Thirty-two-year-old Steve Hass has been a professional drummer for about a dozen years, adding touches of style and class to music by the likes of The Manhattan Transfer, Art Garfunkel, Billy Joel, Christian McBride, John Benitez, Ravi Coltrane and many others, from pop to hard core jazz and from hip-hop to Latin beats. He’s a percussionist with a smooth style and his pulsating conversations with fellow musicians are interesting and seamless. But it didn’t come just from just formal lessons as a youngster, nor his tenure at the renowned Berklee College of Music. Hass is a natural, and sits among the group of outstanding drummers to come on the scene in recent years.
As a child, Hass played the rhythms in his head on pots and pans, digging music, digging drummers, digging the pulse. The pull was already strong for this son of Greek immigrants. “They have photos of me as a baby, sitting by the stereo, spending all day listening to the stuff. Then my parents would go out to Astoria [Queens, NYC] and go to the Greek nightclubs. Sometimes they would take me. I would take a seat by the drummer.”
To this day, the NYC-based Hass absorbs every kind of music and rhythm he can, part of the journey this artist has been on for many years. His thirst for knowledge and his open mind are serving him well, having created a style that can handle any musical situation. If evidence is needed, there’s his debut CD, released in June. Traveler is a blend of different songs and styles, chosen by Hass, driven by his percussion and arranged by his vision.
Evidence of this fine talent can also be seen on Ravi Coltrane’s newest CD, Mad 6 , which is propelled by Hass, who gets a chance to display his strong jazz chops and the influences of folks like Elvin Jones. The backbone of Coltrane’s strong musical statement comes from Hass and his beats.
“For me, it’s all under the American music umbrella, except for the Latin stuff, which is now also becoming pretty much a standard style in jazz for the past 10 years or more,” said Hass.
The concept for the debut CD started out as a jazz trio, but Hass decided he didn’t want to get stuck by listeners and critics into one bag – at least not on this first outing. The result is a stimulating album that takes the listener to different places, and covers tunes by people as diverse as Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits. It has the standards “Skylark” (sung by Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel) and “The Song Is You,” each with fresh and innovative arrangements. Sarah McLachlan’s “Do What You Have to Do” is a sultry ballad and Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is at once rocky, folky, funky and fun. Interestingly, Hass, wearing the multiple hats of producer, arranger, executive producer, and musician, feels he didn’t get the best of himself on the disc. Whatever the case, it’s plenty good, and the versatility of the drummer comes shining through. Whether it’s jazzy (“Seventh Heaven,” “718”) or world music (“Groove Me,” “African Desert”).
“I was actually pretty nervous about it being too eclectic and sounding like a compilation. But when I put the tunes back to back, it had a really nice feel to it. You can listen to the record front to back and it kind of tells a story and you don’t really get bored. It just came out like that,” he said. “I wasn’t sure having Janice Siegel on “People Get Ready,” if it would come out jazzy or funky. The Hammond B3 came in little later and a lot of the slide guitar stuff came in later, so I wasn’t sure what it would sound like. It was kind of fun like that. We didn’t know what to expect.”
“And I’m glad it doesn’t come off like a drummer’s album. Regular people can just pick it up and listen to it and dig it without getting too involved in having to think about who’s playing what and how hard it is.”
The CD is a strong debut. It invites the listener in subtly, not with drum pyrotechnics, and the production values are first-rate.
Speak with the drummer and one finds he is generous of spirit and gentle of soul. In his easy way, he describes his musical expedition, which includes performing with singer/songwriter Joe Brack, more of The Manhattan Transfer, pianist Yaron Gershovsky, Manhattan Vibes, Janis Siegel, Meg Flather, and Neshama Carlebach.
Highlights of his conversation with All About Jazz follows:
All About Jazz: The new CD has a broad spectrum of styles. Were you trying to present your varied influences?
Steve Hass: Not consciously. I didn’t do it with that as the goal. My initial goal was to do a trio recording. It was going to just be a piano trio, basically inspired by a Jeff Watts record that I have – I’m not even sure it was released in the States – with Kenny Kirkland and Charles Famborough. Just standards and some drum solos and some nice blowing, live in the studio. One day, in and out. But then I thought about all the rest of the work that I’m doing, drum-wise, in my career as a session player and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to have this album under my name – the debut – and have people assume that I’m a jazz drummer, when meanwhile I play all these other things.
Plus I wanted to involved more of my friends, like Ben Butler, for example, who co-produced with me. He’s done some jazz stuff, like Special EFX, fusiony kind of bands like that, but more of the singer/songwriter stuff, and I love that as well. So I wanted to include some of that. We just started recording tunes. I didn’t really know where it was going to go until it was finished., and I was like – wow.
AAJ: So you didn’t really have any concept in mind.
SH: No. Just being me, really. And producing it, ideas would come to mind and we would put them down and see what it sounded like. It was fun like that and I was really fortunately to have my friends there with me, great musicians and Ken Wallace the engineer. Otherwise it would have cost me a lot of money. I had the ability to throw around ideas and stuff for a couple days without worrying too much about spending too much time. It was cool.
AAJ: Was it harder producing as well as performing. Some people find it’s a different kind of stress. Sometimes they like it and sometimes they don’t.
SH: I think I liked it, but at the same time I thought I could have played better on my own CD. From the executive producer point of view, I was trying to treat the musicians well. I didn’t have a lot of help in the studio. I do a lot of sessions and I have a certain way that I like to be treated. I wanted to treat them that was as well. So the performances on the drum end were almost the last thing on my mind. I didn’t feel like I got the best performances for myself, but I feel like collectively, it sounds really good.
They aren’t bad performances, but I’ve played better on other people’s albums. Listening to it now, people didn’t really know what I was going through and it sounds good.
AAJ: You pulled off what you needed to.
SH: Exactly. And I’m glad it doesn’t come off like a drummer’s album. Regular people can just pick it up and listen to it and dig it without getting too involved in having to think about who’s playing what and how hard it is.
AAJ: You had a hand in other aspects, like arranging and artwork and things like that.
SH: Yeah. I figured if I’m going to do some of my favorite cover tunes, I may as well arrange them in a way that comes from my head. So we did “The Song is You” in 5 clave, which basically comes from me playing with John Benitez a lot. I did a little bit of playing with Danilo Perez when I was in Boston as a Berklee student. The Latin jazz thing is a bit of my background. And the drum loops and such on tunes like “Skylark” are just another part of me that I wanted to throw in there. That tune I’ve been hearing like that, that way for quite a long time and never actually recorded it, so that was nice.
AAJ: It seems like you had all kinds of different challenges that you had to take on in this whole package. When the sweat dries, do you feel confident you got what you needed?
SH: Yeah, surprisingly enough. Because I wasn’t sure, but when I got the master tape back I just sat down and listened to and was pretty happy with it. You’re always really critical about your own stuff. While it was getting mastered, I didn’t listen to any of it, because while it was happening I was listening to it constantly and it was driving me nuts. I wasn’t even sure if it was good.
AAJ: Yeah. You’re so far into it.
SH: Right. So I gave myself a two-week break. When I got the master back I just put it on while I was running errands around Astoria, and it was like, ‘I dig this. I would probably buy it,’ you know? So that was a good feeling.
AAJ: You toured with Ravi Coltrane prior his new CD.
SH: Yeah. I’ve done a lot of stuff with him. That was another interesting session, one of those completely live things. It’s a different part of my playing, for sure, and I love it. We’re actually talking about doing some more stuff.
AAJ: I thought you sounded great on that, and obviously a different bag than many of these songs on Traveler, but they’re both done well and show your broad background and tastes. Where does this diversity come from?
SH: For me, it’s all under the American music umbrella, except for the Latin stuff, which is now also becoming pretty much a standard style in jazz for the past 10 years or more. The funk stuff, and the singer/songwriter country vibe, and the swing and New Orleans stuff rhythmically, for me, is all related. The groove that I played on the Tom Waits tune, “The Heart of Saturday Night,” to me can swing like a ride cymbal. You’re playing it on different voices of the kit. Instead of the ride cymbal, it’s on another voice – the tom-tom or high hat with the tambourine on top of the snare. Which is kind of the way they used to do it in New Orleans in the marches. For me, rhythmically, American music is all related.
It’s under the American music umbrella. Then I got into the Latin stuff when I was a student at Berklee. Even more so when I came to New York and got into a band called Manhattan Vibes with John Benitez. So I just combined everything, you know? It’s funny, you have the American music stuff, but then, if you check out some Brazilian or Afro-Cuban music, the way beat lies and the way it swings is also very similar to a lot of jazz stuff.
The world is getting really small like that. You can check out a Calypso groove and technically it’s the same beat as the Middle Eastern Arabic groove, it’s just played with a little different feel. It’s all relative, in my head.