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Mike Reed: The Drum Thing

Gordon Marshall By

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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.


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