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

Jim Worsley By

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AAJ: How did the Dr. Um project get started?

PE: Well, I wanted to get back to doing some fusion and I met with Beasley to talk about some ideas and see if we could figure out an interesting project. John and I have worked together for years. I ended up deciding to do my own funk album called The Lost Pages. The concept was to give a second listen to some tunes that I thought deserved to be heard. I was interested in doing this tune of Wayne's, that as far as I knew had never been recorded. I had saved it all these years and pulled it out of the filing cabinet for the purpose of this meeting. Then I couldn't find it. I tore the house apart looking for it, I never did find it. I still haven't found it. It was kind of the inspiration for the album, but I could never find the tune. I pulled out an old Zawinul tune, John had a couple of tunes, I had a couple, and we went from there. Then we did Second Opinion, which is all original music, with the exception of one Henry Mancini song. And most recently the double album, On Call. The latter has a studio effort and a live recording. We are having fun and are headed out to Europe for a summer tour. There are only a couple of bass players I would trust in this role. Benjamin is amazing. He can't travel to Europe this coming summer, and he couldn't last summer, as he and his wife were expecting a child. So, my nephew, Damian Erskine, is the first call sub for Benjamin and he will be joining us.

AAJ: Okay, Damian, I believe, played on a couple of your trio albums.

PE: Yes, the new trio.

AAJ: The original trio with pianist John Taylor and bassist Palle Danielsson did some remarkable work on those four trio records. There had to be a truly fascinating creative process going on.

PE: There was some really gorgeous sound on those. We had a piano in the room that was so beautifully tuned and just sounded great. The goal there, in addition to being spontaneous and just playing, was to keep out of the way of the sound.

AAJ: To keep out of the way of the sound. That's interesting. What do you mean by that?

PE: To not play so much that you start cluttering up. Yet to still play. That was kind of the tightrope challenge.

AAJ: To try and have some space.

PE: Yes. John Taylor was a very rhythmic player and he could carry a lot of the weight. Be the motor if you will. It's always weird for a drummer to have his or her name as top billing when it is a piano trio. Ultimately, I think that led to some level of discomfort for John. At the time my name had a little more marquee value and it was easier to book gigs. It did give me the luxury of being the musical director. I remember telling them it was great but giving them some notes. I was trying to convey that we didn't need to "hit it out of the park" on every tune. Of course, what does that American terminology mean to a Swedish bassist and a British pianist. I wanted it to be as much about non-events as events. A solo was about passing by a lake and there was some mist and fog on top of the lake. You see it, you drive by, and then it's gone. I don't need a fucking dragon coming out of the lake.

AAJ: It's not about a peak, it's just a pleasant moment.

PE: Yeah, I just wanted it to be a part of the horizon or an arc of the bigger story we are telling. In fact, Michael Brecker and I used to disagree about that concept. He would always want to be in fifth gear. He would say to me, "My solo is just not getting up to the fifth gear." I would say. "Yeah, that's because I'm not taking it there." Sometimes fifth gear can just get kind of loud and crowded. I went back east a few years ago to play a tribute to John Abercrombie. The first couple of drummers were totally invested in fifth gear early on. I didn't like it. It just kind of offended my sensibilities. It's like the crowded restaurant. I like sitting at a quiet table.

AAJ: Somewhat reverts back to that listening thing.

PE: Oh, that reminds me of a great story. Years ago, I am playing a show with guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Larry Goldings. There were some thoughtless patrons who may or may not have realized why they were there. They were talking loudly. Jim would start playing an intro and there was that moment of tension as to what was going to happen. We watched Jim as kind of our cue in dealing with these people that were being very disrespectful. He smiled and turned down. He played. They kept talking. He smiled. He turned down more. They finally got it. They realized. No expression of anger or rancor from Jim. He didn't try to out shout them. He just smiled.

AAJ: An impressive way to handle it. That's why I really like listening rooms. Do you find the talking thing at concerts to be a real issue sometimes?

PE: Yeah, and this (as he loudly crinkles a piece of paper), the program. Read the fucking thing before the show and put it under your seat. What are you looking at? The name of the second movement? It's the second fuckin' movement. Listen. Watch. Be respectful.

AAJ: You once said that "there's a lot of power in a whisper." Could you expand on that?

PE: With a whisper you generally are leaning in to hear it. You definitely get people's attention. I was speaking to Clint Eastwood about it. I saw him at a jazz gig recently. A very pleasant guy. I had been talking to my students about it in the respect that when there is a big action or moment about to occur, he doesn't shout leading up to it. It gets kind of soft as a prelude to any action. I asked him about this, and he smiled, shook his head, and said, "I hold a lot in, and I let it out a little at a time." I think that kind of says it.

AAJ: Going back just a couple of years now to when you were a seven-year old. What memories do you have of being on stage, on TV, on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour (a highly rated prime time network program that launched the careers of Gladys Knight, Pat Boone, and Jose Feliciano, among others) at such a tender age?

PE: I remember that I was sick. I think it was probably just nerves. Maybe some kind of fever. There was no place for me to lay down and rest, except for in Ted Mack's dressing room. They allowed me to sleep on his cot. I remember how kind they were. The band was very far away when we played. I really had trouble with that. I had never seen myself on a television monitor before because I had skipped the rehearsal, as I wasn't feeling well. But mostly I remember just how very nice everyone was.

AAJ: We have talked about the Dr. Um summer tour. What else is on tap for 2019 and beyond?

PE: I wanted to stay home more, but I will be touring in May with pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Scott Colley, and Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel. After the Dr. Um tour, another tour with bassist Eddie Gomez and Italian pianist Dado Moroni. Then bookending it all with another tour with Werner that also includes saxophonist Dave Liebman.

AAJ: How can you stay home when you can play with Gomez and Liebman and cats like that?

PE: I know, I know. Also, there is a new book. It's called The Musician's Lifeline. This is a cool project. I co-wrote a book, with editor and writer Dave Black, a couple of years ago called The Drummer's Lifeline. It has all kinds of tips. Stuff like how to pick your brushes up off a snare drum in the middle of a tune without making noise. (He then proceeds to demonstrate to me just how to do that.) Lots of tips like that. In this follow up, we invited people to answer a series of questions. We sent out seven questions to over two hundred musicians. We received one hundred forty-five responses. A pretty good response rate.

AAJ: I would say so.

PE: Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Christian McBride, Gary Burton, Janis Siegel from The Manhattan Transfer, Terri Lyne Carrington, film composers, and this whole incredible list. The seven questions were, 1) What is the best advice you have ever received? 2) What is the best advice you have ever given? 3) Do you have any advice about sight-reading? 4) Is there anything differently you would have done in your education? 5) Any travel advice? 6) Any business advice? 7) Any people skills advice? Also, the optional, do you have any advice for a drummer? And, do you have any audition advice? We ended up with responses that represent multiple lifetimes of musical experience. All these different points of view from men, women, straight, gay, and from all over the world.

AAJ: it would seem to give you/the book a lot of weight as well.

PE: The pedigree of all the answers, yes. One piece of microphone etiquette that I hope sticks is for people to stop saying "give it up." "Give it up for Jimmy, give it up for this fucking guy." If this book serves no purpose other than to get people to stop saying that I will have done the world a favor.

AAJ: Yeah, maybe if they would just give it up. Whatever happened to "Please welcome to the stage....?" (rhetorical question) So, you have much going on, especially when you factor in the full-time responsibilities at USC.

PE: Yes, and as you can see by the video equipment here in the studio, I also provide instruction for young drummers on artistworks.com. We just finished shooting video that will be broken down into over two hundred lessons. Two other new records I would like to tell you about. I had the opportunity to co-produce and play on a record with a brilliant young Hungarian composer and pianist named Daniel Szabo. It's a brand-new release called Visionary(Fuzzy Music, 2019) and a really fantastic record. It's music for jazz trio, string quartet, and a woodwinds sextet. Then there is a box set with three records with saxophonist George Garzone. These were all recorded live at a very cool new club in LA called Sam First. We hope to have that one out by the end of summer. The working title is Three Nights in LA.

AAJ: Much to look forward to. Garzone sure rides a nice tenor.

PE: Right before these live shows, I had George at USC to head up a master class. The students were absolutely slack jawed with mouths wide open. They had never heard a tenor sax live making the note choices like Coltrane used to do. They were just amazed and dazzled.
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