Mike Reed: The Drum Thing


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There is not a name yet for what Mike Reed does on drums. Elvin Jones created polyrhythmics; Rashied Ali, multi-directionalism. Reed is delivering something related but distinct. It has as much to do with tonal complexity as with keeping the beat, but the complexity goes beyond that, into a recombination of the many drumming styles of jazz history. "Pan-tonalism" might characterize it, but it doesn't roll off the tongue the way his sticks roll off his heads.

Through his playing, he embraces both past and future. Such an embrace is characteristic of Chicago musicians, going back to the formation of the AACM, of which he is a member, and before. Reed's unique contribution is the way in which he can swing as hard as anyone (in a jazz world where this is becoming a lost art) and at the same time keep evolving, at the forefront of contemporary music.

Reed's roles as drummer and leader breed synergy. Like his precursor Art Blakey he engages his band like an interlocking gear driven by the activity on his own kit. But, in contrast to Blakey, who whips his musicians on like horses to perpetuate the momentum, Reed is all about nuance and inflection. He weaves through the lines of his sax players, Tim Haldeman and Greg Ward, in a fashion as much like pianist-leaders Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington as such drummer-leaders as Blakey, Tony Williams or Elvin Jones.

All About Jazz: You grew up in Bielefeld, Germany.

Mike Reed: I was born there, and then we moved back to the States by the time I was five. So I grew up in Evanston, which is just north of Chicago, the first suburb north.

AAJ: Do you have any memories of your time in Germany?

MR: Yeah, definitely some; and my mom's part of the family lives in the Netherlands. So I spent a lot of time growing up going back and forth to Europe for trips, summers and stuff like that. A lot of familiarity, a lot of family all over Europe but mostly in the Netherlands and southern Germany.

AAJ: Was your father a musician?

MR: He was in the service at the time he met my mom.

AAJ: Was he a jazz fan? Did he get you into jazz, or did you get into it on your own?

MR: It's more something I did on my own. My older brother and I were just very much— we were into buying records at an early age, seven and ten. We used to buy a lot of records, and we were really into the blues...You hear the names, people like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, and in the record store I just wandered too far, because the blues and jazz were right next to each other. And I picked up a record with a lot of blues-looking titles on it, like "Blues for Alice," "Blues for Yolanda," and I took it home, and I didn't like it. It didn't sound like the blues or Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf.

It ended up being a pretty good record after I figured out, three or four years later, who Ben Webster was.

AAJ: You're a very strong bandleader. It seems like your role as a leader is so interweaved with your role as a drummer that I was wondering if maybe when you were younger, did you form your own bands?

MR: No. I really didn't start seriously playing drums or playing music until I was 19 or 20. I was really into music and my brother played guitar growing up, and I played a little bit. And I'd always wanted to play the drums but my parents wouldn't let me. And when I was about 13 or 14, I'd gotten some money because I'd graduated from junior high. We had a little party and people gave me money, which was great but I decided I was going to use the money to buy a drum set, so I did. And my parents really couldn't stop me at that point, they said as long as you take lessons you can do that. I took some lessons, but when you're that age, you're into model airplanes and you're into sports, so this was just another thing I had. And it wasn't until I got to college that I fell in with some musicians.

So now I'm surrounded by people who actually play, and I'm like, "So now I have these drums. And so why don't I play the drums, again." I was at school in Ohio and fell in with those musicians who were in the music school there. I started taking some classes, even though I wasn't in the music program. I had a few good instructors...I had about two years to decide what I was going to do, and my instructor said, "You're from Chicago, why don't you move back there?" He also suggested I get involved with the AACM, but I didn't know what that was at the time. Now it's pretty ironic...So I was really kind of a late bloomer, and luckily when I got back to Chicago I found some other late bloomers and then some people who were a little younger than I was so I could fall into place.

AAJ: Cecil Taylor said he treated the piano keys as "88 drums." I see you as treating the drums as three or four pianos—the way you use cadence and tonality and inflection through your playing, and the way you're not just keeping rhythm; you're really weaving with your players.

MR: There's a couple things about that. One, I always, when I did start finally taking some real lessons—I think probably every drummer will say this—but the teacher that I had said your function is to serve the rest of the band. And I really liked that. It gelled with my thoughts in general about lots of things. About having a band, putting people together, organizing things—you have to figure out what your piece of it is, your role.

An old football coach of mine said the best leaders are people who get other people to lead. And I think that's very true...So playing-wise, I want to do my part for the greater piece of the team. I think that might come across with some of the choices I make, playing with others...There's the traditional drum, but some of my favorite drummers use it more expressively. So they can still, if the music is abstract, or very quiet—they can still participate and serve the music without doing things that traditionally the drums are set up to do. Whether that's getting sounds that you're not supposed to get out of the drums, or by using different types of sticks, or being able to vibrate the drum, I like that ability. Especially with free playing.

It's one of the markers that I see with people who are either just starting to get involved, or just have no idea what they're doing. They can't take it to an extended technique level of sound. It's like can you be percussive, or is that the only thing you can do...Can you evoke sound from your instrument? Can you get your drums to actually—I don't mean figuratively to play melodies, I mean literally change the tone of a drum on a single drum. Can you play the pitch that the bass clarinet is playing...There's a lot of stuff you can do there. You can use shish kebab skewers and get very high tones out of your cymbals.

AAJ: What I also like about your playing is that you really swing hard, that hard, post-bop swing. Drummers like Kenny Wollesen and Bobby Previte—in a way they're doing things similar to what you are, using the drum as another instrument instead of just a timekeeper, but they don't swing the way you do.

MR: I kind of notice that, musically in general about things that are going on, right now, I think there's a lot of people asking musically for things that are not swinging...I was on a panel last summer for jazz composers to submit new work and so you'd sit there and listen to some of the music samples, and out of 180 submissions, maybe ten actually had some type of swing beat to them. And the rest of it was all very hybrid rhythmic concepts.

So I don't think people can't do it, I think that they're just not doing it, or doing that much of it...Both of those drummers are quite capable, maybe the context was just not asking them to do it. On the other hand, people like Gerald Cleaver, Nasheet Waits, even when they're playing those musical ideas that are very popular, you can feel that pulsing swing underneath them, I think all the time. In fact, I'd really like to sit down with those two guys and find out how they make it happen.

AAJ: Your People, Places & Things project: like a lot of Chicago musicians you go into the past and the future simultaneously. My theory of your going back to the '50s has to do with going back to the watershed years of the civil rights movement. But what motivates you to explore this area?

MR: I think on a certain level there's some at least conceived gap between straight ahead and avant-garde jazz. I'm saying that's not true...All of that period is so absent from what people associate with Chicago, and so important to the formation of the AACM music...The straight ahead and the free periods are not that far away from each other.

I still want to play like Philly Joe Jones, and I don't. And I feel that if I can go back and find out what that process was, that arrives at why I'm around today, people like myself, I get an image of who and what we are. It's a matter of putting together a better family tree.

AAJ: Coltrane wanted to play like Ben Webster.

MR: He's the one I emulate when I practice. Not when on stage or recording, but when I'm actually in the practice room.

AAJ: Maybe it comes through not so much in your individual playing, but in your band concept. It swings hard and has a percussive quality....Some of your titles—"Change," "Negotiations"—make me think of politics—Obama, even.

MR: I'm not very political...Stories and Negotiations (482 Music, 2010) is directed at the process of dealing with the bands. I have this record in this project with these older musicians, and a big part of the rehearsals was these stories they were telling us.

AAJ: How about negotiations?

MR: Well they were coming in thinking I'm a kid (because I am a kid) and asking, "What is he thinking? Why is he asking me to do this?" If you talk about music a little too much, with certain people, you can get really different answers. You can sit there and play with them, but if you talk too much it can be a little tricky...So there is a little negotiation going on to convey about how it's all going to proceed. When the guys came in there were a lot of things that we chose, based on ideas that they brought in, things that didn't work so well, things that needed to work better. So there's always a negotiation of some sort.

So in a greater scheme, or philosophical level, this idea of negotiating or reconciling, the appearance or maybe overstated schism between straight and free—and of course age is there.

Change—that's more cultural. It moves really fast, more so all the time. So not change in the civil rights or post-Obama sense.

AAJ: How about "proliferation"? The first word that comes to my mind is "nuclear."

MR: It definitely has that connotation. And the band is pretty muscular, with Greg Ward and Jeb Bishop, they're a pretty action packed duo. I thought it was a powerful title, and the band's powerful. And of course, the premise is this forgotten and under-recognized music, so here's our chance to "proliferate" this idea and this music.

AAJ: You're definitely centered in a high modern jazz idiom, but you've explored so many paths within this idiom, it seems like a lifetime project that you could continue doing. Would you be happy with that?

MR: Since it could take a lifetime, I don't necessarily need to focus on it. For the most part I don't have any more plans to do that. It may come up but for now I think—we've done three records worth. I think we were pretty successful at it.

It will definitely come back. There's a possibility of doing some kind of a Sun Ra project, with electronics.

AAJ: Electronics—any plans for doing any kind of jazz-rock or hip-hop fusion?

MR: No. There is definitely some more modern, electronic stuff I've worked on recently with clarinetist Jason Stein, electronics, but of the '60s, like tape machines, old Casio keyboards, prepared guitar—we did a recording where we improvised and improvised and cut it up, and went back and wrote an overdub over that, and then we even had some guest parts in there. But not fusion in any sense of the confirmed way. I don't really like fusion that much. There's definitely a place in my heart for it, but not as me performing it.

AAJ: Your music, for me, it's very intellectual in its structures and its multidirectional qualities, but it's very hard to pin down because it keeps moving in different directions, and you can't really label it. Ultimately I find the best way for me to listen to it is to sit back and experience on a soulful, gut level. How would you like your music to be experienced?

MR: Each project has a different focus and a different aim. And a different style of writing comes into play, depending on it. And the different characters of the people involved are incredible for me. I think if anything, I'm good at assembling people, giving them some kind of direction. I think that's the greatest strength that I have.

AAJ: That's a great strength.

MR: I think so too. It's one of the last things people consider but it has to be worked on and crafted...I like having different friends, and I like visiting different places, and it's the same with music. My Loose Assembly is completely different from People, Places & Things. It's a lot more nimble, it can be more delicate, it can also be as powerful but it's not as muscular, as acrobatic. With Loose Assembly we don't have to play any song, or, we can just play one song. That quality is really great.

I also like People, Places and Things with its greater structure. I need to be different in different situations.

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