Dan Weiss: The Creative Absence of Egotism

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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The first time drummer/composer Dan Weiss is heard, there can be a perception of something inherently wrong with the music. It slowly creeps up—like a chill on a cool morning, just as the sun is rising over a misty ridge. Waves of lush pastel colors pass over and around in impassioned washes of rhythm and elements of time. The slow intensity of his cymbal work is similar to tones on a keyboard connecting with all aspects of a quiet and beautiful wilderness in sync with human existence.

But perhaps the most stunning character is hearing the absence of ego within the spirit of the music. Isn't this the common and predominant quality among those who strike these tightened skins? The creative blossoming essential of the spirit of this amazing and exquisite sound becomes immediately alluring and compelling.

All About Jazz: At what point did you know that music was going to have a permanent impact on your life?

Dan Weiss: My father was a guitarist so I was exposed to music pretty early on. The first band that had an influence and impact on me was Led Zeppelin and the first drummer was John Bonham. So bands like Zeppelin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Cream were my roots very early on.

When I heard Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic, 1971), I knew I was going to be a drummer. From there, I really got into progressive rock and became a Rush fanatic. There was also Yes and I still love all that stuff. I also got into metal bands like Metallica, Slayer and Pantera, and so for the first 14 years it was rock and then my drum instructor, Jeff Krause played a Max Roach and Clifford Brown record, and then a Count Basie record. Those two records turned my mind around. Jeff was a very hip teacher and he turned me on to so much music.

AAJ: Some of the early great rock bands had a particular honesty, commitment and passion that can be found in all great music of any genre. It wasn't just an attitude of wanting to make records and be famous. There were significant statements being made.

DW: I agree—and there are still a lot of great rock bands that I listen to. There are so many great, great bands out there and a lot of great music being made today.

AAJ: It's nice to hear that you still listen across the entire music spectrum.

DW: I try to listen to everything and I just picked up an Ice Cube record yesterday.

AAJ: On your website, you mention that your favorite book is by the much respected artist from India, Hazrat Inyat Khan (1882-1927). When did you first get your interest in Indian music?

DW: I started listening to it in my teens and began studying the rhythms from both northern and southern India. I also began studying the frame drum with Jamey Haddad, who also got me in touch with my present-day guru, Pandit Samir Chatterjee. And that has thus far been a 12-year relationship. He has illuminated the spiritual path in music, which I really hadn't tapped into before.

AAJ: There are different perceptions about exactly what spirituality is in music. When did you know exactly what that was for you?

DW: I was investigating different aspects of music when I was fairly young. There was a book that had many meditation exercises that I did while listening to specific pieces of classical music and I remember being pretty blown away by it. I was only in high school at the time but I have always had spiritual roots. It was spending time and studying the tabla with my teacher and that process has been handed down as a form of disciplined practice and how it can transform music. It didn't really hit me for a few years but gradually, as my relationship with my teacher grew deeper, I began to see what it was all about. It's very powerful. There are several aspects but the daily practicing of the instrument is spiritual in and of itself.

Importantly, this can also be used as a metaphor for other parts of life, such as being really present with sound when you are practicing so it is kind of like a blueprint for me.

AAJ: Listeners to your music won't necessarily hear someone that is all about chops, though you obviously have them. Is it more about being inside the sound for you, in a spiritual sense rather than about the sound that one hears on the surface?

DW: It all depends on the specific moment or setting that I am playing within. It's the moment that can and will dictate my approach. The setting, the musicians, the venue, the audience—it's all those things. It's never going to be premeditative since I am always going to allow myself the options to be open.

AAJ: Was there a particular time when you tried to implement more spiritual aspects into your music?

DW: I think it's been more of a gradual gravitation towards it. As far as composition, I have always experimented with different rhythmic repertoires and what I can do with it melodically. However, I was very influenced by guys like John Cage, Charles Ives and Morton Feldman. I knew that Cage was very interested in Eastern culture and a good portion of his music is based upon that, so I became interested. Feldman's music reminded me of meditation because for me, it's about the present sound at that very moment. But these are some of the composers that influenced my compositions, which are pretty long and not like your typical conventional stuff.

AAJ: Do you think about how your music is going to be perceived, especially those influenced more by Feldman, or do you strictly look at it out of respect towards that music and compositional approach? Or does the appreciation and respect for that music drive you in that direction?

DW: I'm never really concerned with how the music is going to be perceived. No matter what I write, it's always going to be honest and I think that that's the most important thing. I think audiences gravitate towards that, they can see that and they are aware of that honesty no matter the genre or context of the music. So I'm never worried about that. As long as I'm honest with myself, the rest will be OK.

David Binney Quartet at L'Astral in Montreal, Canada, 2010 From left: Jacob Sacks, David Binney, Zack Lober, Dan Weiss

AAJ: Are your compositions more a result of the ideas that have influenced you or is it a result of meditation and the exploration of your inner being, or perhaps even a combination of both?

DW: I think it's a combination of both because without the first part, I don't think there could be the second part. My inner being is made up of a combination of all of those things.

AAJ: With the new recording, Timshel (Sunny Side Records, 2010) (meaning "thou mayest" in Hebrew), there is a particular mood and movement throughout this music that works best if one listens to it all at once. It seems very important with this recording. A person can obviously listen to it this way but when you are in the recording studio, it may not necessarily come together that way. When you were in the studio, did you have a specific spiritual feel and did it stay with you the entire time throughout the time you spent in the studio?

DW: It's a good question. I mean, it was recorded in three chunks. We tried to record it in one take but it wasn't possible as I had to play with the audio. It's the Glengarry Glen Ross thing. But if it wasn't for that, we would have tried to do it in one take. We tried to keep that mood in the studio but it's really tough not playing for an audience. And for me, that's the toughest part about recording—it's playing a in a vacuum and it's a lot easier if there are people there.

I like being in tune with the audience and how that affects the shape of the performance and not having that is always a challenge for me. And for this music, which is very, very sensitive; it was also new to us at the time, so we were not that comfortable with it yet. So with all of those things, it's really hard to maintain that level of spirituality though that's the most important aspect. Consequently, it's hard to get a good take and capture the essence of the piece, which is again, really, the most important thing.

AAJ: There is an element of a search and journey throughout your music. Can you describe this search and how important it is to your creative process and to who you are as an artist?

DW: I guess that's what it is. It's a cliché but it's true. The search is more important than the destination and I try to embrace that. Early on, I always wanted to get to a particular point but now it's more about the journey itself and how I evolve in that journey. I agree with it. It's definitely about the unknown and not about the destination, but how you go about it.

AAJ: Honesty and integrity is at the root and foundation of your music. Was there a point in time when you crossed a bridge and music became more important at a higher level for you? And how do you keep this at the core of what you do?

DW: I have been this way my whole life and it's easier for me to portray that in music but my teacher had a really huge impact, too. I cannot say enough about that but the roots were also always there. There was never any BS in there [laughs]. It's my family or whatever, but yet I don't really know. It was always straight up, all of the time and that is the way I have always been. And that's also what I respect most in people and what I have always gravitated towards but I think there are personality trait factors, too.

AAJ: If a musician is not centered, there are plenty of things that can be a negative influence. How important is humility to the creative process?

DW: Going back again to the tabla, I get my ass kicked every single day and that also adds to that humility. It's like getting into a boxing ring and I get crushed every day. But I have learned to accept that and I think it adds to the humility [laughs].

AAJ: Are you at this point, more connected to a specific instrument in your search for a specific sound and a specific place spiritually?

DW: Eighty-five percent of the time that I am performing is on the drums. But when I'm practicing, it's primarily with the tabla and piano. For the past couple of years, I have been practicing piano about an hour a day and it's really been fun. I also have a handful of regular students and of course, I perform a lot. And whatever I am doing with the tabla or piano, I am making that my business to see how I can adapt that to the drum set rhythmically or say, to a Beethoven sonata. I really try to think about it so if I am not at the drum set physically every day, I am mentally everyday. I am at a point now where I don't need to practice every day, although I want to and once I am at a place where I am allowed that, I am going to. If I could spend some time with each instrument, that would be even greater.

AAJ: Don Cherry said that, "If you believe in boundaries, you will become them." One gets the sense from listening to you and your music, that the universe you explore is larger than it is for most; you are not trapped by the sound from the surface that can compartmentalize the style of the music. Have you always had this ability to see and listen outside of creative boundaries?

DW: I agree with Don and his statement; I am all about that. There was a time I was immersed in the classical and jazz traditions so I had blinders on, but I needed it at that time to learn my craft. But I have always had an open, no boundaries approach to music and have always been into incorporating different things and seeing how it can influence the music. I don't care about labels and what jazz should sound like or what that is. None of that makes any difference to me. For me, it's a waste of energy and a waste of time. I would rather focus on getting better and making music and it's just an inherent part of who I am. I just don't like boundaries nor the rules and conformities.

AAJ: Do you think that each person somehow has their own music inside them that influences the way they listen to music and how they hear it?

DW: Sure, I think it's possible and it might be a DNA thing. But I'm sure each person has their own inherent wiring that makes them gravitate towards some things.

AAJ: There is a process in India called chilla, which is where the musician is left alone until he or she becomes one with the music. Have you ever had this experience?

DW: I have done a number of chillas and the longest was five days. You don't leave your instrument unless you eat; go to the bathroom or sleep and you don't have contact with anybody. There's no communication at all—no computer, no phones, nothing. Just you and your instrument. I am hoping to do a 40-day chilla some day, hopefully.

AAJ: So for you to do this more than once, it had some kind of impact on you. Were you a different artist coming out of one of these than you were going in?

DW: Yes, absolutely.

AAJ: Did it change the way you hear music, the way you feel music? Did you see the world differently through music?

DW: Yes, all of that. It's very hard to do and it can be brutal. Practicing that long and the amount of suffering that goes along with it both physically and mentally. You really learn a lot about yourself and I felt as if I had become a more compassionate person.

AAJ: Would you say that it enhanced your awareness levels of everything that is around you?

DW: It definitely enhances the awareness levels. Definitely. It's huge. You go into different zones. You get into highly-meditative states but at times, it's very grueling because you sit down and don't get up for 6 or 7 hours at a time. Your endurance grows, your strength grows, your awareness grows, and your attention to detail grows. All of these things are a part of an enlightening process.

AAJ: Artists doing the most creative work seem to have higher awareness levels in how they perceive things around them and what you are doing reflects that. Can you explain what the nature of music means to you?

DW: I have had the most enlightening experiences through music. Music is my religion and my destination.

AAJ: You once said that, "Music can enlighten people and I really believe what that can do for humanity." Can you expand on that further?

DW: Yeah and it's absolutely true. Music has an uplifting power and it has a relationship on culture. I really think it has a power that we really don't understand yet. For me, it's a way of transforming oneself—like the Buddha principle of transformation. Starting with you and then bringing it to others and it is something that I have really gravitated towards. To change myself and make myself better and if I can make my music better, then maybe it can have a ripple effect.

Selected discography

Dan Weiss Trio, Timshel (Sunny Side Records, 2010)

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition, Apti (Innova Recordings, 2009)

Joel Harrison, The Wheel (Innova Recordings, 2008)

Chris Tarry, Sorry to be Strange (Cellar Live, 2007)

Jackson Harrison Trio, Land Tides (Hatology, 2007)

Dan Weiss, Now Yes When (Tone of a Pitch Records, 2006)

David Binney, Cities and Desire (Criss Cross Jazz, 2006)

Miles Okazaki, Mirror (Self Produced, 2006)

Dan Weiss, Tintal Drum set Solo (Chhandayan Production, 2005)

David Binney, Bastion of Sanity (Criss Cross Jazz, 2005)

Photo Credits

Page 1: John Kelman

Page 3: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

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