "head bobbing" vibe. What influenced you to do such a jazz standard in that type of way?

DR: Brushes have been utilized in African-American culture for a while. Back before I was born, they use to take an old beat down broom and just play that on the snare for the back beat. And the brushes come from essentially emulating tap dancers. So it's not anything new. I am essentially taking the tradition of brushes, like a blues band drummer would use when playing some sort of shuffle or whatever type of groove they were playing. Back then, the way the brush was utilized created a unique fat sound and from then, percussion companies created all types of sticks that basically try to copy what that sound is like. But a long time ago, brushes were used by drummers to essentially accompany or emulate what African-American tap dancers were doing.

AAJ: I think that decision breathed life, through the trio's ingenuity, into such a classic jazz standard by interpreting it through the sounds of popular music.

DR: I wanted it to be something that you could bob your head to but I still wanted it to have that ballad sound. When playing a ballad like "Stella by Starlight," most drummers pull out the brushes or pull out the mallets, or play sticks in pianissimo. So I said, "Okay, the brushes will provide a classic sound for that." Of course, I could have done classic patterns and played the piece that way but obviously Robert is not worried about doing things like anyone else. He wants to be progressive, as I said earlier, and push the boundaries.

So when he was like, "Damión, come up with something," I thought, "What's the best way to make people nod their head but still pay homage to the tradition of the brushes—and not forsake the tradition of the song?" That's something that I feel all pop music has been trying to do, which is focusing in on making people dance. I mean that's something that's not new to music. I think that is what Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and many musicians tried to do. Nobody wants to forsake the dance. It was a great hybrid of things. So when you hear "Stella by Starlight" all I did was say to myself, "Oh, this technique is a good way to make it groove and what's a good way to give it some propulsion?" But I didn't think I was doing anything new. For me, I was only extracting from my resources and my ideas. Maybe I put it together differently, but in my mind, it was just a hybrid of ideas that have been done before.

AAJ: I've been listening to your music for years. One of my favorite pieces is "Centelude" from the Canvas album. It's a small piece, but I would loop it and listen to it over and over. When talking with Dr. Snow (Winthrop University percussion professor) I was working through notes I took on a couple of your performances. He shared that you play a lot of rolling 32nd notes, diddles, or paradiddles on the snare drum. I heard that in a couple of places, and to me, it's one element I really like and that characterizes your sound. What type of aesthetic are you trying to create?

DR: Well, on "Centelude," I'm just playing rudiments on two snares. That's essentially a drum and bass genre type of sound. Most of the electronic music that's out there are extracting excerpts from records such as drum fills, or break beats and they take the sample and slow it down or speed it up for effect. So I just try to do what I think would fit the piece. And on "Centelude," Vicente started playing the bass line, then I started playing a drum pattern, and Robert started playing chords. And then we pressed record. That was it. (laughs)

That was essentially, an improvised moment. Vicente created a bass line and I reacted to the bass line by saying "Oh, I think the best groove for this idea would be to play a drum and bass groove over it." And drum and bass is just essentially—break beats, or some fill in some section of the song that is sampled. So I just figured out what ideas would create something that I felt was similar to what any electronic musician that is sampling would do when they take excerpts from multiple drum players. I think it worked out because it made Robert feel a certain way, and he started playing what he thought would work with what we were doing. So that became the idea. It was a real quick process.

AAJ: One of the things I did was pick some rappers that reminded me of your playing, and played them rapping something over "Centelude." I was trying to figure out what I was feeling when I listened to your drumming. So I just thought about rappers. I took a couple of pieces from Glasper's albums and played it with several rappers listening to their styles while trying to make a connection to what you were doing on the drum. So that leads me into my next question; does rapping or electronic music have any influence on your phrasing for Glasper's albums?

DR: Most definitely. We're all children of the '90s, and a lot of what we do is paying homage to what is happening currently in our culture. I feel like that is something I couldn't run from, because I grew up listening to all types of music, especially Hip Hop, and participated in doing some things with various Hip Hop artists from my local area. I participated in that culture. I'm not a MC; I decided to play an instrument. But I wanted to play the instrument in a way that was part of the tradition without forsaking the things that I thought were important to me, which are definitely modern ideas. And I feel like Hip Hop, is definitely an art form, that has evolved, and it has affected all of us. We all love those artists and the songs that they have created.

So my drumming is definitely influenced by phrasing from MC's, what would influence MC's to do certain things, and what tracks were their favorite. Robert has certain tracks that he likes, he'll learn the song and play it— we would just try to replicate the actual track, and expand from there. All of us are affected in a deep way by Hip Hop, because it was so ever present in our upbringing.

AAJ: And it seems, like it's not just any type of rapping that you model your phrasing from, but these rappers that do this kind of double time, fast rapping. I thought about Eminem, Ludacris, Tech9, RZA.

DR: Right, right, right. Well you know, that's interesting. For instance, the whole snare drum culture is rudimental. And all the rudiments have created a tradition and there are hybrid rudiments that have been created because a lot of percussionists, and drummers have put a lot of rudiments together. So it's just ways to train your hands to play the vocabulary. It's the same as a pianist learning scales. So with these ideas, when you think about double time, and playing, you know I grew up in California, and the MC's that were very popular and that I gravitated to were from this crew called Project Blowed. Project Blowed included Freestyle Fellowship, Volume 10, Medusa, Abstract Rude, etc. A lot of these MC's were known to change rhythmic patterns at the drop of the dime. They could rap within the grid, double time the grid, and you know, groove to whatever it was. They were probably some of the most complex MC's during the 90's.

And then on the East Coast, you have Ultramagnetic MC's, Organized Konfusion, Wu-Tang Clan and Antipop Consortium. Some people would also say Busta Rhymes, and Leaders of the New School. However, I grew up in the West so my Hip Hop connection was to the West. So if you want to say what MC influenced me the most? It would definitely be those out of Freestyle Fellowship. But as far as what I do rhythmically, I just see the connection between the voice and the drum.

AAJ: Yeah, I think that's one of the reasons people head bop at your concerts, so as I listened to your music, I was just like this is what I feel, I'm not a drummer but I'm going to put it out there.

DR: I think that is an accurate assessment. That is, to compare drum phrasing to how MC's flow or electronic music, which is essentially, a bunch of samples of drum breaks and rudimental exercises and various rhythmic information. It's definitely taken a lot to figure out how to utilize it in a jazz setting without it being abrasive or a distraction. It's all musical information that comes from the same place but it's just phrasing.

AAJ: Yes, definitely.

DR: I feel like Robert, Vicente and I have tried to seamlessly merge the tradition while staying current, and being able to play modern ideas alongside traditional ideas. Although, I feel like that is something that has been happening in music forever. So, I don't think we are doing anything completely new so to speak. But it might be more relevant because of the electronic emulation that we are doing, but maybe it's something that all musicians have tried to do which is just push the boundaries to see what it is they can do musically. With us, it's just trying to go as far as we can with postmodern ideas and also paying homage to the tradition.

AAJ: Well, I wanted to talk about another piece on Covered. In African culture, there is this notion that the drum is not simply an instrument, but a communication medium in a variety of cultural/societal contexts. I noticed there was an African drumming style throughout "I'm Dying of Thirst" on Covered. How do you organize your sounds for various pieces that address serious events of the day?

DR: I think I'm just trying to serve the music. Whatever the composer or the particular artist that I'm working with, or whatever feeling they are trying to convey or evoke from the audience, I just do what they ask of me. Or if they give me free reign, I try to bring forth the best idea to complement their vision of the particular composition. I don't try to force feed an agenda, if it doesn't fit the actual composition. If the bandleader wants to give me specific instructions for a piece, he will probably tell me the idea, the direction he wants to go in, and I just do my best to serve the music. On that piece I just did my best to take the essence of what I heard from Kendrick Lamar's song and when I heard it, I felt like the drumming pattern was a way to be unique but still pay homage to the spirit of that piece and what it was about. Kendrick Lamar already created the song, and we were just covering it. So it's up to us to do the piece justice, while we are trying to do a different twist on it. The fact that there's three acoustic instruments playing live, already changed the sound of "Dying of Thirst" and how we play our parts and interact with one another and improvise, is definitely going to change how the piece comes across. It's all about staying in line with what the objective is. Hopefully, you are serving the music.

AAJ: What has been in your iPod for the past two years? For drummers who want to embark on a musical career as yourself, what would you advise them to listen to?

DR: I'm going to give you the perfect answer for everyone. Listen to everything. I'm not being facetious. I'm serious. Listen to everything. You can learn something from everything, anything, and everybody. Once you humble yourself, and understand that the world is endless you can always learn something. Once you create limitations, once you give yourself boundaries of what you will do and what you won't do—I feel musically you stifle yourself. So for me, I'll listen to anything. I don't own an iPod. I don't have one. I don't own a MAC computer, I'm still on PC. I actually think the sound is better on LP and a CD unless, you have FLAC on your iPod. And some people might fight me on that and say, "Ah no, you can't tell." (laughs)

I'm not saying you can't have an opinion about what you like and dislike. Have an opinion about what you love and what you hate, but don't allow that to stop you from checking something out. And that's how I've always been. I don't think I would have been playing jazz if I didn't go into my dad's record collection and say what is this? I don't think I would know who Dionne Warwick or Aretha Franklin was if I didn't go into my mom's record collection and say who is this?

AAJ: Last, do you plan to record an album as a band leader?

DR: Yes, I will eventually record something. Most definitely. That is a responsibility of an artist, which is to eventually try to get all of their ideas out there. For me, that will be when I find the right cast or I feel that the time is right.

Special thanks to Dr. Adam Snow, a professor of percussion at Winthrop University, for his assistance in this interview.

Photo credit: Damión Reid's website.

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