Peter Erskine: Up Front, In Time, and On Call, Part 1

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: What is it about Elvin's playing that reaches you so, and affects your own style and approach?

PE: There are a number of things about Elvin's drumming that appeal to me. The shapes and the way he played phrases. It was just more of a ballet to the shape and the notes. The drummer who shares the most with him in that regard was Bernard Purdie. There was something about the arc and the way they moved around the kit. For me it just totally makes sense the way these guys play. It just has to do with this dynamic cadence. Meanwhile, Elvin was on the high wire, a 65mph hurricane. Yet always coming through triumphantly. Elvin was well-known for breaking a Gretsch bass drum pedal or the strap, just one after another. Just stepping through those things. But when you watch him play, he can be very physical, yet there is still something very controlled and relaxed about the way he played. In trying to imitate him, I made the mistake of forcing it. I felt like I had to reach a level of physicality and only by revving it up to this level could I come close to it. The more I revved it up, the further away I got. I realized that there was something fundamentally really relaxed about the way he played. I tell my students that the only way you are going to get this Elvin thing is if you don't try so hard. That you are trying way too hard to do it. I played in tribute to Elvin. The Zildjian sponsored American Achievement Awards(1998) honored four drummers this particular evening. Those being Elvin, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Louie Bellson.

The honoring drummers who were asked to perform were Steve Gadd, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. I lobbied very hard to get the Elvin thing. I was shameless. Please, please, please, I'll never ask you for another favor. I loved Louis, but I wouldn't have had the first idea of what to play. So, I end up getting it. I play with George Garzone and a wonderful bassist out of Boston named John Lockwood. My parents drive out from New Jersey. My sister is now, for a time, dating a guy named Chuck she used to go out with way back in high school. Now, understand that Chuck was the guy that went to Berklee from our small hometown. So, I am going to play in front of Elvin, Gadd, Haynes, and everybody that night, but I am the most nervous and self-conscious because Chuck is in the audience. Chuck who knew me as a kid. Somehow, I get fucked up by this. At the rehearsal my drumming sounded like shit. So, I took a moment and found this dark place backstage and said what just happened? I had tried way too hard. I hit the drums too hard. I counted it off too fast. All because I am so nervous about Chuck. But now I know what I need to do.

AAJ: So, in an odd way, Chuck's presence ended up helping you.

PE: Yes, exactly. It went great. I was now very thankful for Chuck's presence. It was like boom, and immediately we were in fifth gear. At the end Elvin and Roy Haynes stood up and hugged each other and blew me a kiss. I blew them a kiss back. Great fun.

AAJ: It doesn't get any better than that.

PE: Not for me it doesn't!

AAJ: That's a goosebumps story. What a special moment.

PE: Have you ever seen Elvin in the movie Zachariah (1971)?

AAJ: No, I don't believe so.

PE: He plays a gunslinger. The James Gang, you know, with Joe Walsh, are playing, and Elvin shoots this guy dead. Then he motions for the drummer to get off the drums and plays a drum solo. Hold on a minute.... (we then proceed to watch a five-minute scene he referred to while laughing our asses off).

AAJ: Well, I have to check out the rest of that. We talked a little bit about Jaco. I wanted to get your thoughts and memories about him?

PE: Alex Acuna provided me with an interesting insight. Jaco's sixteenth note bass playing seemed to come out of nowhere. James Jamerson and a couple of others, but Jaco's playing was formed by conga drum patterns. So, he had a very distinctly Caribbean kind of thing. Jaco approximated that into his bass line. His bass playing and funk was delightfully off axis from the way other bass players played. He was influenced by Chuck Rainey, Jamerson, Jerry Jemmott and others, but he had his own thing. The other thing that really set him apart was his fretless playing. His intonation was better than anyone else. In fact, I almost can't stand to listen to any other fretless players. He was just so good and anyone else plays it out of tune. Jaco and I had a lot of fun. We were half the age of Joe & Wayne. We were the kids in the band.

AAJ: Zawinul was known as a tough task master. What was your relationship with him like?

PE: Joe, Jaco, and I were often like the three musketeers. We liked going out and doing things together when the band was on the road. Joe and Jaco had a very competitive aspect to their relationship. I didn't. That just wasn't my thing. Joe could be rough on you. But I stuck around. I didn't tell him to jump in a lake. I didn't quit the band, although I was tempted to a couple of times. Sometimes it could be a drag. But I always kept in mind that these guys know a lot more about this stuff than I do. I still had a lot to learn so it made sense to stick around. It's really what you need to do in order to make an impression and to be able to move on to the next level. I wasn't completely sure what my ambitions were. But I knew I wanted to keep playing with other musicians and to keep getting better. Joe once told me that if I really wanted to make it as the jazz musician I want to become then sooner or later I had to go to New York. And I did. Leaving Weather Report felt good. It was the right time. I went on tour with Steps Ahead. Prior to that, with Joe's blessings, I worked with the great jazz pianist George Cables. That was a tremendous experience and really helped me grow.

AAJ: What are your memories of that time in your life, and playing with Michael Brecker?

PE: Steps was cool. If I wrote a tune, we would play it. Whereas with Weather Report, I wasn't perceived as good enough. It was great. Brecker, Mike Mainieri, later John Abercrombie, Marc Johnson, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and several others. Steps in all considerations was a lot of fun. Then I moved to LA. It took me a while to break in here. Most people in LA thought I still lived in New York. I had left New York so I ceased to exist there.

AAJ: So, a state of limbo for just a short time.

PE: A bit of limbo but then started working a lot, particularly in Europe. The ECM affiliation started. My own trio records and the stuff with Jan Garbarek (Norwegian saxophonist) and Miroslav Vitous (Czech bassist). I also worked with Kenny Wheeler (Canadian trumpeter). In the midst of all that, I did the Steely Dan tour. Manfred and Miroslav really hated that. They thought I was selling out. But I really enjoyed it. The kids loved it, and it was a great learning experience. I have been very fortunate. My discography, including film, is up to over seven hundred now.

AAJ: That's impressive. And new music on the horizon.

PE: Yes, we have done three Dr. Um albums now. My return to fusion. This is with pianist John Beasley, saxophonist Bob Sheppard, and bassist Benjamin Shepherd.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of seeing your quartet recently at the Baked Potato in Hollywood. There seems to be an innate sense of chemistry at play there. I can now say that it is medically proven that Dr. Um is good for the ears. What is the balance between just letting it flow, and at the same time wanting to be creative and push the envelope?

PE: Hey, I like that! The main thing is that we aren't fighting each other. We aren't fighting the music. If someone takes it in a particular direction, we can either go there or not, but we aren't going to fight it. When I was younger that might have been different. We trust each other and that is what makes any good band work. Especially in a small group that is improvisational. That you trust the choices that the other guy makes. We are just listening to where the conversation goes.

AAJ: With a little luck that directional compass varies from night to night.

PE: Well, we hope. Then too, a lot of tunes you don't need to reinvent the wheel every time you play it either. There is a beauty to trusting the material. Bob Sheppard, when we first started playing out, was just kind of noodling a lot. I would ask him what he was doing, and he would tell me that he wasn't sure what he should be playing. I would tell him to just stop playing and to sit down. You don't need a horn player playing all the time to sell what we are doing. It's a voice but nobody should be playing all the time. Particularly the horns. Staying away from the bass solo, now it's the drum solo, now it's the sax solo thing. Next tune same thing. That gets pretty boring. It's not a democracy. Everyone doesn't need to solo.

AAJ: It can get pretty predictable.

PE: It does. Really, instead, it's best going back to the old Weather Report thing, "We never solo, we always solo." If you think about it, what shares that trait? Dixieland. Good New Orleans jazz. It's just a group thing and the really good bands are doing that. It goes back to listening. I tell my students that we can take this four-year course of study down to one sentence if you want. Naturally, they want to know what that is. It is simply playing what you want to hear. Don't play what you think he wants to hear, or that some other person wants to hear. That's when you get into trouble. What do you want it to sound like? Then do it. There's a great story involving Zawinul and the guitarist in one of his bands. They finished recording a tune in the studio and Joe wanted to take a listen. The guy says, "Well, if you are going to use that take then I want to redo my solo." Joe, of course, wants to know why. The guy says, "Well, I don't like what I played." Joe replies, in what I think is a brilliant way, and says, "Well if you don't like what you played, why did you play it?" Which is the thing. Take responsibility for what you play. It's really simple.
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