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Dave Weckl: The Cymbal of Excellence

Jim Worsley By

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Attention to details and impeccable standards coupled with a desirous curiosity and a wealth of talent have served Dave Weckl well. The savvy and astute musician has meticulously traversed the jazz and fusion world over the past few decades. Weckl is on a very short list when the topic of drumming icons is broached. Perhaps best known for his work with Chick Corea, Mike Stern, and Oz Noy. Weckl is in constant motion both behind the kit and in his daily life. Amid performing, recording, producing, and composing, his time and effort into his workshops and clinics is tireless.

Asked to do an interview, Weckl had one request. He wanted to present All About Jazz with the most comprehensive answers possible to our questions. To accomplish this I emailed him the questions and waited to hear back from him. To say it was worth the wait is well understated. It should come as no surprise that he took the time to research much of the information to make sure it was accurate and to a timeline. A veritable feast for drummers and other musicians, this is a fascinating read for any jazz fan. It is presented in Weckl's own narrative.

All About Jazz: A small boy growing up in the Midwest is drawn to rhythmically banging on things. Decades later he is at the top of the profession, one of the best drummers in the world, and his name is in the conversation when discussing the finest drummers in jazz history. Is much of this beyond your wildest expectations?

Dave Weckl: Honestly, I don't really think about it too much. Most of what you ask about is up to everyone else but me, as far as conversations, reviews, and comments. I just continue to do what I've always done, which is practice, play, and try to stay at the top of MY OWN game, and I'll do that for as long as I can. That is all I am in control of, so that is my responsibility.

I will say I am flattered if some folks think or say the positive things they do. It's of course nice to receive positive thoughts and comments from people that listen to me.

AAJ: Who were the drummers and/or other musicians that you listened to early in life that influenced you?

DW: SO many! Although I never thought about it, I'd probably have to say that the recently late, great Hal Blaine is one, because he was likely on a lot of music that I was listening and playing to as a kid, so he was unknowingly a big influence and unknown teacher. When I started paying attention to the drummers on records, after my dad turned me on to his Pete Fountain collection, the great Jack Sperling became another silent mentor. His playing on all those early 60's Fountain recordings is stellar. Not to mention his drum sound! I listened to and copied everything I could from Jack. He really helped me develop my early Jazz/Swing chops.

My dad then brought home a Buddy Rich record (at age 12 or 13), and that catapulted me into my next stage of learning and obsession. I got every BR record I could find after that initial gift, and tried my hardest to learn and play what BR played... more or less impossible of course, but it was a very heavy positive inspiration that really made me listen and practice. A LOT!

Next were more big band and fusion records; Because of my High School big band 'career' (we had an award winning Jazz Ensemble at Francis Howell HS in Weldon Springs MO), and playing lots of charts from all the big bands, Peter Erskine became an influence early on due to his tenure with Stan Kenton, and then Maynard Ferguson. Billy Cobham's Spectrum and Crosswinds were on the turntable quite a bit as well. This would mark my first time knowingly hearing the incomparable Michael Brecker. A few Brecker Brothers records followed, also Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters Band/recordings (Harvey Mason and Mike Clark).

Then circa 1976, Tom Kennedy's brother, the late/great Ray Kennedy, who was a wonderful, beautiful pianist and lovely person, played something for me on his car stereo cassette player in the parking lot of a concert we went to see at 'Grants Farm' in St Louis, maybe a Maynard or Buddy concert, don't recall. What I do remember is he played me something I had never heard the likes of previously. It was either Chick Corea's Madhatter or Leprechaun recording, with Steve Gadd on drums. Enter phase 3 of my learning/listening obsession !

Other fusion/jazz records infiltrated, like Lee Ritenour, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and because of my love for Big Bands, Louie Bellson and Roy Burns were also HUGE influences and inspirations back then. I also always enjoyed great vocal music, whether it be jazz, rock or funk, as they sometimes had 'the studio guys' on their records, so Al Jarreau (Gadd and Jeff Porcaro), Gino Vannelli (Graham Lear, Casey Sheuerell, Mark Carney, Vinnie Colaiuta.), Level 42 (Phil Gould). and Gary Husband), and bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power were also in heavy rotation, as were different rock bands. I really had quite an extensive play list and cassette collection (always had a killer stereo in the car).

There's one other guy too ... John J. DiMartino ... John was playing the local St Louis music scene in the early to mid '70s, and I was lucky enough to see/hear him A LOT (thanks to my mom and uncle taking me, I was 13!). I also took a lesson or two from him. I credit him for my foot technique as it stands today, and other aspects of playing the MUSIC. The group he was in, Pieces Triangle, was an important part of my early development. My first teachers, Bob Matheny and Joe Buerger in St. Louis, MO, were also a huge part of my early growth and development.

I would say that these people mentioned here, had the most impact in my early stages. Later, in college, I was turned onto a lot of new and different music (for me), be bop/jazz players like Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Jo Jones, Max Roach, Jimmy Cobb, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Al Foster, and Jack DeJohnette; Different big bands like Basie, Duke, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Gil Evans; more fusion like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, to mention a few. And then the rock guys I never really payed as much attention to, like Bonham, Ringo, Moon, Mitchel, Ian Paice, again, to name a few.

AAJ:I know that the Stan Kenton band camps were instrumental(no pun intended) in learning your craft and shaping your style. Your long time friend and band mate, Tom Kennedy, recently had much to say about the impact they had on his career. Do you feel the same way? What made the Kenton camps special? Do you have a funny or genuine story or moment from that time in your life?

DW: Wow, it was a long time ago! 1975 was my first of three consecutive years there (after winning a scholarship from a High School Jazz Band performance). Tom and Ray had been there I think the year before, as well as here in '75, so they knew the ropes. I was new, young, and alone. But I met them soon, and tried to meld into the 'scene' there. I didn't get in the 'A' band my first year (did year 2&3), but Tom and Ray and I played a bit together and hung out, soon finding out that we lived relatively close to one another back home . This evolved into us getting together and playing quite a bit once back in St. Louis.

The Kenton experience was of course wonderful, but I honestly don't recall too much about the actual events there in particular. I do remember and know, however, what came out of it. Because of that camp, I met Neil Slater, and later went to Bridgeport University because he was the Professor of the Jazz Studies program there. My whole path developed from this decision. And the relationship that ensued with Tom and Ray after the camp was priceless and became very much a big part of my development as well . Also, stemming from that relationship, Tom introduced me to Jay Oliver whom I ended up

spending a lot of time with from ages 16-19, then again when he moved to NY with me in 1981 or so. We were always playing, and Jay was getting into engineering and music production as well, so that was huge as well for that end of my development. We have partnered on many projects over the years, and still do! And Tom and I play together quite a bit these days too. Wonderfully long lasting relationships!

AAJ: Instruction has played a major role in your life, as well, in sharing your knowledge and expertise with students all over the world. You have had a myriad of workshops and clinics over the years. Perhaps you could tell us about those. You most recently did workshops in Cuba. What was that experience like?

DW: Yes, I love the instructional aspect! I didn't, however, do workshops in Cuba. That was more of a Cultural Exchange program that had me interacting with Cuban musicians, young and old alike. It was an amazing experience... I have loved and studied Cuban music for many years, so it was very special to visit, and play with some of the musicians from the culture and life there. The musicianship is on a very high level in Cuba. I was blown away with high school jazz bands, orchestras, club and street musicians alike, that were just incredibly naturally talented. All on very sub standard gear. It was a very humbling, yet really wonderfully rewarding experience!

I have been teaching since I was a teenager, and doing clinics since the early 80's, which has expanded over the years in doing so for Sabian, Yamaha, Vic Firth and other endorsing companies world wide, as well as camps, such as the 'Drum Fantasy Camp.' I have always enjoyed sharing what I know to those interested. I have produced many Instructional videos and DVD's, with the latest project being my 'On Line School.' This is a streaming, subscription service on line, with more than 25 hours thus far of content, that includes a private FaceBook page, only for school members. It's developed into quite the community for all to share and discuss things.

AAJ: You opted to go to the east coast to attend college at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Did it meet your expectations in preparing for a career in the music industry?

DW: As stated above, the connection with Neil Slater propelled it farther than it probably normally would have without that connection. I wanted to be close NYC (Bridgeport was an hour out), as that was where most of the musicians were living/playing that I was listening to, so it was a no brainier for me... the answer to the second question here is, YES. But, I didn't stay that long. I had started to leave the country and tour by my second year, so I did not finish or get a degree. But while there I studied with Ed Soph and Randy Jones, played in small groups and big bands with the school, studied harmony, theory and composition. I stayed on or near the campus my first two years, and in the summers, I had access the music building where my drums were locked up in a storage cage. I made it my practice space for those two summers and got A LOT of work done (10-15 hour practice days were the norm). It was a great experience.

AAJ: How did Peter Erskine factor into you breaking into the New York City jazz circuit?

DW: Peter is probably THEE primary reason that we are having this discussion today. Circa 1981, I was playing with a local Westchester NY group called Nite Sprite (also more or less formed out of the Bridgeport band experience)... the band was really good, a bit adventurous and different, writing our own material plus playing cool fusion covers we liked. It had some 'young depth,' I guess is the only way to describe it. Andy Bloch, the groups' guitarist, who is really a genius musician, was writing a lot for the band, as was Dan Wilensky, great saxophonist. We had a fabulous lead singers for some tunes (Janice Dempsy, then Vanese Thomas), Paul Adamy on bass, Joe Bonadio on percussion, AND Jay Oliver on keys; (the early band had Fred Vigdor on sax and Brendon O'keef on keys), but it was this latter band that developed into band that got recognition, and the one that Peter saw.

We were well rehearsed and hungry... we (well, Jay and I) lugged all our stuff up the stairs at 7th Avenue South (Brecker's Club at the time) on April 15th, 1982, (I know the date, as I just looked at the poster I have framed in the office here!). Peter came along with Steve Kahn (Andy was taking some lessons from him) and they hung out and watched the show. That night/show was enough to give Peter the confidence to recommend me for the French Toast gig, which later became the Michel Camilo band. Anthony Jackson was the bassist in those bands, and he was very excited, and vocal, about my appearance on the scene. I then started to get called for various things, live and in the studio. It all sort of snowballed from there. (There is a DVD my company produced called Flies on the Studio Wall, the making of Convergence, where Peter gives his perspective on that night. Really the only time I've heard him talk about it. Flattering to say the least. Available at daveweckl.com)

AAJ: In 1983, at twenty three years of age and looking for a break, you get a chance to audition for Simon & Garfunkel. How did that come about? What was the audition like? What did that feel like to perform with them if front of 70,000 people?

DW: The audition came in the form of a live gig (with Ronnie Cuber I believe), that again, because AJ highly recommended me, Paul Simon actually showed up in a limo (again to 7th Ave South!), came upstairs, sat down, heard the show and left. I got the call the next day.

Performing with S&G was just mind blowing. The band was awesome, with Richard Tee playing keys and Musical Directing, the late great Gerry Niewood on sax, Airto on percussion, and yes, playing a stadium tour was off the hook. I don't think anyone is prepared for the sound that 60-80k people can make when all yelling and clapping, directing it to the stage. Overwhelming really! Paul was always very keen to take his old songs and rearrange them. We did "Me and Julio" as a salsa funk tune! Fantastic

AAJ: You have played with so many artists over the years, that it is almost difficult to single out any one or two. Having said that, you are perhaps best known by many for your work with Chick Corea. Can you even begin to describe what it is like to play with Corea and those cats in the Elektric Band? As recently as last year you did a reunion tour with all the original members. Any plans or possibilities of that happening again?

DW: The Electric Band was, and still is, a very special unit, that has only matured with time. We all have a great time getting back together, and it happens basically when Chick feels it to happen, so besides a date in September in Japan this year, I know of no other plans to hit again.

Playing with Chick was really a dream come true.. I had listened to and played along with a lot of his records (with Gadd on them mostly), so I was pretty well versed in his playing style, phrasings, etc. Together with John Patitucci, we hit it off right away when things got going in early 1985. Although very analytical and having a good idea about what he wants, Chick is and was always very cool about giving us space to create. I feel lucky and honored to have played so much with him over the years. With the Akoustic Band as well, we have a great time!

AAJ: I have had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing you play live several times. Most recently at both the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. There are some subtle differences in your approach when playing with Mike Stern as opposed to Oz Noy. I can hear it, but can't put it into words. Perhaps you could. Also a different connect with Kennedy than that with Anthony Jackson or Jimmy Haslip.

DW: Well, my playing (and sometimes equipment) changes and adapts to whomever I am playing with. It also has to do with the music style and the compositions. The biggest difference in playing with Mike versus Oz, besides the obvious compositional and playing differences, is the feel approach. Mike generally likes to have the feel be bright and on top. Oz has more of an exacting laid-back feel, so it is quite an adjustment go from one to the other. Oz also has many more textures than Mike, with his extensive pedals set up, so I find myself not having to look to fill missing textures where the music is concerned with Oz. Mike's gig is a bit more jazz oriented as well, whereas Oz's is more groove based, but still space to blow. Both are fun and challenging!

The bassist aspect kind of works into this overall musical approach difference. Everyone is different, so it affects how I hear and play things as well. It is part of the enjoyment of being in the moment with whomever you are playing with. Some moments are better or worse, or more comfortable or not, than others. But the challenge is to make it all work musically, and find the way to make it a positive situation with whomever you're playing with.

AAJ: You have released many fine records as a leader. There can be a substantial difference in the material from one record to another. Is this within the relevance of changing times or a desire to diversify or perhaps a combination of those things? How much do the leanings of particular musicians chosen to play on a given record determine the concept from the outset?

DW: When I first started to release records in the early 90's, they were 'project records,' meaning no real direction to accommodate a 'band,' or certain musicians. Jay and I wrote the material first, based on our own musical and creative ideas, then decided who would play on a given song(s)... at times we were writing with musicians in mind though, for sure, and hired them.

Starting with 'Rhythm of the Soul,' we started writing for a band project, one that we could play the material live and go on tour. That stayed the MO through my 'Stretch/Concord' years, with 3 different iterations of the band, and five or six recordings.

In recent years ('14,'15), I released two records, on what technically is my own 'label.' One was an Acoustic group (Dave Weckl Acoustic Band—Of the Same Mind), where we recorded and toured live. The other was another project recording with my old friend/partner Jay Oliver (same as all the early records), called Convergence. This was a mega project, that included crowd funding, instructional play along packages, and a very complete, but was well worth it. I'm very proud of both of those projects.

AAJ: You have played and endorsed Yamaha drums since 1983. That's a long relationship. What is it about Yamaha's product that makes it work so well for you? You also have a long standing relationship with Sabian, that includes product development. What's the skinny with that?.

DW: At the time I was learning and growing as a teenager, most of the guys I was listening to played Yamaha. It was kind of like a young kid aspiring to be a race car driver, watching all the F1 stars driving Ferrari when you were driving go karts. It was a goal to shoot for, to be able to use the best equipment when you got the chance!

My 'chance' came at the Simon and Garfunkel rehearsals. Yamaha was involved with others in the band, so they came to me too. I think I may have surprised them by saying something like; "I'll join, but you have to make me power tom sizes," which were the deep tom and kick sizes. I wanted them 'square,' meaning as deep as they were round (not the kick of course!). I had just had a custom made maple kit built that year, with the square type sizes, and they were killer for what I was doing at the time, which was small diameter toms. They agreed though!

The relationship has been strong, and although the ups and downs of a multi-national corporation (Japan/USA) can be trying at times, it has always been a 'win-win' situation for us. I've had signature snares with them, and always contribute to the continuing evolution in drum and hardware design. They help me out quite a bit with helping for tour equipment, clinics, etc. Their drums and hardware are some of the best out there, and they work for me very well, to allow me to perform and create, with a great deal of comfort and freedom. To me, the care in which the drums and hardware are designed and made are second to none, even with today's 'China made' equipment.

Sabian and I had a relationship that started around the same time, during the Simon and Garfunkel period. Communication issues (or lack there of!) had me move to Zildjian for a number of years, but product deficiency and company policy where 'signature lines' were concerned forced me to look elsewhere in the year 2000 or so. Sabian gave me the opportunity, as with many other of their artists, to create a signature line of cymbals. And did we create a line! Two actually. Today these lines (HHX Evolution and Legacy) remain two of their top selling lines, and remain standouts in the entire industry. We also started the 'Hole-y cymbal' craze, that now EVERY cymbal manufacture as emulated, in one way or another, with the HHX Evolution— OZONE—... Killer cymbal, copied but never equaled (in my humble opinion of course!)

AAJ: I know you have a lot on your plate. What are the highlights coming up in 2019 and beyond? A little birdie maned Leni told me that, Mike, Jimmy, and Lorber were in the studio with you and her, and that you are working on a new project. Is that something you can talk about or are we keeping that under wraps for the time being?

DW: 2019 is pretty filled up. I'm busy with co-leading bands with Mike Stern though the summer. We're currently on an EU tour now (April), then we go to China for a week in May, then back to EU for some summer festivals in July.

September will have me playing a couple shows only, with Chick in Japan, with both the E and A bands. I am working towards being in China mid to late September doing clinics, camps, classes and performances there. Early November I'll be back with Oz and Jimmy, and yes, early December will be the Stern/Lorber project tour in the USA.

I plan to start up my own projects and bands again in 2020. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: C. Andrew Hovan
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