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.


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