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Steve Gadd: Consummate Drummer

Steve Gadd: Consummate Drummer
R.J. DeLuke By

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I loved jazz, but I loved good grooves and a simpler approach. I think that's really valid.
It might be easier to list who drummer Steve Gadd hasn't played with since he got a pair of drum sticks at the age of three at his home near Rochester, NY, right up to the age of 70, where this year his tour of duty includes Eric Clapton, James Taylor and his own band. Gadd is one of the great maintainers of the groove and one who can also play his ass off with jazz musicians like Chick Corea, Michel Petrucciani or Art Farmer.

"I love the groove," he says. "I think it's natural that I enjoy listening to music and get inspired by the groove. I think that's what's natural: whatever you hear that makes you feel good. If you continue to play you continue to develop that."

The master drummer continues to do just that. He's provided grooves for Paul Simon, Carly Simon, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Steely Dan, The Manhattan Transfer, Al Di Meola, Chuck Mangione, Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, George Benson the Brecker Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Dave Grusin, Michael McDonald and so many more. As a child he appeared on the 1950s hit children's show "The Mickey Mouse Club." He's had his own Gadd Gang and the Gaddabouts. Now he has a group of friends surrounding him he simply calls the Steve Gadd Band, which has produced two sweet CDs, the latest being this year's 70 Strong (BFM Jazz).

He's won awards and has influenced scores of other drummers with his prodigious technique and his mastery of all kinds of styles and grooves. Yet he remains humble, still curious to learn, still basking in the satisfaction of making other people's music come to life.

"I love music, all kinds of music. Growing up I was fortunate to have my parents and uncle and grandparents take me to hear a lot of different types of music. I was lucky in that way," says Gadd. And as he started his tour with Clapton earlier this year, he noted how good it was to be hooking back up with a musician he's worked with since the 1990s. "It's good to get worn down, you know what I mean?"

Gadd admits he wasn't one who knew right away that he would become a professional musician. "I just loved the drums. I was encouraged to do that. I was encouraged to do other things, but as time went on I could see where that was a natural place for me to go. It came easier than academics," he notes. "The more you get into it, the more things that you hear that try and make you figure out what the time signature is or what the groove is. That happens as you get more into it."

Getting into it for Gadd involved paying attention to drummers like Gene Krupa—who he got to meet in the 1950s—Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey. "Whenever I listened to any music I would zero in on what the drummer was doing and try to copy it. Pretty much anyone I listened to growing up was someone I tried to emulate. That's how I learn. It wasn't like I wanted to copy everyone word for word. But everybody had something I loved and I would try to learn how to do it."

He didn't do a bad job of learning.

His two albums with the current band [Gadditude came out in 2013 on BFM Jazz] aren't "look what I can do" albums for the drummer. He plays what he needs to make the right musical statement. The result is a collection of tight tunes that allow soloists to stretch and add thoughtful statements atop the grooves.

The band Gadd leads consist of the mates he plays with when on tour with James Taylor. "So we've played a lot together over the years," Gadd says. "It was actually my wife and the trumpet player's wife [Walt Fowler] who had the idea to try and put a band together and do something. Because we played so much together and we enjoyed each other's company, it makes sense. It's about playing good music with guys you like to play with. It doesn't have any kind of plan before that. People play songs they like that other people have played and they bring in original things. I pick what I like to play."

"I like it. The more we play, the more the band evolves. When we play with James we know what the job is and it's to support James. [The Gadd Band] gives everybody more freedom. So it's an enjoyable situation."

The CD exhibits a comfort among the musicians. Segments of the music, like "The Long Way Home," "Oh Yeah" and "Freedom Jazz Dance" are reminiscent of 1970s Miles Davis, especially how Fowler's trumpet slithers in and out of the grooves. Guitarist Michael Landau's airy guitar dancing with the keyboard work of Larry Goldings also carries that feeling.

"I like some of the stuff that Walt does that really reminds me of that time. I love it," notes Gadd. "We didn't plan on that or say that's what it's supposed to be. Those things just happen because of the background of the players and the love of the music that everybody's listened to and played.

The drummer did not write any tunes for the album. "There was one we all collaborated on, The other songs people brought in and I would insert the kind of ideas I would insert if I was writing it. Trying to make the form interesting. If someone comes in with a song and it feels good but needs to go someplace else for awhile, those are the things that I would bring to the table. Just to keep it interesting to the listener, so they don't get bored with it. So we don't get bored with it."

When he does decide to write music, "it can either start with a groove that I would try to sing a melody or bass line over, or it could start with a beautiful melody that I'm hearing in my head. With the little writing I've done, it's happened both ways. I haven't spent the time to write. It's something I'd like to do more of."

The band is going to Asia and Europe, followed by dates in the States after that. "We'll figure that around what James is going to do, because James has a new album coming out that we played on." Hopefully, he'll go out and do some playing to back that up," says Gadd.

The new record, Before This World, is due out June 16. on Concord. It's Taylor's first album of new material since October Road in 2002.

"It's great to be involved with that much good music and great people," Gadd says. As much demand as the drummer has been in for so many years, it might seem an exercise in insanity to get everything straight; to adjust to so many different kinds of musical situations. But, Gadd is the consummate pro and is unruffled. His approach is consistent and his experience and talent, of course, guide him through the process.

"If it's a tour, where they have music they want to play, I would ask them to send me the versions that they like," he explains. "I would listen to them and make notes. I'd start by trying to emulate that. Then, the more you learn the music, the evolution starts. But it can't start until you start playing. I would start out by trying to play what was already played and get to know the music from that point of view. And then as you get to know the players and the artists more, you start to realize where it can change or where the artist might want it to stretch a little differently. There's not any set way that it happens.

"With studio work, a lot of times you don't hear the music before you get in there. You go in and listen to what people are saying. I try to get them to play either the demo or get them to sit at the piano or the guitar and play the song before we start playing so that when people start using words, you know what they're referring to. If you've never heard the song, its just words. That's one rule I try to keep in place: to listen to what the song is before we do it in the studio. You either have the artist sing it or play it, or a lot of times they have a demo."

Gadd has many great memories from playing with such an impressive roster of musicians over the decades. But he doesn't sit and recount stories, as numerous as they probably are. "But I try to take something home from all those situations. I'm into music and enjoying what I'm doing. I learned a lot from Paul Simon in the way that he produces his music and puts a tour together. He never stops trying to make it better. He doesn't want to settle for anything less than it could be. That's the way he works.

"On the other hand, Eric Clapton goes in to do these shows and doesn't do a sound check. He doesn't like to disperse the energy before the show. That's a different way to approach it. They're both valid. It depends on what situation you're in and which you can apply. Which one needs to be applied... The way it works is I approach every situation and use whatever I've learned and try to apply it to what I'm doing. That doesn't mean I'm trying to apply everything I've ever learned. Certain things I've learned would apply and certain things wouldn't. And that's the choice I have to make," Gadd says with a calm demeanor that belies its importance.

"Paul has a thing that he wants to hear. He puts big bands together and he knows what everyone should be doing. He rehearses enough to where the part is the best it can be. Then you just have to try and perform it every night and not really go away from it unless he wants you to. Other engagements are approached differently. It's a little bit freer. But there are always some kind of boundaries. You have to know where the boundaries are."

Gadd is a drummer of such broad experience that many may not know his roots in jazz. It was the music he was hearing, catching live acts and association with people in the Rochester area like Chuck and Gap Mangione. "That's what I started out playing," Gadd says. "If roots is what you started listening to when you first started, then that is my roots. But as I continued to listen to different genres, I loved jazz, but I loved good grooves and a simpler approach. I think that's really valid. I have a big love for that, musically. I continue to try and develop that."

At a young age, he was studying the drums with Elmer Frolig at Levis Music, across the street from the Eastman School Of Music that he would one day attend. A couple years later, age 11, he found himself successfully auditioning for the Disney television show "The Mickey Mouse Club."

"I remember Jimmy Dodge came through Rochester he had a talent show. People performed and the winners won a trip to California for two weeks, went to Disneyland and performed on The Mickey Mouse Club. That was an exciting thing for me," Gadd recalls. "The Mickey Mouse Club was very popular for kids my age back then. That was an exciting moment. I met Walt Disney and the Mousketeers and went to Disneyland." He played a drum solo and tap danced.

"I had good teachers. My first teacher was Elmer Frolig. Later on I had Stanley Street and then John Beck. They were all fantastic teachers. So they were inspiring and encouraging and nurturing. Someone needs that to keep on doing what they're doing. Encouraging them to keep playing, encouraging them to go out and listen, to try new things, to listen to different things," Gadd says.

He also acknowledges that his family is as influential as all the great musicians he listened to and learned from. "They encouraged me and supported me. They were very supportive and loving and nurturing. Not just my mom and dad, but my uncle and grandparents. They were inspiring. They got me to the people that I heard that inspired me. In those years, when you're growing, anyone you heard that could play was an inspiration."

As a youngster, his father took him to clubs and he got the chance to sit in with people like Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jack McDuff and George Benson. He did a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army, playing drums with the Field Band and Stage Band. Locally, he was playing with the Mangiones. Eastman School of Music was close to home and around town he met people like Corea and Tony Levin. In the 1970s, his reputation was growing and his career began to take flight, including many recordings on Creed Taylor's CTI label. A 1977 appearance on Steely Dan's Aja album created a big buzz. He's never really looked back.

He's also never forgotten the early days. "They were very important," he says of the Mangione boys. "I grew up with those guys. I worked in bands with them before I got to high school, when I was in high school, when I was in college. I worked six nights a week with Gap and Tony Levin while I was in college. It helped me pay my way through school. Those guys are a big part of my life. My lifetime friends."

The outstanding saxophonist Gerry Niewood, who became well known with Chuck Mangione's groups in the 1970s, was also an old chum and part of that Rochester connection. Niewood died in 2009 in an airplane crash. He and guitarist Coleman Mellett were en route to join Mangione for a gig at the time.

"That took its toll," Gadd recalls. "Gerry and I grew up together. We started with each other in late grammar school and early high school and throughout college. When it happens to someone you're that close to, it's very surreal. And Cole. I didn't know him as well but we'd played a show together not long before that happened. It was devastating."

Gadd rolls along making music based on what's right for the moment. He can summon massive chops. He can be deft and whispery. His time is immaculate, not matter the frenzy or delicacy of the moment.

He says of music, "When it feels good, I hope that translates to the audience so they can feel some more things. I've experienced that happening and its very rewarding. I know how I feel when the music is on fire. I think that's what the people get. I can't speak for the people. But the times when it feels magical is when I'm feeling that they're feeling the things that I am. They're accepting how hard we're trying to give them something. Sharing positive energy. When there's a band playing in front of people and the music is happening there's a loving energy there that washes over us, I think. Like James Taylor. It's been a joy every night. The people just love him. And he loves the band. All that kind of stuff is felt and shared. It's all positive. Nothing negative. It's nice to be a part of that."

The drummer also keeps his Gaddabouts band, originally formed in the 1980s, on his radar. They did some work with singer Edie Brickell, "some projects that I think are really good," and the group has recorded its third record with Brickell. "It's all Edie's music. Hopefully it will be coming out soon. I'm very proud of that."

Gadd's career path, that includes teaching, has no bounds. It's treated him well and there is contentment in his voice. "When the guys are great players and they love to play, it's astonishing. In all situations, it's you giving as much as you can to an audience and hoping they'll get it and be moved by it. When that happens it's special."

Photo credit: Henrik Dvergsdal

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